I don’t remember who sent me this photo of Janet Davis and me, but
apparently this was (or is?) an exhibit at the American Banjo Museum in
Oklahoma City, Okla. I knew nothing about it! I am honored, however, to
have been featured. If anyone knows anything about this, please let us
know! The museum includes banjos of all types, not just the five-string.
Here’s the link to their site: https://americanbanjomuseum.com/

By Red Henry

Ever since we founded the Murphy Method in 1982, one thing we’ve been proud of has been customer loyalty. Many, many of our Murphy Method students keep ordering lessons year after year, and we appreciate all that repeat business.

Some customers may take off several years, and then come back and order again. It often happens that people take off four or five years in their lessons before resuming them. Sometimes it is a ten-year gap. One day a man called who had ordered some audiocassettes fifteen years before, saying that one of them had gone bad. Fortunately it was still in print, and he was amazed when we replaced it for free.

But we recently had a record-breaker:

A customer in New England ordered some of our audiocassette series in 1989 and 1990. After that we did not hear from him until last month, when he called and ordered a DVD. That was an astounding gap of THIRTY YEARS between orders! But when he called us, of course we were glad to do business again.

Don’t wait 30 years yourself! Order any time. Murphy Method DVDs are waiting for you!

I thought I’d add a word or two here to Casey’s always-excellent newsletter, just to let you know how we’re faring at Murphy Method headquarters (aka Our House) during this stay-at-home time.

I’m missing my Tip Jar Jam! I miss hearing David sing In The Pines with the “woo woos” at the end, just like Bill Monroe done it. 😉 I miss singing Where The Soul Of A Woman Never Dies with Kathy. I even miss hearing Banjo In The Hollow!

Both Casey and I were bummed to have to cancel our Intermediate Camp this month. We had so much fun stuff planned: Geoff Stelling, The Fly Birds, Karaoke, Gregg and Chuck’s band (back by popular demand!), food from Bonnie Blue, a singing workshop with David McLaughlin, jamming, Murphy and Casey’s Sunday Morning Gospel Show. We still have our fingers crossed for our July Women’s Camp, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Like many of you, I am mourning the loss of John Prine. The Tip Jar Jammers are already planning a John Prine Night when we get back together. We were already occasionally doing Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Souvenirs, Spanish Pipedream (aka Blow Up Your TV), and Paradise. Now some of the Jammers, having time on their hands, are learning other Prine songs so we can celebrate his life.

On the non-musical front, Red and I killed quite a few hours re-watching all the Harry Potter movies and now I’m rereading all the books. Just finished Goblet of Fire this morning. Now my TV time is taken up with the new season of Dr. Who, which I am somewhat ambivalent about.

I’m also trying to keep focused on the biography of Maybelle Carter I started writing in January. But, I’ll admit, it’s hard to find the energy. So, I try to be kind to myself and just do what I can do.

Also, like many of you, I’m getting really good at using the Zoom app! I’ve found the “mute button” and the “gallery view”! I use Zoom to take online yoga, which I love. Now if the poses are too hard (Firefly? Plow? Shoulder Stand?), I can revert to Child’s Pose and nobody can see me! I’m also trying to walk almost every day, which is easier now that it’s warmer. I’ve discovered listening to Podcasts on my phone with earbuds makes me more likely to get out the door, so I feel very “with it,” being able to do all these complicated techy things. Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Iris Dement and I remembered how much I love her music. Might have to download her latest album, IDK.

Since Red and I are some of the “olds” (a term my niece came up with and I have embraced), we are being extry careful about going out and when we have to go out, we wear our masks and carry hand sanitizer. And when we come back in, we wash our hands like crazy. Thankfully, we are able to limit our trips to town because my former banjo and guitar student turned singer/songwriter Kasey Smelser is doing our grocery shopping. She leaves them on the front porch and then we visit from six feet away! Thank you, Kasey!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go online and order a T-shirt that says, “May Birthday 2020. The one when we were quarantined.”

And then it’s time to Maybelle. I hope. Well, maybe after lunch. Or after my nap…

Stay safe, y’all.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout. This is the third installment in The Adventures of Peg and Jill. If you need to catch up here are part 1 and part 2.

Peg tripped lightly up the steps to Jill’s teaching place, banjo in hand. She was feeling good about her practice this week. She hadn’t been able to play two hours every day as she had planned because of her “damn job” but she was excited about learning the first song on the DVD. She knew Jill would be pleased with her.

