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New Dwight Diller Biography: Interview and Excerpts

Ever since I started playing the banjo in 2008, I have heard about Dwight Diller. He is renowned as a musician, teacher and historian of West Virginia music and culture.

As a musician, Diller is known for his heavy rhythmic drive. As a teacher, his weeklong instructional camps promote full immersion into the culture and music of West Virginia. As a historian, he has documented the legendary Hammons family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

Diller has been the subject of many discussions on the online forum Banjo Hangout, and it was through this website that I met Lew Stern and learned of his newly released biography, Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician. Released in April by independent publisher McFarland, the book is 216 pages and will run you $35.

Stern started playing the banjo in the 1960s when he got “swept up in the enthusiasm of the folk revival.” He embraced Pete Seeger’s music and bought a long-neck banjo. He later “came under the spell” of Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass picking, but now is a strictly focused on Appalachian downpicking.

“In the last 20 years, I have circled back around to the simple, ancient modal tunings and rhythmic core of the West Virginian tradition of clawhammer banjo music,” says Stern, who has written articles on banjo history and banjo-centric topics for the likes of  The Banjoists' Broadsheet, a British publication, the Banjo Newsletter and The Old Time Herald.

Stern also ran a banjo repair shop, Little Bear Banjo Hospital, focusing on vintage and modern instruments in Arlington and then Staunton, Virginia, for about 25 years. He retired his business in January 2016.

In the non-banjo world, Stern spent 30 years in the U.S. Government focused on Indochina and Southeast Asia before he retired in 2010 and “turned my attention to all banjos all the time.” His biography of Diller is his fifth book, though the prior four were about contemporary Vietnamese Communism.

Stern recently took the time to answer some of my questions and provided two excerpts from the book that appear below.

What attracted you to Dwight Diller’s music and teaching?

Dwight's banjo was straightforward and easy to understand. I could hear the forceful rhythmic core and identify the foundation, the melody — the notes — without having to snake my way through elaborate ornamentation, gymnastic riffs or indecipherable licks. He played what was essential to the tune and that struck me as a music that could be accessible to me, a music I could learn.

Why does Dwight Diller deserve a biography? 

Throughout the project Dwight made clear that to his own way of thinking it was not his life or his story that deserved the attention and merited a book length treatment. Instead it was West Virginia's old music — and its oldest practitioners — that should be the center of attention. However, for me, Dwight as an important part of the story about the old-time music of West Virginia, an energetic force giving life to that music as well as a committed participant in efforts to document and preserve the old tunes and the old tune players, especially the Hammons family. Both Dwight and the music he loves deserve the attention, and in fact to a large extent one might not exist without the other.

What was your biggest challenge in writing the book? 

I think the biggest challenge was finding a way to make a coherent identity out of the various parts of his life: Dwight as a musician, Dwight as a teacher, Dwight as a seminarian.

Dwight’s musical interests overlap with and at the same time derive from the obligation he assumed to listen to and preserve the tunes and stories of the old people. And this co-exists with his eager interest in teaching these stories and this music to students committed enough to take the immersive plunge that Dwight believes this material requires. His earnest desire to impart the lessons he learned about the music converges with his penchant for talking about what the old people and their old ways taught him about himself. And the long, continuous route toward learning about self parallels the trajectory of his path on the spiritual side of the equation.

In the old-time music world, Dwight navigated between several related interests: rescuing old tunes and stories, learning the old people’s music from the old people, playing music actively in bands and festivals, teaching banjo and fiddle and preserving local banjo and fiddle traditions, songs and stories. If anything integrated these various dimensions of Dwight’s path, especially in his later decades of musical teaching, it is this idea of how music can guide us to what we should be. This became the a key notion informing Dwight’s teaching work, especially during the late 1990s and early 2000s when he began thinking more systematically and consistently about what “teaching banjo” meant to him, and how it could have a positive impact on the lives of people who enrolled in his classes.

