The Librarian and the Banjo
Forty years ago, in the spring of 1973, I assumed, like nearly everyone else who saw the movie Deliverance, that the banjo was a product of white Appalachia. The theme song “Dueling Banjos” prompted thousands of people, including me, to take up the instrument. But six months after the movie became a blockbuster hit, music librarian Dena Epstein finished a research paper that would, in time, shatter that myth and rewrite American music history.
Epstein, at the time an assistant music librarian at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library, had been working independently for twenty years gathering evidence that African slaves had a rich musical culture. In 1973 Epstein submitted her article “The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History” for publication in Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology. The article was published in a special issue devoted to black music (vol. 19, no. 3, September 1975, 347–371). Though the article was well received, it barely made a ripple outside academic circles.
Today we take for granted that slaves were creators of music, that their music was the tap root of music in the United States, and that the banjo began as a slave instrument. Epstein’s role in documenting that history is often forgotten, which is why I made the documentary film The Librarian and The Banjo.
I interviewed Dena (as everyone calls her) in 2009 and found that two of her delightful stories called out for cinematic treatment. Around 1952, with a masters in library science but unable to find work while raising two children in Linden, New Jersey, Dena took a bus to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. She was looking for “something interesting” to do “because I was tired of talking to small children all day.” While returning Guide to the Manuscripts of the Wisconsin Historical Society (1944) to the charging desk, the book “literally fell open” to the entry on William Francis Allen, whose Civil War diary was held in Madison, Wisconsin. Allen was the lead editor of Slave Songs of the United States. This serendipitous event led Dena down a 25-year road of discovery and fame. I was able to hold Allen’s 1863 diary and later film its pages while doing research for the documentary. I was thrilled to find Allen’s musical transcriptions, including “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” which, a century later, was sung and recorded note-for-note by the Highwaymen folk singers.
The second story revealed Dena’s diligence and patience. The Linden (New Jersey) library, she said, was “not a good place to work.” As soon as she threaded microfilm on the library’s lone reading machine, the librarian would ask her to move “so they could look at overdue notices.” So Dena’s husband, Morton, found a second-hand microfilm projector in a pawn shop, and she projected the images onto the walls of their house. “That’s how I did research.” So that I could capture Dena’s work on film, I found a 1940s Kodak projector, prayed that the bulb still worked, then using my wife’s hands as stand-ins for Dena’s, I re-created Dena’s methodology.
Epstein’s painstaking research—done before Google and the Internet and using a typewriter and carbon paper—comes alive in her files at the CBMR, whose Library and Archives holds her research collection. Reading her correspondence was like watching water wear away stone. It took her two excruciating years just to get a microfilm copy of the Allen diary.
I was aware while working in the Epstein Collection of the value of the archives to preserve and document Dena’s work and to make her materials available for work by future scholars. Dena’s papers, comprising 28 boxes and 11 linear feet, were arranged and cataloged by Margaret Gonsalves; I can’t thank her enough. Thanks also to CBMR Library and Archives staff members Suzanne Flandreau, Laurie Lee Moses, and Janet Harper, who honored Dena and the film with their library skills. And thanks to Monica Hairston O’Connell, Morris Phibbs, and Horace Maxile Jr., who supported my research by awarding me a CBMR Travel-to-the-Collections grant.
Dena’s masterwork, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, which culminated twenty-five years of painstaking research, was published in 1977 by the University of Illinois Press; a second edition was published in 2003. The book has won numerous awards, including the Simkins Prize of the Southern Historical Association (1979) and the Chicago Folklore Prize. To purchase a copy of the book, please visit the University of Illinois Press or Amazon.com.
Please visit Jim Carrier's website for additional information about the documentary film, which is available on DVD.