Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dwight Diller Biography Project: Book Update, Getting the Word Out, a Note about Audio Resources

Book Update:  In the next month or so I should be getting the first production copy of the book to proofread, and I'll have to write an index.  I’ve done that before, on four prior books, and it is painstaking page by page work that I can’t do using a computer program so it is something I grind out using primitive tools – paper and pencil.  But it actually ends up helping with the proofreading process.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Getting the Word Out:  I’ve been working with Banjo Newsletter to get some attention for the project with a series of columns.  

My goal, in the BNL series as I envision it, is to talk about a sort of 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 will describe a new burst of activity and creativity on Dwight’s part that emerged in late 2015/early 2016, with some help from friends and fellow musicians.  I will devote a column to Dwight’s special affection for the music made by Lee Hammons, and comment on what I learned about Dwight’s repertoire and how that evolved over time. 

I have asked David Brooks, a very talented banjo player familiar with Dwight’s approach, to do the tablature work for this series, in a way that captures Dwight’s distinctive approach to this tune.  David allowed me to press him into duty to render into tablature form some of Dwight’s tunes for this series, but he also brought to bear his sharp, trenchant writing skills and incisive editorial sense – and I’m grateful to him for all his assistance on these six articles. 

I’m still working the blogosphere with monthly notes for Banjo Hangout, and on my own website as well.  There’s also the possibility of a National Public Radio interview with Dwight.  And I’ve been thinking about hauling a bunch of boxes of the book to Clifftop, and setting up with Dwight – might be some banjo players keen to get his signature on the biography.  We’ll see.  That might be a scheduling issue as my main duty these days is in providing support to my son Ethan and his wife Kaytee who are trying to juggle caring for their baby twins, Noah and Aidan (see my avatar) and re-entry into their jobs.  For me, it’s back to diapering and delivering warm milk to ravenously hungry little gremlins.

This Month’s Blog-Like Note on the Book Project:  During the course of researching and writing the book on Dwight Diller, I had a lot of help from people who rifled through their belongings to dig out old tape cassettes from the 1970s of Dwight playing music at festivals and jams and other venues.  For example:

Kilby Spencer, originally from Whitetop, Virginia, made available to me recordings of the banjo contest taped at the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970.

William Talley, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, who began playing clawhammer back in the mid-1960's, tapped his memory and his audio library to come up with absolutely essential recordings of Dwight playing at the vaunted “Alternative Galax” hosted by Armin Barnett in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1972.

Tom Mylet also taped Armin Barnett and Dwight Diller in August 1972, playing at Barnett’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Rock Garton, a West Virginia fiddler, joined the band that called itself the “AA Cutters,” in 1973, participated in the lessons that Dwight taught out of his apartment in Morgantown, West Virginia, and played in the band’s first gig, a pre-game show at the old Mountaineer Stadium for Mountaineer Week Festivities.  Dwight remained associated with that band through at least the mid-1970s.  Garton played with the band through 1974, by which time the “Cutters” had come to include Norm Strouse playing banjo and bass, Pete Mineer on fiddle, and Jackie Horvath on banjo.  Rock made several tapes of Dwight playing with the A.A. Cutters available to me from 1973. 

Wayne Howard made tapes available to me of Dwight Diller and Mike Seeger playing at a workshop conducted on the steps of the Pocahontas County Courthouse in Marlinton, West Virginia, featuring the music of Lee, Burl, Sherman and Maggie Hammons, in July 1975. 

As I was working on this book project, I stumbled onto another kind of resource that might represent a second generation of recordings that themselves represent a potentially important, and somewhat more modern research tool: private recordings of banjo workshops and retreats conducted during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that capture much in the way of the music but also record the musings of the teacher in the form of recollections, stories, and instruction – and thus impart a different sort of data that has, in my experienced, proven to be an invaluable resource in sorting through contemporary old time history.

There are many people, hundreds or thousands of banjo and fiddle players, who have focused on recording such workshops, usually for their own interests that revolve around having study aids to help them learn tunes and styles of banjo and fiddle playing. 

And there are probably as many who fastidiously record jams at contemporary festivals, and banjo contests, and thus have – perhaps inadvertently – become an incredibly important resource for anyone venturing to try and capture the history of modern old time music.

I know one of these people whose recording work served me very, very well during the course of my efforts to write about Dwight Diller.

Paul Deblois is an easily recognized northern Virginian banjo player who has become a stalwart Clifftop attendee and a fixture at this and many other festivals.  A tall, thin man with a thatch of lightly greying black hair, and an amiable way topped by an eternal smile, he is usually right in the midst of the action, up close to the stage.  You’ll find him seated in a comfortable lawn chair surrounded by gear bristling with antennas, directional sound receptors, and state of the art recording paraphernalia such that he looks as though he’s manning a NSA remote site. 

When he began learning banjo, Paul started taping workshops he attended, largely because of his inquisitive approach to learning tunes as he progressed on the banjo.  He slowly expanded his reach and began taping concerts and jams, and the proceedings of the Friends of Banjo (FOB) organization that served as a platform for serious banjo students to gather on weekends in northern Virginia and try to get down tunes in the company of like minded obsessive-compulsive old time fans.  He inscribed each tape with the date and place of origin, and neatly annotated the name of the tune and the player or players, and soon he was doing his best to make contact with the musicians to verify that he got the name of the tune right, where it might have been learned, and so on. 

