Here are few last-minute details for those of you who are planning to come to The Longest Day Jam this Friday, June 21, from 9 am-9 pm. I have NO IDEA how many folks are coming but I’m hoping we have a big crowd! (Here is the previous post with a little backstory.)
1. The location: 23 South Stewart Street, Winchester, VA. Big white house. Come in the front door. This is near downtown Winchester. Walking distance to lots of stuff.
1.5. The Time: 9 am-9 pm. We will actually end the jamming part right before 8 pm so Casey’s band, the Gooseneck Rockers, can play a set from 8-9. The rest of us will just listen!
2. Parking: Plenty of parking on the street, both sides. And on side streets.
3. Food: We will provide bottled water all day long and a small snack in a paper bag (apple, granola bar). There is a Subway one block away and there is also our current favorite eating place Bonnie Blue about three blocks away. They serve Southern food, locally grown: BBQ, fish and grits, greens, potato salad, and yummy desserts! You can also get great coffee there.
4. Chairs: We’ll try to provide enough, but if you have a folding chair, please bring it!
5. Jamming: I will be leading the jam (most of the time!), and will see that everyone who wants to play, gets to play. IF THE JAM GETS TOO BIG, we will try to split into smaller jams. Bob Van Metre has said he’ll be glad to lead a second jam. Please work with us on this! If it’s pretty, some of us can play outside. If it’s rainy, we make have to TAKE TURNS jamming. I will try not to be too much of a control freak, and if other jams spring up inside or out, and the music does not conflict with the main jam, then let ‘er roll!
6. Donations: We will have a computer set up (with someone who knows how to use it!) if you want to donate online. Here is the link to donate if you can’t come jam with us on Friday. We will also be TAKING DONATIONS, cash or checks. We’ve already raised over $3000 in online donations and checks sent to me!!! Go us!!!
As the White Rabbit said as he ran by Alice, looking at his watch, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date!” (From memory, so not verbatim!) I do believe he prefaced it with “Oh, my ears and whiskers” but I, having no whiskers, didn’t readily remember that part!
Anyhow, I’m sure you all are as busy as I am all the time, so I’ll just say “better late than never.”
Today’s quote comes, not from the jam, but from a lesson before the jam. In an on-the-spot effort to help Kathy hear the chords in John Hardy, I had her play guitar (which she does well) while I played banjo. To me, that’s one of the best ways to learn to hear chord changes. That’s what helps me the most. When I am hearing a new song for the first time, I often think, “How would I chord this on the guitar?”
In fact, in one of my early articles for Banjo Newsletter I wrote that, if I had my way, everyone who wanted to play banjo would start with guitar first. Of course, that won’t happen! But it’s a great way to get a handle on hearing chord changes.
So Kathy was rhythm playing guitar and I was playing banjo. She was kinda hunting and pecking for the chords to begin with and it took her a few tries to stay in D long enough but soon she had it down. And she kept excellent time. So, although I had started off playing the banjo in a simple fashion, using the same arrangement as on the DVD, after she had a good grip on the chords, I started ratcheting it up a notch. I played up the neck. When she followed that, I went further up the neck. Then I threw in some off-beat fancy stuff like I used on the Stelling Banjo Anthology CD. And Kathy kept hanging in there. She understood that after you get the basic chord pattern down, it doesn’t make any difference what anybody plays, all you have to do is keep playing those same G, C, and D chords in that same order. Once you get the pattern down, it’s a piece of cake. (Of course, there is that whole “how to play really good bluegrass rhythm” thing but that’s another story!)
When I finally stopped playing and ended the song Kathy said, “Do you want to pay me? Because you’re having so much fun!”
And it’s true. I was! And I wrote it down for the blog!
The jam was fun, too, although it’s been so long now that my mind is a blank!
Here are the things I remember:
Ben came in shorts. So did Bob A.
Kasey was wearing hot pink capris. (What we used to call “pedal-pushers.”) She later told me that these were her pink pants with the legs partially rolled up!
Bob Van Metre had on a nice short-sleeved shirt.
Bob Mc came in late, and the only chair left was right in the middle of the semi-circle. Bob Van told him that the middle was a “safe” spot because he wouldn’t have to start any tunes or end any tunes. So naturally, I made Bob Mc start a tune or two, just to rag on Bob Van and prove that I still run the show.
Barbara took her first lead solo on the guitar, playing Old Joe Clark. Like everyone else who has ever played that tune in a jam for the first time she said, “I played it better at home!” Don’t we all???
Scott is really hammering I’m Riding on That Midnight Train now–both the picking and the singing. And he picks standing up!
Zac is hammering everything! I gave him a special thanks for changing his work schedule to come play banjo at my book signing. Thanks again, Zac! He was joined by David McLaughlin on two-finger, David-style, open-back banjo, and Chris Lovelace and me on guitars. We rocked! The singing went great and so did the signing–they ran out of books! (Don’t you love that juxtaposition: singing and signing??)
And that’s all you get for a nickel, as they say here in the Shenandoah Valley!
Don’t forget The Longest Day Jam this Friday, June 21, 9 am- 9pm. Actually, we’ll stopping jamming a little before 8 (but will keep some sort of music going….) so the Gooseneck Rockers can play a set from 8-9. The address for the jam is 23 South Stewart Street in Winchester, VA.
I know it’s last minute, with the dates for the Women’s Banjo Camp being July 19-21, but we have scholarship money available for one young woman, age 8-22. The scholarship would cover camp tuition only (it does not cover lodging) but still, it’s a chunk of change! ETA: Thanks to an anonymous donor we now have TWO scholarships available.
If you know of a young woman who plays banjo at any level (probably not someone who has been playing less than two months….), who fits the age requirement, who is able to attend (please check on this!), and who could use help with the tuition, please send her name and contact info to us at the Murphy Method email address: email@example.com
I hope and suspect that we will get more than one name, and if we do we will number the entries in the order received, put all the numbers in a hat and have a drawing for the lucky winner. The number will be chosen completely at random and neither Casey nor I will do the drawing.
We will draw for a winner on June 28 and will contact the winner as soon as we draw. So, again, please include contact information. If in any event the winner cannot attend or has to drop out, we will draw again. So you’ve got two weeks and a half to send in your suggestions.
The camp is being held here in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. We start Friday, July 19, at 1 pm and finish up Sunday, July 21, at 1 pm.
We are soooo looking forward to our first All Women’s Banjo Camp! Who knows where this may lead????
Back story: I told you in an earlier blog that at one of our jams Ben pulled a trick on me. He had taken a funny looking photo of me at our Intermediate Banjo Camp and had framed it and put it on the fireplace mantel in our jamming room where everybody could see it but me. Then he told me I had something wrong with my hair (really???) so I would have to turn around and look in the mirror over the fireplace. That’s when I saw the picture. I’ve been waiting a long time to get back at Ben and he provided me with the perfect opportunity.
