Lew Stern’s Hosting Experience

I had the pleasure and honor of organizing a Dwight Diller banjo workshop in Arlington, VA, and of having Dwight spend some time with my family and I, during late January 2002.

It was such an intensive physical experience, and a challenging few days of thought and contemplation, that I thought I might offer some of my observations to those of you poised on the cusp of a decision to enroll in one of his classes.

So, this is a guide to both his workshops, and to Dwight himself, because both require something of a roadmap to navigate.

I confess that I was long hesitant to get a workshop under my belt. The idea of banjo camp was not one that sat well with me. I’d been in Boy Scout camp. I didn’t want to have to sew my nametags into my underwear again. I didn’t want to deal with the dynamics that group situations require.

But Diller is the dynamic, the core of the experience and the center of gravity of the process. He leads every aspect of the drill, and becomes the group dynamic through a convincing act of continuous leadership that I found impressive. I felt relieved of the need to contend with the thousands of sociological things that operating in groups demand of an individual because he remained firmly in command. I saw that as an impressive combination of the characteristics of a teacher, a preacher, an organizer, and a tour guide, an expert, a sympathetic soul, and a good judge of human nature.

Diller is an intense man, with a real interest in many, many things, a driving desire to acquire knowledge that prompts him to scour book shelves for ideas and information, and a hunger for discussion. He does not ask idle questions, but puts probing, thoughtful propositions on the table and, in a most gentle and gentlemanly fashion, asks for help to learn about what others might know. In that way, he was a stirring houseguest.

He’s involved in a consuming attempt to understand himself. He’ll use any tool possible, entertain the validity of all manner of hypotheses, and integrate ideas into his arsenal that contribute to his effort to sort through pieces of his life. He is intrusive in his own life, and asks anyone who will listen to help him figure out things about himself.

Some of this vigorous, continuous introspection has to do with his music. Some of it doesn’t. He looks at a troubled life history at times in a detached, analytical fashion, and at times with great emotion, seeing the music as a fulcrum for his development, a saving grace, a motivation to live, and a practical way of making a living. He appears to lay much of this out to his classes in an attempt to explain what drives him to pursue teaching this music, largely on the assumption that it might clarify his passion, offer an insight into the biological internal combustion engine that fuels his rhythm, or suggest to extent to which learning the language of West Virginian music energized his life in a manner he hardly expected.

I think he seeks to draw a distinction between the work of scholars and collectors of Appalachian music who systematically, and in accordance with standards and practices of established academic disciplines, recorded and preserved music, and what he found himself doing with the Hammons. His enterprise was less an academic undertaking, or a lofty commitment to preserving archaic tunes, than it was an act of self-preservation. In his own explanation, he latched onto the music in a time of need, and grabbed on to the lifeline that a musical family threw to him.

Here, it is important to understand that Diller spends no time whatsoever disparaging the work of these scholars.

For whatever reason, at a difficult point in his life – and Diller is not very shy about spelling out these difficulties – he found himself embraced by this old family, and clung to the community and belongingness that they offered. It fueled a passion for their music, and a habit of closely scrutinizing the tunes, the way they produced them, and the stories that were told by the music. It stiffened his spine about reorganizing his life, gave shape to his thinking about what was important, what it would take to live in the way of good men, and birthed his sense of responsibility to the music.

I don’t think he set out on a mission to preserve this music in return for the kindness of the family, and the restorative powers their embrace offered. I don’t think he said to himself, now that I’ve rejuvenated my will to live thanks to the goodness of these folk, I’ll repay them by enshrining their music and protecting its meaning and cadence. I think instead that Diller felt several things:

First, I think he felt an obligation to capture some of the tunes in as original a shape and form as possible. This, I believe, is his “native son” obligation at work, his sense that as a West Virginian he should care about seeing this stuff recorded and made available to others, including those looking to explain, if only to themselves, what being a West Virginian means.