She was early so she sat down to wait in the adjoining room. She frowned when she noticed the velvet picture of Jesus praying on a hillside hanging on the wall. “I didn’t know Jill was religious,” she thought. “Not with that empty Stroh’s can sitting on the mantle. Who drinks Stroh’s?”

Settling down on the couch, she recognized the voice of Bob, the student she’d met last week, talking to Jill about something in the teaching room.   ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Thanks for all the favorable comments on my story, “The First Banjo Lesson.” I’m glad so many of you could relate to it. As you know, learning to play the banjo, especially as an adult, is no easy task. Here, in this second installment, we follow Peg as she continues her banjo lessons with her teacher Jill. Comments welcome.

The Further Adventures of Peg and Jill: Banjo Lesson #2

Slowly Peg walked up the steps of the old house where she took her banjo lessons. She had not had a good week of practice and she was afraid Jill was going to yell at her.

She didn’t feel any better when she heard Jill saying to the student in front of her, “Dammit, Bob, you missed that C chord again. How long have we been working on this?”

“I just can’t hear it,” came the reply. “There’s no damn melody.”

“I don’t care if there isn’t any damn melody. Memorize the damn pattern. Come on in Peg. We’re done.”

Peg cautiously entered the room to see a man with a thick head of grey hair putting his guitar in the case.

“Peg, this is Bob. Bob, Peg,” said Jill, getting up out of her chair. “Go ahead and sit down, Peg, and get your banjo out. I’ll be right back.” ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Preface

I've been teaching banjo for over forty years and based on what I’ve seen most students go through many of the same experiences when they first encounter The Murphy Method. They walk away from that first lesson believing that they are the only ones who have trouble remembering things, or that they are the only ones who question my way of teaching. In the following story, I decided to get creative and explore the inside of a student's brain. Let me know what you think. There could be more….

The First Banjo Lesson

Peg was sixty years old and had never played an instrument before. Now she found herself sitting in a large, funky-decorated room, awkwardly holding her new banjo and facing Jill, a woman she’d only talked to on the phone.

From the woman’s short grey hair, Peg guessed they were about the same age. As she looked at Jill across the small space between them, Peg’s stomach churned with fear. Why in God’s name had she thought she should learn to play the banjo?

She was startled to hear Jill say, “What made you want to learn to play the banjo?”

How could she explain the thrill she had felt when she first heard a banjo at Girl Scout camp? There were always plenty of guitars around but one year an older camper had brought a banjo. Peg was smitten with the girl—her first and only girl crush—and the banjo. The crush had faded after camp but her fascination with the banjo had remained. Why had it taken her almost forty years to gather up the courage to try to play it? Life, thought Peg. Life got in the way.

“I’ve always liked the sound,” she said. That was lame but it seemed to satisfy Jill who said, “Oh, okay. Do you have any picks?” ...continue reading

The release of the new Murphy Method HD-DVDs prompted the following conversation between Sweet Murphy and Grouchy Murphy:

Sweet Murphy to Grouchy Murphy: Aren’t you excited about the new DVDs? In HD? They look great!

Grouchy Murphy: Hell, no. Do you honestly think I can get excited about teaching all these songs again, on camera? At my age? The first time I taught ‘em my hair was still brown.

new beginning banjo 1Sweet Murphy: But your white hair looks so……so, uh…..so fetching! That’s how it looks! Fetching!

Grouchy Murphy: Bite me. One thing I was happy about was moving Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Volume 2. Why I EVER thought Foggy Mountain Breakdown was a tune for a beginner I’ll never know.

Sweet Murphy: Well, you were young at the time and all excited about this new way of teaching. And everybody wants to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Grouchy Murphy: Well, now they’ll just have to wait till they have a little more experience, won’t they? They won’t get it till Volume 2.

Sweet M: You do know that they don’t have to wait, don’t you? That they can actually learn the songs in any order they choose?

Grouchy M: DON’T SAY THAT! I HATE THAT! They are supposed to learn the songs in the order I teach them on the DVDs.

Sweet M: Calm down! You do realize that you can’t control everything. You’ve done your job. You presented the songs in the best way possible. Now, let it go.

Grouchy M: But it will be so much easier for them if they just do what I tell them.

Sweet M: Why you old softie! You do care!

Grouchy M: Of course I care. Did you ever doubt it?

Sweet M: Well, yes. It wasn’t looking real good a few sentences ago.

new beginning banjo 2Grouchy M: It just makes me mad that I’ve figured out this way for people to actually learn to play the banjo. Yet, they can’t even stick to the simple program of learning the damn songs in order. Why are you laughing?

