MARQUETTE - In the leadup to this weekend's Hiawatha Music Festival, local musicians had an opportunity to learn from one of the best, as nationally renowned banjo and fiddle player Dan Levenson gave lessons on both instruments during a two-day workshop at Northern Michigan University.
"I liked his playing and I knew he was a real good teacher," said Phil Watts, who is on the board for the festival and helped bring Levenson to town. "I thought he'd be a good teaching resource and not just somebody up on the stage."
Watts has been thinking about hosting an in-depth workshop in town for some time and finally organized the Levenson trip in conjunction with NMU's Beaumier Heritage Center.
Dan Levenson, left, gave lessons on banjo and fiddle to a group that included some area youths during a two-day workshop at Northern Michigan University prior to this weekend’s Hiawatha Music Festival. (Journal photo by Kyle Whitney)
"We've been talking about it for some time, doing a folk school on campus in the summertime," said center director Dan Truckey, who added that there are often shorter workshops offered during the festival. "I think they've heard from their attendees over the years that people would like something more intensive if it was possible."
Levenson certainly offered that to the 13 workshop participants of all ages, including on 13-year-old participant. During each of the two days, he led 90-minute morning sessions with each group. After another pair of sessions in the afternoon, all 13 joined up for a well-orchestrated jam session.
Levenson, who has been playing the violin, banjo, fiddle and guitar for years, first started giving guitar lessons while in high school. The instrument he most recently picked up is the fiddle, but even that was 20 years ago.
"In some ways, I could say I've had music in my life all along," Levenson said Wednesday.
In the decades since, he was won a number of national awards and has developed a deep devotion to what he calls traditional music.
Traditional music, according to Levenson, is about tradition, and about handing something down through generations. Unlike classical music, he said, traditional music lends itself to creativity and change.
"It's more music than notes," he said.
When he first hears a new tune, Levenson said he wants to track its changes over time.
"I tend to want to find the oldest recording of artists playing that tune," he said. "That gives me a continuity."
He feels traditional music is less about selling records and more about a sense of past and a musical journey.
For Levenson, that personal musical journey leads back to a childhood when his father called square dances, his mother played numerous instruments and his neighbor directed the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
While traditional music, in the most common sense, has kept a low profile for years, Levenson said it never really went away.
"I think it's more accurate to say it's becoming more visible again," he said. "For everybody who plays traditional music ... it's my responsiblity, in some way, to keep it alive."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is kwhitney@miningjournal. net.