Have banjo, will travel
New banjo players were born Saturday and Sunday at the One Room University in Marlinton, part of the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series.
The 'Native Song' program was presented by local musician Caleb Diller, with help from his father, worldwide old-time music legend Dwight Diller.
Participants watched a slideshow about local music history, had the chance to play a banjo with one-on-one instruction from the Dillers, and were invited to a free concert Sunday evening at The Opera House.
The slideshow presentation is actually a related project Dwight has been working on with B.J. Gudmundsson, documenting the Hammons family legacy and its contributions to local old-time and bluegrass music.
Dwight said he has more than 2,000 tracks of the Hammons family's music recorded.
"In October 1970 I came in from Morgantown from school," Dwight said. "I took approximately 600 photographs of the Hammons. I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't mean to do that -my hands were being guided, they were out of my control, but it turned out pretty good."
Dwight said the Hammons family took him in and taught him how to play, and he shared some of their family history.
He said in the mid-1800s, before the Civil War, Kentucky was like West Virginia, a border state.
"There was a lot more turmoil between people that leaned towards the Northern sympathy and towards the Southern sympathies. A lot of infighting. The Hammons were from Kentucky so they moved out into Tug Fork - the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, and then moved to Webster County."
Dwight said the family eventually settled in Pocahontas County near the Scenic Highway and Cranberry Glades.
"They just started moving farther and farther out into the wilderness," Dwight said. "Part of it was to get away from what was goin' on in the Civil War. What they brought with them, is a certain mindset. The mindset was the same as the American frontiersman in the 1700s."
According to Dwight, the Hammons were the closest thing to frontiersman, and they were the last of that generation. He said that when they died, that frontier way of looking at the world was gone.
Dwight said he studied in college for ten years, and received a graduate degree, but he never met any professors that were any sharper than the Hammons.
"To be on the frontier, they had to be," explained Dwight.
After the slideshow, Caleb talked about why he feels the project is so important.
"I wanted everyone to have some insight into how life was," said Caleb. "Those types of stories and that way of life has been lost. I think it's something precious that is definitely worth keeping around and sharing."
Attendees gathered around in a circle, were lent banjos, and got some instruction from the Dillers.
Caleb said his family plays claw hammer style banjo and talked about the possible origin of the name of the style.
"Probably because you hold your hand liked you'd hold a claw hammer," Caleb demonstrated. "You'd grip the handle and your hand would wrap around it."
The Dillers taught their students basic rhythm during the course of the workshop. According to Caleb, playing claw hammer is mostly rhythm.
"The Diller style is all about rhythm," Caleb said. "Dad says, and I agree, 85 percent is your rhythm. Without that rhythm, the music doesn't have any backbone, it doesn't have any umphh behind it. So that's where we start all our students out. Rhythm- nothing else matters."
Caleb told students that to play banjo, you have to stay loose.
"Don't try and strong arm it," he said. "We've had people fight and fight and fight it. Yes there's muscles at work, yes there's muscles holding my arm up and keeping my hand here, but other than that, it's all loose. I'm throwing that hand, it's just dead weight hittin' into the strings."
The Dillers shared light-hearted stories and jokes about growing up playing music and the banjo camps that Dwight hosts. According to them, they'd play for hours and hours, until their fingers bled.
"Like the Rambo movie- First Blood," joked Dwight. "It was a contest to see who'd shed some blood first."
Donald McCumber and his wife, Jennie, of Madison, Wisconsin, were visiting family this weekend in Pocahontas County. The workshop was exactly what they were looking for.
"When we got here late last night, my sister-in-law, Sally, goes, 'I think I've got something you might be interested in.' She knows I like this kind of music, I love it. This is right up my alley, I had to come."
McCumber said the workshop was more involved than he thought, and he really enjoyed himself, particularly the slideshow.
"Those kind of stories can be lost if they're not captured. To see them, with photographs is incredible, it's something rare." said McCumber. "To listen and learn, and actually touch the banjo, it's been great."
McCumber said he's not a musician, but he has bluegrass friends and he loves to plunk along with them.
"I picked up a book on claw hammer, but when you're reading something, it's a lot different than being instructed," said McCumber. "And to be instructed by professionals from this area- it's a real treat."
Sunday evening the Dillers were joined by Alan Dutchess, David Kershner, Richard Hefner and Terry Richardson for a free concert at the Opera House.
Hefner shared light-hearted stories accumulated from a lifetime of playing bluegrass. Like the time Lee Hammons complimented Hefner's skill on the banjo. Hammons told Hefner that as far as he was concerned, there weren't but two bluegrass banjo players in the world, Hefner and Earl Scruggs.
"That was one of the best compliments I ever had. Then I got to thinkin'- he probably never heard nobody play but me and Earl Scruggs," joked Hefner.
Caleb said he wanted to introduce people to old-time music, where it comes from, and what it means to Appalachian Americans like him.
"It's passing on tradition, that's what makes it so special," he said. "That's what our generation needs to keep alive. I just wanted to show people what this music is about and what it means to us, a little bit about the heritage and the tradition of how it's passed down."
Caleb said he was happy with how everything turned out and the number of participants that came out - he didn't want a huge crowd.
"We had the right number of people, trying to teach a large group of people is hard with only two of us. It can be done, but there's not that one-on-one instruction," Caleb said. "But the people that were there seemed genuinely interested, and it was apparent in the participant feedback forms we had. One of them wrote, 'I came with my husband because he really loves the banjo, now I do, too.'"
Caleb said he appreciated all the help from Elaine Diller and Alicia Tomlin at the One Room University, City National Bank, The Opera House, and the Pocahontas County CVB.
McCumber said he's been to Pocahontas County the last three or four years for visits and graduations, but he really had fun at the workshop.
"I feel privileged to be taught by these guys," said McCumber. "They might think they're not teaching me anything, but I'm havin' a ball."
The next event in the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series will be a historic garden tour at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace June 17, July 15 and August 19. For more information, call 304 653 4430