Ben takes banjo lessons from Casey and cuts her grass and therefore has opportunity to see her son Dalton, who is almost two now. Casey had been putting off getting Dalton his first haircut and Ben was kinda riding her about it. “When are you gonna get that boy a haircut?” So, when Casey recently took Dalton to our friend Sue to get his “ears lowered” she sent me a picture. Which I forwarded to Ben. It just so happened that in the picture Dalton had his pacifier in his mouth. (To soothe haircut trauma!)
Dalton with monkey
Now, Dalton’s pacifier is a little different. I had seen it in a fancy baby store in Winchester before he was born, and, overcome by a spasm of Grandmotherly-ness, I had loosened the strings on my admittedly tight purse and had shelled out 10 or 12 bucks for a pacifier! (My own mother probably had a Heavenly heart attack!) But it was soooooo cute. It had a darling little stuffed monkey attached to the end of the pacifier.
As it turned out, Dalton loved the “monkey” pacifier from the get-go and has worn out several.
So, back to the picture I sent Ben: A freshly-shorn Dalton with the monkey pacifier.
Ben texts back: “Awesome. I want a Binky like that!”
I text: “I feel sure Casey can give you a used one!!!”
Ben replies: “Really!! Would you ask for me so I don’t get embarrassed!!”
And an idea begins to form…..
I ask Casey if she has an old monkey pacifier that she can stand to give up. Yes, she does, but being well-used, the monkey no longer has the actual pacifier attached to it. Nevertheless, it will do. So I take the monkey and put it in a Walmart plastic bag. I bring it to the jam.
As it turned out, Ben was flying solo last night, without his adorable fashionista daughter, Kasey. (I so wanted her to be there.) Nevertheless, the joke must go on! So after we’ve picked a few numbers I announce, “I’ve got something to give to Ben.”
As Ben told me later, he immediately got a bad feeling. His skin went all prickly, his face got red, and his stomach started churning. Your basic “fight or flight” response.
I told everyone the whole story of Dalton and his haircut and of sending Ben the photo. I finished up: “And Ben said, ‘I want an Binky like that!’”
By that time, I’m pretty sure Ben knew what was coming. I handed him the bag, he opened it, and voila! Ben had his very own Binky–a used monkey without the actual Binky attached!
I said, “That will teach you to mess with me, Ben!”
And, Ben, good sport that he is, replied, “Yeah, you got me good!”
Ben with binky
Of course, having the monkey provided plenty of opportunity for further fun. Like when Ben messed up playing something and I commented on it. He grabbed the monkey, set it on his shoulder and said, “I couldn’t help it. I had a monkey on my back!” And when Scott had some sort of misfire he looked at Ben and said, “I need the Binky!” Too much fun!
In between all the funning, everyone did some great playing. Kristina joined us on mandolin and wailed away on her newest songs Blue Ridge Cabin Home and John Hardy. She’s also learning her three-finger “chop” chords and how to use them in the Key of A. Kathy is still singing strong on I’ll Fly Away and Wagon Wheel. We are keeping Salt Creek in the mix and, again, Bobby played an excellent guitar break. As I told him, “It sounded like you actually knew what you were doing!” Bob Mc reminded me that I wouldn’t let him learn Salt Creek. I told him to get Casey to teach it to him!
And I have to brag on Janet and her guitar playing. At her lesson, I pushed her a little and asked her to improvise a break–on the spot–to Mountain Dew and Lonesome Road Blues. I told her that the breaks didn’t have to be “perfect”–there was no way that could happen–and when she made a mistake she had to keep going, no matter how bad it sounded. The goal was not to play “good” it was to play “something.” I knew she could do it–and she did! You go, Janet!!! And while she didn’t play these songs in the jam (this time!), maybe this gave her a little courage, because she played her other leads really well.
Scott was also playing exceptionally well–maybe having Zac there offered a bit of a challenge–and he kicked off Daybreak in Dixie pretty fast! After we finished playing it, I took time to teach the “stop” that the Stanley Brothers put into their original recording. It’s too complicated to explain here (listen to their cut or to the cut Red and I recorded on the Riding Around album now on YouTube). The now-seasoned Tip Jar Jammers caught on quickly, so that stop will now become a part of our rendition. (I’ll remind them about it the next dozen times till it sinks in.)
Kenney, as always, was solid on the bass and it was good to have him back after last week’s absence. Yes, Kenney, I know Salt Creek was somewhat mystifying but it has a weird, complex chord pattern. You’ll get it. Just remember: after you learn it in the key of G for this jam you’ll go to another jam and a mandolin player will kick it off in the Key of A (where the Stanley Brothers recorded it) and you will be scr…..let me just say you’ll be in trouble!. Aren’t capoes wonderful?? Don’t you wish you had one for the bass???
Things to remember:
My book signing Saturday June 8 at 3 pm at the Winchester Book Gallery on the Old Towne Mall in Winchester.
On Monday June 10, I will be doing a live, on-the-air interview with radio station WILL–AM–FM, the public radio station at the University of Illinois. They stream the show live so you can listen online at: http://will.illinois.edu/focus. The broadcast will be on CENTRAL TIME, so the interview will run from 10:00 to 11:00 Central. It’s a call-in show for you folks in the Illinois listening area. I don’t know if you can send in questions by email. Maybe! It will be my first radio interview about the book!
And don’t forget The Longest Day Jam, Friday, June 21, in Winchester, 9 am-9 pm. More info in previous blogs. Gooseneck Rockers and Hicks Sisters performing!!!
Since Casey and I are holding our first-ever Women’s Banjo Campsoon (July 19-21), I thought I would reprint my second Banjo Newslettercolumn. This blog also celebrates (again!) the publishing of my long-awaited book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. As you will see, I’ve been writing about women in bluegrass for many decades. I guess that’s because, as the old joke goes, I are one!
Thirty years ago, in June of 1983, Banjo Newsletter published my first article, “A Day of Banjo Teaching.” With my next column in July, “For Girls Only,” the cat came out of the bag as I boldly announced that I was a banjo player and a woman! That surprised many folks who assumed that a banjo player named Murphy had to be a man! I took advantage of that combination–woman and banjo player–to offer some advice to my banjo-playing sisters in bluegrass. (Totally oblivious to the fact that most of the subscribers to BNL were men!)
I now present that entire column for your edification and reading pleasure! (This column was first reprinted in my book And There You Have It.)
FOR GIRLS ONLY
Okay. We might as well get this settled straight off: I am a girl. Oh, yes, I know. “Murphy” is a strange first name for a girl, and “Murphy Henry” is practically unbelievable, but there you have it. I am here today to offer some comments on learning to pick the banjo as a girl, and to give some tips, particularly to you aspiring female banjo pickers.
