“The Librarian and the Banjo”: film screening and discussion

Librarian&Banjo2Music librarian Dena Epstein worked for 25 years to prove the African origin of the banjo and banjo music. The filmmaker who documented the librarian’s contribution to ethnomusicology will host a free screening and discussion of his film, The Librarian and the Banjo, in the Hodges Library auditorium, 2 p.m., Thursday, November 14. Filmmaker Jim Carrier will be in Knoxville for the 16th Annual Banjo Gathering.

The Librarian and the Banjo tells the story of music librarian Dena Epstein, whose trailblazing scholarship documented the musical contributions of African slaves to the New World and proved that the banjo was a slave instrument with West African roots. Her work shattered myths and sparked a remarkable revival of black string band music.

Dena Epstein worked at the Newark Public Library and the Library of Congress in the late 1940s before taking a hiatus to raise her children. As filmmaker Jim Carrier explains on the cover notes to The Librarian and the Banjo:

“On one of many weekend trips to the New York Public Library to find her next research topic, she discovered a citation of the Civil War diary of William Francis Allen, the first author of Slave Songs of the United States. At the time academic musicology dismissed slave music as unoriginal, derivative of white, European music, and not worth studying. Working on her own, Dena pored through 10,000 volumes — novels, slave narratives, diaries of slave owners in Jamaica and Barbados — to gather historical evidence of a rich slave culture.”

Epstein’s subsequent publication of her findings “revolutionized our understanding of American music… Today, we take for granted that African-American music is the tap root of popular American music. We owe much of that knowledge to this music librarian who set out to correct history.”

The Librarian and the Banjo also examines why the banjo, an instrument whose roots spring from Africa and African Americans, was eventually almost completely abandoned by African Americans.

The film’s soundtrack includes music on gourd akontings, minstrel instruments, and bluegrass banjos. Musicians interviewed in the film include the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, as well as local traditional music/banjo expert and park ranger, Bobby Fulcher.

The public is invited to the screening.

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