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Forthcoming book: Dan Levenson: Old-Time Banjo and Fiddle Teacher, Performer and Storyteller

Thursday, May 25, 2023

In the coming weeks, McFarland Publishing Company will release Dan Levenson: Old-Time Banjo and Fiddle Teacher, Performer and Storyteller.  Lew Stern and I collaborated on this book which looks at the influences and life decisions that led Dan Levenson toward a career in music as a performer and teacher.  In many ways, he has been a “Johnny Appleseed” for clawhammer banjo and old-time music, introducing countless aspiring banjo and fiddle players to old-time music through his concerts, workshops and books. His “Old Time Way” quarterly appearance in Banjo Newsletter broadened the reach of that magazine with its reviews, articles, tabs and interviews.

Our book also looks at the demands and decisions that face someone who decides to leave a traditional career path in order to pursue the life of a professional musician. Lew had unlimited access to 6 or 7 feet of Dan’s personal files, including master tapes from recording projects, reel to reel field recordings, performance contracts, workshop preparatory material, drafts from the books Dan has written, files of correspondence and articles and more. These materials, along with interviews with Dan, members of his family, his bandmates, and students, offered a wealth of information about Dan’s journey from his youth and education in Pittsburgh, the influences of his family’s appreciation of folk music and square dancing, his stints in social work and the retail world and, finally, his epiphany at the Evart Dulcimer Festival that he would pursue a life as a professional musician.

But one doesn’t go from a decision to be a performer and teacher directly to success in those roles.  The required preparation takes many shapes. Chapters in our book examine steps Dan took to learn old-time music and become proficient on his instruments, the banjo and fiddle. Elder mentors, such as Les Raber and Charlie Acuff, offered important insights into the music they played and what they appreciated in the playing of others. Contemporaries, such as Bob Carlin and David Holt, offered encouragement as well. Years of playing in bands, such as the Boiled Buzzards, and in solo performances were important in honing his skills.  Dan’s emergence as a successful and influential teacher, in his workshops and books, are built upon these lessons he learned in his own journey.

While this is a book about Dan Levenson, it also has much to say about old-time music’s growth and popularity in the last 20 years.

I’m hoping it will be out by June. 

And I’m hoping BHO friends will check it out:

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Playing Since: 1964
Experience Level: Purty Good

dbrooks has made 51 recent additions to Banjo Hangout 

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Occupation: Retired Systems Manager

Gender: Male
Age: 77

My Instruments:
Vega Longneck (1927 pot and 1967 neck) purchased in 1969 from Thom Haile, Haskell Haile's brother. Tom was a stringed-instrument repair expert at Shackleton's, a Louisville music store landmark.

John C. Haynes Bay State Model 300 A-scale banjo
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Bart Reiter Regent A-scale (2001)
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John Hartford
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I grew up in Bardstown, KY, the location of My Old Kentucky Home and the Stephen Foster Story, an outdoor summer musical drama. I was lucky enough to meet Mike Lawrence, the banjo player for "the drama' in 1964 or so, and spent much of that summer with him. He taught me to fingerpick the guitar (Saturday Night Shuffle and Freight Train) and to play a little Bluegrass banjo (Ballad of Jed Clampett and Cripple Creek). We spent many afternoons in front of My Old Kentucky Home where I played guitar back-up to his banjo playing. Thank you, Mike, for those life-long gifts. Five or six years later, I returned from college to play the banjo for the Stephen Foster Story. I was even in a black-face minstrel show with E.P. Christy, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones in the Stephen Foster Story -- a claim that cannot be made by many. I played guitar and banjo through high school and college (the Vietnam years) and met some wonderful folks. In graduate school, I started a family and spent less time with the instruments. This finally led to a 15–20-year period where I played maybe 2-3 times a year. Around 2000, I had the neck reset and refretted on my Martin 00-17, and my guitar playing was revived. While waiting for the guitar work to be done, I picked up my Vega longneck and clearly heard it ask me to play it clawhammer style. I found a Ken Perlman book I had bought years ago for this very day, and the journey began. I slowly learned the clawhammer technique and began to pick up tunes. In 2004, I had a hallway conversation with Dan Levenson at the IBMA meeting in Louisville that led to two summer workshops with him and some degree of reengineering of my clawhammer technique. I derive daily satisfaction from my playing and from the learning I still experience and enjoy.

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