Let’s face it—bluegrass has historically been a male-oriented music, and the banjo has been a male’s instrument. To quote Nat Winston, MD, who as we all know, wrote the foreword to the Scruggs book:
“The five-string banjo has, so far as it’s known throughout its history, been a man’s way to music. It’s a rare woman who has known this instrument understandingly enough to become a virtuoso.”
Actually, it’s also been a rare man who has become a banjo virtuoso, but he doesn’t mention that. I quote him to show you what you’re up against—his is not an isolated attitude. You can learn to pick the banjo, and here are some tips that I hope will make it easier for you. When you are alone by yourself studying Earl and doing your “woodshedding,” it makes no difference whether you are male or female. It’s when you get into a group of people that are playing music that the fact you are a girl will make a difference. It’s in the attitude of the pickers toward you, and your attitude toward yourself in a jam session. Now, you’ve got to understand that I’m talking about learning to play bluegrass banjo—your hard-driving Scruggs style banjo. I don’t think anybody would quarrel with the idea that that is where you need to start, regardless of where you go after that. Okay. That brings me to my first tip:
Tip 1: Be aggressive. If hard-driving bluegrass is being played (or even attempted) it is ninety-nine times out of a hundred going to throw you in with a group of macho good old boys. At ease! Don’t be offended. Just think for a minute and see if it’s not true. Young or old, there is a definite sort of male camaraderie that exists among bluegrass musicians. They are liberated enough so that they won’t exclude you entirely, but you’d better show them pretty quick that you can get down on it.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I mean be aggressive with your banjo playing, not with your self. Jam session etiquette is very specific, and a jam session’s balance is delicate enough to be destroyed by one person who is out-of-step with the jam. Just play quietly until you’re offered a break—and you will be. If you’d like to take it, take it. If it’s entirely out of your range, just shake your head, “No.” Once you’ve got a break, don’t be fancy. Keep it simple. Play hard.I know, I know. There are opposing schools of thought on this. Sonny Osborne doesn’t play hard; J.D. doesn’t play hard. But I say, as a beginner and as a girl, you need to pick hard to get attention, to get respect, and to get good tone. Better to start out picking hard and decide to lighten your touch later on, then to start out picking lightly, and never even be heard in a jam session Male or female, the bluegrass banjo is an aggressive instrument.
Tip 2: Don’t be a hostess. This is important. (We’re assuming here that there are no kids—we’ll talk about this later.) Whether the jam session is at your campsite at a festival or in your home, concentrate on one thing only—picking the banjo. Don’t be hopping up and down getting beer for people. Let them get their own damn beer. Don’t be fixing snacks and serving food. Don’t spend the hour before a jam session cleaning house—spend it practicing. Get your priorities in order at a jam session. Picking banjo is number one!
Tip 3: Don’t let anybody take your banjo away from you. I have never seen this happen to a guy. But it has happened to me, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. There you are, struggling along, trying to play, —maybe the jam’s over your head, and you’re having to hang back—just trying to figure out the chord sequence to Little Rock Getaway or Sweet Georgia Brown—that’s okay, you’re enjoying it and you’re learning. Then, somebody says, “Hey, mind if I pick your banjo?” like it’s in the case or or something. So you say “Okay,” because you want to be nice, and then you never get it back, and the jam goes on without you. Don’t do it! Just politely refuse. Remember, any picker worth his salt wouldn’t have asked to borrow it.
Tip 4: Kids. I told you we’d get around to kids. If you’re serious about your music, learn to play first—then have kids. Girls, this really applies to you only. Somehow, even in this liberated age, it’s not the same for the guys. It’s hard to concentrate on Earl at 16 rpm when your kid is pulling all your books off the bookshelf, or is about to fall off the bed, or is screaming her head off because to keep her from pulling all the books off the bookshelf or falling off the bed you have put her in her playpen. And it’s hard to justify the expense and hassle of putting her in a nursery just so you can practice banjo. And even when she’s older, it’s “Mama, look at this cake I made. Mama, I want something to drink. Mama, don’t play. Mama, Mama, Mama…” And if you think you can wait until evening to practice when the kiddies are all safely ensconced in their little beddies,think again. You’re too tired. Maybe when the kids are grown…
Tip 4a: Kids at jam sessions. I’m talking about your kids. Your little kids, who do not belong at a jam session if you are seriously trying to pick. Farm them out. Kids at practice sessions: Ditto.
Kids at festivals: Not if you are playing on stage there. People ask me all the time if I bring my kids (ages five and two) to our shows. I always answer, “Are you kidding? Do you take your children to work with you?” Playing music is a demanding profession. It takes all of my concentration. If my kids are around, I cannot give my playing 100%. That’s not fair to me or to the audience. Leave your kids with a babysitter you have lots of confidence in.
Just last week, I broke this cardinal rule of mine. Well, it was a private party, and the kids were invited especially to play with the other kids there, and frankly, I felt it would be a breach of social etiquette to refuse. But, never again! The videotape they made of the party showed me, in the middle of ShuckingThe Corn, breaking away from the mike and fiercely whispering, “Christopher! Christopher! Don’t you touch that fiddle! Don’t you touch it! Put it down! Put it down! ” And playing Flint Hill Special was a disaster because Christopher was prancing around in front of the band balancing a potholder on his head. I was in stitches, and completely flubbed the ending by detuning the second string instead of the third.Never again!
Tip 5: Don’t use being a girl as an excuse for anything—good or bad. Especially don’t use it as an excuse for mediocre picking! Carry your own banjo case.
And finally, ignore all Slack-Jawed-Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up conversation with the comment, “You’re pretty good for a girl.” I don’t guess that we’ll ever stop hearing that, but a calm “Thank you” would be a sufficient answer. Don’t simper. After nine years of professional playing, I heard one of the standard variations on that again this week-end: “You’re the best lady banjer picker I ever heered.” What can I say? We were twenty miles from the nearest flush toilet, so maybe I was.
Sometimes the best compliments are the ones you don’t hear at all. Just being accepted into a group of good pickers is a supreme compliment. You don’t have to prove anything, just pick and enjoy. My own personal favorite compliment is one I never heard.
We were playing a festival down here in Florida with the Johnson Mountain Boys and, typically for that spring, it was cold and pouring rain. So, to entertain the loyal fans who were still sticking it out, the Johnson Mountain Boys and Red and Murphy & Co. got on stage for a jam session—no microphones, mind you, it was too wet—just a good ole acoustic jam session, where you usually can’t hear anything but the banjo (fortunately not the case that day). Dudley Connell (guitar) and Richard Underwood (banjo) had just put the finishing touches on their tuning when Dudley launched into his terrific, ninety-mile-an-hour rendition of John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man. I was standing there vamping, trying to make my fingers move in that cold, wet air, when I got the nod from Dudley to take a break. I jumped down into first position and let her fly, just hoping I wouldn’t break a string, drop a pick, or forget how to do a forward roll.