Second, I think he felt a need to protect the Hammons family from a close and invasive scrutiny that would pry away at the context in which it lived and end up reshaping its simplicity by turning it into a show case example of some American frontier caricature. That’s why he’s never trotted out the lives of the Hammons family in some sort of memoir or reminiscence, and why he’s careful about the slide show he narrates that takes a look at their lives through a collection of photographs he took over the years. He’s reluctant to make a spectacle of them, probably because they didn’t volunteer to be the Hammons. They ended up being who they were, and shouldn’t have to pay the price of being splayed out in ethnographic studies that could run the risk of bringing embarrassment or attention to people, in Diller’s reading, who didn’t want things that complex. This isn’t necessarily the most sound of arguments Diller makes, and I’ve found myself chiding him because he would be precisely the one most capable of depicting the family in a careful and sensitive manner, in a way that protected their interests while offering insight into them.

Third, I think he felt a “responsibility” to the music, a term Diller often uses to describe a key requirement of which he must remind himself while teaching the music. This is the most interesting, and potentially most complex feeling that Diller has about the music.

The “responsibility” appears to mean something distinct from the quid pro quo relationship assumed to exist between the music and its champion. That is, the “responsibility” appears to have little to do with a struggle to keep the music pure, to protect its original, primordial sound, and to capture and repeat its authenticity in every act of playing the music in return for what the music did for Diller personally.

This should be clear by the way in which Diller distinguishes the music he plays from the styles and renditions of the Hammons. He plays “his music.” He changes tunes. He picks and chooses and borrows, and puts pieces of tunes together because they sound better and work out more effectively than what he heard. He ties parts of tunes together because they sound more pleasing that way to him, or because they solve a puzzle left by failed memories of what an original tune sounded like. He doesn’t always do this, and he almost certainly prefers an old and original tune to one he needed to flesh out from fading memories and old recordings.

The “responsibility” has more to do with recognizing the extent to which the music does not belong to the music maker. It’s not a commodity that can be reshaped, recorded, and distributed. It’s not an artifact of mountain life that can be embalmed and stored in a museum for selective viewing and historical appreciation. It’s a living entity with shelf life that will transcend the time on earth of anyone who touches it. So, the responsibility entails recognizing that the music springs from an ancient creative moment and that anyone who plays it has but the smallest role in the eternity that will characterize the lifespan of this music.

Diller, after all, does not say he’s responsible for the music. He says that he has a responsibility to the music, and that anyone who learns it and plays will hopefully come to understand the responsibility they then have to the music. There’s the sense in these words that it’s not a “responsibility” in terms of a curatorial obligation, and it’s not a “responsibility” to save and protect the music. He’s “responsible” to the music. He “reports to” the music. The chain of command is clear, and he is the subordinate agent of the music.

The use of the term “responsibility,” in my way of thinking, is intended to telegraph the notion that one ought not to try and use this music for one’s own glorification or enrichment. He makes that point emphatically. He generally follows this explanation by noting that should one try, “the music will turn on you.” To me, that’s a warning that goes back to the argument that this is no ordinary commodity. It’s not something that can be recorded, sold, and simply added to a discography.

Of course, that’s precisely what musicians do, and Diller is one himself. So we need to discount the possibility that Diller is seeking to make the case that making living out of singing and playing these tunes is a transgression.

I think what he’s saying is that there’s a need for a humility before the force the music represents, the profundity of its creative core, the simple strength and durability of its attractiveness and seductiveness, and the ancient rhythms it enshrines. To Diller, I suggest, the Hammons were not the font of all Pocahontas County creative originality and talent, the most perfect representatives of this style of music, or the best representatives of this old-time music. To Diller, they were just the best listeners.

They listened to the music, repeated the old tunes, told the old tales, and shared them unassumingly. They played them quietly and without seeking to make themselves grand and bigger than the music. They welcomed the music into their lives, took it as far as they could, allowed it to wend its way through their lives, and integrated it into the way they organized their households. The black and white photos Diller displays from time to time depict simple folk seated on roughly hewn porches playing plain banjos, trading tunes, and struggling to organize life in a hardscrabble situation. Besides their music, the spooky character of the dark and modal tunes, what Diller admired most about the Hammons was the way they went about their tough lives, with as little as they had, incorporating this music into it, deriving pleasure and pride from their capacity to offer the music a way of living on in their modest, native talent.

