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Strategic Decisions in Working on Book Projects on "Old-Time Musicians"

Posted by brooklynbanjoboy on Monday, October 17, 2022

Good morning, FHO Citizenry. 


A book on the old-time fiddler and banjo player, Dan Levenson, that I worked on with co-author David Brooks is still “in process.”  We hope to see a cover design soon, and I expect that the process of developing the “production proofs” is underway. 


And . . . there is a title:


Dan Levenson: Old-Time Banjo and Fiddle Teacher,

Performer and Storyteller.



I’ll do my best to keep you informed of progress, and to try and tell any backstory that might pop out as David Brooks and I gird ourselves for the process of building an index and squaring away the publisher’s proofs. 


This morning, I thought I'd try to sort through some of the decisions made as David Brooks and I worked to consolidate the manuscript on Dan Levenson.


That is, as this project unfolded, I began to think about the strategic decisions points we encountered, and wrestled with, throughout the project, and that prompted me to look back at the manner in which I structured various other books on traditional musicians and attempted to sort through the processes that brought me to those decision points. 


For example, I made several strategic decisions in working the book project on Tommy Thompson of Red Clay Rambler fame.


The first decision was that I was going to acknowledge his basic biographic details - family life, marriages, children, growing old, becoming infirm - but that I would dwell on his creative trajectory.  Several friends suggested that they would have been interested in far more details about his relationships, his marriages.  But that was not a course of action I was prepared to integrate into my approach to that writing project.  I believe I made clear that the book on Tommy Thompson was not, strictly speaking, a conventional biography, that the story would not unfold along the measured contours of a conventional story of a life since the process of learning music, playing music, performing music, writing music often unfolded in ways that followed contours of time that were not necessarily consecutive and linear. 


The second decision was that the notion of creative trajectory, as I understood it, would include his music, writing, lyrics and composition, playwriting and acting work, his decade of studying philosophy, his work focused on preserving old time music and the legacies of select old fiddlers and banjo players, and his performing and recording. 


The third decision was that this focus on his creativity would require developing a biographic structure that did not necessarily follow a chronological path across his years. 


  • Aspects of his music intersected with his philosophical endeavors and his teaching work. 


  • Aspects of his interests in musician's theatre ran parallel with his band years, the development of his performance style. 


  • Elements of his theatrical work informed his involvement in movies, and his own theatrical production endeavors in his oneperson play and his playwriting work. 


Creating a coherent set of focal points - learning music, playing music, theatre and playwriting, field recording work and the preservation of old time tunes - was the course of action I felt necessary to shine a spotlight on his intellectual energies, his musical creativity, his prowess as a writer of lyrics and stories, and scripts and narratives that informed stage productions. 


I acknowledge that at times in the book I dwelled on artifacts unearthed by digging in the Library of Congress, the Southern Folklife Collection, and private family holdings to far more of an extreme level of focus on nitty gritty stuff than I should have.  The photo album he mother lovingly assembled, his grade school report carts, shards of unfinished lyrics might represent examples of that deep dig into the data. 


Each of those, in my view, added to the narrative, or prompted me to ask questions, such as why would someone with such latent musical capabilities as a performer, composer and lyricist, play writer have earned fairly mediocre grades in music? 


Unearthing the fact that Tommy enrolled in college ROTC classes as an undergraduate was a revelation to his daughter. 


And, frankly, unearthing the fact that Tommy did not turn in a spectacular performance in high school drivers education ignited a burst of memories from fellow Red Clay Ramblers about his unspectacular record in piloting the vehicles called upon to haul the Red Clay Ramblers from gig to gig, to such an extent that band members rushed to take the driver's seat to preclude the possibility that Tommy would have control over the steering wheel. 


But, again, I acknowledge that I may have dived too deeply on grade school records.  I did offer cautionary notes regarding my interpretation of these metrics, but I did come to see that the exercise might have been too deep a dive into one aspect of "Early Life"  . . . 


Anyway. . . . guiding the introductory chapter to the point in Tommy Thompson’s adulthood when he made the choice to move to Chapel Hill to pursue graduate studies was, to me, a sufficient basic guide to the first years of his life.  


I elected to focus on Tommy's life by looking at the way he studied music, played music, studied musicians, studied thinking, and went on to a life as a professional musician - with a concluding chapter that wraps up this story of his "creative trajectory by teasing out the points at which aspects of his creativity lapped over into one another. 


I structured my book on Dwight Diller that way. 


The same is true for my book on Wayne Howard and on Jim Scancarelli. 


The book on Dan Levenson – co-authored with David Brooks - was configured in a manner that places attention on the creative endeavors central to Dan’s music-making life. 


That, as I see it, the course of action David and I elected to follow allowed us to configure the book in a manner that focuses on the life decisions aimed at furthering individual performance, the communities of musicians involved in friendships and collegial collaboration, the friendships and alliances necessary to aid and abet musicianship. 


I will say, though, that I did encounters “strategic decisions” that I reversed, modified, amended in this project on Dan Levenson – decision points that I re-structured based on long discussions with colleagues, friends, and especially my co-author, David Brooks, whose advice and guidance helped nudge me off several courses of action - - - reminding me that sometimes, strategic decisions and fundamental policy are fungible, so to speak . . .


And I will say this: There was in this project on Dan Levenson an intriguing hint for me that though we speak of “Old-Time Musicians” as a category, suggesting that there are threads that are common to the life stories that bring musicians to the point of focusing their work on traditional music, there are also sufficient reasons to look for the distinctive hallmarks of individual stories. 




Thanks for reading this.  Have a great day.  Make fine music,

Lew Stern

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