I needn’t have worried. After the first phrase I saw Dudley look over at Richard, and Richard look back at Dudley, and Dudley was grinning, and Richard was grinning, and I felt like I wanted to burst wide open, but I didn’t. Instead, I just finished up my break with a few Ralph Stanley chokes (in Richard’s honor) and led into the next verse. That was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received about my picking and they never said a word.
Note: [I added this note to book And There You Have It .] This was the second article I wrote for BNL. I remember that aggressive, bright-eyed, hell-bent-for-leather, excited, determined, yet vulnerable little banjo player. She was very young. An older, calmer, slowed-down version of her is editing this book. I suppose now, the title of this column would be politically incorrect. But back then, I felt like a girl.
PS: Adding this note right now, June 5, 2013: Wow! How fascinating to realize that all these thoughts, ideas, and feelings would eventually become part of my new book, Pretty Good for a Girl.
PPS: Careful readers will note that I FINALLY changed the gender in Tip 4: Kids. As originally written and reprinted in my first book, I’d used the default gender which was male. I just now realized how stupid it was for me to be talking about MY KID, Casey, who was a girl, using the male gender! As you can see, I was as caught up in the cultural stereotypes and “norms” as anyone. It took me a long to break old habits! DUH!
Imagine our surprise to find that someone recently posted an audio copy of our first vinyl LP, Riding Around On Saturday Night, on YouTube! (He did ask our permission first.) We got in touch with the guy and asked him to mention our publishing company, Arrandem Records (pronounced “R and M” for Red and Murphy!), and our licensing affiliate, SESAC, and to include a link to our website. After that, I didn’t think too much about it. Our internet connection out here in the country is so slow, I rarely try to view anything on YouTube.
However, in April Red and I drove down to Florida to visit his mom and during that long haul I pulled out my iPhone and thought, “What the heck. I’ll look up that album on YouTube.” WOW! Was I ever surprised! We sound pretty darn good! So we’re providing the link so you can listen to it, too.
And I’m providing more information about the album that you could possibly want to read! I got a roll and couldn’t stop!
Red and I and my sister Argen, who played bass, recorded Riding Around On Saturday Night on September 13, 14, and 15, 1976, at the Warehouse Recording Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, with the effervescent Tom Markham doing the engineering and mixing. We were living in Hawthorne, Florida, at the time and were doing a lot of playing at various clubs in the Jacksonville-Gainesville-Tallahassee area. We spent the three days before we went into the recording studio playing at the Coney Grove Bluegrass Festival in Cordele, Georgia. But we were also playing plenty of bar gigs: long hours, little money, but great practice! We played a little club called the Tin Lizzie on a Tuesday night from 7-11 pm for $75. On Friday nights they bumped us up to $90 to play from 9:30 til 1:30. A big gig for us was playing a whole weekend at a restaurant called the Blue Water Bay for $250 plus a nice seafood supper for each of us.
After all this playing, when we went into the studio we were a tight three-piece group. Red and I did most of the lead singing, with Argen doing an occasional number. When I sang lead, Argen would sing tenor, and Red would sing baritone. When Red sang lead, I would sing tenor and Argen would sometimes add a high baritone. I was pleased as punch when I re-listened to our vocals on this album and found that they were tight and strong. Much tighter and stronger than I remember! I played banjo, of course, and Red played rhythm and lead guitar. Sometimes on our live shows I would take the guitar so Red could play mandolin or fiddle. On this album I played guitar on “Hey Good Looking” while Red played fiddle. On other songs, Red played guitar to start with and then dubbed in mandolin.
Being deeply under the influence of our friend Dale Crider’s amazing songwriting abilities and the stories that our friend and idol Gamble Rogers told on stage, I was already writing the quirky personal songs that would become a big part of our show. “Riding Around On Saturday Night,” “Vacation Veracities,” “Grandmother’s Song,” and “Awful Nice of Jesus” are my original songs on this album.
So, here’s some stuff about those songs. It’s probably TMI but I want to get it down while I’m in the mood! (And thank you Kathy and Kristina for your close attention to my blogs! Very encouraging!)
“Grandmother’s Song” was probably the first decent song I ever wrote. It was preceded by beginning efforts like “There’s A Frog in the Pond” (about gigging frogs and eating frog legs), “The Star Trek Song,” with lyrics like “Do you remember the time that Kirk was turned into a girl / The time that Bones got married to the Queen of the Hollow World,” and “The Clarkesville Song” which ended with the line “I guess I’ll go to Clarkesville and settle there a spell / Rest my weary body and help my Grandad plow his fields.” I wrote that song while I was in college and I remember my grandmother quietly snorting with laughter when she heard that line. Later I realized that she knew from experience that plowing was not a restful activity, and, wise woman that she was, also knew that my 19-year-old self had no idea what a “weary body” really was!
Later, after Casey was born, I would write another “beginning level” song about Mama which was cute but which was filled with too many family references to be palatable to a general audience. The chorus, which described Mama rocking a baby to sleep while singing, started off thusly: “At night when prayers were said including ‘thanks for all the trash cans’…” Perhaps this bears a modicum of explanation, as Gamble Rogers used to say.
There were five girls in our family (no boys), each two years apart, and for years Mama read a Bible story to us every night after which we all said our prayers and went to bed. Mama was always tolerant of our saying “thanks” for everything we could think of which often included “thanks for the trash cans to put over our heads.” We would usually burst into little-girl laughter after we said this which pretty much ended prayers for the night. So I had to put that in the song! But what I liked especially about this little beginning song was the “hook” in the chorus. The first chorus ended with the line “With one girl in the bed, Mama sat and rocked the baby…” Then in subsequent choruses the line became “with two girls in the bed,” then “with three girls in the bed” until all five of us were in the bed (not the same bed!) and Mama was rocking the “baby,” which was her first grandchild, Casey!
I wrote one more Casey-specific song, “Casey’s First Christmas,” which was about us driving up from Florida to North Georgia for Christmas. It included the awesome line “The gravy was cold but the welcome was warm!” I also came up with the heartfelt line, “And Dad turned the tree on / While Mama was laughing / For Christmas had started / All the children were home.” That still chokes me up. (Heck, maybe I need to record these early songs, just for fun!)
So, getting back to this album now after that self-indulgent trip down memory lane…..”Grandmother’s Song” and “Vacation Veracities” are both about personal family stuff, but they were somewhat stronger songs.
