Jim Carrier’s artful film, The Librarian and the Banjo, not only amplifies Dena Epstein’s influence on a new generation of players and historians, but illuminates her devoted and indeed, wondrous scholarship. Stephen Wade, author of The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience
Please excuse my delay in writing to congratulate you on your magnificent film The Librarian and the Banjo on Dena Epstein. You captured Dena’s amazing life in a powerful, detailed portrait that is a tribute both to her and to the library profession. Bill Ferris, Center for the American South, University of North Carolina and former chair, National Endowment for the Humanities.
I, too, have had the great pleasure of viewing Jim Carrier’s remarkable film,
“The Librarian and the Banjo.” It is an amazing documentary about our beloved
Dena Epstein and her pioneering work on slave music and, particularly, her
groundbreaking research on the history of the banjo. A quote from the film’s
description: “The inspiring true story of music librarian Dena Epstein, who
labored 25 years to document the musical contributions of African slaves to
the New World. Her work, now considered classic, shattered legends and myths,
proved that the banjo was a slave instrument, and sparked a remarkable revival
of black string band music.” This film should be featured in every music library collection and should be owned by every member of MLA! (Music Library Association) Michael Ochs, music librarian, Harvard University (retired)
Informative, entertaining, and educational, plus a lot of fun to watch. Excellent! Mitch Finley, The Bluegrass Blabber (Inland Northwest Bluegrass Music Association – Spokane)
An inspiring account of both a lost history and its dogged excavator, The Librarian and the Banjo recounts the work of Dena Epstein, a music librarian whose inquiry into a forgotten abolitionist’s diary (at the Wisconsin History Society) sparked an interest in the history of black folk music. Her research over the next twenty-five years ultimately proved that the banjo-long associated with rural white culture in the South-originated in Africa. Epstein’s work not only exploded previously-held views about black folk music and its legitimacy as a subject of academic study, but helped to spark a new generation of African-American string band music. Madison-based director Jim Carrier explores both Epstein’s career and the impact that her work has had amongst music scholars, practitioners, and fans with a clarity and attention to detail worthy of his subject. Folk luminaries like Bela Fleck, Eric Weissberg, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops provide eloquent testimonials, but the film’s true star is Epstein herself. Now ninety-six years old, she continues to exhibit the intelligence, tenacity, and love of her subject that The Librarian and the Banjo chronicles with such infectious enthusiasm.
Matthew Connolly, Wisconsin Film Festival
The Librarian and the Banjo retraces the work of music librarian Dena Epstein, whose pioneering research into African American music traditions of the colonial and antebellum periods became the foundation for modern research into early banjo history. As Epstein states in the preface to the reissue of her 1977 landmark book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, her efforts were “part of an intellectual and political movement to recover the historic roles of minorities, women, labor, and the poor in shaping the culture of the New World” (Epstein 2003: xiii). As part of this reshaping, Epstein compellingly reconnected the banjo with its West African heritage, Caribbean development, and overall provenance as an instrument of the African diaspora. Through interviews, dramatizations, and displays of archival material, Jim Carrier creates a narrative that challenges viewers to reconsider preconceptions about the banjo’s historical significance. Instead of narrowly depicting the banjo as an “American instrument,” The Librarian and the Banjo accurately resituates the banjo as an instrument of the Americas whose impact can be seen around the world.
Greg C. Adams, Archivist (MLS), Ethnomusicologist (MA), Musician
Jim Carrier’s film “THE LIBRARIAN AND THE BANJO” adds a much needed human dimension to the evolving historiography of the crossroads of black and white musical and cultural diffusion that is embodied in the banjo. A well-done tribute to a very deserving Dena Epstein.
David Wooldridge, Appomatox Court House National Historic Park
Dena Epstein not only reestablished the African and Caribbean roots of the banjo, but also. Epstein started as a New Jersey housewife and part time librarian. She confronted sexism and racism in scholarship and society tackling issues music historians avoided. She documented major aspects of African American and Afro-Caribbean secular musical history in a series of journal articles that are still state of the art and her great book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Her work on is the foundation of our knowledge of the African roots, Afro Caribbean origins, and African American history of the banjo.
