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