“Vacation Veracities” was originally called “The Florida Song” and was based on a Hicks’ family vacation to Florida, where, as I say in the song, “Of all the sites to visit I think we missed just three!” Originally the song started out, “Well, we set out from Clarkesville /Gonna have ourselves a ball / Going down to Florida Land to see and do it all.” I followed that with “But the people there weren’t neighborly and no grits could I find / Whatever I thought of Florida, well I guess I changed my mind.” Well! With us actually living in Florida, that line just wouldn’t fly on an album we were hoping to sell to Floridians! So, as you will hear, I took out all references to Florida and made them generic. I kinda hate that now, because the song is slightly stronger as I originally wrote it, but, hey you can’t piss off a whole state just for the sake of art!
The chorus of “The Florida Song/Vacation Veracities” is better crafted than the verses–my writing was improving. However, as far as I remember, we never performed this song on stage. It wasn’t strong enough.
And it sure is good to see those ol’ Northeast Georgia mountains
It’s really good to know that they’re still there
It sure is good to smell that ol’ Northeast Georgia kudzu
And hear Northeast Georgia crickets in the air
I’ve seen a lot of places on the road while I was gone
Florida Land is nice but Northeast Georgia, I’m glad I’m coming home.
(Note: I got a postcard complaining about my kudzu reference from a doctor in Tallahassee who bought this album. He said that kudzu didn’t have a smell. I maintained that it did. This was the beginning of an excellent friendship!)
“Grandmother’s Song” was based on another family event. When my Granddaddy Hicks got really old and couldn’t get out much, my four sisters and I would, on occasion, go over to his and Grandmother’s house and sing for him. He did dearly love singing. As I tell it in the song, “Murphy plays the guitar, and Argen sings the lead, Nancy sings the tenor, while Claire sits there and reads.” (Claire was not yet into singing with the rest of us, but she would eventually come around!) Then, “Laurie she just jumps on in where she can find a place, and Granddad sits there listening, a smile on his face.” Laurie was actually fishing around for the baritone part–she became the first of us to sing that hard-to-find harmony part.
One night Grandmother was telling us how she used to love to hear Granddaddy sing tenor and how she loved to watch him lead the singing in the church. And then, she unknowingly gave me the “hook” for my not-yet-conceived-of song: She said that best of all she loved to hear him sing bass on “Amazing Grace,” which as we all knew was his favorite song. And I remembered sitting beside him in church and hearing him sing bass and loving it myself. That all became fodder for the chorus of this song:
My Grandmother said she loved to hear his tenor
My Grandmother said she loved to watch him lead
But even more than those two put together
My Grandmother said she loved his bass on his favorite song
And though we didn’t do it on this album, we eventually started segueing into “Amazing Grace” at the end of my song, which made it stronger and more appealing to an audience.
“Riding Around On Saturday Night” was based on my high school experiences of doing just that: riding around on Saturday night. Which is what we did in our small town when we didn’t have dates. (And the internet hadn’t yet been invented!) However, our town was too small to even have a Dairy Queen, like the one pictured on the front of the album. What we had was a place called the “Humdinger” but, to tell the truth, I never was one of the Humdinger crowd. And as far as I recall, Sharon and Jane and I never, ever picked up any boys!
I was inspired to write this song after many listenings to a popular song of the time called “Biff the Purple Bear” on country radio but I’m not sure now exactly how I got from Biff to riding around. I do remember that “Biff” was a talking blues kind of song, and that Gamble Rogers often performed “talking blues” and that “Riding Around” started out as more of a “talking” kind of song but quickly evolved into a song with a melody, which is how it is performed here. On stage I often “talked it” more. Also on stage I always added a long, suggestive pause after the line about the guy with “a pair of Wingtips and jeans so tight that you could see the outline of his…….pause, pause, pause, pause, pause…….wallet in his back pocket.” That usually got a laugh which made me feel like I wasn’t the only one with a mischievous mind. The very last line of the song was a pretty good one: Riding around’s a lot more fun when you don’t ride so much!” That I knew from experience! For when Mama would ask what my high school boyfriend and I would be doing on, say, a Sunday afternoon “date,” I’d always say, “We’re just going riding around.” And perhaps there was some riding around, but that’s not the part I remember!
My final original song in this album, “Awful Nice of Jesus,” pulls from several Old Testament Bible stories I had pounded into my head growing up in the Clarkesville Baptist Church. I feel pretty sure I was introduced to these characters in the Beginner Sunday School Class and probably saw these stories “acted out” using a “flannel board.” Who could forget Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace? Or Daniel, who was tossed into the lion’s den? Or Abraham preparing to kill his son Issac as a sacrifice before the “angel and the ram appeared”? That’s pretty heavy stuff for a small girl. Still, these stories came in handy for this song, although I realize now that the song is way too “wordy” for an audience to understand at first listening. I thought that if I could understand the words, then everyone else could too! Duh! This song was not a particular favorite with crowds, although we did use it occasionally when we had to do a Sunday morning gospel set. I do still love the chorus, though.
He’s my staff, my sword, my shield
He’s the hub in the middle of my wheel
He’s my lily of the crossroads when I’m too blind to see
He’s my one and only piece of the rock
He’s my man on the loading dock
‘Twas awful nice of Jesus to come and rescue me.
Writing this, in our little house in Melrose, Florida, I experienced for the first time the songwriter’s bliss of having words come unbidden to my mind. I’m pretty sure “lily of the crosswords” is a Gamble-ism and I’m sure “loading dock” is his, although I think my adding “man” to get “man on the loading dock” is clever. “Piece of the rock” probably came from that insurance commercial but I have no idea where “He’s the hub in the middle of my wheel” came from. But I like it!
Okay, okay! Enough already! Just one more thing. When we recorded this I had been playing banjo for about three years. For the last two of those years I was playing “professionally,” that is playing on stage and getting paid. And, as I said, Red and I were playing a lot. A four-hour bar gig is some pretty intense practice. I think I sound good! I land some awesome pull-offs, if I do say so myself. And as my brother-in-law Mike said, matter-of-factly, after offering high praise for the album when we were mixing it, “There are a few ‘flinchers’…” I loved that word: “flinchers.” Meaning that when you, the player, hear the mistake you made, you flinch. But after not hearing this album for almost 35 years, I find there are few flinchers now. Maybe I’ve forgotten what I was meaning to play so my “mistakes” sound good, or maybe I just have kinder ears. Whatever. I enjoyed listening to this album. And I hope you do too. Comments welcome on YouTube or on this blog!
And if you read this far: THANK YOU for indulging me in my trip down memory lane! It always helps to know I’ve got someone making the trip with me.
In the history of music, the contributions of females is often overlooked or minimized. Murphy Hicks Henry aims to help correct that in bluegrass music. In her fantastic new book, Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass takes an entertaining and informative look at the contributions of women to the history, and the future, of one of America’s original forms of music.
