The Old-Time Herald Volume 14, Number 9

The Village Musician: Bill Dillof, 1948 – 2018
By Pat Conte

You have noticed that the truth comes into this world with two faces. One is sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see.

-Black Elk

Bill Dillof photo by Jack Grassa

I wanted to start on that note of truth, because truth was in fact the first order of business in the life and career of my friend Bill Dillof. The pursuit of truth permeated everything he touched, and it was his life’s work wherever he walked.

Many of you already know this, those of you who knew and admired Bill, and knew of his dignity, focus, wit, warmth, wisdom; you witnessed it in the fun, the rollick in the music and also its depth, tapping the reservoir of his knowledge or just plain old-fashioned talk over a pipe and single malt. This sounds like some ancient sage, but he was the very youngest old man I ever met. We have been robbed decades too early, with no chance of replacement on this earth.

When I met Bill I was a lowly fill-in radio announcer, and an even less qualified emcee at the string band contest at South Street Pier in New York City in the 1970s. I was actually first acquainted with his little brother Dick of the Smoketown Diner Boys. They were, it seemed, a conglomerate of every kind of cool old country music, with no boundaries, loaded with the essential amount of dazzling ability, and with the tension of a gang of practical jokers all out to thwart each other with nonstop classic one-upmanship. You sensed a slight danger, hanging out with them in the hallways.
When Bill and I played, we talked in between tunes, especially about the esoterica of the 1920s and ’30s music. He and I sealed a pact at a Queens music party, after trading many wacked tunes and a few timeless songs, that we would make us our own string band in time for the next spring’s contest. The arguments started right out of the gate, even about the name of the band, the Canebrake Rattlers. We hurled abuse about Martin vs. Gibson, or resonator vs. open-back, picks vs. plectrum…you know, the chatter from Geek City.

It wasn’t easy to find time with a man obsessed with his family and his intense life at “the firm,” but Bill was a multi-hobbyist who had already killed the man in the grey flannel suit. Whatever he touched, it was serious, so when we met as a band it was equally so. The miraculous part was the passion we shared, the joy in imagining time-travel, play-acting the parts, the wardrobe, the minutiae, the secret language of it all, and even the mystical attachment to the tools themselves—the instruments whose own lives we fantasized and wondered about. Bill’s understanding of it all was uncanny, weaving little bits of information about the lives of ancient musical heroes into a great novel in our collective mind. If all this sounds too heavy, remember that we are the same people who laughed at each other until we were breathless, trading insults and embarrassing each other. It might not have added up to spectacular music, a fitting tribute to our musical heroes, or prolific recording careers or appearances; but Bill’s vision of the group sprang from deep inside a philosophy of high romance, care in craftsmanship, and the struggle for authenticity. Bill once gently explained to an interviewer, who was a bit hostile to the idea that we “copied” from old records, that you would do better to think of the band as a chamber music group, and instead of sheet music we had these 78s, you see. It was our country’s classical music. We needed all we could get of the vocabulary and the grammar of the language and style.

Bill and I also crafted, at his instigation, a concept for workshops that we would often employ, and which came across as confounding to the masses. But we weren’t doing anything for the masses; performance was as much for our own entertainment (well, mine anyway) as it was for an audience. We all had the same outlook: you are up there on stage to play to that one person who will be somehow awestruck, although you may never share in that person’s revelation about old-time music.

Bill had other maxims too. For example, “You don’t own this instrument. You are its keeper for now. It will march on.” Or after a flub was pointed out on stage, “Well, I just know the record better than him, that’s all.” It was concert-clams aplenty, too.

In our workshop conception, “String Band Dynamics,” we spent an hour explaining the classic trio of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, demoting the role of the fiddler (in our group we assigned that position as an actual punishment) and instead placing the emphasis on the guitar as the band’s foundation, if not its actual leader. If there was no interaction in a pointed and intimate way between the fiddle and guitar, you had nothing. We taught that the banjo was to be almost totally ignored. To interlock them was to have a funeral for the music. You get the picture. By the end of the workshop, the alpha-fiddler-centric contingent was totally bewildered, if not depressed. Most people were too stupefied to pose questions. This did not endear us to the organizers, and we were not regularly asked back. But the payoff would always come afterwards in the form of the one thankful attendee who actually got it.