Let me talk about Diller’s teaching for a moment. Some friends tell me that his workshop is living, evolving creature that changes as he gets a better idea, or as an insight catalyzes self-critical thought about how he had been doing things all along. Those who take his courses repeatedly, Diller Recidivists as I call them can see the extent to which his teaching changes as he learns. He is a communicator, anxiously looking for the best way to put a thought. And, in the course of a three day class, he might find several alternative means of getting his thoughts across, try them all vigorously, and wake up after a nights sleep with yet another thought on how to make himself clear. That, to me, is the core of what it means to be a teacher.

In the end, he’s offering a portal into a difficult dialect of a musical language, a rarely taught linguistic form. He starts with the grammar and the physicality of that dialect, the rhythm. It’s elusive, hard to define, and not easily understood by merely listening to its sound, watching the engines that produce the words that compose this language, or hearing and seeing it dissected and reassembled for others to imitate.

Learning a new language, though, is more than acquiring sufficient vocabulary, becoming competent with the logic of a system of grammar, and obeying rules of syntax. Sometimes, learning to speak a new language means figuring out what the silence means, determining what lurks behind lips poised to speak, discerning the flexibility of words and the parameters of their power beyond obvious meaning. Sometimes learning to speak a new language means understanding the cadence of sentences and how they vary in subtle ways to communicate massive sea changes in intended messages.

Maybe that’s the best mystery, the true challenge, to be communicated by the experience of the workshop. I learned that though I figured out how to make the snapping, pumping rhythm with my limbs, posture, muscles, I haven’t quite broken the code, though I have been captivated by it’s allure, and I feel that I’ve been drawn into it’s orbit, in much the same way that reaching a significant plateau in mastering a foreign tongue renders communication easier, and at the same time makes conveying meaning that much more difficult.

Breaking through the barriers to fluency saddles one with a responsibility to tread carefully so that one doesn’t confuse mastering the rules with achieving native familiarity with the texture, taste and the internal codes of conduct of a language. Learning to utter an idiomatic phrase, and sensing the perfect time to employ that language, doesn’t always mean that one has internalized the genetic material that makes fluency possible beyond the masterful use of a list of vocabulary and a formal set of rules governing sentence structure.

So, sometimes learning a new music means looking for complexities that are not communicated by rules, finding out when simplicities that are too elusive to be apparent are necessary to communicated meaning, and the cadence of the uttered word becomes the meaning itself.

Diller is the knowledgeable local guide immersed in this dialect, and willing to help explore the twisting paths, capable of offering hints as to when the twists and turns are meaning, when they have meaning, and when they are just such a permanent part of the landscape of the musical language that they have no separate, discreet meaning themselves, but are clearly a part of the chemistry that makes this stuff what it is.

In that way, he’s better than a dictionary, or a grammatical guidebook. All his CDs, and his wonderful videos, somehow don’t offer the best way to get at this language. You need to sit knee to knee with him to begin to absorb some of the essence of this music. I’m not arguing that it rubs off by exposure, or that one can imbibe the pulse of this music by proximity and familiarity with someone like Dwight who is indisputably fluent in the dialect.

I am saying that there is a dimension to this music, to the physical skills necessary to get the sound, to the mental appreciation of the rhythmic component, to the soulful comprehension of its dynamism, that can’t come exclusively from hearing and seeing, but must come from touching and smelling, and the use of other antenna that videos and CDs don’t arouse. I admire the videos, and own them all, and watch them repeatedly.

But after spending four days locked in a room with Diller, I have the sense that learning the tune is not learning the music, and that learning the rhythm is not the end, but the beginning.

Lew Stern
28 January 2002


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