Paul kept an index of tunes learned, and an organized resource library of taped versions, and audio records of tunes taught at local workshops.  He started out with rudimentary equipment, often using duct tape to fix his directional mics to a broomstick before graduating to increasingly sophisticated, professional looking hardware. 

And he branched out to the point that he has been the first in line to inspect personal collections of long time record collectors, and harvest gems from those accumulations.  He has developed the capability to take old, fragile cassettes and rescue them from oblivion.  He has jumped into projects aimed at accumulating examples of early playing of some contemporary banjo and fiddle masters, taking informal field recordings made at old time music festivals in places like Hillsville, Virginia and Independence, Virginia, in the 1970s, and transforming them into accessible MP3 versions.  And he has honed his ear so that he has become adept at recognizing familiar tunes masquerading under unfamiliar names, and can decipher old, confused field recordings so that his work has become a real resource for researchers interested in tracking the evolution of tunes, their passage through contemporary festivals, and their multiple configurations in the hands of notable players over the last twenty or so years. 

During the course of my effort to write about Dwight Diller, Paul generously allowed me to borrow huge chunks of his Banjo Newsletter collection from that publication’s earliest years that facilitated my search for references regarding Dwight’s banjo playing in Dick Kimmel’s columns.  Paul also worked exceptionally hard digitizing the large number of cassettes, videos, and other eccentric audio forms used to capture Dwight’s music as early as the 1970s, and his teaching work at retreats and workshops from the 1980s to the 2000s.  He did this patiently, and with a loving touch, and I appreciate his every effort.   

In addition to this assistance, I had the good fortune of being able to rely on numerous technically inclined banjo students who fastidiously recorded Dwight’s workshops, and gave me access to those home recordings. 

John Huerta, former General Counsel of the Smithsonian, avid banjo player and vintage banjo collector, long-time resident of Elkins, West Virginia, shared his recollections of the old time world in the 1970s, lent a West Coast perspective to the development of old time “scenes,” helped me make valuable connections to musicians in West Virginia, and attended several of Dwight’s earlier retreats – allowing me access to his memories and recordings of those workshops. 

Carroll “Cas” Smith, a photographer and videographer, and a clawhammer banjo player from Florida, recorded some of Dwight’s earliest public performances in West Virginia.  Carroll, a friend from my earliest days as an avid attendee of the annual Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, helped manage the audio and visual resources I called upon in doing this work, and dug into his own archive of photographs and audio recordings of workshops that Dwight conducted in the early 1990s, recordings that provided indispensible material in support of my writing effort. 

Stewart Seidel, who with Andrew Diamond and David Dry wrote “Yew Pine Mountain: Obscure Underground Clawhammer Banjo From Mysterious Central West Virginia,” was generous with his video tapes of banjo and fiddle retreats conducted by Dwight in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Bob Thornburg provided me with over four dozen tapes of some of the very earliest banjo workshops organized by Dwight in West Virginia in the early 1980s and 1990s. 

Dwight kept no systematic records of his teaching over time.  He does remember travelling to the Midwest and the West for classes, and there is ample documentation of his retreats in the form of personal cassettes recorded during the course of numerous workshops of his by banjo and fiddle students.  Such records indicate, for example, that Dwight, the Bing Brothers and Tom King conducted a workshop on the banjo in string bands at the Augusta Heritage Center, in Elkins, West Virginia, in 1988. Dwight taught banjo at Cass, West Virginia, from late the late through at least the late 1990s.  In 1991 he conducted a banjo workshop and evening concert in Seneca Park, on the Greenbrier River, in West Virginia.  He conducted numerous banjo workshops at the homes of friends and students, such as the one Bob Thornburg hosted in Bishop, California, in 1995.  Dwight organized a banjo camp at D Base Camp near the Virginia Lakes in Bishop, California, in September 1997, and in 1997 he conducted a banjo camp in Port Ludlow, Washington.  Dwight held a banjo workshop at the home of Tersh McCracken near Red Lodge, Montana, in September 2000, and during the summer of 2001 he conducted a banjo retreat in Vancouver, British Columbia, that was hosted by Stewart Seidel.  In 2002 and 2003 he conducted long weekend sessions at my home in northern Virginia.  Bob Thornburg provided me with nearly 50 cassette tapes of about ten of these banjo retreats conducted from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. 

Field audio and video recordings of these events became very important resources for me during the course of my research, allowing me to document the evolution of Dwight’s playing and teaching style, and to get glimpses of the way his repertoire developed over time.


My key point is that such contemporary recordings of workshops, retreats, contests and jams are among the documents that students of old time music history need to look at, and thus these resources – out there in plentiful numbers across several continents – represent a new challenge to anyone thinking about compiling complete contemporary records about old time music in the last several decades.  They are probably massive in number, tucked away in the recesses of personal libraries, hauled out infrequently to serve personal learning goals, and perhaps degraded by time or even – as I found in several instances – no longer accessible because of changes in recording and listening technologies ended up consigning certain systems to history’s dustbin, leaving us with the challenge of listening to recordings made on defunct systems no longer available in any corner of the marketplace.  It might be worthwhile to consider ways of systematically compiling collections of these recordings of retreats, workshops, lessons, lectures by musicians whose work will be worth looking at and writing about en route to efforts to assembly histories of contemporary old time music and musicians.

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