Interview from Banjo Newsletter, 1996
By Bates Littlehale
“I grew up here in Pocahontas County and had the privilege of knowing the last of the old people who played the old mountain music. The most well known of course were the Hammons. I dearly love their fiddle tunes, but since I can’t do much with a fiddle, I take it out on a banjo” said Dwight Diller— historian, philosopher, Mennonite pastor, and, fortunately for appreciators of old time music, consummate clawhammer banjo player and teacher.
I met Dwight Diller I when he was teaching a five-day clawhammer banjo class at Augusta Heritage. Davis and Elkins College, West Virginia. When I heard him play I could understand how BNL readers had ranked him among the top five old-time banjo pickers in the country. Later I was able to spend some time with him at home in Hillsboro, West Virginia.
Dwight brought me to a small cemetery in the mountains of east central West Virginia. We sat eating lunch by the tombstone of Edden Hammons, born 1876. The Yew Pine Mountains rose in the background.
DD: Edden was one of the last of the real fiddlers-meaning that’s what he did with his life. He was a fiddler in the sense of the old musicians —-the European bards. Edden was brother to Parris who was father to Burl, Sherman and their sister Maggie, who can be heard on the Library of Congress recordings and Rounder records. Lee Hammons (no relation) was born in 1886 and was a contemporary of the great old fiddlers. He was also an extra good friend to me. I spent many hours with the four of them.
BNL: Did Edden, like Lee, play banjo as well as fiddle?
DD: I don’t know. The banjo didn’t seem to be held in that high esteem around here back then. The fiddle was the instrument, not the banjo, though most mountain homes had some sort of a banjo rather then a fiddle hanging around. And from what I gathered from the old people, the banjo and fiddle just weren’t played together much. It didn’t seem to be part of the tradition.
BNL: When did the banjo-fiddle duet come to West Virginia?
DD: I don’t know. Probably turn of the century with the coal and timber boom, and then later with records and radios.
BNL: It’s hard for most people to realize the extent of the isolation here in the same mountains where you and I are sitting right now.
DD: It was Jesse Hammons, Jr.-Edden’s father and Burl and Sherman’s grandfather-who said that there was a period of time between the Civil War and the timber boom when it was (I think) “thirteen years before a stranger ever darkened my door”. East-west travel was really tough because the valleys here run north-south. The settlers back then had to have an extra dose of endurance. Like Sherman says, “Boys, now she was tough sleddin’ just to get by.” The main flow of migration then was through the Pennsylvania flatlands to Ohio in the north or through the Cumberland Gap in the south to the midwest. This mountain region was a lot like a forgotten island until the coal/timber boom opened it up somewhat. Consequently the music exchange wasn’t what it was outside the mountains.
BNL: So it was this isolated 18th and 19th century music that became your Inspiration—that you incorporated into your life.
DD: My people were some of the earliest people here in this area (1760’s 70s) This music is at home here. It incorporated me into it long before I embraced it. What initially drove me to my “roots” was a load of pain back in the 60’s. The music and the old people literally kept me alive until I became a Christian at age 30.
BNL: How was the banjo used if not to accompany a fiddle in the old days? Obviously as a solo instrument, but was it used to accompany a song?
DD: There are lots of old tunes that are just “banjo” tunes. But from what I have observed in the old tradition they Just didn’t sing and play at the same time There were exceptions I’m sure, but I m talking about what seemed to go on in general.
BNL: Your clawhammer banjo playing, with its drive, rhythm, and strong snap, sounds quite different from other players and totally traditional. What are your stylistic influences?
DD:First of all, my make up, who I am inside, compels me to play as I do I don’t know how I play, but hopefully it does come from deep inside. I grew up here in the mountains and I was resonating with them years before I heard my neighbors play the music. Their really good music was crooked and lonesome just like the land. For a couple of years I lived, ate, slept the music of the Hammons and Hamp Carpenter. I lived it until it became me. At that point I didn’t have access to anyone else but them. looking back, I’m glad. The other group that I later really took to was that bunch in and around Clay County (West Virginia). I met them a couple of years after hanging out with the Hammons Some of the music in Clay County was hotter-not more fire, just hotter~than here in Pocahontas. Well sir, back then (early 70’s) that just suited me. The main old man to invite me to play on and off stage was Lee Triplett. He was just tops as an old time fiddler. Too bad he got ignored. Wilson Douglas helped me be extra thoughtful about my music, and Glen Smith (Wood County) insisted that I sweat blood if I was going to play music with him. Last of all John and David Morris (The Morris Brothers of Ivy dale fame) hired me on as their banjo player. They were my age and steeped in the local music tradition. John Martin was playing French harmonica. He was unbeatable. Now that music had fire. Mind you, “fire” doesn’t mean speed. In fact beginners always err on the side of playing too rapid. Fire is raw gut power from the depths that is telling a cultural story. The Bing Brothers Band is the only band I have consistently heard play this way in the so called “old time music scene today.
