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Building a Book On Dan Levenson

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Friday, December 16, 2022

The Dan Levenson Book Project - First Steps


         This writing project about the old-time musician Dan Levenson was co-authored with David Brooks.  To me, in large part, co-authorship was the central energy for this effort. 


That involved constant discussion of ideas, goals, and practical plans.  The first big task was, of course, reading and studying Dan's personal archive.  In 2020, after he agreed to a writing project on his trajectory through the old-time music world as a performer, teacher, and writer, Dan Levenson sent me 120 feet of personal files - and between 2020 and 2021 he added a foot or two more to that archive in both hard copies of material and electronically filed materials from several "historic" hard drives he uncovered. 


         The assemblage of materials that Dan sent to me included years of calendar records, the annotated notes on yearly tours through the U.S., material on the significant number of workshops and "Meet the Banjo" events, draft versions of the books and articles, and the plans for commercial recordings and performances - and the many other files.  During the summer of 2020, I scrutinize those files that, in effect - once my co-author David Brooks and I got down to the writing work - provided a structure for much of our writing project. 


         I scrutinized Dan's files through the summer of 2020 and wrote notes on what I learned.  David and I reviewed those notes and discussed my findings.  I fashioned draft text from those notes, and we began the process of parsing those notes, collaboratively, as the first step in figuring out where we needed to take our inquiries, how we should shape our interviews, and what our writing goals should be.   


         David reviewed Dan's published books, refreshed his memory regarding Dan's recorded music, his instructional material, and his teaching work and philosophy.  David also reviewed the digitizing work he did for Dan, including the library of tapes that Dan used in what he considered his first total immersion in old-time music in the years immediately following his decision to make his livelihood playing and teaching old-time music.  He also took another look at Dan's music, especially his clawhammer banjo playing, and sought to determine how that evolved over time.[1]


         I fixed my attention on interviewing Dan, exploring the numerous leads unearthed in his personal files, diving down rabbit holes in open-ended interviews, sorting through various audio memos Dan would tape in answer to questions requiring the sort of cogitation that might not be possible in a phone interview. 


         David interviewed friends, musical partners, fellow band members, former students and survivors of workshops, audience members who had the distinct privilege of being present for Dan's "Meet the Banjo" workshops.


         At some early point in the work for this book, we found ourselves confronting the realities of a collaborative writing drill: someone has to write something down first for collaboration to have some starting point.  We could not both grab ahold of the pen - or share custody of the keyboard.  A division of labor becomes the first step in the task of shared writing work. 


         The second step is the development of a process for shaping the draft material into something that reflects a consensus position on substance, and on grammar and style.  I am not certain we can put our finger on how that division of labor evolved, and the manner in which we cooperated on the task of turning text into shared intellectual property. 


         I am not clear exactly how we learned to invest text with our shared views and interpretations, and how we reached agreement on a sensible way to give expression to an idea we both struggled to render into a coherent written thought.  I wanted the final product to be more than just the sum of our own and sometimes distinctly different views of particular aspects of this story.  I did not want the text to reflect a "most common denominator" consensus arrived at by negotiation.  I hoped to achieve a book that represented a shared view, reflected differences when they were palpable. 


         In the end, though, we each drafted particular portions of this book.  We both wrote this thing in a process that left us satisfied that we had figured out how to guide the pen - or manipulate the keyboard - in a fashion that fused our ideas into shared thought.  The heavy lifting aspect of this work was achieving basic agreement on when to use hyphens, semi-colons, and periods.  


         I worked the issue of his family, schooling, friends, and first experiences with music ("Early Life"), conducted the necessary interviews with friends and family members, and did the drafting work.  David looked at how Dan's ideas about teaching music originated in his own learning experiences in a variety of areas. 


         I fixed my attention on the start-up phase of Dan's career as a professional, performing old-time musician ("Learning Music").  David and I had long discussions with Dan, and with one another, on Dan's thinking about how to learn southern mountain music and traditional fiddle tunes; where and from whom he sought guidance and inspiration in various old-time music communities; how those experiences shaped his thinking about where Appalachian string band music fit in the universe. 


         David and I shared the task of documenting Dan's performance career ("Playing Music").  We turned our attention to his band affiliations and his thoughts about making ensemble music in the old-time music world.  We talked about his solo work, keeping our eyes on the task of charting Dan's own creative growth, his trajectory through the old-time music world, his collaborations and individual efforts to write and think intelligently about the old music and the old musicians. 


         David interviewed Dan's former students, and Dan, and dug deep into Dan's teaching work ("Teaching Music"), drawing on his own experiences as a workshop student of Dan's, and his own experiences teaching banjo workshops and tailored student tutorials on the five-string banjo.  David utilized the material and notes that emerged from my review of Dan's personal files to structure the chapter on Dan's instructional books and videos.  David dug down deep into Dan's sense of how banjo and fiddle instruction - and old-time music students - have changed over the last thirty years, and talked at great length to Dan about his plans and intentions for continued teaching work. 


         I mined Dan's personal files for his thinking about how the old-time music world has evolved, how traditions are preserved, where creative opportunities exist in traditional music. ("Thinking About Music").  This amounted to a Talmudic reading of his correspondence, articles for various newsletters produced by regional and local old-time music associations, draft ideas that sometimes saw the light of day on his website, or took form as drafts on old hard drives that housed his musings about the string band revival, folk music, festivals and fiddlers' conventions.

David and I put our heads together to synthesize an understanding of Dan's creative trajectory in his life - so far - in order to bring the book to a proper end ("Conclusion").


         David and I assembled a discography and videography that was intended to go beyond Dan's commercial recording work.  That meant hunting through Dan's files for mention of sometimes elusive early work, as well as sorting through Dan's websites, YouTube videos, Facebook live recordings and other repositories for information documenting Dan's music, and his teaching work. 


         I took on the job of turning Dan's significant pile of files into a usable resource and developing a workable bibliography.  I focused my attention on figuring out ways to exploit the information in gig calendars, publicity photos, early concert tapes, piles of concert advertisements, and reams of articles about Dan's "Meet the Banjo" show for the purposes of this writing project.  I had considerable help from Bob Carlin in thinking about how to use these varied documents to shed light on the business dimension of a professional musician's life.   


         Together, David and I melded elements of our separate work on various aspects of Dan's musicality into collaboratively sculpted chapters.  Then we took on the task of turning a discriminating eye for editorial detail to the structure, grammar, logic and artistry of each chapter - meaning that I did the typing, and David applied his skills as an editor and proof-reader to the business of shaping a good book (with special attention to places where I typed "old time music" instead of "old-time music.")  


         We completed the manuscript in March 2022 and began a vigorous round of slash and burn edits.  The story that emerged included information gleaned up to that point from archives, interviews, correspondence, online resources, and Dan's personal papers.  Clearly, Dan's creative trajectory in the old-time music world continues.  We'll leave it to Dan to tell the rest of that story.   


* * *


McFarland and Company, the publisher, has our book scheduled for release next Spring with this title:


Dan Levenson: Old-Time Banjo and Fiddle Teacher,

Performer and Storyteller.






Lew Stern

Durham, North Carolina


[1] David Brooks.  "Review: Old-Time Festival Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo, by Dan Levenson."  Banjo Newsletter.  Volume 34.  Number 5.  March 2007.  Pp. 44 - 45

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