Sweet M (still chuckling): I’m sorry but you know we were raised Baptist and the picture of Jesus chewing out his disciples for not being able to watch with him for just ONE HOUR popped into my mind. Not that I think you’re Jesus…

Grouchy M: Very funny. Like you’re some saint.

Sweet M: Well, it just doesn’t upset me when people act like people. Of course they think they know better than you. You’re just the teacher. OMG, remember that time, at banjo camp? When this guy came up to you? After the faculty concert? And said he was surprised to see that you could play so well?

Grouchy M: OMG yeah! That was weird. What did I say to him?

Sweet M: Oh, I remember. You were in your best grouchy mood. Probably hadn’t had much sleep. You said, “Now, why would you think that?” He said, “Because we only get to hear you play slow on the DVDs.”

Grouchy M: Just shoot me. Do you think he would have said that to any of the guy teachers? Tony Trischka?

Sweet M: Don’t get started on that. I might have to join you. But back to the new DVDs. We’re supposed to be celebrating their release. I know you swore you’d never re-record these, and here they are, re-recorded. By you!

Grouchy M: Ha! I guess that old saying is right. “If you want to make God laugh, just tell Her your plans.” All I know is that it just came to me one day that I should do this. If you believe in Divine Intervention or a Guiding Light or Putting Your Hand In The Hand, this was it. So I done it.

new beginning banjo 3Sweet M: Stop talking that way. It’s silly. I like the way you worked in some of the new stuff you’ve been teaching, like the Roly Polys.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that worked out well. That IS one of my best new discoveries: how to teach improvising to beginners. I’m rather proud of that.

Sweet M: As you should be. And I like the way you pointed out the tricky spots in the songs. Those places where your local students have shown a remarkable tendency to screw up.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that will probably help some of the students. The ones who don’t write the damn stuff down. That really makes me mad. They are just shooting themselves in the foot.

Sweet M: Yeah and I know you wanted to say, “They’re just pulling a Gene Wooten.” But that wouldn’t be nice and besides Gene, bless his Dobro-picking heart, is gone.

Grouchy M: Well, thanks for saying it for me. Gene’s probably Up There Somewhere laughing his ass off. All I can say is, the ones who write the stuff down cannot play. It mostly makes me sad. I’m usually their last chance, for some reason, and they blow it.

Sweet M: Softie, softie! Are you turning into me? What’s that big word? The one we’ve been trying to remember? About how everything turns into its opposite?

Grouchy M: You’ve been watching way too much American Pie! You’re starting to talk like Band Camp Girl. I can’t remember that fracking word. Let me Google it.

Sweet M: And you’ve been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica.

Grouchy M: Got it. It’s “enantiodromia.” I can’t pronounce it.

Sweet M: Me neither. But it’s a cool idea.

Grouchy M: I don’t want to turn into you!

Sweet M: And I don’t want to turn into you! Hello! We are supposed to be talking about the New High Def DVDs.

Grouchy M: All I can say is that I’m glad it’s over. And I’m very happy they turned out so well. Some of my best work. Those are probably the last DVDs I will shoot. Turning it over to the Next Generation.

Sweet M: I did notice you said “probably.”

Grouchy M: Well, saying “never” didn’t work out too well, did it?

Sweet M: Got any parting words? You know folks don’t read long blogs like they used to.

Grouchy M: I am glad we included the vamping to all the songs. Glad Christopher was around to help us out. He definitely raised the glamor factor.

Sweet M: He’s also a rather good picker. And singer. He was playing with Peter Rowan at Merlefest this past weekend, wasn’t he?

Grouchy M: Oh, yeah. He’s walking in High Cotton.

Sweet M: What the heck does that even mean?

Grouchy M: I guess if the cotton is high, that means you’ve got a good crop. You know our Granddaddy was a cotton farmer, don’t you?

Sweet M: Yes, I know that. Focus, please. DVDs. Tell them about the counting off.

Grouchy M: Oh, alright! I counted off each song so the students can hear better what beat to come in on.

Sweet M: And THAT is a convoluted sentence.

Grouchy M: Oh, shut up! It’s hard to talk about that crap. That’s why I teach BY EAR. I counted the songs off. The End. (Stephen King ref.) It never occurred to me to count off before. It seemed too “hoity toity.” And I’m a terrible counter. Just ask Casey. Or Chris. I thought the students could hear what I was hearing in my head. My bad! All better now.

