Dan Gellert is a legend in the field of old time American music. As a result of the folk music revival of the 1960s and records he heard growing up in New Jersey, he began to master the banjo, guitar, and fiddle, and sing. At an early age he discovered the importance of taking the time to understand the music in a complete and detailed way, as if it were a language. Dan has given a lot of thought to what it takes to make the music sound and feel like the field recordings and old 78 rpm records he has listened to. While Dan is playing, one gets the sense he has entered another world which combines all his influences, yet it is his playfulness and improvisational sensibilities which make his style powerful and instantly recognizable. Dan's fiddling is bluesy and rhythmic and without regard for modern standards of pitch and tone. In other words, he follows his muse, which makes his music stand alone in a world of timid imitators. Not for the faint of heart, Dan Gellert is a commanding and uncompromising talent.
After raising a family and playing out mainly in his community (Elkhart, Indiana), Dan is hoping to retire and get out more and share his music. His recordings are few but excellent. Check out A Moment in Time with Brad Leftwich (Marimac cassette). He has cuts on a couple of compilations: A tribute to the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (Chubby Dragon), and The Young Fogies Vol. I (Rounder). He has a segment on the Fiddler Magazine video Carrying on the Traditions: Appalachian Fiddling Today (now out of print), as well as various cuts on the old County Records claw-hammer banjo compilations.
Give us your first experience hearing old time fiddling.
Wow. I don't know what my first experience hearing old time fiddling was. It was hearing stuff on records. What, I don't know in particular, although we had records of the folkies around. You know -- Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, those people. I don't know if there was any fiddle on any of that but I know I heard some of that. I grew up with all kinds of stuff. We had classical music, too, and Gypsy music.
Was it the Anthology of American Folk Music?
Yeah, that was there. Some of it was. I remember there was one store in New York where you could pick up unjacketed Folkways discs. I think the price was three for ten dollars, if I recall right, and I used to go there every once in awhile and get a few. But I think my mother got this one long before I started going in there. It was just that first disc I remember. We started going in the early '60s to these "hootenannies." There was a Friends meeting house in Ridgewood. And I met up with some people over there who included Larry McBride, Eric Schoenberg (the guitar player and maker), Eric's brother Mark who played mandolin, and Bob Bell, who still lives in Ridgewood and still plays banjo, and some other people who were around there, too, who were at that time into listening to old records and real into New Lost City Ramblers. I remember noticing, okay, the fiddle's real big in this stuff. And none of these guys played the fiddle. And we had this violin around that my sister had tried to start on and gave up real quick because she tried to take lessons from my grandfather who was really not a teacher. He was a violinist but he frustrated her pretty well. She gave that up and so we had this violin sitting around that he had lent her to play on. So I thought, how hard can this be? I learned to pick out melodies on the mandolin a little bit and, like I say, I was listening to some stuff and I thought, "Oh, there's something that sounds pretty simple." It was Uncle Bunt Stephens playing "Sail Away Ladies," first cut on the anthology. And luckily he was in standard tuning. Luckily he was in G, which is the most sensible key. And, you know, I could hear all the notes that were there and it fit real well on a mandolin where the notes were, and I thought, "I bet I could figure out how to do that." And so I got the violin out, I tuned it up and started messing around with it. And I remember approaching it as if, okay it's kind of like the bow is sort of using the flat pick in that you've got down and up. Except that instead of a point of contact you have a line of contact. And that was the trick. And I've heard a lot of fiddlers who just play chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop with the bow and never figure out how to move it a lot. But I made that leap right away because what it was that was in my head was the sound of that one thing. And I wanted to make that sound. I think of it as the bumblebee phenomenon. Although they say now that it's not true, it used to be that they would say that by the laws of aerodynamics it's impossible for a bumblebee to fly. But the bumblebee, knowing nothing about aerodynamics, goes ahead and flies anyway. So I listened to this thing and thought, "That sounds simple. There's only about four notes in the whole tune." And so I started playing it and trying to make it sound like that. Somehow I lucked into the idea of transferring from the flat pick to the bow, which made it real sensible. The strong stroke is on the down. And somewhere there I tripped over the fact that there was that rock on the up bow to get that sound. Once that happened I could play that tune pretty passably. But what's really neat is that I can go back today, some forty years later, and listen to that tune and there's still stuff for me to learn in it.
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Summer 2003 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Adam Tanner lives in North Carolina, where he plays old time southern fiddle and bluegrass mandolin.]