BNL: I know you lived in Virginia for a while. Any influence there?
DD: I didn’t move to Virginia until June ’78 but went to my first festival at Hillsville in June ’70. I met my main influence there. He was Wade Ward The other older “big names” were at those festivals also but Wade Ward was my man. It was at those festivals down there that I heard the young “big names.” The only young person’s sound that tripped my trigger was Tommy Thompson’s banjo. I couldn’t get enough of his playing. Of course, later I found out that he was raised up here in West Virginia I’ve often wondered about that-the cultural story stuff. There were many other people who very generously shared tunes-Bob Thren, Len Reiss, Alex Varella and others~but they didn’ t influence my style. I’m such a slow learner of tunes (who doesn’t read tablature). So I need lots of help on fingering. Many people have helped me.
In September of ’70 I met Odel MeGuire of Lexington, Virginia, at the Morris family festival in Ivydale. A few weeks later I invited him to my little get together over here in the Buckeye schoolhouse. That evening resulted in the Rounder Records early release “Shaking Down the Acorns.” I started visiting him in ’71 and out of that grew the Lexington “scene” as opposed to the “scenes” at Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Bloomington, Boston, Berkeley, and all the others that sprang up. Odel was 20 years older than me, a W&L professor and raised in Tennessee. I was raised in the West Virginia mountains with one foot directly in the culture, and was saturated with the old people’s music long before I beard the revivalists. A lot of our time as spent trying to sort out the essense of the old time music and where the young were missing it. Odel and I discussed and cussed a lot over the mu―sic for the next two years or so. Disagreed a lot, we did.
Just a side comment. Between ’71 and ’77 I played bass with the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys. They’ve been written up in BNL in past years. We grew up here in the same community. Richard and Bill Hefner and Harley Carpenter were real Bluegrassers: that is, they had that bluegrass “way” and would never really be able to play old time music. On the other hand, I played in that exceptional bluegrass band, loved the music, felt the music, but never did nor never will have the Bluegrass “way.” Interestingly, Harley Carpenter was Hamp’s son. I never saw but a couple of people ever have both the old time “way” and the Bluegrass “way” among the many. It’s one or the other, never both. We’ve got to find the music we resonate with and play it, if we are ever to do any good and give back to the music. It’s one thing to be searching for a music to express what’s deep inside. That’s commendable. It’s another thing to go in, learn a few tunes of a folk and then go out and claim to be the spokesperson for that folk.
BNL: When did you start teaching banjo?
DD: I’m a compulsive teacher so just as soon as I got the rhythm I took off teaching. I caught on to the rhythm in late October of ’69. I went to my first festival in June ’70 and I started helping people then right after that.
BNL: Now you’ve honed it down to an art.
DD: The whole thing is just a gift for me. Not only do I like to teach but I’m drawn to it. Also now for many years most of my income has been from playing and teaching banjo. That’s pushed me even farther into learning how to do it.
BNL: Do you plan your curriculum? Know which tunes you’re going to use ahead of time or is it a freer approach?
DD: I just wade right in. I make instant decisions after trying to sense where the person or class is at. There are times I realize a certain tune I was going to use just won’t work for a particular class is too hard technically or too hard to understand its meaning. No matter how interested students are, there still has to be some inertia going and the teacher can’t overwhelm them. I don’t mind giving students stuff that’s really hard but I don’t want to overwhelm them to the point that they can’t do it. That’lI break their spirit.
BNL: Yet you’ve developed a reputation as a hard taskmaster.
