Jim Carrier and Dena Epstein (2009).JPG

Jim Carrier of Madison with Dena Epstein, subject of Carrier’s forthcoming documentary film.


The Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning black string band playing a sold-out show Friday night at the Stoughton Opera House, figure in a new show titled "Give Me the Banjo" that premieres Nov. 4 on PBS.

Narrated by Steve Martin, it is billed by PBS as the "story of America's quintessential musical instrument," and will likely debut with considerable fanfare.

In Madison, Jim Carrier will be watching, and wondering if Dena Epstein will get her due.

Carrier is a filmmaker who is working on a banjo movie of his own. It's smaller than the PBS show, although the Carolina Chocolate Drops figure in Carrier's film, too.

The true centerpiece of Carrier's movie is Epstein, a Milwaukee-born music historian who turns 95 next month.

By Carrier's lights, Epstein is an important figure in the history on the banjo, having provided, through her research, a link to the instrument's earliest roots in Africa — long before it was a mainstay of American folk music — roots that by the mid-20th century had been largely forgotten.

On a memorable day in Chicago two years ago, Carrier introduced the Chocolate Drops to Epstein. Clips of that meeting will be in Carrier's film. He's calling it "The Librarian and the Banjo." 

Carrier has been in Madison since 2007, having arrived with his wife, who was working on a doctorate in environmental studies at UW-Madison. Not long after landing here, Carrier — who has a background in newspapers — founded a filmmaker collective called the Wisconsin Film School, and began actively pursing documentary subjects.

He discovered Epstein after falling under the spell of an 1893 painting, "The Banjo Lesson," by the black artist Henry Tanner. The painting depicts an elderly black man teaching the banjo to a young black boy. They might be grandfather and grandson.

Carrier saw the original painting in a museum on the campus of Hampton University in Virginia in 2003, and bought a poster.

By that time Carrier had been playing the banjo himself for more than three decades. He picked up the instrument after hearing the theme from "Deliverance" on the radio. Although Carrier has played in bands, he does not consider himself a professional. "I'm what they call 'purty good,'" he said.

Tanner's painting led Carrier to begin researching blacks and the banjo, research that culminated with a month-long fellowship on the subject at Berea College in Kentucky.

He found reasons why black banjo music had faded in memory — for one thing, they were largely shut out of the early recording industry. The migration northward of many blacks in the 1900s also took them away from an association with the instrument.

Carrier also discovered an important way the connection was reestablished. It was a 1977 book titled "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals," by Epstein, an assistant music librarian at the University of Chicago. The book provided documentation of black folk music dating back to Africa in the 1700s. Epstein drew in part on the diaries of UW-Madison historian William Francis Allen, who co-edited the 1867 book, "Slave Songs of the United States."

"Using the librarian's skills," one reviewer wrote of Epstein, "she painstakingly combed through memoirs, diaries, travel accounts and slave narratives for scraps of evidence."

Carrier was knocked out by Epstein's book. "Dena told the whole story of the banjo," he said.

He contacted Epstein, who is in assisted living in Chicago, in early 2009, and she agreed to a filmed interview, which they did in February.

That summer, Carrier got in touch with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a hot young black string band, and asked if they'd be interested in meeting Epstein.

As it happened, the Chocolate Drops were playing in Chicago, at the Old Town School of Folk Music, that August. On the day of their show, a meeting with Epstein was arranged on an empty stage at the Old Town School.

Dom Flemons, one of the Chocolate Drops, approached Epstein carrying a copy of "Sinful Tunes and Spirituals." He shook her hand and said he had read and enjoyed the book.

"I'm honored," Epstein said. "Did you learn things you didn't know?"

"Absolutely," Flemons said.

He grinned, but Epstein's smile — it could have reached Africa.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.