New York, 1952
The smell of books lingered in the air as card catalog drawers clinked closed and creaked open. Dena Epstein walked through the golden light bouncing off the stone walls. She might have felt at home in any library, even if she had never been there before. On this day in 1952, she found herself in the New York Public Library, a monument to curiosity and learning in the heart of Manhattan. Dena had studied music and library science, and had worked as a music librarian. At thirty-six years old, her career as a librarian was temporarily on hold as her husband worked a government job and she took care of their children.
Not working in a library didn’t seem to suit Dena, though. She wanted to engage her mind, she wanted to have interesting things to think about. Unanswered research questions nagged her. One of those questions made her come to the library from her home in New Jersey.
She pulled books that might have more information, but page after page, she couldn’t find anything. When she stood up and started back towards the charging desk, a book fell open. A name jumped out at her: William Francis Allen. He co-edited the first collection of spirituals, Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867.
When Dena saw that name new questions started forming. Here she was, less than 100 years since the end of slavery in the United States. White Americans had been obsessed with Black music since before the Civil War, or at least what they thought was authentic Black music. In the mid 1800s, Blackface Minstrel shows performed by white men with faces darkened by burnt cork and sheet music written by white men claiming to be real songs of the slave South could be found in every city in the United States. This was the U.S.’s first pop music craze. But Dena knew that most white people outside the south hadn’t heard actual Black spirituals before Allen’s book. What white people did know was white men in black cork masks, lampooning and caricaturing Black music and culture. This, they claimed to be an authentic representation. Although professional Blackface Minstrel shows lasted until the Civil Rights era, the craze diminished in the first part of the 20th century.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, white Americans heard Black music in the form of what the music industry called “race records.” Now this music was becoming white America’s newest obsession. At the same time that Dena Epstein walked into a library in New York, a man in a studio in Memphis wanted to find acts like Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. Producer Sam Phillips wanted blues musicians, gospel singers, and jug bands. “He was looking for anything but what resided in the deepest recess of their own soul,” writes Peter Guarlnick in Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n’ Roll. Sam also wanted something he believed could crossover into popular mainstream white America. By 1952, he had recorded B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner. In a few years, he would record Elvis Presley. Across the country, people wanted to hear authentic Black music, even if it was a white man singing it, yet again.
Dena never said how soon the questions started forming in her mind when she saw William Francis Allen’s name. It might have been immediately. Maybe it took a moment. But she had a new mystery. For all the love of this authentic Black music, the history of Black folk music didn’t seem to exist. Dena probably shouldn’t have been surprised by that. The United States has a convenient way of forgetting about uncomfortable history, denying facts that don’t add to the narratives of freedom and picking yourself up by the bootstraps. Focusing on these narratives often erases the histories of Black America, of enslavement and capitalism, and of white supremacy. Dena was not interested in denying history. If the story of Black folk music existed within the history of slavery, which it must have, and there is a historical record of slavery, why wasn’t the record of the music there, too? The answer was actually simple: “As far as I could learn, no systematic search of this material for its musical content had ever been made.” Dena realized it wasn’t that the record wasn’t there, it was that no one had bothered to look. “I was told by musicologists that nothing could be known about black music before the Civil War — that there were no sources. As a librarian, I didn’t believe them.”
She knew Black vernacular music had and was having an enormous impact on what people would soon be calling iconic American music. Did she have a sense of what was coming with Rock n’ Roll? I don’t think anyone ever asked her on the record. She knew that some history was being suppressed, and that denial of history raised her hair and made her skin prickle. That day, she would start a project that lasted a lifetime.
Even as a nonfiction writer who does extensive research, I can’t imagine the work that went into Dena Epstein’s book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Today, I can sit at my computer at home and call up census records from across the country, search millions of pages of newspapers with a single click, and pore over pages and pages of antiquarian books. I still go to archives and libraries to thumb through pages of letters, documents, and books that haven’t been digitized, but archival research is easier than ever.
For years, library research was all Dena did. She searched “Slave Narratives,” the personal stories of enslaved people who escaped to freedom or were released from bondage. She read travel accounts, letters, and memoirs, often from white slave owners themselves. She read novels, for even a fictionalized account might provide something. She looked through church histories and polemics on slavery. She scanned every page when a book didn’t have an index, which many of them didn’t. She was not a historian, not an ethnomusicologist: she was a librarian. She may have been the best person suited to these deep dives, this slow research process. Her first survey of source material took nine years.
Even after searching through hundreds of accounts, she was missing something. A question still nagged in her mind. She couldn’t find anything about music in that earliest period, when enslaved Africans were just arriving to the New World. She couldn’t find anything about how, in the forced labor camps that were plantations, a continent of African musics transformed into something new. I am stuck by how differently Dena thought about this history when compared to other academics. After the racist notion that enslaved people arrived in the New World without a culture started to fade, people started looking back to Africa. What was transferred? Where did it come from? In the U.S., we white citizens seem concurrently so proud that we are Americans: we are the progeny of freedom and a better life. And yet, we obsess over where we came from—you need look no further than Ancestry.com and at-home DNA kits. We embrace the mixing of whitenesses, but this whole concept puts shame on the descendants of the enslaved who by nature of what really made the United States—land capitalism built on forced labor, chattel slavery, and white supremacy—cannot track relatives through census or property records, unless their ancestors are that property. We believe knowing where we came from in the Old World can tell us something about who we are today.
