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On Writing About Old-Time Music, Old-Time Musicians

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Sunday, September 4, 2022

Good morning, citizens of BHO-Land. 


Having just finished the proofing and indexing work on a book about a North Carolinian bluegrass fiddler, Tommy Malboeuf (forthcoming) – and another one about a contemporary old-time musician, Dan Levenson (also forthcoming) – I thought that I’d begin to use this space to speak about what the two most recent book-writing drills taught me, or at least suggested, about old-time music, old-time musicians, and folks who write about old-time music and old-time musicians. 


My sense is that it would be useful as a means of sorting out potentially useful things for old time musicians who might have a story to tell, and for folks who write about old-time musicians who are trying to figure out a course of action to get a writing project going. 


I’ve written about Dwight Diller, Tommy Thompson, Wayne Howard, Jim Scancarelli, and – the two most recent ones - Tommy Malboeuf, and Dan Levenson. 


In that last venture, I was joined by a very able co-author, David Brooks, who I recruited by telling him I’d only take on the challenge if he’d sign up to the job. 


For me, this most recent experience was a unique opportunity to spend intensive time pouring through 8 linear feet of Dan Levenson’s personal archives – correspondence, draft articles and book manuscripts, concert tune lists, drafts for Banjo Newsletter, concert and CD reviews of Dan’s musical products. 


It was also a chance to focus on a contemporary old-time performer, recording artist, and teacher – a stark contrast with the other musicians about whom I have written who started their musical trajectories in the sixties and seventies.  Dan made a commitment to a life as a professional musician in the early 1980s, so the economic, financial, and strategic equities that shaped his bandwidth during that long run were distinctly different from the other old-time musicians whose creative trajectories in traditional American music I’ve looked at and written about who jumped into performing, recording and teaching earlier than that.  Dan’s journey became, for me, a chance to think about the shape of the old-time music world that a professional musician must navigate in current time. 


Throughout the course of this Dan Levenson writing project – but also, during the process of looking closely at the creativity of old-time and bluegrass musicians - I contemplated the way I pushed through the thicket of memories, information, mysteries. 


I should make clear that the remarks I will make in this series of “blogs”  is not intended as a recipe for what an old-time musician’s biography might or should look like . . . though I would not discourage thoughts on that aspect of this drill. 


And I don’t necessarily see these pieces - that I will load up here, to my BHO Webpage, in the months leading up to the publication of the Dan Levenson book - as a chance to look closely at how David and I worked together on the book about Dan Levenson. 


However, I would not shrink from discussion of the rules of the road for drafting and editing; interviewing Dan and his friends, relatives, and musician colleagues; constructing the conceptual structure for thinking about a musician’s “creative trajectory.”


In the end, this BHO-focused website blog sort of thing will be an attempt to state some probably very individual views of what we did to achieve the end product - the manuscript for Dan Levenson: Old-Time Banjo and Fiddle Teacher, Performer and Storyteller, submitted to the publisher for their editing and production work in June 2022, probably coming out by early 2023. 


I’ll drop in periodically – maybe once a month or so - to this BHO Blog with an update on the publication project, and some thoughts about what I call (with some affection) The Blood Sport of writing about old-time music and musicians. 


So, stay tuned. . . . if the spirit moves you.


Thanks for your interest.




Lew Stern

Durham, NC

3 comments on “On Writing About Old-Time Music, Old-Time Musicians”

dbrooks Says:
Monday, September 5, 2022 @9:59:02 AM

Working as a co-author with Lew was both challenging and rewarding for me. I had collaborated with Lew on some articles for Banjo Newsletter, but I had not been involved in such a large project as a book devoted to exploring the life, career and contributions of an artist. I witnessed the extensive research into source materials and participated in the effort to contact those people who had interesting stories to tell about Dan Levenson. I was also able to turn the focus inward to understand better how Dan Levenson has influenced my own playing and teaching. I attended several of his workshops and used many of his books of instruction and tabs and was able to bring some of that experience to the project.

Lew also saw the project as an opportunity for him to explore working with a co-author and understand the plusses and minuses of that approach. I am sure he helped me far more than I helped him on the journey, but I feel good about our collaboration and about the product that will soon be finished. Taking time to reflect on the work we did, the process we used, the things we learned, etc., may be as valuable as the book itself.

ScottJackson Says:
Monday, November 28, 2022 @5:41:14 AM

I'd like to read your writing when it is ready. It's great that you decided to write something like that because it sounds very interesting but complicated at the same time. From my experience can say that writing is complicated sometimes, even if you have a lot of ideas and experience. I also write a lot because it's part of education, but I pretty often face some challenges. Last time I was writing about one of the most popular plays - Hamlet, and it took me a lot of time. I was lucky to come across this page with helpful Hamlet essay examples, which helped me a lot, and provided different interesting ideas. And when it comes to writing, it's important not to give up when you face problems and just wait or look for inspiration.

Perlaantana Says:
Monday, October 30, 2023 @1:49:56 PM

Hey there! I can totally relate to your curiosity about feeder schools during COVID. While I can't speak for all schools, my experience was quite unique. It's not exactly like the online version of intergrad; it's a mix of challenges and opportunities.

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