From Banjo to Bajo Sexto: Dan Margolies' International Roots Music Legacy and Free Concert Series

Dr. Dan Margolies is a history professor at Virginia Wesleyan College and though originally from Illinois, he currently calls Norfolk, Virginia his home.  It might not surprise you to learn that someone whose profession is centered around the studying and teaching of yesteryear is so passionate about old time music. But before you typecast him, there are, however, many more interests, pursuits, and accomplishments of Dr. Margolies that likely will surprise you. To briefly mention a few:

He's the founder and Artistic Director of the Festival of Texas Fiddling, which "is the first and only festival dedicated to the full array of ethnic and regional styles of Texas fiddling, all held in a historic dance hall."

He's a clawhammering, banjo-wielding diplomat who's even performed traditional Korean music in Korea

He's a bee man. In addition to raising bees, he's a past president of the Tidewater Beekeepers Association, as well as member of the Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia. He even created a short-film called Buddha in the Bee Yard for a Buddhist film festival. (He and his banjos provided the soundtrack.)

He's presented public shows with and is currently producing an album for conjunto and tejano music masters Lorenzo Martinez and Ramon “Rabbit” Sanchez.

And he even plays the bajo sexto himself:

With all of those extracurriculars, you wonder how he finds time to teach. One of his courses, “Music and Folk Culture of the Southern Appalachians,” actually sprouted a concert series. In support of the course, Dan founded the Virginia Wesleyan College Old Time Concert Series, now in its 11th year. The 2017 series will begin this week and continue through January. The lineup is as follows:

 

The Easy Winners (Seth Swingle's Full Band)  | Wed., January 11th, 7:30 pm |

Banjo Virtuoso Seth Swingle | Thurs., January 12th, 7:30 pm |

Fiddler and Folklorist Joseph Decosimo | Wed., January 18th, 7:30 pm |

The Sunny Mountain Serenaders | Thurs., January 19th, 7:30 pm |

All concerts are free, open to the public, and held at Virginia Wesleyan College's Blocker Auditorium.

Dan was kind enough to share some background on his musical experiences, and what led to his current musical pursuits, including this concert series.  

Paul Bidanset: How'd you first come into roots music?

Dan Margolies: I grew up in the listening to country and bluegrass, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, going to bluegrass festivals, and that sort of stuff. So I was familiar with a good amount, but it wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 that I ran across real old hillbilly recordings from the 1920s of B.F. Shelton and Shortbuckle Roark recordings, those were the first two. And that just blew my mind. From there I just started getting as many old recordings as I could This was all pre-internet so it required a lot of digging and sending for things by mail. Got an old Tommy Jarrell LP, and that was it really.  Then a boss of mine, who was a old timey blues player, told me that if I liked the old time stuff I should play it. He gave me a banjo to learn to play and that was that.

PB: What are your thoughts on roots music's importance and role within history and the community?

DM: There is an old saying that old time music is better than it sounds, which I think describes the vibe of the music perfectly. Kind of indicates how important and meaningful the whole community of old time musicians is, and how vital the associated and ineffable old timey stuff that goes with music is as well. The singularity and weirdness of it. It is a real diaspora of people in the middle of the homogenizing mass culture we find ourselves, not to mention the toxic environment mainstream society is descending into at the moment. On top of that, I am a big believer in regional distinctiveness and in fostering the sustainability of traditional cultures, especially distinctive music cultures. This is a handcrafted effort of people creating something real.  Cultures get sustained because people make an effort and they participate and become involved. Playing music and joining a real community of people rather than just consuming or living one’s life in front of the internet or merely swiping at social media like a rodent. Also, I like the idea of bringing old time music to Tidewater since there is basically none of it and there needs to be.

PB: How did you become so involved in the Texas folk music scene, working with such prominent conjunto musicians?

DM: I spend a lot of time in Texas because it is the home of conjunto music, which I play and which I also write about. I have written several articles about it and am working on a book on conjunto music and cultural sustainability. I have been working with Santiago Jimenez, Jr., one of the great traditional accordionists, for a number of years on his memoir. I have done a number of projects as a consultant with Texas Folklife in Austin over the past few years. I started the Festival of Texas Fiddling in 2014, working initially under a partnership of two organizations, Texas Folklife and Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. We ran the festival in that way for two years and now the Festival has become a stand alone non profit running independently. The Festival of Texas Fiddling is the only one in Texas dedicated to the full array of regional and ethnic fiddling styles in the state. It is a great time with some of the best music in the world, you should come down for it. Finally, I am also producing a cd of old school conjunto from two master musicians (also my mentors and friends) Lorenzo Martinez (accordion) and Rabbit Sanchez (bajo sexto) for Spring Fed Records in Tennessee. This is the first conjunto release for the label, which mostly has released old time music. This cd will be out in February. We are having release shows in Austin and San Antonio in February and in Nashville in March.

PB: Are there any common links you've noticed between old time, American folk, or Appalachian and that of Tejano and conjunto?

DM: Without any doubt Texas-Mexican conjunto music must be placed as one of the principal vernacular folk musics of the United States, alongside Appalachian old time music, Cajun and Zydeco music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and western swing.  Conjunto is the least known of the Southern music styles that also came to commercial prominence in the first decades of the twentieth century, and it is one which has never fully been incorporated into this canon either in the marketplace, in the U.S. popular mindset, or in the scholarly literature. I think the absence is mostly due to a combination of ethnocentrism and ignorance.  Unlike those other genres, conjunto has remained very regional and it remains an extremely vibrant music and dance tradition.

Dan Margolies will be performing with his band Los Abejas del Norte at Brackish Water Jamboree's second annual NorFOLK Festival, Saturday, August 12th, on the grounds of O'Connor Brewing Co.