Sweet M: Thank you. And now go do something that makes you less grouchy. I don’t know what that would be.

Grouchy M: I do. I’m going back to my other writing. I’m digging into my college history and writing about that. That’s when I found bluegrass. Or, it found me.

Sweet M: You make it sound like it was a religious experience.

Grouchy M: I guess it was. It changed my life. I didn’t get the Name Change though. Guess I’m no Saul of Tarsus….

Sweet M: We are so out of here. Thanks for reading this far. And there you have it!

Grouchy M: Hey, that is MY line….

Sweet M: Go, go. We’re done. Buy the DVDs. Selah.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.

Last week, we undertook one of the biggest projects in our business lives and re-recorded our Murphy Method Beginning Banjo DVDs in high definition (HD), with amazing sound. I never thought I would be doing those again in this lifetime! This makes the third time Red and I have recorded these tunes, starting with our first cassette series in 1982.

One of the reasons I wanted to reshoot these lessons was to put the songs into the order than Casey and I now use in our teaching. Over the years, we have both learned how to teach more effectively and our current “best order” is what you see on these three DVDs.

Our “team” this time included not only Red and me but our son Christopher who played guitar, sang, and helped with the sound. The fourth member of the team was sixteen-year-old Kasey Smelser, my banjo/guitar/singing student, who also proved to have great skills with wardrobe and makeup. When I first taught these lessons I recorded them in our house in Florida wearing only two things: corduroy cut-offs and a tank top. When you first saw me, on our videos, I did buy a new turquoise shirt but other than that, nada. But now, being well into the “autumn” of my life, I realized I needed help. What goes good with grey hair? Kasey figured it out. She also did my makeup. And when her school duties called and she couldn’t be there to apply the “paint and powder,” Christopher stepped up to the plate and did my makeup! Is that teamwork or what? Bill Belichick would have been proud!

I was not familiar with the phrase “Teamwork Makes The Dream Work” until Christopher used it during the shooting. One of his jobs was being on the lookout for Mistakes Mama Makes. So, in the middle of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I heard, “Excuse me, Mom, I think you forgot to mention the pinch at the end of that C lick. You played it but you didn’t explain it.” After using a few choice expletives (which my mama would have whipped me for!), I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you, Chris. I’ll add a little clip talking about that pinch. Thanks for noticing.” To which he replied, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” I loved the phrase, and asked him if he had just made it up, and he said no. (I later Googled it to find out that the phrase comes from leadership expert John C. Maxwell.) So, thanks to our whole team for a great week of shooting DVDs!

So what’s different about the lessons this time? What improvements have we actually made? ...continue reading

Casey and I are excited that our Intermediate Banjo Camp is coming up soon in Winchester, Va. We’ve been in the Banjo Camp Bid-ness (as we say in the South) only a few short years and we look forward to this cozy, intimate weekend, working closely with about 20 students. We are proud to say our students always learn a lot, and they certainly have taught us a thing or two!

One thing we learned pretty quickly is that students who survive our Beginning Camp…I mean students who LOVE our Beginning Camp in October often want to continue to feed their banjo euphoria by coming to our Intermediate Camp in March. I totally get that. In fact, I encourage students to strike while the banjo is hot, because life has a way of making other plans for you, as I’m sure you all know. To support these dedicated beginners, we’ve started offering a “I Just Barely Became An Intermediate Student By The Skin Of My Banjo Head” level. Which we shorten to “Newbie Intermediates.” You all are welcome at our Intermediate Camp!

Here’s what you Newbie Intermediates can expect:

First of all, our camps differ from other camps in that we have a list of prerequisites for each camp. These songs give us a foundation for our teaching and put all the students on the same page. For instance, to attend Beginning Camp you have to be able to play:

Banjo in the Hollow

Boil Them Cabbage Down

Cripple Creek

To move on up to the Intermediate Camp, Newbie Level, you simply add three songs. (And stir!)

I Saw the Light OR Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low break) Both songs teach, for the first time, the all-important “tag lick.”

Blue Ridge Cabin Home (“roly poly” version)

Bury Me Beneath the Willow (“roly poly” version)

These six songs plus the vamping will get you into the Newbie Intermediate class. Using those songs, which everybody in the class can play, Casey and I can then teach other Intermediate Skills such as:

How to Trade Breaks in a Jam (When do I come in?)

Improvising On the Fly At a Jam (How do I come up with break to a song I’ve never played before?)

Using a Capo (How the heck do I find the vamp chords when I’ve got a capo on! I’ve lost my markers!)

