ST. ALBANS — Bluegrass musician “Banjo” Dan Lindner, 73, wrote a song describing his wife’s experience of growing up in St. Albans during the mid-20th century for his fourth and final collection of songs about Vermont, set to be released this month.
Lindner grew up Baltimore, Md., after the end of World War II. Many people who lived in the Appalachian region for the war, moved to the city and surrounding area searching for employment.
“They brought their music with them,” Lindner said. “As a kid, course I was into rock and roll, but when I discovered this mountain music around Baltimore and Washington D.C., I became a convert.”
Lindner described bluegrass music as “a more dynamic type of acoustic country music with a lot of emphasis on high energy in the delivery via the fiddles and banjos or the very powerful vocals that are usually featured in it.”
The style of music has roots in Appalachian music, square dance music and ballads from the British Isles, Lindner said.
When he moved to Ohio to study psychology at Oberlin College, Lindner picked up the banjo and guitar. “There was a big folk music scene at that time,” he said. “I sort of fell into that, but very quickly diverted in a direction of bluegrass music.”
After college graduation, friend and fellow musician Al Davis invited Lindner to visit his home in Vermont. The trip was one-way.
Lindner moved to the state in 1970 and had only been there for a short time before he invited Willy, his brother living out in California, to help him build a house. Also musically inclined, the three quickly formed a band and recruited another old friend to flesh out the numbers.
“We called the band, ‘Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys,’ which we thought was clever at the time,” Lindner laughed. “There was a movie called Midnight Cowboy and it was sort of a take off on that. It was a little corny but nonetheless, that was the band name and we were sort of stuck with it for forty years.”
“The band ran from 1972 to 2012,” he said. “During that time we played all over the northeast United States. We didn’t tour nationally, but we did manage to travel overseas a few times,” including to Russia, Soviet Georgia, Finland and Italy.
“I’ve always figured that the reason we were able to keep a band going for forty years is because we didn’t try to do it full-time, professionally,” Lindner said, who ran a piano tuning business.
“The style of music we play has never been popular enough to really make a living at it,” he said. “I’ve known other people that tried to make a living at it, and they either had to give it up, leave the state or change the kind of music they were playing to fit in with what was popular.”
“We did quite a lot of recording,” Lindner said, because the three original band members, including himself, were prolific songwriters.
Lindner said bluegrass is typically associated with the Appalachian Mountains, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and so on.
“A lot of bands that started playing this type of music in the Northeast, in my opinion, tried to sound like the southern bands,” he said. “We knew that we were not southern boys and had our own ideas about songs and our own style of singing. We always made a point of being very original.”
Forty years gave Lindner, his brother and Davis plenty of time to come up with original compositions. Over the four-decade stretch, the musicians recorded 20 or so different albums. “We started with vinyl records,” he said. “Then it was cassettes and finally CDs.”
Lindner said having original music gave the band a “distinctive personality.” Sometime during the 80s, Lindner began recording solo projects, focusing the lyrics on Vermont-based historical events and legends like ghost stories.
His first collection of Vermont songs called, ‘I’ll Take the Hills: Banjo Dan’s Songs of Vermont,’ was “quite successful,” Lindner said, “probably the best selling thing we ever recorded.”
A couple of Vermont albums later, brings Linder up to precipice of publishing his fourth and what’s he’s sure, is his final album of Vermont songs.
The Sleeping Sentinel
“Each of the Vermont projects has been a little bit different,” he said. What stands out about this one, according to Lindner, is it’s distinctive theme about Vermont’s role in The Civil War and the dramatic story of The Sleeping Sentinel.
The story goes a little something like this.
During the Civil War, a Vermont soldier, William Scott, was on guard duty, when he fell asleep. Subsequently, the solider was arrested and court-martial for the very serious wartime infraction. The penalty: death by firing squad.
His fellow soldiers sent a petition to the president at the time, Abraham Lincoln, requesting a pardon for the infraction. Luckily, it was granted, just before the execution was carried out.
“It’s quite an amazing story,” Lindner said. “I’ve been aware of it for a while, but for some reason, never thought writing a song about it, which is unusual because its just the kind of thing I thrive on.”
When Lindner decided to base one of his songs on The Sleeping Sentinel, he researched the legend for more background information and stumbled upon an additional part of the story.
Lindner said he found out that when The Sleeping Sentinel returned to duty, he became the model soldier, always volunteering for everything and taking on the tough assignments.
“He actually died a hero’s death in battle about seven months later,” Lindner said, while “carrying wounded soldiers to safety.”
With this new information, Lindner knew he couldn’t cover the story in one song. Instead, he wrote and produced a suite of nine songs about The Sleeping Sentinel. One of the songs, however, is a banjo version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The suite takes up the first half of the album. The second half covers all sorts of Vermont stories, including the song, “Saint Albans Memories.”
St. Albans Memories
“My wife is from St. Albans and as spouses will do, has told me a lot about her childhood,” Lindner said. He has also lived and worked in the area and often visits relatives in St. Albans.
Lindner decided to compile his wife, Jaye’s, stories about growing up there into one song. It’s nostalgic; a song about a different era, he said. (See sidebar for full lyrics)
While Lindner wrote the song, when he showed it to Jaye, she had a few suggestions and the piece eventually became a joint composition. Jaye is also singing lead on the song with several other St. Albans women harmonizing.
This isn’t the first song Lindner has written about St. Albans. In other volumes, Lindner included a piece about the St. Albans Raid and another about his father-in-law who used to drive a team of horses to deliver groceries in the city.
Lindner used Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website, to raise $9,500 in order to produce the album, instead of paying for the costs out-of-pocket upfront. If he hadn’t, Lindner wouldn’t have been able to afford self-producing another album.
“The truth of the matter is, is basically economics,” he said. “CDs don’t sell anymore.”
Lindner said back in the day, the band sold lot of CDs on tour as well as on the shelves of 60 to 70 stores around Vermont and New England. Those days are over though, Lindner said, because people download their music.
“It’s just a different scene now,” he said. “CDs are no longer lucrative. I can’t even break even on them. The last CD I put out, I lost a bunch of money on it.” Lindner was able to raise the necessary funds on Kickstarter, but said it was “a lot of work.”
“I would not feel hopeful nor would I feel good about going back to all of my friends, people on my Banjo Dan mailing list and so on, and soliciting pledges again,” he said.
Every person who donated funds to make The Sleeping Sentinel possible, which was well over 100, will receive a copy of the CD and possibly other merchandise, depending on the size of their pledge, according to Lindner.
He expects the album will be released sometime in July.