Music Tomes: This book is already being compared to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A Historyand Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown as far as its importance to the ongoing study of bluegrass. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Murphy Hicks Henry: I am blown away by those comparisons! I feel like I’m on cloud nine. I own a well-marked copy of Neil’s book, Bluegrass: A History purchased when it first came out in 1985. It actually falls open on page where he talks about Louise Scruggs! I learned so much about the history of bluegrass by reading his book, and often used it as a reference for other writing projects before I starting writing my book. Then, when I first got to work on my book, I set Neil’s book up in my mind as the “gold standard” I wanted to reach. I wanted my book to be as good as Neil’s. I wanted it to be that detailed, that thorough, that “authoritative.” Neil is so insightful and had done so much research and was actually THERE when much of this history was happening. Finally, of course, I realized I couldn’t be Neil, I couldn’t write my book like Neil wrote his. I had to write my own book. But I still have the utmost reverence for his book and I consider Neil a good friend. He was always available, by email, to answer any questions that came up during my own research and writing and was always gracious. Having said all that, I did grow to realize that there were few women included in Neil’s book. And, to his credit, Neil has told me that he wished he had included more women. So, adding these women back into the history of bluegrass was one of my goals in writing my book.
I also have a copy of Bob Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown. It, too, is marked up, although less so than Neil’s book. Bob’s book was harder for me to digest simply because he delved so deeply into the technicalities of the music itself and, as a “by ear” player I found his explanations hard to follow. It was less about people, and more about the esoteric aspects of the music. Still, it offered many insights into the music which I enjoyed reading about.
MT: How does a genre, or more specifically its practitioners, go about moving away from a climate that discourages by inaction the participation of females?
MHH: Oh my! This is a tough question! And I’m glad you noted that the discouragement of women in bluegrass is “inactive,” rather than an active, visible discouragement. This “inaction” is often hard to see, which makes it harder to rectify. One answer (out of many) would be for the “practitioners” to keep an open mind regarding women’s participation especially when it comes to the singing. Women don’t sound like men when they sing bluegrass–keep an open mind about this. Women sing in different keys from men–keep an open mind about playing in those keys. Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent have done a great job of getting people to accept women’s voices in bluegrass. Another answer is to think outside the box about ways to encourage women to participate in bluegrass. My banjo-playing daughter and I are putting on an All Women’s Banjo Camp this July. It has been our experience that most attendees at bluegrass camps are men. We hope that if we offer an all-female space that women will feel more comfortable about their playing. No one likes to fall on her face when learning a new skill but women seem to feel particularly uncomfortable doing this when men are around. For many reasons.
Other short answers : Festival promoters could hire more bands with women in them. This makes women more visible to other women (and to the men, too). Radio DJs could play more songs that feature women as singers or pickers. Do you have to dig deeper to do this? Yes, you do. Again, you have to think outside the box! Steve Martin could give his $50,000 banjo prize to a woman! Players who are members of the International Bluegrass Music Association (our professional trade organization) could think outside the box and vote for more women for our annual awards. Yes, you do have to think harder, but there are plenty of women out there on the road working just as hard as the men are! They just often aren’t as visible. (On radio or at festivals. It’s a Catch-22.)
MT: I found your discussion of the “rare female” very interesting. Did you find that feeling in other musicians you interviewed?
MHH: Yes, I did. The other women didn’t use the words Rare Female, but over and over I heard the phrase “I was the only one” or, as Jeanie West put it, “I was it.” But then, interestingly enough, later in the interview almost everyone would go on to mention other women who were out there playing. They would say, “Of course, there was Gloria Belle.” Or Wilma Lee. Or the Lewis Family sisters. Even Sierra Hull, who is a young mandolin player in her early twenties, said she felt like she was the “only female around” in jam sessions. Clearly, we were not “seeing” each other. But I also think that the whole culture of bluegrass is so “male” (at least that was the way I experienced it) that women felt very lonely. I know I did. Even as I tried to “macho” my way through by being as “male-like” as possible. That became much more difficult when I was pregnant! I do feel like this is changing some nowadays, although perhaps today I simply choose to play music in situations where I feel more comfortable.
MT: Was there anything in your interviews or research that surprised you?
MHH: Honestly, it surprised me that there were so many women out there so early on. Their presence simply hadn’t been documented before. And I think there are many more out there still waiting to be found. I had to limit my own research to finding women who had recorded (and were thus “visible”) or who had been mentioned in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine which didn’t start publication until 1966. I hope someone else will undertake the gargantuan task of looking for the women who played locally and never hit the “big time.”
The other thing that surprised me was how many women used the expression “I was eat up with it” to describe their passion for bluegrass, especially when they first discovered it and were in the throes of learning to play. Again, I thought I was the only woman who felt that!
MT: What are you currently working on?
MHH: Publicity and promotion for Pretty Good for a Girl! I haven’t yet started another book project. I will be curious to see if any offers come my way.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
MHH: Oh yeah! One of the books that inspired me during the writing of my own book was Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s by Sherrie Tucker. Few people believed her when she made the claim that there had been hundreds of all-women swing band in the 1940s. She found them! And, although she was writing about swing music, she made me aware that bluegrass texts, too, are not “gender neutral,” they are “histories of musical men.” Another much-loved book is Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. It, too, is copiously underlined and falls open at the chapter on women in bluegrass! I also loved Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. Great story of Sara and Maybelle Carter!
Other favorites include Ramblin’ Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox by Jonnie Whiteside;Pressing Own: The Roni Stoneman Story by Roni Stoneman as told to Ellen Wright; The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives by Ivan Tribe; Country Music U.S.A by Bill Malone; A Good-Natured Riot by Charles Wolfe; Pickin’ On Peachtree by Wayne W. Daniel; and, I have to include Peter Guralnick’s biographies about Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I could continue on….I love the history of music and musicians!
As you can see, I am late, late, late with this blog! Like most of you, I am constantly trying to cram 10 pounds of activity into a 5-pound bag! (I cleaned that one up for public consumption!) But I hit the ground running faster than usual on Thursday after the jam, and am just now coming up for air! And I realized I’m gonna have to make these blogs shorter to continue blogging. So here is my first attempt at a shorter blog!
Here’s one sign of how much our jam has evolved: last Wednesday night we played Salt Creek for the first time! And it came out pretty darn well. As a general rule I don’t teach Salt Creek much anymore (and never to Beginners), even though it is on our Beginning Banjo Vol. 2 DVD. Why don’t I? Well, although the lead part is not too terribly difficult on banjo, guitar, or mandolin, the chords are beastly! The pattern is hard, hard, hard and there doesn’t seem to be any good way to teach it. You just have to learn it by slogging through the song time after time. (That’s the way I learned it!) But Casey had taught Salt Creek to Ben and Kasey, I had taught it to Zac, and Bob Van has been working at it on guitar for years and has finally forgotten enough of my arrangement to be able to substitute some stuff of his own which he can actually play. And we didn’t have any fiddles or mandolins to contend with. (No disrespect to fiddlers or mandolinners, but that meant we could play it in G and not have to worry about capoes.) And I decided that, instead of trying to teach the chord pattern to the group (which I have found almost never works anyhow), I’d just let them listen and try to pick up what they could. I did tell them we were playing in the Key of G and that the off chord was F.
