Dan Hellinger escapes the busy life of being a college professor by strumming away on his mandolin and singing Americana songs, which include a mix of country, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. He is a member of two bands that play the Americana genre, Maple Jam and Sutton Street Shuffle.
He’s performed at Webster University, in venues around town and even for the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C. after the ambassador to the United States in Venezuela, Bernardo Herrera, invited him.
He picked up his first instrument, the guitar, in the 6th grade after his mother offered her old guitar to him and took him to music lessons.
“I actually wasn’t a good (musical) student then,” Hellinger said. “I didn’t want to practice, but I didn’t want to give it up either.”
That lack of dedication was one of his toughest challenges in learning an instrument.
He became part of his first band in high school, a wedding band called The Caravans. By that point, he knew how to read music from his lessons but didn’t have the ability to improvise and felt that he wasn’t a good musician.
“But the elite player in the band was an accordion player who no one else in the school got along with,” he said. “So he had to play with me whether he liked it or not.”
Hellinger started getting serious with his guitar playing when he got his first job as a professor at St. Olaf College in the late ‘70s. He could not pick up music by ear until he came to St. Louis in 1979, after becoming an international relations professor at Webster.
He started going to jam sessions in places like The Focal Point in Maplewood, where he played music with others, which helped him learn to play music by ear. Hellinger calls the jam sessions “an organized disorganization.” He said he noticed that there were a lot of guitars at the jams, so around 15 to 20 years ago, he decided to learn to play the mandolin. He thinks it is his best instrument.
“I think I got pretty good. There’s always people better than you in town that you can learn from,” he said.
He said he plays the mandolin 90 percent of the time in one of his bands, Maple Jam. He began playing in Maple Jam around 12 or 13 years ago. Hellinger and the other three band members met at a jam that was held in Maplewood, which explains the name.
Hellinger started his second band, Sutton Street Shuffle, around five years ago. He also met the other two band members at a jam and invited them to play with him. They rotate an extra musician depending on the venue they are playing. Along with playing the guitar and mandolin, he also plays the fiddle with Sutton Street Shuffle — which he learned how to play around six years ago.
His latest performance was with Sutton Street Shuffle at Evangeline’s Bistro and Music House. All the tables but one were filled in the dimly-lit room. They performed covers of traditional songs in the Americana genre. They also “shuffle” their instruments, where the players switch the instruments they’re playing with each other or just pick up a different instrument to play.
“It keeps it new,” said Sutton Street Shuffle member Adrienne Burke. “No moss grows on us.”
One of the audience members who was tapping her feet with the music was Hellinger’s wife, Joanne Eng-Hellinger. She said she enjoys listening to bluegrass, classical music and jazz, and Sutton Street Shuffle offers all of those.
She usually goes to the performances when Dan Hellinger is there for the first time; after that, “I’ve heard the repertoire,” she said laughing. “For Dan, this is a release from a typical day on campus,” Eng-Hellinger said. She said Dan Hellinger practices for at least an hour a day.
He said he enjoys playing music and that if he wasn’t a college professor, he’d probably try to be a professional musician. He said one of the benefits of playing an instrument like the mandolin is its portability, since he travels a lot to places like Venezuela for research. Most places he goes, he can readily play it along with someone else and move into the culture better.
When he retires from teaching, he would like to put more emphasis on learning more songs. He compares playing music to learning a foreign language.
“When you start out, it’s just work. It’s learning and you got to have dedication and fight your way through the frustration,” he said. “But once you get it, it’s a pleasure to be able to play it and be able to enjoy it.”