How to Interchange Licks in Songs You Already Play (Really? I can do this?) Yes, you can. We call these “upgrades.”

Our focus is never on speed. We focus on helping you develop the courage to play a break in a jam by giving you the tools you need. (Which are listed above.) Nowadays, we almost never focus on teaching new songs. You can get those off of our DVDs. Instead we focus on teaching you to actually play the songs you already know in a friendly jam setting. And that’s what we do with the Newbie Intermediates.

What do we offer our Advanced Intermediates?

First of all, the Advanced Intermediate class also includes you Intermediate Intermediates (which always reminds me of the character “Major Major” in the book Catch-22). The prereqs for our Advanced Intermediates are all of the above plus a few songs of your choice from this list:

Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low and high)

John Hardy

Old Joe Clark

Lonesome Road Blues

I Saw the Light

Worried Man

Two-Dollar Bill

Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (a must!)

The Advanced Intermediate class plays faster (but not too fast!) and we move through the new material faster. In this class we almost always work on whatever new thing I am currently gung-ho about in my banjo teaching. This year it is playing in three-quarter (¾) time. Working with my own Tip Jar Jammers this past year, I have come up with a great list of songs in ¾ time that work with ¾ time roly polys: Amazing Grace, Before I Met You, In The Pines, All The Good Times Are Past and Gone, and Angel Band. We will start out with the simplest way to play these and then, if the class is willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll move on to a more complicated way.

We will also be delving into my last year’s passion, playing in the key of C without using a capo. We’ll take one or two of the three-chord songs you already know in the key of G, and learn to play it in C. Doing this usually leads us into a discussion about playing in D, which opens that can of worms labeled “I hate to tell you this, but when you capo at the second fret you’re not always playing in A.” Huh? Really? Yep, really. You could be playing in the key of D! Casey and I will explain all. And then we’ll let YOU play in D—based on what we just learned to play in C.

Our goal in this camp and all our camps is to help you become better banjo players. We want you to walk in on Friday playing at one level and walk out on Sunday playing at a higher level. We do this by playing the songs—over and over and over—that you already know how to play. Sometimes we will play them at different capoed positions, usually A (two frets) or C (five frets). We also encourage you, gently, to play improvised breaks to simple, three-chord songs that you’ve never played before. But this is only after we show you how.

To support everything that you’ve learned during the day classes, we offer instructor-led jams at night in which everyone who wants to play breaks gets to play breaks. In these jams, we play slow for the Newbies and faster for the more advanced players. Kathy Hanson has been our jam leader for the last few years and we are excited to have her back again this year.

If spending a weekend actually playing the banjo, in company with like-minded people and under the tutelage of two seasoned, caring teachers (one more seasoned that the other!), sounds like your cup of tea, join us in Winchester, Va., home of Patsy Cline and Lynn Morris. All the details are here.

This month, in this Season of Giving, I want to share a story that my friend Ben Smelser wrote. Ben is a back-slidden banjo student, a bass player, and father of Tip Jar Jam fashionista Kasey Smelser. I’ve shared some of Ben’s wisdom before and I’ve also shared some of his non-wisdom, like the time he kept working on Fireball Mail after Casey Henry, his banjo teacher, told him not to!

The Universe dropped Ben into our lives when one of my students backed into tree alongside our driveway and I decided to have the offending object removed. (Tree, not student!) Thus, I stumbled onto Smelser’s Tree Service. This tree removal begat banjo lessons and which begat playmates for grandson Dalton (Ben, Kasey, and his grandson Cam), which begat a babysitter for Dalton (Kasey), which begat a friendship between two families. When we visited Ben’s family for a Fourth of July party, I admired the gorgeous table he’d made for his wife, Tina, and I said I’d love to have a table like that. Ben being Ben, the rest is history. Here is the story, originally handwritten, that Ben delivered along with the table.

I Am Your Table

img_5847
I am your table. If you are reading this, then I have made it into the home in which I will stay. You see, I wasn’t always like this. So take a second and admire my beauty.

Many years ago I stood tall and proud. I was a walnut tree in a family’s yard. I’ve seen many seasons come and go. I’ve survived powerful thunderstorms, crippling ice, blazing hot summers, droughts, and snow up to my first limb. My canopy was huge and it shaded the family home and the children who played under me. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve held the nest of many robins and watched the mother care for and nurture her young until they took flight. Squirrels would race across my limbs gathering nuts. Kids would swing from my branches. An old man napped in his hammock while I held him and I cherished that.

...continue reading