Bob Van kicked it off so he could set the tempo. And I’ll have to brag on Bobby: he played the living fire out of Salt Creek. Best I’ve EVER heard him play it. Who knows why he was playing so well? Maybe he just rose to the occasion. But again, I think one big reason was that he was substituting some of his own licks for licks of mine that had proved difficult. He didn’t do this on purpose, these are licks that just came out. He didn’t think about them. He was simply trying to put something in there and keep going. And it worked!
Why am I hammering that point about Bobby’s homemade, substitute licks so hard? Because I think it’s important to understand that my arrangements–even Earl’s arrangements–are not The Only Way to play a song. There is NOT a perfect set of notes–no matter whose notes they are. The only thing that is imperative, the only thing you HAVE TO DO is to stay in time. And when Bobby was trying to play my notes, he was falling out of time. His choice of notes obviously make better sense to him. And, to use a colloquialism, they don’t suck. The best notes to play are the notes you CAN PLAY!
Even though I studied Earl assiduously (My, my, my! I am full of big words today!), there were some of his notes that I just couldn’t play. I either couldn’t figure them out (Polka On A Banjo) or I couldn’t execute them no matter how hard I tried (that C7 lick in Shucking the Corn). And by “play them” I meant play them on stage. Could I have worked harder and learned to play them? Perhaps. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t. So finally I learned to substitute my own stuff–and eventually even learned to be happy with it! So, I hope each of you can get there. I love it when Kasey “accidentally” substitutes a lick from the one my Casey has taught. She always looks up at me like, “Whoops! I did it wrong!” But I always try to give her the thumbs up because what she played WORKED.
We did one other new song last Wednesday, Wagon Wheel, which Kathy is singing (and quite well, too, I must add). And while few of the “grownups” know it, Kasey and Zac were both singing along enthusiastically. Zac even took a banjo break. I believe that one is a keeper!
We’ll be jamming again next Wednesday, so if you’re in the area, come join us. We’re always glad to slow down so beginning jammers can join us. (Hey, I guess that means we’re not beginning jammers anymore!)
Don’t forget about the Longest Day Jam on Friday, June 21. We’ll be starting at 9 am and jamming till 8 pm when the Gooseneck Rockers (Casey, Tom Adams, Marshall Wilborn) will end the day by giving a concert from 8-9. My sisters Nancy and Laurie are coming so I’m looking forward to picking with them. Maybe we’ll even get into some deep Broadman Hymnal songs. Maybe we’ll do the Blood Songs: Washed in the Blood, Power in the Blood, Nothing But the Blood, There is a Fountain Filled With Blood. Oooh, sounds like fun!
Also, for those of you who have been patiently waiting: We will be shipping out the books Pretty Good For a Girl on Monday, June 3. Thanks for your patience! We received our carton of books right before Red and I both left town! As I said, 10 pounds of stuff in a 5 pound bag! Hope you enjoy the read. The book has been getting some good reviews. YEEHAW!
And one more thing: I will be doing my first book signing this coming Saturday, June 8, at the Winchester Book Gallery, starting at 3 pm. This event coincides with the Downtown Mall Beer Festival (which they are calling a Hops Festival) so grab a designated driver and come on down!
Folks, I’m heading to Nashville Thursday morning, so I won’t be blogging about our 24th Tip Jar Jam (unless I can find time to do it from my laptop while I’m away….not likely!)
I’m going to Nashville to give the first presentation on my book, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass. I’ll be speaking at the prestigious International County Music Conference held at Belmont University in Nashville. I’ve presented papers there twice before, the first one on Sally Ann Forrester, the second on Bessie Lee Mauldin, both of whom are are in my book. So, I’m not as nervous about this presentation as I might be.
I really enjoy this conference because I get to rub elbows with many of the major writers in the bluegrass and country music field. So I’ve gotten to meet that late Charles Wolfe, who wrote a number of excellent books, including Good-Natured Riot, a wonderful book about the Grand Ol’ Opry; Nolan Porterfield who wrote the definitive biography of Jimmy Rodgers; Bill Malone, who wrote the earliest and best book on the history of country music, Country Music U.S.A.; Wayne Daniel, who wrote Pickin’ On Peachtree, a book about country music in Georgia; and Richard Smith, who wrote Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, the biography of Bill Monroe that stirred up so much ire in the bluegrass community. And lots of others.
So my paper is written and I’ve been practicing my performance, recording it on my I-Phone! I will speak for about 22 minutes and then answer a few questions.
Now, about the title of this blog! [Minimal bluegrass content.] Our local square dance club, the Apple Valley Squares, held a big dance last Friday night which featured a fast and furious caller who kept us hopping! And thirsty! The host club always provides snacks and drinks, so my friend Becky said she and her husband Tommy would be bringing the drinks, the “soda pop” as they call it up here. Or sometimes just “pop.” Or sometimes just “soda.” Very Northern. Down in Georgia, we called everything Coke (short for Coca-Cola; even shorter than Co’- Cola). We even called Sprite Coke as in “What kind of Coke do you want?” “I think I’ll have a Sprite.”
Well, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Coke drinker. And I don’t mean Diet Coke, either. Or Coke Zero. I want your honest-to-goodness Classic Coca-Cola. No Pepsi products for me. No RC. No Shasta Cola. (Remember that???) And I knew Tommy was also a Coke drinker so I didn’t bother to grab a cold can of Coke out of the fridge to bring along, since I knew there would be plenty of Coke there.
Imagine my surprise and dismay when I got to the dance to find NO Coca-Cola. Only two big liter bottles of some off-brand drink. Yuck. Naturally, I complained to Becky. “Where’s the Coke? I thought for sure you’d be bringing Coke!” I’ve forgotten what her reply was, but it sure didn’t seem like a big deal to her. So I settled on drinking water. But I had been hoping for a caffeine boost, since I had been babysitting all day!
So we danced a few dances and I was drinking my water and eating my No Bake Cookies which were fast disappearing (which is always gratifying). Then after one dance, I walked back to the eats table to see a great big liter bottle of Coke sitting there. Becky was also close by, as was her daughter Sara. I said, “What’s this?” Becky says, “You said you wanted Coke!” I said, “Did you call Sara and have her bring down a bottle of Coke?” “YES!” was Becky’s reply. (They do live near by and Becky is a mover and shaker, a “get ‘er done” girl.)