DD: Yeah. People come to me with all kinds of rumors about things I not only didn’t do but would never think of doing. They use words like martinet or drill sergeant but I’ve been letting these stories just go along because you can’t really stop them. If people want it to where they’ll beat their way through that kind of fear, they will be dead serious about learning. We can then relax and have fun too. I like to build a level of trust and then teach from that foundation. If I give all I got then I can expect that from my students also.
BNL: What do you consider the most important thing in your teaching?
DD: That people catch on to what the music is really about. The music is not about tunes. It’s ultimately about transferring cultural messages. What’s the cultural message in the West Virginia music as opposed to Kentucky or southwest Virginia or wherever? Once you catch on to the fact that there is a message, then you can start working on how to understand that message and what your part is in transferring that message. If you’re from a totally different culture, different social bracket, different economic bracket, then it’s going to take harder work and a lot of time, but you don’t come at it with some sort of arrogance that you think you know. You come at it with the idea that here’s a mountain people and they were transferring something just as black people in the Mississippi delta are transferring something to each other that they understand. You have to approach it with some humility and you have to approach it with the fact that it’s going to take you a long time. As far as transferring it within its own mountain culture, the message in the old music is pretty much dead. The mountain people just aren’t taking it up for the most part.
BNL: Aside from this deeper understanding, what are some of the obvious weak points that you have to address in your intermediate and advanced clawhammer classes?
DD: Either on their own, or by direction, students have learned a lot of left-hand work and their right hand is always lacking. I don’t know whether I’ve ever seen a student come in twenty-five years who wasn’t lacking in the right-hand work. That is lacking if they want to play my style of music.
BNL: Are they aware of this?
DD: No. That’s where the anger, name-calling and rumors come from. It’s because I won’t give in to their demands to learn a bunch more tunes when their right hand’s lacking. Unlearning bad habits and relearning tunes is always much harder than getting the basics right and then learning tunes.
BNL: Rhythm then is what it’s all about?
DD: Yes and no. Again, music of the heart is what it’s really about. Rhythm is a tool to be brought under control by discipline to express deep “feelings.” Tunes are vehicles to play rhythm. The temptation is to learn tune after tune from whatever is in vogue at the moment rather than searching out a few tunes that have the melody and rhythm that will express “heart” music. Better listen to an old sow scratching her rear end on a splinter than one more festival tune. (Festival tunes have often been good tunes at one time but by stripping away regional and individual differences, these tunes are then reduced to tasteless mush. Mr. Hammons said many years ago: “They ain’t comm’ from nowhere, and they ain’t goin’ no place.”)
BNL: What do you recommend your students listen to in the way of old-time music?
DD: I’d tell them to listen to the old musicians – people born before 1910 and even 1905. This seems to be the cutoff. The ones born after that generally were influenced a lot by the commercial music. Not all but most.
I would encourage my students initially to listen twice or three times as much as fooling around with the banjo so they saturate themselves with the music. Secondly I’d encourage them to listen to the fiddle at least as much if not twice as much or more than the banjo. In the old days, the fiddler was more the one passing the message around the community. So, if you want to connect with the message, even if it’s on the banjo, much of it originated from the fiddle. Wade Ward’s banjo playing is a good example of this.
BNL: Fortunately Wade Ward was recorded before he died and the recordings aren’t that hard to find.
DD: Wade Ward had something going on there that was just scandalously good. He was passing on stuff that I’d like my B students to catch on to way down deep. That doesn’t mean they can play Wade Ward’s story. They can only play their own story in their own setting. Anything else is a lie. They still, I feel, have to accept the discipline of being steeped in the tradition as much as possible.
BNL: I was impressed with the tape of your playing with the fiddler Glen Smith. Great backup banjo work to my ear.
DD: Gerry Milnes asked me to play banjo with Glen. We just showed up at his house, sat down with a tape recorder and started playing. We didn’t do much in the way of practice. It was virtually none on most tunes.
A lot of those tunes I didn’t know and my job on them was marginal to what I’d liked it to have been, but the tunes I did know I thought I did a pretty good job on-about as well as I could do and I was pretty tickled about that.
Playing with Glen, he’s such a strong fiddler that even when he plays slow it’s hard work. You can’t relax and still give him the kind of support he wants.
BNL: Any advice to banjo pickers who want to learn to back up fiddlers?
