About LITTLE BEAR BANJO BLOG

Welcome!

This is the LITTLE BEAR BANJO BLOG (LBBB), formerly the Little Bear Banjo Hospital (LBBH) website.

My name is Lew Stern. 

When I first started offering repair work on vintage banjos in the 1990s in northern Virginia, my two children, then grade schoolers, decided they wanted to name the “shop.” 

I never had the heart to change it. 

I learned Appalachian style clawhammer or down picking the hard way: from Appalachian style down picking players. 

I was swept up in the enthusiasm of the folk revival in the sixties, embraced Pete Seeger’s infectious commitment to music, got myself a long neck banjo, and later came under the spell of Earl Scruggs’ compelling bluegrass sound. 

In the last 15 years, I have circled back around to the simple, ancient modal tunings and rhythmic core of the West Virginian tradition of clawhammer banjo music. 

I have written about banjo history and 18th century British banjo makers and other banjo-focused topics for The Banjoists' Broadsheet, a British publication, and Banjo Newsletter. 

  • My biographic research on Joseph Daniels, minstrel musician and British banjo innovator of the late 1800s, was published in The Old Time Herald (Volume 10, Number 12, September 2007). 

And my biography of Dwight Diller will be published by McFarland Publishers of North Carolina in 2016.  I talk about that book project here:


My friend who taught me clawhammer, Bates Littlehales, engendered an interest in banjo repair and building and taught me the basics of cutting wood, caring for machines, solving banjo problems, catastrophic neck repair, and so on.

After that, I kept finding ways to help friends in Arlington, VA, with their banjo repair and set-up issues.  I found myself being helpful to an ever-widening circle of players in the northern Virginia area.  With the assistance and encouragement of vintage banjo collector colleagues in the Banjo Collectors’ Gathering, friends from the annual West Virginian Appalachian String Band Festival, my teacher Bates Littlehales, and others, I used word of mouth, local networking, and an early version of this website to make known my interest in “rescuing vintage banjos from modernity.” 

I set up an electrified workshop in the backyard of our home in Arlington, VA, stocked it with a band saw, planer, table saw, jointer, and a stock of rescued walnut, and set to work trying to shape this little business, quickly learning that if I kept at it in my spare hours, worked long and hard on weekends, I could make tens of dollars a year doing this. 

In 2010, I retired from the Pentagon, and we moved to Staunton, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley.  I shut down Little Bear Banjo Hospital and turned my attention to consulting, but by 2012 the fun had gone out of that and I found myself meeting new local players, offering my services to individual banjo players needing setup and repair work, and cooperating with luthiers in local music stores who were more than happy to farm out work on vintage banjos to me. 

So, I set LBBH up in the utility portion of the ground floor of my home in Staunton, which I share with Maggie, our black lab rescue hound, and Roxie, her faithful companion—two good and reliable shop dogs. We got them from the county pound when we first arrived in Staunton.  In fact, when Maggie was first brought into our household, she’d grab a squeaky toy and play along with the banjo with uncanny timing and a great rhythmic sense. Roxie prefers flatfooting—flatpawing, I guess.

Between 2012 and early 2016 I kept a modest four-table operating room in the basement of our cottage on Overlook Road, which indeed overlooks this great city and its surrounding mountain tops. 

·       I helped banjo players whose instruments have endured traumatic neck stress and dramatic peghead breaks.  

·       I mounted new skinheads the old fashion way.

·       I refinished necks and pots using old tried and true tung and oil finishing techniques.

·       I rejuvenated spun over pots and oxidized hardware, did basic setup, vintage case repair, fret repair, fretless fingerboard replacement, fretwork, customized wooden tailpiece carving, and upgrading peghead and fifth string tuners, among other things.

I always looked forward to helping musicians with vintage banjo repair and rejuvenation projects.

Throughout 2015, I found myself immersed in writing a biography about Dwight Diller.  That led to several other big ticket writing projects. 

On top of that, I found myself thrust back, willingly, into the world of contract work – focusing once again on Southeast Asia, the focus of my attention for ten years of college and graduate school work, thirty years of government work, and a good bunch of post-retirement work, too. 

The combined work of writing and contracting occupied all my attention, kept me busy, and was in the end satisfying for me, so I decided to close the Banjo Hospital and shift all my attention to this other work.

I “converted” the LBBH website to a platform for writing about banjoing, and for expounding on themes that derived from my year of close and studied attention to Dwight Diller and eastern central West Virginia traditional music.  I realize it crosses all sorts of red lines for banjo players to talk in terms of "expounding," but I'm hoping to be cut a little slack . . .

By the tail end of that consulting project, I had become engaged in planning a bunch of other biographies of old time musicians who “present at creation,” in the midst of the cultural fury of the sixties and in the clutch of communities of local and like minded old time musicians who sought to carve out their niches in places like Lexington, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and central West Virginia. 

Between that work, plus translating arcane Vietnamese language documents for companies interested in doing business in Indochina, and providing advice and guidance to businesses seeking to make connections to the Vietnamese market – and readying our lives for the arrival of twins – TWINS! – who will be born to my son Ethan and his wife Kaytee in early December 2015, I think I have enough to do. 

I will still teach clawhammer to newcomers looking to get started. 

And hopefully I’ll find more time to play out and about in Staunton, VA, and environs.

So, thanks for coming along for the ride with LBBH this far.

Hopefully, you’ll stick around long enough to see what Little Bear Banjo Blog has to offer in the out years.

Play hard,

Lew



No comments: