Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Friday, April 13, 2018
I learned yesterday that Len Reiss, a retired computer maintenance expert and a banjo builder of note who is credited with building roughly 30 to 35 banjos through the 1970s, passed away in January 2018. My connection to Reiss was my interest in the Lexington, Virginia, old time scene and Reiss' familiarity with Dwight Diller in that context in the 1970s. Len provided valuable recollections that helped me greatly while working on the book I wrote on Dwight Diller. He and his old friend Bob Thren visited me in Staunton, VA, and told me great stories, plumbed their memories for details, and showed their deep familiarity with and affection for old time music
Len met Dwight at the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970.
That festival was Dwight’s first exposure to the burgeoning “old time scene.” The festival opened up a new world for him, brought him into contact with peers his age, and introduced him to a concentration of old time music talent. Dwight met the Fuzzy Mountain String Band members and made the acquaintance of several banjo players with whom he became lifelong friends, and from whom he learned some banjo playing skills.
Three men in particular befriended Dwight: Bob Thren, an avid caver and banjo player who moved to Lexington, Virginia, in 1975; Len Reiss, an accomplished banjo builder and clawhammer player originally from New Jersey; and Alex Varela, a lawyer by training who showed Dwight how to play Henry Reed’s version of “Frosty Morn” and “Angeline” in an impromptu ten or fifteen minute lesson at the Hillsville festival.
That brief lesson helped Dwight consolidate what he had picked up from Dick Kimmel in Morgantown, and what he had absorbed from close observation of Hamp Carpenter, Lee Hammons, and Sherman and Burl Hammons and Maggie Hammons Parker. Thren, Reiss and Varela had come to listen to the likes of Tommy Jarrell, who played fiddle at the festival.
Len Reiss built me a neck for the Improved George Washburn that Dwight played in those days. He did not remember finding the pot, but he did remember the neck. It was made from maple with an ebony neck. To the best of his recollection the inlay was simple, probably dots or diamonds. Because of the raucous sound of the banjo Dwight named it ‘Old Snotty.’ Len recalled: "If playing in a group, you could always hear Dwight. [. . .] That neck was the first one that I built for someone."
Reiss, who at the time was living in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, about six miles west of Reading, said that the neck was carved out of a block of laminated maple with three veneers down the centerline. Reiss did the fingerboard inlay, which included some simple flowers. “Nothing fancy,” he recalled, “as it was probably my third neck.” The heavy gauge strings helped moderate the banjo’s “raucous sound.”
Len, a retired computer maintenance expert, was still living in Lexington, Virginia, when I tracked him down in mid-2015, and was still doing some banjo repair work. He remembered showing Dwight some of the fiddler Henry Reed’s tunes that Alan Jabbour had recorded.
I kept in touch with Len, phoning him two or three times a year. I think the last time we talked was around Christmas. He had told me, during last year's summer, that he thought he had some tapes of Tommy Thompson, field recordings he thought he might have caught at one of the festivals, at impromptu jams, or perhaps parts of some of the contests. However, Len said, he couldn't get to where they might have been stored, under his front deck, because bees had found a home there, so he had to wait until the cold had stilled those bees before he'd be able to check the space. By Christmas, it was sufficiently cold for him to hunt for those tapes, but they proved elusive - and he was, at the time we spoke, thinking of where else those old cassettes might be buried in his home.
Len lived quietly, alone, in a house a bit away from the center of town, on Patterson Hollow Road. He frequently sent me photos of bears stalking around his big property, looking for sweets and other foods. He enjoyed the quiet, the solitude, but he also enjoyed the interruption for a long phone call, and made time to catch up, and to trade views on current issues, life, and the old musicians he remembered so vividly and fondly.
Great guy. I will miss phoning in and hearing his big, happy voice.
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