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Old-time musician Dwight Diller was born in Rand, just east of Charleston, on August 17, 1946, to Vernon and Faith Wooddell Diller. At age five, after his parents’ divorce, he moved with his mother and siblings to Pocahontas County, where he spent most of the rest of his life. There, he found “stability” and “roots” in the “old people and their mountain music,” as he would say. He was first inspired by fiddler and occasional banjo player Hamp Carpenter of Cook Town, just south of Marlinton. Diller recalled, “I wanted the banjo more than to eat when I was hungry.”

In 1969, he met Lee Hammons and became enthralled with the storytelling of the Hammons family, namely Sherman, Maggie, and Burl. He referred to them as “the last of the 1700s-type people remaining.” He encouraged them to start playing their music again for the first time in decades and documented their lives and music through photos and recordings. He presented slideshows of that information at festivals throughout the region. He and Gail Hatton later turned this material into a four-DVD set, Across the Yew Pines, which he donated to libraries and schools.

During the folk revival of the 1970s, Diller played at virtually every fair and festival in West Virginia. Fellow banjo player Kim Johnson described his style as “energetic” and “hard-driving.” He performed regularly with the Morris Brothers band at their Clay County festival and with fiddlers Wilson Douglas, Glen Smith, Lee Triplett, and Mose Coffman at events such as the State Folk Festival, Mountain State Art & Craft Fair, and Stonewall Jackson Jubilee. He also sang and played the fiddle but is best remembered as a clawhammer banjo player and teacher. Diller recorded 15 albums and appeared, with John Morris, in the feature film Fifth String. He later performed with Morris on the Mountain Stage radio program.

In the 1970s, he experienced a religious conversion after a mystery visit in Cass with a preacher of whom no one had ever heard, before or after. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and became an ordained minister. He explained, “The Lord had a different place for me to minister than in a congregational setting. I was to teach the old West Virginia mountain music, and God was to help whoever He wanted to through it. I was to minister through teaching banjo.”

In 1975, he became an instructor at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, influencing the next generation of traditional banjo players, such as Ron Mullenex and Mike Burns. He also started a series of banjo camps in Pocahontas County, attracting students from around the world. He later taught at the Allegheny Echoes traditional music camp in Pocahontas County, across the United States, and in Canada and England.

In 2013, his alma mater of West Virginia University presented him with the Mountaineer Heritage Award. In 2019, the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History bestowed upon him the Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor. He had performed at the first Vandalia Gathering in 1977 and made his final appearance on stage during the 2022 event. He died on February 14, 2023, after suffering a fall at his home in Marlinton.

Dwight Diller inspired countless people to play old-time music, helped preserve the traditional Hammons style of music and storytelling, and emphasized that people’s stories are as important as the tunes themselves. His wisdom about music and life converged in nearly every story he told, such as in this comment from a 2014 interview, “On this . . . side of the divide is the tiny headwaters of Knapps Creek. You can see a gash cut out in the ground before me. What gave birth to it is the torrent which exploded forth driving rocks and soil out of its path. This gash is a result of what I call rhythm. For me, this represents your permitting your own individual pulse to drive your music. But like that stream there, it takes you in its current in bends and falls. You aren’t in control. It is dangerous but it is good.”

Dwight Diller performs “Jimmy Johnson” from one of his instructional DVDs:

 

Last Revised on March 29, 2023


Sources

Johnson, Allen. The Rhythm of Dwight Diller. Goldenseal, 40, 4, Winter 2014.

Johnson, Kim. 2019 Vandalia Award Recipient: Dwight Diller. Goldenseal, 46, 1, Spring 2020.

Stern, Lewis M. Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies 39. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Dwight Diller." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 March 2023. Web. 28 May 2024.

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