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Sinful Tunes and Documentaries

Originally published in 1977, Dena Epstein's seminal book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, provided definitive evidence that the banjo was first developed by African slaves, derived from similar instruments that are still played in countries like Gambia.

Hitherto, the banjo's roots had been appropriated by whites. The original gourd bodies were replaced by wooden rims. Blackface minstrel troupes played the instruments in recreations of plantation life, and foretold a similar history of Rock and Roll, becoming a world phenomena as America's first popular culture export.

Joel Walker Sweeney, leader of the Virginia Minstrels, was once credited with inventing the banjo. His influence on the banjo's evolution devolved, as history was revised to say he invented the fifth string and revised further to say he added the fourth bass string to give the banjo five strings in total. Of course, this kind of misappropriation wasn't isolated, as Sweeney's contemporary Dan Emmett took credit for writing "Dixie," the authorship of which has also come into question.

RELATED: Way Up North in Peninsula

Around the turn of the twentieth century the banjo became mass produced and was marketed toward urban white society as a parlor instrument. By the 1970s, when Epstein published her book, the banjo was more associated with hillbillies and THAT SCENE in Deliverance than black musicians. Epstein challenged the false premise that whites had invented the banjo and documented a history of black folk culture that had nearly disappeared.

The Librarian and the Banjo is a 2013 documentary by Jim Carrier about Epstein and her scholarship, and it is now available to watch in full on YouTube. I urge you to watch the video and purchase a copy of Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. It's a book every banjo nerd should own.


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