I turned to Sara, a perky twenty-something who was looking cute as a bug in her nursing uniform, having just gotten off her shift. I said, warmly, “Thank you! I really appreciate your bringing this.” Her extremely swift reply was: “Is it worth a free guitar lesson?” Well! With everyone standing right there looking at me, what could I say but, “Sure!” (I knew from Becky that Sara had been “fooling” with the guitar, as the saying goes.) I also quickly added, “You are your mother’s daughter!” And that, folks, is how I ended up paying $30 for a liter bottle of Coca-Cola!
Postscript: Later on during a break in the dancing I was rehashing all this with Sara’s dad, Tommy. (Square dancers love to rehash!) Tommy said, “I think Becky put Sara up to that.” “Really?” I said. “Yeah,” said Tommy, “she’d have never thought of that on her own.”
So naturally, the next time I met Becky at snack table (where we gravitate after every dance!) and she and I were rehashing my $30 bottle of Coke and laughing, I said, “Did you put Sara up to saying that?” She said, “No! I did not. She thought of it all by herself!” “Really?” I said, “Tommy was sure it was you!” “Nope,” said the proud mother, “it was all Sara!” Indeed, the apple does not fall far from the tree. And I guess Sara fell on the Becky side of the tree, because I know Tommy would never have done anything like that!
I guess I’ll be giving my Coca-Cola lesson when I get back from Nashville. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get Sara hooked on playing bluegrass! That would so be worth $30!
The regular crowd met again last night, May 15, for our 23rd Tip Jar Jam. Amazing! Pickers present were: Bob Van, Janet, Kathy, Barbara, Kasey (resplendent in pink shorts with matching pink scarf), Ben, Kenney and Bob A. We sorely missed Scott and Bob Mc who were obviously letting less important things like work interfere with their picking!
As you may have noticed from earlier blogs, more students are stepping up to the plate and singing now! Which I think is wonderful. Here’s an easy-to-read list of who sang what:
Kasey and Ben: I Saw the Light
Ben: Old Home Place
Kathy: I’ll Fly Away
Bob A: Beulah Land (a Do Lord clone) and New River Train
Barbara: Somebody Robbed the Glendale Train
Bob Van: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
If you are a wannabe bluegrass singer, the most important thing is finding the right key to sing in! You will not sing all songs in the same key, but there is usually one key where you will sing most of the songs. Generally speaking, most women sing most bluegrass songs in the key of C or D; most men sing in G or A. Since the “default” key for beginner bluegrass jams is G (no capoing!), way too many women think they can’t sing bluegrass! NOT TRUE! They just need to sing in higher keys. (Our Harmony SingingDVD explains all this in more detail.)
Oftentimes, when you are singing at home by yourself (and not using your full voice), you may think you sing in a lower key than you actually do. But in a jam session, you have to sing above the instruments which create a lot of noise even when they are playing quietly. Here’s an example. Kathy and I both thought she sang I’ll Fly Away in A. So she sang it in the jam last week in A but that was too low. So she worked on it at home this week and thought maybe she sang it in B-flat or B. We tried it in those keys at the lesson, but as it turned out, she really sang it best in C. She has all kinds of power there. She did a great job of singing it in the jam last night. And she realized–as we all do–that this bluegrass singing is not as easy as it looks! “Does everyone’s mind go blank when they have to sing solo?” she asked, after we finished the song. “Yes!” was the resounding reply. Especially if you are new to singing solo. Or if you are doing a new song for the first time. I pride myself on being a real “words” person, but even I sometimes go blank if I am singing a brand new song for the first time.
Barbara, who has turned the bass playing duties over to Kenney and is now playing guitar, sang a song that was new to the group, Glendale Train. I had kinda forgotten about Glendale Train–which I love–but it was one of my stage songs when I was first getting into bluegrass. (And I borrowed liberally from its melody for my own song, Just Remember Where You Could Be. I’m not sure I realized that at the time I was writing it!) It’s basically a three-chord song with one off chord, A, in the verse and chorus. It’s different from most of the songs we play at the jam in that chorus and verses are quite long–about twice as long as the verses and chorus of our other songs. So, I used it to demonstrate the concept of the “split break”–where one person plays the first part of the break and then hands it off to the second person who plays the last half of the break.
Bob Van was my guinea pig for this demonstration, even though I had just sprung the song on him during his lesson right before the jam. He came up with an excellent guitar break on the spot after hearing me sing the song through one time. I was proud of him for that! We then worked out splitting the break which he and I had done on a few songs previously. The thing about splitting a break in a jam is that pickers rarely, if ever, announce that they are going to split the break. So you have to be aware of the concept of the split break and realize that, hey, this is a pretty long break I wonder if the person who is playing right in front of me is going to hand me the second half. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But you have to be ready! (Note: this is an intermediate-level skill so don’t get all hot and bothered about this if you are a beginning player!) But in the Tip Jar Jam, which is a teaching jam, we will work out the split breaks beforehand. (I can hear your sighs of “Whew!”)
Glendale Train also enabled us to talk about a “turn-around.”
Actually, Bob Van had opened that can of worms earlier by asking if he could kick off Blue Ridge Cabin Home with a “turn-around.” I told him in no uncertain terms that he could not. (He knew that, he was just baiting me!) When Kathy asked why not, I gave her the answer that has no room for quibbling: “That’s not the way Lester and Earl did it!” Then Bob A asked, “What’s a turn-around?” So I said to Bob Van, “That’s your question. You can answer that!” And he did, after a fashion. Upon which I turned back to Bob A and said, “Aren’t you glad he’s not your teacher?” Bada bing!
Actually Bobby gave a good answer. A turn-around is a short kick-off or a short break. Usually it’s the last line or last two lines of the verse or the chorus. And, again, in a “regular” jam, folks often don’t announce that they are going to do a turn-around. They expect you to know it, or, at least, to be able to follow it off the cuff. If they are feeling charitable they might say, “I’m gonna turn it around” and then, boom! Off they go.
Anyhow, Glendale Train has such long verses and choruses that using a turn-around for the kickoff makes good sense. So I kicked it off with a turn-around, Barbara did a good job of singing it, and Bobby and I split the one break. We’ll keep that one in the repertoire!
We also did Old Home Place, which we had worked on last week. Since Ben is singing it in C, the song, with its two “off chords,” provided its usual amount of confusion what with some folks being capoed (the ones who were going to play the breaks they had learned in G) and some not (the one who were just chording). This is one area of teaching that still frustrates me–having to call out or go through two completely different sets of chords. No wonder Casey called this one a “jam buster”! But we survived and Ben did a good job singing. And I know it will get better and easier. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn something about how to teach the chords in a better fashion. I hope so!
Being able to introduce harder songs like Old Home Place and Glendale Train into the Tip Jar Jam is a good indicator of how much the students have grown as players–and singers! No way would I have tried these last year. I’m looking forward to seeing what these next few months will bring.
If you are traveling through the Winchester area this summer, come by and jam with us. We’d love to have you. We jam every Wednesday night from 7-9. Call or email for the location.