Dillers teach banjo for Appalachian culture series

Marlinton, W.Va. – Allegheny Mountain Radio’s own DJ and news reporter Caleb Diller taught clawhammer banjo at the One Room University in Marlinton weekend before last. The class was part of the ongoing Calvin Price Appalachian Enrichment Series, sponsored by the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Caleb’s father, Dwight Diller, who has performed and instructed banjo for more than 40 years, helped teach the class.

Thurston Willis, of Slaty Fork, was a student in the free weekend training. Willis says he started learning banjo from one of Dwight Diller’s students.

“Well, I’ve been picking around for about two years now,” he said. “A little bit more consistently in the past year. But, I’m being taught by someone that was taught by Dwight – Ernestine Hannah – and she’s been encouraging me to start up on clawhammer, because I wanted to pick up an instrument. I did enjoy the sound of the banjo and especially clawhammer, since it’s more traditional in this area.”

The Slaty Fork musician explains that you don’t need a special banjo to play clawhammer.

“It’s not the actual banjo that’s called a clawhammer banjo, it’s the style that you play the banjo,” he said. “It’s primarily the way you strike the string with your hand, rather than a three-finger pick. Just a little bit more of a natural way to strum the string.”

Dwight Diller provides an example of the clawhammer style. [music clip]

Caleb Diller talks about the history of clawhammer music.

“It comes from a lot of the tunes that were from the British Isles and from Ireland and Scotland that came over on the boats,” he said. “Then, as it moved south, it started mixing with a lot of the slave rhythms and slave tunes. The banjo, if you look at it, it’s just a drum with strings and a neck on it. So, it’s a very rhythm-oriented instrument.”

Caleb says banjo instruction from the Dillers includes more than just how to play an instrument.

“They also get – more than just learning an instrument – is the whole heritage behind -t he whole history behind it – where the music comes from – why the music is the way it is – who the people were that played it before us,” he said. “I’m lucky enough that my dad was one of the people in the 60s and 70s, who started learning from the real old-timers, whose parent were settlers in this area and grandparents were settlers in this area. So, they really remember and come from the traditions of this area.”

Joe Hartman, a guitar player from Claremont, California, was attending the banjo class. Hartman says it’s difficult to find good mountain music on the West Coast.

“I’m here to learn some banjo and hear some more old time music,” he said. “I don’t get much of it out in California. You’ve got to hunt for it. There’s some people that like to play it, but you got to hunt it up.”

The next event in the Appalachian Enrichment Series is a historical garden tour at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro. For information, call 304-653-4430.

Story By

Heather Niday

Heather is our Program Director and Traffic Manager. She started with Allegheny Mountain Radio as a volunteer deejay. She then joined the AMR staff in February of 2007. Heather grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area and now lives in Arbovale, West Virginia with her husband Chuck. Heather is a wonderful flute player, and choir director for Arbovale UMC. You can hear Heather along with Chuck on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8pm as they host two hours of jazz on Something Different.

Current Weather