Cadwell was born in Westfield, N. J., and began playing banjo at ten; played with college banjo clubs at Princeton (class of 1910) and Harvard Law School. Spent adult life as a lawyer and in business, but continued to play five-string banjo. In the 1920s he organized and performed in minstrel shows for the American Legion and the Masonic Lodge. During the 1930s he played occasionally on the "Dutch Masters" radio hour as a member of the "Van Eps Trio." Began involvement with American folk music in the 1940s, playing for the American Folk Dance Society and on NBC radio for "Music of the New World." In the 1950s became involved in the folk music revival and befriended revivalist and bluegrass musicians, notably Roger Sprung. In 1949, a group of older "finger-style" five-string banjoists created the American Banjo Fraternity (ABF), which still meets twice a year in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, though the original banjo notables are deceased.
The bulk of the collection is music for the five-string banjo, often with piano and/or second banjo accompaniments. Almost no sheets have cover illustrations. Many editions are British (which rarely give copyright dates).
Series 2, photographs, include portraits of Cadwell and travel photographs by Frances Reed, Cadwell's first wife.
Paul Cadwell Banjo Collection, ca. 1880-1980, Archives Center, National Museum of American History