Dink: A Pre-Blues Musician is one of the few documentary films about a black traditional musician who plays the banjo. James “Dink” Roberts (1894–1989) grew up in the “Little Texas” community of Alamance County in piedmont North Carolina and made his living growing tobacco as a tenant farmer. But early in his life he learned the clawhammer banjo style from the older children of an uncle who raised him and from other black banjo players in the community. He gained local popularity playing the banjo for dances of both blacks and whites in their communities and continued to enjoy playing and singing banjo songs all his life. The film shows him in his family setting performing several kinds of music—playing banjo and singing dance songs, dramatic banjo songs, and even early country blues performed on guitar.
Enslaved Africans had brought the gourd banjar to Maryland by 1740, and for almost 100 years they were the only ones who played the instrument. In the 1830s whites took up the banjo and continued to play traditional music in the South, and Joel Sweeney popularized or created the 5-string open back banjo. He and others contributed to the emergence of blackface minstrel shows that remained popular, sometimes internationally, until the end of the century. Early in the 20th century the guitar became inexpensive and widely available due to mail-order catalogs. Many African American musicians were inspired by the guitar’s ability to sustain the voice. They took up the guitar and created a new musical form, the country blues. Dink also learned to play the guitar later, but his repertory remained rooted in the banjo music of his time and region.
Dink Roberts was filmed for this documentary in 1974-5 by three UNC students: filmmaker Cheyney Hales, philosophy graduate student Tommy Thompson (soon a leading member of the Red Clay Ramblers), and Cecelia Conway, who took her doctorate in English and Folklore and included her research in the notable book, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (1995). She included many recorded performances by Dink in the Smithsonian Folkways CD Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia (1998). In both of these publications she identifies and discusses a distinctive black musical genre she named “the banjo song.”