Bill immersed himself in style as much as repertoire, on guitar, banjo, fiddle, and harp. Solos and duets were equally important. The closest we came to fisticuffs—and many times, too—was in the decipherment of song lyrics. Research became an otherwise healthy race. We were the kids in the schoolyard, but instead of trading baseball cards and their stats, it was songs.

As a traveling companion too, Bill had an intensity, to say the least. One time he picked me up in front of my house to go to Brandywine, staying true to his warning that he was not stopping in for my usual show-and-tell session. In fact, he didn’t stop at all. I had to jog next to the car, which was traveling at five miles per hour, throw my bag and fiddle case onto the back seat, and hop in, even as he timed it to make the first traffic light. Then I remembered that I had jokingly suggested the week previously that he do this. But like I said—he was serious.

There really was no after the Rattlers. We just met less often.

Did I mention the wedding of the century? When Paula Bradley and Bill married, what a privilege to witness the spectacle of a musical community coming together. The celebration was storybook in every way. And then there was another realm of joy: the fine points of kayaking, the Appalachian Trail, winters in the Berkshires, comparative surveys of single-malts, banjo-rim bothering, and traveling the country with their music. There are many seeds of inspiration sprouting out there, I bet, from Bill and Paula’s dance steps, harmonies, balladry, and stories in song.

They played and entertained in a way that was explained to me quite warmly by Bill, with that special brand of humility that he stored with the other traits: “I just want to be the ‘village musician.’” He was content to be there in his community, especially when needed—not for the experts, not for the insiders, not for the sophisticates, but rather at the schoolyard, the old folks’ home, the pie contest, the market. Bill was quite happy with that role.
Another passion we shared was the realm of books. We independently mined the same sources, such as the stomping ground known as Sutphin Books, in Jamaica, New York, run by two delightful 1940s leftists who once partied with Leadbelly. Around 1980, Bill brought me to a protected source of his. We stopped in a bookstore on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, and in addition to a set of Leadbelly Victor 78s that I whipped out from right under his eyes (his head was shaking), a book surfaced that I might otherwise never have found, The Secret Museum of Mankind. It was a pathetically condescending collection of text and ethnographic photography of unlimited wonder. We both thumbed through it, amazed. “Look at this, Bill—endless cassette covers for reissues.” He was right there and responsible for the idea spawning on the spot.

Bill built a remarkable library, of almost Victorian stature, of folklore and folksong. He devoured the knowledge, and could speak at length on many subjects, including all the kitsch, or the technique of fine photography, or vintage haberdashery—not to mention his library of classical music, or his refined taste in jazz, gadgets, and elegant racecars. I, like so many others, found him the most stimulating conversationalist, and hours late into the night passed too quickly. Bill knew what was enough as well, and didn’t throw words away to some ulterior use. He was instantly accessible and translated easily, though you knew that there was an iceberg of knowledge underneath the waves.

Bill was pivotal in many ways in documenting the scene that surrounded him, keenly capturing the essence of the old-time community. He was a generous background player in many events. He was also important in ways that you may never know—as he in fact did not let the left hand know what the right hand did. It would be hard to find someone in the old-time community who did not benefit in some way from Bill’s catalyses.

The younger players who were influenced by Bill already know what I’d say about him. He had a tremendous pride in being available as the resource that he was. Around the campfire of the Harry Smith Frolic, he was a beacon connected to solid bedrock.

For those of you who never knew Bill, I am sorry I can’t capsulate this better—I just can’t. And I am sorry I cannot go on for days, too. Bill Dillof is an essential ingredient in what I feel about all music, and a lot of living, integrated perpetually in my wiring and my life.

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