Bob’s Excellent Lesson

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Bob Mc gets his own (long) blog today, because he had such a great lesson on Tuesday that I just have to tell you about it.

You know how I’m always talking about improvising and lick substitution? Well, Tuesday night Bob and I started working on having him substitute the Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms lick into a bunch of songs he already played. It worked like a charm.

This is especially gratifying to me because Bob and I have a long history with “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” that goes back to the days when I was still giving lessons at Brill’s Barber Shop.

I forget now how Bob and I first got together, but I distinctly remember Dalton, who owned the shop and cut Bob’s hair, telling me, “You’ll like him.” And I did. Immediately.

Bob, who is somewhere in the middle of his life, came to me with no previously musical experience but with great determination. “You’ll have to kick me out,” he said more than once. “I won’t ever quit.” I haven’t kicked him out for three or four years now.

Now, learning the tunes themselves did not pose much of a problem for Bob. His hurdles were learning to hear the chord changes and getting back into the break if he made a mistake. The one tune he had trouble with was “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which we first tackled a couple of years ago. For some inexplicable reason, Bob made a mistake when he learned that beginning phrase, the one I call the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arm” lick and he practiced it wrong all week. At his next lesson, I pointed out the error and we practiced it correctly many times. I was certain he understood the lick when he left. When he got home, however, he backslid bad and practiced it wrong. So we were back to square one. This happened a number of times.

Finally I said to Bob, “I’ve got a suggestion that I think you’re not going to like.” Bob, in his friendly, smiling way, said, “Try me out.” I said, “I think we need to leave ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ alone for a while. If I ask you NOT to practice it, do you think you can? Will you promise me?” And good-hearted soul that he is, he agreed and stuck to his word. We left it alone for two or three months. When we finally got back to it, he was further along with his playing and was able, with some hard work, to finally play it right.

Fast forward two years. Bob’s been taking lessons steadily, an hour a week, he’s been practicing as much as he can, he’s been jamming with the Misfits, and he’s been listening to lots of bluegrass. He’s also learned “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” both of which use the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” lick. Chord changes still present a challenge, but he is beginning to be able to come back in more often when he makes a mistake.

So recently he had this song he wanted to learn. It is called “Keeper of the Door” by the Gillis Brothers. (I like the Gillis Brothers a lot because they sound so much like the Stanley Brothers.) There’s no banjo break on the song, so I just made up something consisting of licks that Bob already knew. I did have to show him a short (two-beat) D lick. He learned the break easily and I recorded it the old-fashioned way: onto a cassette! Then, at this week’s lesson, we played it again, and lo and behold, he had used the Ralph Stanley D lick out of “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” as the short D lick. I was very impressed. Way to go, Bob!

I guess it was his own substitution that sparked my idea to have him try using the “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” lick. I could hear the lick so clearly in my own head, that I didn’t even realize that we would be playing it against a C chord and then a D chord. It’s a little unorthodox to do that, but, hey, it works.

So I explained what I wanted him to do, probably saying something like, “Just put it in on that last line.” He immediately wanted to know how many beats were in the lick. Well, that’s not the way my mind works—I don’t think in beats—so I had to figure out how many beats it was (eight if you count the tag lick as part of the lick, which I do). I said, “It will take the place of your C lick and your D lick.” Then, because I wasn’t being clear, he thought he would have to do two tag licks. I said, no, the tag lick that is part of the “Roll” lick will take the place of the tag lick you’re already doing. I think I even said that one would be “superimposed” on the other. (We just don’t have the language to talk about this stuff! But Bob and I are used to our occasional miscommunications, so we just keep trying till we figure out what the other person is trying to say!) We finally got things untangled so that he understood that there would be just one tag lick.

So, with me backing him on guitar, off we went, and by golly, after all that talk, he laid that lick right in there. It was perfect! So we did that a couple more times just to make sure the lick was solid. It was.

Then I said, “Let’s try that same lick in some other songs you know.” So we went through the low break to “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Worried Man,” “John Hardy,” and even “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Bob hit them all pretty much the first time. We had a little problem with “John Hardy” in that, after he did the “Roll” lick, he automatically went to the pinches afterwards. Well, that screwed up the entrance to “John Hardy” which, as I’m sure you remember, has all those pickup notes. So I said, “You have to learn how to get back in if you play those pinches. So where you want to hit it is on the down beat. It’s in the first C lick.” (I might have played it for him, I’m not sure.) But by golly, he understood what I was saying—understood where the down beat was—and hit that C lick every time. I was flabbergasted. I was pretty much sitting there, playing the guitar with my mouth open. Bob was clicking on all cylinders and I felt so happy to see him playing so well. It was like he had broken through a mental barrier, a playing barrier, and all of a sudden could “hear” what we’d been working on for so long. I was so proud of him. I think he was even proud of himself. And maybe a little bit surprised.

I reminded him of all the trouble we’d had with learning “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to begin with. He hadn’t forgotten! And now he was just throwing that lick in right and left, as if he owned it. Which he did! And when you get to this stage, when you can “hear” lick substitutions, it makes playing so blessedly simple. You hear a lick, you play it. And nobody sees or knows about all the hard work that has gone before.

I might have kept going longer than our appointed hour, but as a Christmas present Bob had brought me a tin of one of my favorite confections, homemade buckeyes—the candy that looks like, well, buckeyes, and has a chocolate outside wrapped around a peanut butter filling in the middle. YUM!

So thanks for the excellent lesson, Bob. Moments like this make me realize how much I love my job. I’m looking forward to more breakthroughs like this. And who knows? Maybe it was the buckeyes that set everything in motion. Bring some more the next time and we’ll test that theory!

4 thoughts on “Bob’s Excellent Lesson

  1. Martin Bacon

    Dear Murphy,

    Another excellent blog and congratulations to Bob! I was wondering if you could speak more to how you “think” of the music. I think you are saying that you just hear the music and what lick will fit into what you hear. If that is so do you think that is always how it was for you or was there a time when you had to know that a tune starts with 8 beats of G and ends with a split G-D lick? The process of how you got to where you are seems like a roadmap for how to get further along. Merry Christmas!!!


  2. Bill

    wondering if you possibly know who originally wrote and released Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms? please email if you know… thanks, Bill

  3. admin

    Hi Bill,

    Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms is a Flatt and Scruggs Song. They both wrote and recorded in the early fifties.

    Casey Henry

  4. admin

    Murphy says:

    “Re Roll in Arms: I’m afraid that song predated F & S. Buster Carter and Preston Young recorded it way back in 1931!! With banjo and Posey Rorer on fiddle.I know this because Red used to say it so often in his rap preceding our rendition of said number!

    But the banjo break we teach is most certainly Earl’s!!!!”

    Thanks for the correction!!

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