Until recently, African American studies often meant looking back to the many ethnicities, religions, and cultures that make up Africa to understand the experience on this side of the Atlantic. And while these methods help uncover the history of African Americans, they play back into the false narrative of U.S. history: that America is just us, the United States; that the colonies overthrew Britain for freedom from tyranny; and that we are somehow superior to the rest of the New World. In reality, America spans from an island off the coast of Greenland in the North Atlantic to islands off the coast of Chile in the Drake Passage. The thirteen North American colonies overthrew Britain for freedom to do commerce as they wished, including the continuation of slave labor. Enslaved men, women, and children received freedom in British Caribbean colonies more than a generation before the enslaved of the United States. And our trade was intertwined with the whole world—the trade of goods and bodies.
Dena didn’t look back to Africa. In 1969, pondering the questions of early accounts of African American music, Dena Epstein looked to the Caribbean. Maybe it helped that she wasn’t an scholar of African studies. She understood that Black music of the Americas had been fundamentally changed from the music of Africa. The trauma of the Middle Passage, dispersal of cultural groups, destruction of families, enslavement, and white supremacy made sure of that. Perhaps the colonies were more similar than they were different, she thought. What would have separated the experiences of the enslaved in the Caribbean from what would become the United States? Early on, these were all just colonies, after all.
She added Caribbean accounts to her running tally of hundreds of books and citations on what she called Black folk music. The New York Public Library had resources like a microformed version of Jean Baptiste Du Tertre’s writings on the Antilles, originally published in 1667 and republished in 1868 and a copy of Sir Hans Sloane’s A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. She visited the Library of Congress, the University of Chicago Library, and Cornell’s library to access other rare and antiquarian books. She corresponded with librarians at libraries in the Southern United States and the West Indies. Dena noticed that accounts of the time didn’t distinguish between a colony on the mainland and a colony on an island. Travelers wrote memoirs of trips to “North America and the West Indies,” or simply “unsettled parts of North America.” All of these colonies shared economies as people—free and enslaved—moved across borders. Dena noted that Barbados and South Carolina were more similar than Massachusetts and South Carolina. South Carolina’s economy and plantation system were Caribbean. She started reading accounts from the West Indies and found “rich descriptions of African dancing, instruments, and music, far beyond expectation.” She’d found her earliest music references.
Two things stuck out in Dena’s research: a dance called la calinda and “its associated instrument, the banza,” the name for the banjo in French colonies. The very earliest account she found describing dances of enslaved Africans on Sundays and festival days sometime before 1656 had characteristic elements she’d find over an over again: “drums made from hollowed tree trunks covered with skin and held between the drummer’s legs, the alternation between a solo performer [singer] and a chorus, and dancing which continued for an extended period.” In 1678 Martinique, she found her first connection of the dance with the banza. A lieutenant charged a planter for allowing a kalenda at the wedding of one of the enslaved, since the Conseil Souverain de Martinique had banned the “dances and gatherings of the Blacks.” The kalenda is danced to the drum and the banza. Then came Sloane’s 1687 account from Jamaica which included an image of a banjo, then she found accounts from Martinique in 1694, from Barbados 1708, from St. Kitts 1763, from Antigua 1788, from St. Domingue 1797, and in-between from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and New Orleans. If the observer offers a description, which they don’t always offer, we envision a half gourd or calabash covered with skin, a long neck, and anywhere between one and six strings. These early banjos were in the hands of the enslaved, played for dances.
Dena’s work on Black folk music began one day in the library, and her obsession probably never ended. She worked for decades on this project, with support from her husband and children. In 1977, her book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War changed not only what we might have believed about Black folk music, but what we knew. She’d compiled lists we didn’t have and made connections no one had thought to make. She could also conclusively disprove “some of the myths that have grown up about the banjo: that it originated in the minstrel theatre, that it was ‘invented’ by white men in New York or Virginia, and that it was unknown to plantation slaves.” I think that fixing the incorrect history she’d seen herself in “some of the most respectable reference books” gave her a sense of satisfaction. “[My research] proves the theory that blacks arrived in the New World culturally naked is untrue.”
But she knew she’d hadn’t answered all the questions, she knew she couldn’t. In the two last paragraph of her book she writes, “Much work, however, remains. No one person could hope to examine every potential source for the history of black folk music,” including Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch accounts—accounts Dena couldn’t translate. She adds, “Within the United States many questions remain to be answered.” The last words in her book are a call to action.
One question she doesn’t answer, she alludes to in a caption in the book. In the caption for a watercolor from South Carolina now known to be by a slave owner and planter named John Rose, she wrote, “African instruments, postures, possibly sacred dance.” But she never dives into what that sacred dance might be. That was part of the quest I sought to explore in Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History.
Notes and further reading:
 The Librarian and the Banjo, film by Jim Carrier.
 “Dena Epstein: Perseverance Wins.” American Libraries. Vol. 9, No. 8 (Sep., 1978), 466.
 “Dena Epstein," 466.
 Dena Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press) 22-23.
 Epstein, 24.
 Epstein, 25
 Quoted in Epstein, 27, in French; my translation.
 “Dena Epstein," 467.
 Epstein, 348.
This is part of Banya Obbligato, a series of blog posts relating to my book Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History. While integrally related to Well of Souls, these posts are editorially and financially separate from the book (i.e., I’m researching, writing, and editing them myself and no one is paying me for it). So, if you want to financially support the blog or my writing and research you can do so here.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.