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Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Monday, February 20, 2023

Still waiting for the production proofs to come our way from the publisher so we can proofread the text and build an index. 


So, as we wait for that package to land on our desks, I thought I'd take one more crack at "talking" about the project about Dan.


Dan's personal archive suggest that he spent some time, perhaps between 1992 and 1994, exploring library resources on old-time music, music history, anthropological perspectives on musical instruments and cultures, stringed antecedents to the banjo in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean.  The yards of dot matrix printouts from library database queries at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library suggest a seriousness about diving into the scholarly literature. 


There is something charming about some of the informational handouts he saved in this file that date from the late 1980s.  These appear to have been available in some of the local libraries he frequented and were written and distributed in an attempt to introduce automated ways of managing research in the context of "the Information Explosion."  Programs such as "Research Assistant" - RA - were early attempts to "computerize" basic bibliographic research skills, time management capabilities, and research strategies.)  Dan appears to have made use of resources available at the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, Hillman Library in Pittsburgh, Indiana University's Archives of Traditional Music, and perhaps also the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Handwritten notes and information sheets accumulated in the file indicate that he may have entertained the possibility of a research and writing project, and may have mused about the availability of fellowships and "humanities grants" that could underwrite this work. 


He may have wondered about ways of fusing several of these strands into a coherent proposal that would address questions he had about the early history of country music, fiddle tunes, and folk dance music, or about the world history of stringed instruments.  He appears to have been particularly interested in how those instruments migrated and transformed over time, evolving from skin-covered instruments from the Middle East, instruments that moved along slave trading routes.  Additionally, he may have attempted to formalize his commitment to this undertaking by concretizing the idea as a two-article project that would fit with the interests of Banjo Newsletter at that time.[1]  


Dan developed a bibliography for himself from an accumulation of dot matrix printouts of library searches on old-time music, fiddle tunes, African-American string bands in the 1920s and 1930s, minstrel music and the banjo, the history of community dance events in places as far flung as New Orleans and Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau.  The bibliographic searches produced an inventory of scholarship in the 1980s that brought him to articles and books by scholars, folklorists, historians such as Sam Bayard, Burt Feintuch, Alan Jabbour, Joyce Cauthen.  The file also contained xerox copies of the front pieces and, in some instances, sections of classics such as Bruno Nettl's Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (1965) as well as more contemporary scholarly works such as Curt Sachs' The History of Musical Instruments (2006).  Dan either read widely, or at least searched widely, for information about the sweep of musical and instrumental histories.  In some ways, that makes it harder to understand his conclusion that in 2020, though there might have been a mass of published material on old-time music - on banjo history, on string bands, on individual revival musicians - there was not anything to which he could point as a "must read" piece of canonical literature that he would consider indispensable to the newcomer to old-time music.  There were good books, and excellent articles, a great accumulation of scholarship, but not one or two things that he considered essential reads. 


Several ideas seemed to preoccupy Dan, and shaped the choice of books he read, the articles he accumulated in his archive, and the notions he turned over in his scribbled notes:


--  The first may have been the extent to which the argument that the Banjo is America's instrument  - present at creation and an eternal reference point during the period of American expansion - constrained thinking about the "banjo" as a widely shared form that appeared, historically, in many countries, in many cultures, over many centuries.


--  The second is the notion that the fiddle needed to be considered as the second of a three part trilogy of musical forces that shaped America, and contributed to "the meaning of us." 


--  The third is the idea that the fiddle is actually "the ultimate cross cultural instrument"  that was "brought to the U.S. by migrants, including Scotch, Irish, Balkan, Eastern European, German and Italian.  It was small, light and portable - a "band in a box."  He seemed to look at the various ways one could hold a fiddle as an indication of the kind of flexibility that made it attractive to aspiring musicians.  Moreover, singing and calling dances was perhaps more easily accomplished with fiddle in hand than other instruments, his notes suggest. 


--  The fourth was that clogging and square dancing are what fueled the kinds of local gatherings that spoke to Dan's idea of "community."  In Dan's case, as he continued to point out in stage patter, interviews, discussions, square dancing was his personal "gateway" to old-time music. 


These were among the many ideas that Dan considered to be of continuing importance, matters that remained at the center of his explorations of history, music theory, the biographies of musicians, among other areas of intellectual exploration.


Thanks for your attention.




Lew Stern

Durham, NC


[1] 20 December 1994 (5:14 P.M.) email from Dan Levenson to Donald Nitchie. 


dbrooks Says:
Monday, February 20, 2023 @9:46:11 AM

As your co-author on this book for the last two years, I continue to be impressed by your insights into Dan's process and his development as an old-time musician, teacher and author. You have pulled many gold nuggets (insights, ideas, opinions, etc.) out of the numerous boxes of files that Dan shared with you.

Brooklynbanjoboy Says:
Tuesday, February 21, 2023 @4:02:44 AM

That was the easy part, fishing stuff out of the ten big boxes of personal papers, files, correspondence, plans for concerts and recording work, draft articles, ideas for tunes, etc., that Dan put in my hands. The hard part was making that work in a book – and the fortuitous part of that was getting you to sign on as co-author. The next big muscle movement is getting other old-time musicians to find safe havens for their personal archives . . . so that this process of getting the story down can continue.

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