Student and Master:
Lew Stern (left) and Dwight Diller
What is one lesson you hope readers take away from this book? 

Teaching, to Dwight, was the mission to which he was most committed. From at least the early 1980s, he saw himself primarily as a teacher, not a musician. He saw teaching as less of a skill than a “gift,” an intuitive capacity to perceive needs, requirements and strengths in students; quickly assess the best way to draw out the student to stimulate the appetite for learning; and keep the challenge intriguing enough that the student’s desire to study becomes self-sustaining. …

To me, Dwight’s teaching focused on communicating the responsibility that comes with a commitment to study music, any music, but especially brittle, delicate, archaic regional “dialects” of old-time music that has few protectors left.

Dwight’s key points: Anyone undertaking the task of becoming immersed in local traditional music needed to listen closely to that music, treat it respectfully, learn to hear the internal logic of its construction, to distinguish the elements of that music and discern the character of the sound and the messages those old tunes sought to convey.

Dwight also sought to telegraph the message that doing art of any sort required a profound level of investment in self expression, a confidence beyond technique and technical capability that went to the central question of what it took to speak to what one wanted to get from immersion in music, or poetry, or painting, about what kind of certainty was needed regarding one’s life and purpose before art could be integrated into one’s life and identity in more than a merely decorative way.

Excerpts from Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician

Stern provided two samples of from his book. In the first, he sets the scene: Diller is attempting to describe the focused way he tries to get students to think about the music — the music, not the tunes. Diller discourages “amassing a war chest of old tunes and suggests zeroing in on a handful of tunes that resonate” with the student.

“What I have been trying to get my students to do in recent years is to pick out 25 tunes to do for the remainder of life. And then work, work, work to intuit, intuit, intuit so they can be used to produce one's own ‘personal cultural messages’ [that spring] forth from EACH person's internal pulse. If that is not there, then there can never ever be Music; as I said, melody without massive rhythm, which leads to powerful explosively violent silences leading to one's own personal cultural message, [without that] THEN it is only dull dreary drivel. Cece Conway pointed out that the most well-known old time fiddler in the world, Tommy Jarrell of Mount Airy, North Carolina, ‘never learned any tunes after 1920.’ [...] Pick out no more than 25 tunes and begin to really pay attention to them. Pick out those who you are compelled to play. Think you might die if you had to give them up musically speaking. Then start in holding the number to 15. And if you were able to discipline yourself, keep the 15 in mind and let them go in and out. However, then only work on four or at most five at one time probably for a year. If you were to do that, then you would be able to start to begin to really learn the music.”

In the second excerpt, Diller is “speaking to the care and responsibility that comes with delving into the old music” and the shared obligation he believes students shoulder once they begin to “learn the old tunes and to find out about the people who played the old music.”

“As I keep saying in my music classes — be careful, be careful, be careful, be careful with the music. [...] What are you doing with the music, why are you here, why are you learning banjo from me. The older I get the more I listen to Lee Hammons play the banjo, hear Wade Ward play the banjo [... these are] people who touch the music very lightly. They’ve got a lot of snap, a lot of drive, but in their music they touch very lightly. When Lee Hammons played the banjo in the Shaking Down the Acorns album he was 86, 87 years old. You think about his age, his banjo playing was letter perfect without being stilted and studied. That was all those years worth of living distilled down to about four or five notes. You talk about economy [...] well, he knew how to leave the empty spaces in there. [...] When you’re young, immature, [...] you’ll just run headlong into the music you won’t know your mistreating the music and when you take the music for your own personal gain you’re milking it. It won’t really work for you. It will seem to work but it will turn against you, it will turn sour. Lee Hammons’ music doesn’t reflect that, and Wade Ward’s doesn’t reflect that to me. I guess that’s what I’ve learned over the years: you’d better be careful with that music. It’s just like knowledge; you’d better be careful with that stuff. It will eat you up you won’t even know what’s happened.”

Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher

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