Dena J. Epstein (November 30, 1916–November 13, 2013)
The Center sadly reports the passing of Dena J. Epstein, who died on November 13, 2013, three weeks before her ninety-seventh birthday. Dena’s seminal book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1977, is a foundational work in black music scholarship. The product of over twenty years of research, it was a project Dena began while she was at home raising her children during the 1950s. It is still in print and has never needed extensive revision.
Dena held a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Chicago (1937) and B.S. and M.S. degrees in library science from the University of Illinois (1939, 1943). She worked at several libraries, including the Library of Congress, before becoming in 1964 the Assistant Music Librarian at the University of Chicago, a post from which she retired in 1986. She was active in the Music Library Association, which gave her a citation for distinguished service to music librarianship in 1986, and the Society for American Music, which presented her with its lifetime achievement award in 2005.
Dena was a tireless advocate for black music, unafraid to tackle and debunk major myths, as she did in her groundbreaking article “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History,” published in the journal Ethnomusicology (19:3, fall 1975) and her article “A White Origin for the Black Spiritual? An Invalid Theory and How it Grew,” published in American Music (vol. 1, 1983). She also presented numerous papers and wrote reviews on a broad range of music topics, volunteered at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s archives and the Newberry Library, and was even featured as an expert in documentary films. Eventually she herself was featured in the documentary The Librarian and the Banjo, directed and produced by Jim Carrier in 2013, which focused on her role in discovering the African origins of the banjo.
Dena’s involvement with the CBMR began even before the Center’s formal founding in 1983. She was invited to be a member of the Center’s first National Advisory Board in 1987 and spent over twenty years serving the CBMR as a board member. Over the years Dena attended numerous CBMR conferences and events. Her engaging personality and sparkling wit were a source of delight to the CBMR staff as well as to her many friends in the field, all of whom were in awe of her meticulous research and prodigious scholarship. Beginning in 2002, she donated correspondence and materials from her research on Sinful Tunes and Spirituals and other publication projects to the CBMR Library and Archives. The Dena J. Epstein papers were processed and inventoried with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dena’s collection harks back to a time when research was not an almost-instantaneous process. Obtaining information about research materials and access to the materials themselves involved extensive correspondence with librarians, scholars, and other knowledgeable individuals. In one sense, because of her collection, which is among the CBMR’s most used collections, we have not lost Dena. Her characteristic forthright voice shines through in her letters, as well as in her writings.