Documentary tells the story of the woman who helped preserve African musical culture
It was not the story of the banjo that intrigued Madison filmmaker Jim Carrier, but the story of the woman who documented and preserved the banjo's origins, helping to preserve African and African American history.
When Carrier recently previewed his documentary at Madison Public Library's Lakeview Branch, he explained why “The Librarian and the Banjo” focuses on Dena Polacheck Epstein, Assistant Music Librarian at the University of Chicago.
The history of the banjo is a complex intermix of African culture, slavery, American music, and modern culture and music. “Everyone is familiar with the idea that the banjo came from Africa,” he said, explaining the gourd and simple-string instrument which came to the United States with the slaves and over generations, out of practical need, materials available and different playing techniques, was re-created into many different shapes, including the common 4-to-6-string banjo featured in bluegrass, Dixieland and country music.
During her lifelong career, Epstein was the leading scholar in the history of American and African-American music and produced a long bibliography of articles and books about pre-Civil War African-American music in the United States and the West Indies. One of her best known books is “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War” published in 1977. Her last published work was in 1994, "Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem.” Her work has demonstrated the link between modern music and its genuine roots from centuries ago.
“Dena's story is such a wonderful story on so many levels,” said Carrier. “Her perseverance, her managing all kinds of issues from being a mother, a professional, she pushed against issues with musicology and against racism in the 1940s and 1950s.
“She did it with such integrity that ultimately — now — it is considered a monumental and a fundamental piece of work. And a preservation of another cultural gift from Africa to the United States and modern culture.”
Also at the screening was early banjo player and enthusiast Angela Wellman, who also appears playing in the film. She demonstrated examples of different banjo styles and sizes while picking and playing a few familiar and traditional songs. Holding aloft a small, open-box-body banjo with a short neck curved at the top and large tuning pegs, she listed a few names by which the instrument has been called over the centuries: "banjar, banjil, banza, bangoe, bangie, banshaw."
“The Librarian and the Banjo” will formally premier at the Wisconsin Film Festival April 14-18.