Monday, September 11, 2017

Current Projects - Brought to you by Little Bear Banjo Enterprises

My book Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician was published in April 2016 as Number 39 in the series “Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies,” by  McFarland and Company, Inc., of Jefferson, North Carolina.

It was my first book about a musician – I’m working on a second biography now – but it was my 6th book – the other 5 being about contemporary Vietnamese politics and security, a far cry from what I was drawn to write about in retirement. 

Dwight’s comments on and recollections of the old time music festivals of the early 1970s, and his memories of Tommy Thompson – against whom Dwight competed in at least two banjo contests in the early 1970s – nudged me to focus on Tommy Thompson of Red Clay Rambler fame, and I’ve been researching and writing about Tommy since April 2016.

However, I found since last year that there’s still a lot to say about Dwight and the music he played, the life lessons he learned from being around the Old People in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

There are, as I mentioned in a recent FB post, two more articles in the “Dillerology” series being published in the monthly Banjo Newsletter.  I’ve had the heroic, expert help of David Brooks in doing the tabs and working the technical side of curating the field recordings for that effort.

I also worked on a longer piece regarding how I learned banjo at the hands of two West Virginian teachers – Dwight and Bates Littlehales – and how they engendered interests in a range of other banjo-focused things such as banjo repair work, and teaching banjo playing.  I’m fiddling with that manuscript now, and it is part a record of how they taught and how I learned, and part an effort to tease out how I learned to teach from their lessons and life examples. 

This led to another effort write about the way I worked myself through learning banjo repair, wood work, with the advice and guidance of Dwight.  I’m trying to formulate that project now, laying out lessons learned in 25 years of stringed instrument repair. 

I had the honor and good fortune of becoming involved in a writing project with Carl Fleishhauer, who together with Alan Jabbour collaborated with Dwight on the Library of Congress Hammons Family project in the early 1970s.  During 1969 and 1970, Dwight Diller, then a novice banjo player and aspiring fiddler who would make a lifelong commitment to the traditional music of West Virginia, visited the homes of Hamp Carpenter, Lee Hammons and the Hammons Family and taped their tunes and stories on a borrowed reel-to-reel recorder.  The tapes became part of the 1973 Library of Congress project on the Hammonses, and served as Dwight's text for life.  The manuscript – currently under review - traces the way the tapes were archived, protected, and utilized from 1973 to 2005 in projects intended to depict the lives of the Hammons family members.

Another Dwight-induced project:  I also drafted a paper that attempts to define the contexts that contributed to shaping Dwight’s earliest music, discern the trajectory of his musical development, sort through the influences that helped shaped the way he thought about and practiced old time banjo and fiddle, discuss his notion of the manner in which his own sound emerged from these influences and contexts, look closely at his repertoire, and comment on the nature and character of West Virginian traditional music.  That is also currently under review for publication as an article. 

Another Dwight-induced project:  In the course of my research and writing, many people – including Bill Talley, Len Reiss, Bob Thornburg, Kilby Spencer, Rock Garton – provided me with tape cassettes of Dwight’s music captured at jams and gatherings, in banjo workshops, band practice sessions and elsewhere, as early as 1970, over a decade before Dwight began recording his music – making many of these tapes the earliest examples of his banjo, and fiddle, playing.  During the tail end of the book project, I introduced Dwight to Gene Bowlen.  Gene runs Bearcade Recording and Sound, owns and operates a studio in Port Republic, VA, and provides sound work for local festivals and recording for musicians in his home studio.  He is also an old time banjo player with his own performing band and an avid, deep love for the old music.  Gene organized a recording session for Dwight and Terry Richardson in his studio at his home in Port Republic, and set up the afternoon house concert for Dwight and Terry.  That took place on 1 November 2015. In subsequent discussions I conducted with Gene, it became clear that some of the original tapes, especially the earliest ones made at the festivals in Independence and Hillsboro, VA, in the summer of 1970s, and in Morgantown in 1973, could be harvested in Gene’s studio, salvaged, cleaned up and made CD-worthy.  Gene and I share the view that there would be an interest in a CD that featured Dwight’s early playing.  Gene set to work to bring some of those tunes together. 

Gene drew the music for a special CD that captures Dwight’s music before he began recording commercially from these field recordings that I collected while researching my book from numerous musicians who were “present at creation” during 1970 – 1980.  All this took place with Dwight’s explicit permission.  At the end of that project I placed the in the Banjo Hangout Article archive as an electronic paper that represents my efforts to make sense of Dwight’s playing from 1970 to 1976, from the point at which he became a banjo player to the point at which he moved gradually to playing and teaching banjo and fiddle full time in various settings – retreats at his home, workshops around Pocahontas County, jams and gatherings featuring the Hammons family musicians, and at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. 

I thought I’d lay this all out – at the risk of repeating some things I’ve said on my blog (  and on my Facebook page – Facebook is a brave new world for me - and on BHO. 

I did this because it continues to amaze me how much great depth there is to all the history, all the music, Dwight brought to my attention – to the attention of many of his students, his audiences. 

So, thanks for your attention!

Play hard,


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