I just heard that Dena Epstein died last week (11/14/13) at the age of 96. I am going to assume that her name was not necessarily recognizeable to most people but I am pretty sure that the fruits of her life’s work are. Since Dena was a librarian and a banjo history researcher, it seems appropriate to mention her on this webpage.
(Dena Epstein with The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Photo by Jim Carrier)
Dena Epstein was born Nov 30, 1916 in Milwaukee, WI to Hilda and William Polacheck. She earned a BA in music in 1937 and an MLS in 1943. After several years working at both the Newark Public Library and the Library of Congress as a music librarian, she left her job to raise her two children in her New Jersey home. She did not however stop researching and using libraries and it was through a trip to the New York Public Library to find something interesting to read that she stumbled upon an interesting item. A reference to something from a Civil War diary caught her eye and so she used the Interlibrary Loan Department to borrow the diary from a library in….. Milwaukee WI. (Say, do YOU know about McConnell Library’s Interlibrary Loan Office?) While reading this diary, she became more and more interested in researching that interesting item, which was something not quite expected in a Civil War era diary, and something that would change her life- black folk music. The diary spoke of slave life and music (among many other things) and in many cases included notation of the tunes of some of the songs mentioned in the diary. Being a musician herself (piano), Dena became fascinated and intrigued by what she was reading.
The diary in question was that of William Allen, who had been hired to teach newly freed slaves. Allen became interested in the songs that they sang and ended up collecting and publishing many of them in an 1867 book- Slave Songs of the United States. In her research, Dena found that this book was largely forgotten and even found references in books published in the 1950s saying that there had never been a published collection of slave music. This apparently bothered Dena Epstein, so she devoted the rest of her life to researching this subject.
Balancing child rearing and research, Dena used her local public library in every way she could and when it could not give her all that she needed, she made great lists of things to research if and when she was able to travel to the New York Public Library. One of the ways she was able to use libraries was through interlibrary loan (hey, did I mention RU has an interlibrary loan office?)
Allow me to depart for just a minute here to tell you about interlibrary loan. Today, if you would like to use interlibrary loan, you most likely need to go to a webpage, log into an online system and fill out a form. Once you submit that form, someone in the interlibrary loan office enters the bibliographic information into a computer, finds out which librarys own the book you need and they send an electronic request for that item. The other library gets that request and will send the book in the mail in many cases the next day. In the 1950s however, this was not the case. Before computers and automation if a person wanted a book that their local library did not own, a librarian had to look through hardcopy indices, and have a working knowledge of what types of collections various librarys had so that they could make educated guesses as to which library to ask mail a letter to asking to borrow a book from. If that library could not find the book, didn’t own it, or it was checked out, they would write back to the original library telling them this and the original library would pick a different library to ask. This inter-library commnication all had to be done through the US Postal System and this process could take weeks or months. So Dena’s research success took a lot more time and patience and dedication than we can imagine today.
In 1962 Dena began publishing her findings in (many) scholarly articles. Her research often featured the banjo and she was the first to trace it from Africa to the Caribbean Islands to America. Her research findings shattered all of the current opinions on banjo history and more importantly, on what the slaves could and did contribute to society and music. She continued her research and in 1977 she published a major book entitled- Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. (Which McConnell Library happens to own.)
There are not a lot of black banjo players or black string bands today, but the ones that are here today all talk about Dena and her research and influence. Bands like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Otis Taylor would probably not be around today had it not been for Dena Epstein’s research. Many musicians and historians talk of her too- Tony Thomas, Greg Adams, Bob Carlin, Tony Trischka and many others. She changed the way many of us think about the banjo and music and she changed what it is that we think about and what we know. She was someone very special.
So in honor of Dena Epstein and her work on banjo history, today I would like to feature the Carolina Chocolate Drops and their 2006 CD “Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind”
Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 after meeting up at a black banjo gathering in Boone, NC. They have released 5 CDs and one EP, won a Grammy, opened for Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan and others, headlined many stages, played MerleFest, Mountain Stage, Prairie Home Companion, Bonnaroo, many other festivals AND Radford University (this is the poster used by the Appalachian Events Committee, associated with Radford University’s Appalachian Studies Department).
The band was originally made up of:
Rhiannon Giddens (Used with permission from Bret Young, photographer)
Dom Flemons (Used with permission from Bret Young, photographer)
Justin Robinson (Used with permission from Bret Young, photographer)
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1629.C37 D66 2007||AVAILABLE|
If you would like to learn more about Dena Epstein, Jim Carrier made an excellent documentary about her. To learn about it, ivisit Jim’s “Librarian and the Banjo” website!