Sunday, February 14, 2016

Diller Biography: Project Update, February 2016

I just completed the discography/videography for the book, with the help of some BHO friends.  I think the manuscript is being readied for pre-production now.  I supposed we used to call that typesetting, and the products were galley proofs.  New process, new language.  Date of publication is still estimated as late July.  

Thinking back now on how I attempted to manage the project, I set about the task of trying to capture the details of Dwight Diller’s basic biography, the “family tree” sort of information, and delve into corners of his life - his young years, elementary and high school, his military service, and his college experiences – to tease out the facts and determine how and where he became musical. 

I focused on the manner in which Dwight became immersed in the old music, entangled with the old musicians, and committed to playing and teaching old style banjo and fiddle. 

But music was only a part of the story.  I had to delve into his faith, his commitment to God, and his seminary education along with the several churches where he worked as a Mennonite pastor after he completed his studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the mid-1980s. 

And I had to trace out the way teaching became a critical element in Dwight’s life trajectory – and explore the connections between his commitment to that and his sense of his mission and the tasks his faith defined for him, and how that gained expression in Dwight’s lifelong efforts to teach old time banjo and fiddle.

For me, accustomed as I was to slogging through greying and worm-eaten captured Vietnamese documents and other arcane sources, looking at local old time music history was in its own way a distinctively challenging triple canopy jungle. 

I culled through public records and personal documents having to do with Dwight’s life.  I reviewed his college and seminary transcripts, his service records, his treasure trove of early family photographs.

I interviewed musicians and band members from the 1970s; friends from his days in Lexington, Virginia in the early 1970s; members of the A.A. Cutters band from Morgantown, West Virginia in the early 1970s; people he met and befriended at the old time festivals in Virginia and West Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s; some of his earliest banjo and fiddle students from the years 1970 – 1973; teachers from his seminary days in the mid-1980s; partners from the Library of Congress project on the Hammons family in the early 1970s, and colleagues and associates involved in his work in the early and mid 1980s and again in the first decade of the 2000s; collectors and field recorders and musicians who visited the Hammons family in the 1970s and 1980s; Hammons family members; Dwight’s sister; and former banjo and fiddle students who attended his many retreats from the 1980s to the 2000s.

I consulted with librarians associated with the American Folklife Collection of the Library of Congress, and librarians from the Southern Folklife Collection, Research and Instructional Services Department, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

With a lot, a lot of assistance from many musicians, I found recorded examples of Dwight’s banjo playing during this early period – right after he learned banjo in 1969-1970, that survived in personal recording libraries of old time music enthusiasts who attended the festivals at places such as Independence and Hillsville, Virginia, in the early 1970s, and captured some of the contests and jams on personal recording devices. 

With the help of Paul Deblois, Wayne Howard, John Huerta, Tom Mylet, Caroll Smith, Bob Thornburg, Stewart Seidel and many others I accumulated a collection of about 60 audio cassettes and videos documenting the evolution of Dwight’s teaching approach from the early 1980s to the first decade of the 2000s.  With the generous assistance of Cully Blake, Wayne Howard, Bill Hicks, Carl Fleischhauer, Bates Littlehales, Carroll Smith and others, I assembled a collection of photographs of Dwight Diller in a vast array of musical contexts – festivals, jams, gatherings, retreats, workshops and classes. 

* * *

The publisher spent November 2015 looking over the photographs, readying the paperwork necessary for the project, designing the book cover, and shaping the “working title” into a title that fit with the publisher’s approach to book naming.  Most of the cover art and some of the pre publication publicity work was accomplished in December, and by late January the publisher had done a first editing.  In early February, they decided that I should write a discography, which I drafted in the first few days of the month.  Interestingly, with new recording projects on the horizon, Dwight’s discography will remain a moving target. 

The book project gave birth to several related writing efforts. 

In late January, Carl Fleischhauer and I finished an article-length manuscript that traced the trajectory of Dwight’s original field recordings of the Hammonses – the path those tapes took from the early 1970s through the early 2000s, and the various efforts to preserve and protect, archive and duplicate, and utilize them as a research resource and the basis for various published projects. 

I also finished writing a piece on Dwight’s evolving banjo repertoire – and his personal views regarding his performing, recording and teaching tune lists from the 1970s to date.  Both of those articles are currently being reviewed for possible publication. 

About two months into my biography project, I suggested to Dwight that I put myself at his mercy once more and get him to teach me banjo again.  I have written about this virtual Banjo Re-Education Camp experience involving me as a student of Dwight’s once again, with him offering important mid-course corrections for my banjoing.  I intend to include it in a banjo tutorial I have been working on, primarily intended for the few clawhammer beginners who find their way to my doorstep for introductory lessons. 

* * *

So this has been a continuous, multi-dimensional project for me.  I expect the book to be published in July – just in time for at least part of the old time festival season.  However, it’s not clear to me that the publication of the book will be the end of the Dwight Diller Project.

Don’t forget to enter the monthly contest – answer a question right and get a copy of Dwight’s Across the Yew Pines, a project on the Hammons family.

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Thanks for reading this,




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