The Librarian and The Banjo is a one-hour documentary about the life and legacy of a Milwaukee-born music librarian who proved that the banjo came from Africa with the slaves. Her work shattered long-held stereotypes and laid the groundwork for a remarkable revival of black string band music.
Starting with a forgotten abolitionist’s diary at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Dena Epstein labored 25 years to document that African Americans produced their own music and instruments. Beginning in the 1950s, she pushed through prejudice that was endemic in academic history and musicology. Her work, published in the mid 1970s and now considered classic, legitimized the study of America’s biracial musical roots, and spawned new scholarship in the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa.
The documentary takes viewers into the tranquil havens of libraries and onto lively stages where banjos twang — 300 years after slaves brought the instrument here. It documents efforts to re-imagine and recreate the sound of ancestral gourd banjos and slave-playing styles that influenced today’s banjo playing. It also shows new generations of African Americans as they are introduced to the banjo.
These scenes are the backdrop for the life of a 96-year-old woman who, despite family tragedy and poverty, marshaled her love of music, her progressive roots and her librarian skills in a monumental quest for truth.
The film features the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops; banjoists Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and Eric Weissberg; former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Bill Ferris; and music historians from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia College, the University of Wisconsin, Wayne State and the University of Maryland.
The Librarian and The Banjo is ideal for educators and librarians interested in American musical history and the value of libraries.
This project was funded in part by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Additional support came from the Music Library Association, and Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research.
Jim Carrier is an award-winning journalist, author and civil rights activist. In a 45-year career, Jim has worked as a radio newsman, AP editor and correspondent, newspaper managing editor, roaming columnist, Web creator, freelance writer and filmmaker.