Major banjo historians like Laurent Dubois, Robert Winans, Greg Adams, and my humble self (and my banjos) appear along with banjo players like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and Eric Weissberg, African American banjo revivalists like Sule Greg Wilson, Guy de Chalus, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and most inspiringly Epstein and her family telling her story.
You’ll never think about the banjo or the struggles of music history the same way, after you see this film. I don’t and I am in it!
im Carrier worked for years on this movie with his interviews, questions, and presentations on it becoming an important current in moving banjo history forward. THIS FILM NEEDS TO BE SEEN, by people interested not only in the banjo, but in music history, in Black history, and in the history of the struggle of women for their rightful place in American scholarship. It is ideal for banjo camps and old time music festivals, courses in Black studies, music history, and women’s history. It can be an important training tool for courses in library science.
Tony Thomas, MFA, West Palm Beach , Florida
Most documentaries get made because the filmmaker falls in love with the story. Jim Carrier did.
The painting got him first. Then the book, and, later still, the book’s author. He’d liked the music all along.
Taken together it is a remarkable story — a musical instrument’s lost history, and the woman who unearthed it — one Carrier has now told in a labor of love titled “The Librarian and the Banjo,” which premieres today at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Carrier, 68, came to Madison in 2007 with his wife, Trish O’Kane, who is working on a doctorate. Jim has a colorful background that includes newspapers and seeing the world on a small sailboat.
When he landed in Madison, his interest in film led him to start a filmmaker collective called the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Carrier was considering a documentary on the cult of Hank Williams fans who gather every New Year’s Eve at midnight at the singer’s grave in Alabama. They drink, sing songs and ponder the legacy of Williams, already a legend when he died at 29. Carrier met some of them while he was working for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.
That film may yet happen, but the banjo story got him first. Carrier, who grew up in New York State, played the instrument ever since hearing the dueling banjos in the 1972 film “Deliverance.”
Decades later, in 2003, Carrier came across a painting on exhibit in a museum on the campus of Hampton University in Virginia. “The Banjo Lesson,” painted by Henry Tanner in 1893, depicts an elderly black man teaching the banjo to a young black boy.
The image stayed with Carrier, and he began researching blacks and the banjo. Much of the conventional wisdom of the banjo’s history put its roots in the rural American South. By the 1990s, Carrier learned, that began to change, with scholarly evidence taking the instrument back centuries, to Africa.
One book in particular, startling in the scope and variety of its original sources, served as a kind of touchstone for the reassessment. It was published in 1977 and called “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals.”
When Carrier finally read it, he was blown away. Here was the history of the banjo, with documentation of black folk music dating to Africa in the 18th century. The author’s name was Dena Epstein. A more unlikely scholarly superhero is hard to imagine.
Carrier tracked down Dena Epstein in early 2009. She was 92 and in an assisted living facility in Chicago. She agreed to an on-camera interview. It wasn’t like she was besieged with requests. Her name meant little to the general public, even if in the small circle of banjo historians she was revered.
Epstein’s story — her own words propel Carrier’s film — begins with her birth in Milwaukee, and takes her to a New York City suburb in New Jersey, where, as a young wife and mother, she can’t find a job at the local libraries.
She began to take the bus into the city, visiting the great libraries, not really sure what she was after. In the end, it found her. Epstein dropped a reference book that opened to the typed diaries of UW-Madison historian William Francis Allen, who co-edited the 1867 book “Slave Songs of the South.”
It introduced Epstein to a world that had been willfully ignored by mainstream cultural gatekeepers.
She eventually centered on the banjo, tracing it to the Caribbean, and earlier still to Africa. A reviewer described the difficulty of the research: “She painstakingly combed through memoirs, diaries, travel accounts and slave narratives for scraps of evidence.”