DD: It’s hard work but a certain kind of hard work. You have to listen to the fiddler and that’s hard work in itself because to listen is more than just to hear something. It’s to hear and be sensitive to what that fiddler is doing and what that fiddler needs for you to enhance. There’s lots of people they just play together, neither willing to enhance the other.
You have to put your feelings out of the way and come up underneath that fiddle music in such a way that it lifts up the fiddler. It’s by the snap with which you make your notes and by keeping the rhythm rolling hard enough to stay up underneath and support the fiddle notes. Dragging your music Just a tiny bit will kill the music of a good fiddler. And a guitar can be worse yet. When I’m playing solo I can play what ever I think is in the tune. When I back up a fiddler, it’s my job to enhance the fiddler’s interpretation-to make the fiddler look good. Anything I do that draws attention to me is out of line
BNL: The banjo player has more responsibility than is obvious.
DD: You have to ask yourself whether you’re doing the music for your sake or the music’s sake. That’s a question that we all as musicians have to ask all the time. Am I trying to get attention? Am I using it for my own gain? That kind of selfishness shows disrespect for the music. I catch myself trying to get some glory out of it real often. Music is strange stuff. It has a life of its own When you’re really playing it, it starts playing you. Music is not to be taken lightly. I’m very insistent that my students don’t just “ding” around with the banjo. You don’t get on a horse and not stay concentrated. When you get on a horse somebody’s boss. You sit down with a banjo and somebody’s boss Either you take control and have that mind set that you’re going to make that banjo do what you want or it will control you and you’ll never play it. Now that’s a guarantee. You may play some kind of tune but it’ll not amount to anything. Either assert yourself or play wimpy.
BNL: Tell me how you got to be called a “sledgehammer banjo player” rather than just a clawhammer banjo player.
DD: “Rumor control” has it that an old friend of mine named Dick Kimmel is the one who accused me of playing sledgehammer banjo. He had a couple of articles in BNL on me back in ’75 Dick also gave me my first and only official banjo lesson in September of ’69. I want to play music that comes together real strong and it’s like winding up a coil spring real tight and having that tension in the music. What this tension comes from is the way the right hand is working. The absolute center of clawhammer playing is the way the thumb rolls off the thumb string. If the thumb can’t roll off a thumb string that has lot of resistance to it then it often comes off as wimpy. That’s why I ask my students to learn to have a stiff thumb at the microsecond that they’re picking the fifth string. To increase the resistance of the thumb string I put on a worn out medium second string instead of the lighter gauge that’s usually used. Mine would be about .012. That size usually makes your thumb hurt if you’re playing with some “drive” in your music.
When you listen to many clawhammer players, what you hear is a fifth string that’s out of time (I get mine out of time sometimes too). It just doesn’t hit right and it’s going kabang, kabang kabang when it’s out of time. What you have to do is work on getting back in time, but also, with the heavier gauge thumb string, you put more tension in the music. More tension equals better rhythm which gives you more opportunity to put more heart in it-low or fast. I don’t want the fifth string to ring. I want the brush/thumb to snap so hard that it slaps the melody note. That’s where the drive comes from. The music just winds up, has a circular motion, has a power to it.
BNL: You’ve played a lot of banjos in the last quarter of a century: some good ones, some bad ones and some you describe as so-so. What do you look for in a banjo? I know it’s not really the tone ring. Is it the solidity of construction?
DD: To me, it’s more how the instrument feels. Does it have a life of its own? Does it come alive in your hands? No I don’t care about the tone ring; I Just want it to sound good. But what does it mean to sound good? I don’t know I just know when it does, but I can’t tell any one else why. That banjo there has sounded right for twenty-two years. That other one has a wider neck, I’m fooling with it now because it’s new. Actually a banjo should be called a fiddle because you can fiddle around with it. You get so many variables you don’t have with a fiddle. I can’t fiddle around with a fiddle without getting into trouble but I can do all kinds of things with a banjo that won’t hurt it, just to find the sound I like.
Most of all, a banjo has to feel right to the individual. For some reason-and I don’t think it’s prejudice-I’ve never picked up a Japanese banjo that felt right in my hands. I’ve picked up a lot of junk American banjos that felt all right but never a Japanese-made one. That’s strange.”