SPRING LAKE — In 2002, old-time banjo great Ken Perlman dutifully proclaimed Dan Levenson the "Johnny Appleseed of the banjo." The title is well deserved. Certainly no one since folk icon Pete Seeger has done so much to spread the gospel of the instrument.
Every year, Levenson crisscrosses the country to perform and stage his three-hour prebeginner "Meet the Banjo" workshops. For a nominal fee, participants get hands-on instruction, music, even the loan of a banjo from one of the world's most celebrated instrumental masters.
For Levenson, it's an opportunity to put the gift of music into the hands of people who might never have considered themselves musical.
"The fact that so many people think that playing banjo must be so hard always bothered me," Levenson said by phone this week during a break from a teaching session. "All I'm trying to do is take away some of the mystery and point them toward their own talents."
It's a noble mission to be sure, but Levenson, who will be at the Sertoma Youth Ranch on Saturday as featured performer at the 27th Florida Old Time Music Championships, is hung up on the idea that music is a community pursuit.
Which is why he considers himself more of a musical "instigator" than a teacher.
"One of the first things I tell my students is that it's okay to break the rules, to not do everything by the book," Levenson said. "The less rigidly structured music, the more fun people are going to have with it."
Levenson learned that particular lesson early on, growing up in Pittsburgh. His parents met at a square dance and were active in country dance bands in the area.
Though Levenson learned to play violin while in elementary school, it was the hillbilly dance music of his parents that truly captured his musical interests.
After graduating with a master's degree in public administration, Levenson worked for the state of Pennsylvania until the mid 1990s before leaving to pursue his musical passion full time.
Although fairly well known as a regional performer on fiddle and clawhammer banjo, Levenson had also become known in the Midwest as an instructor of old-time fiddle and banjo styles. Although many of his students were intermediate to advanced players, his greatest objective was to come up with an educational program for beginners.
"I really wanted to be able to reach the guy who doesn't know what end of the banjo to hold, but still had a desire to play," Levenson said.
The resulting Clawhammer Banjo from Scratch book and CD series is considered one of the most comprehensive beginning instructional methods ever issued.
A longtime member of the Boiled Buzzards string band, whose members include his wife, Jennifer, on banjo, Levenson has branched out to become a noted solo performer. His stage shows combine his folksy tales of Appalachian musical lore with his instrumental skills. He even plays fiddle while clogging sometimes.
"Although I am a music teacher, performing is still a huge part of my life," Levenson said.
"Music is about community. We can all bring something to the table, even if all we want to do is listen."
Logan Neill can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.