When she kept getting kicked off the microfilm machine at her local library — the librarians had need of it themselves — Epstein bought one and projected the images on the living room wall of her home. Carrier recreates it in the film, having located a 1940s projector for sale on the Internet.
There is a symmetry between Epstein’s years of research and the mountains Carrier climbed, all these years later, to tell her story. He used a $5,000 grant from the Madison Arts Commission to travel the country and film interviews with banjo artists and scholars, many of whom profess themselves in Epstein’s debt.
There is a wonderful scene, late in the film, when Carrier brings Epstein together with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning black string band that has played in Madison — and across the country — to wildly enthusiastic sold-out audiences.
The meeting was on a stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Music. One of the Drops asks Epstein to sign his copy of “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals.”
“Did you learn anything?” Epstein asks.
They all did. “The Librarian and the Banjo” — which plays at 4:30 today at the UW Elvehjem Building — makes clear that and more. The showing is sold out, though some rush tickets might be available at the door. Carrier will speak after. Dena Epstein watched it on DVD in Chicago. She turns 97 in November.
Doug Moe – Wisconsin State Journal.
The Librarian and the Banjo is a testament to the near-superhero abilities of librarians.
Librarian and the Banjo chronicles the life of Milwaukee-born music librarian Dena Epstein. Epstein’s groundbreaking work proved stringed instruments like the banjo were brought to the United States by slaves, effectively dispelling decades of racist stereotypes about black music culture, or lack of culture. And she did it all before the Internet.
The film is Madison resident Jim Carrier’s first individual submission the the Wisconsin Film Festival. An avid banjo player for over 30 years, Carrier first came across Epstein’s research after he saw a painting portraying an old black man showing a child how to play the banjo. He was curious about the origins of the banjo and decided to do some research. He discovered Dena Epstein and decided to focus on her story after interviewing her in 2009.
In the 1950s, Dena Epstein was unable to find a part-time library position which would allow her to raise her children, so she instead turned to the library in search of a project to fill her desire for intellectual stimulation. Initially sparked by her discovery of an abolitionist’s diary at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Epstein did her research before the days of online search engines and databases. She visited libraries and archives and continued to write to countless librarians and curators for over 25 years to compile research. Undeterred by the size of the project, Epstein kept visiting libraries and doing her own research, and she eventually published several articles and later her classic 1977 work, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals is cited by many interviewed for the film as the catalyst which helped revive black string band music and dispel the stereotypes that blacks learned about music from whites because they did not have a musical culture of their own. Epstein also eventually found a position in her field, as an assistant music librarian at the University of Chicago. Stereotypes about the banjo as an instrument of Southern whites stems from the film Deliverance, with its “Dueling Banjos” theme song and infamous sodomy scene, as discussed by banjoist Bela Fleck in Carrier’s film. Carrier, a banjoist himself, commented about the heckling he still receives when he reveals his hobby. “So yes, yee hawing, and shucking and jiving and general jokes about my IQ were, and are, common to this day,” he said. “There is an entire website devoted to banjo jokes. My favorite: ‘What’s the difference between a banjo and a Harley? You can tune a Harley.’ Some of my bandmates constantly joke about the banjo.” While we hear Epstein’s incredible story in her own words, the significance of her work in reviving the banjo is also discussed by Bela Fleck, music historians from across the country, and the Grammy-winning folk artists the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Throughout the film, Epstein is clearly humbled by the impact of her work. In the final scene of the film, she is shown tapping her feet as she listens to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, visually moved by the group’s appreciation for her decades of work.
Carrier said he hopes viewers will appreciate Epstein’s contributions to music history. “I hope that people who see it (or later buy the DVD) will come away appreciating not only the racial history of the banjo, but also the gift that Dena gave us by pushing through so many barriers, to change, broaden and deepen our understanding of American history,” he said.
Kat Kosiec, Dane 101