Square Dancing (With Bluegrass Content)

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(This is, like, way long! Sorry! As Virginia Woolf says, “Nothing has really happened unless it has been recorded.”)

This past weekend I had the unbelievably fun experience of spending Friday and Saturday at a square dance festival at the Hilton Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Oh, my! [Here's a clip] of one of the dances. You can see Murphy at the 3:20 mark on the right side of the screen, a little ways back in the crowd, wearing a turquoise skirt, buff-colored shirt, dancing with a tall guy with a mustache dressed in black.]

We danced from 10 a.m. till 11 or 12 p.m. both days with an hour off for dinner and supper. Okay, I didn’t dance the whole time—because thanks to the IBMA World of Bluegrass and Banjo Camps I have learned to pace myself--but by golly, I didn’t miss much!

Two of my most memorable hours were spent doing the “Hot Hash” and “Die Hard” dances. In “Hot Hash” the caller calls just as fast as he can, giving you zero time to think. You only have time to react. And you better get it right! (Sorta like trying to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown really fast in a jam.) If we “get back home” without train wrecking, it’s whoops and hollers all the way around. As my old friend Becky (also a new dancer) tells people about square dancing, “It’s the most fun you can have without drinking!”

The “Die Hard” dance, from 11 p.m. till midnight, was the last dance of the weekend. All the callers participated and you danced for one solid hour with NO time to sit down between songs. As soon as one song was over, another caller stepped to the mike to start the next one. (Picture an hour-long jam with maybe thirty seconds between songs!) By the end of the dance, I was ready to collapse and head back upstairs to make good friends with a brewski.

But no! The bluegrass part of the evening was just beginning! We were walking toward the elevators when we met some of the folks from our local square dance clubs who basically said, Go get your banjo and come with us. So my friend Becky and I fly up to the room, rip off our sweaty clothes (both exclaiming about how wonderful it is to peel off our panty hose), throw on our jeans, grab the banjo, and head back down.

We have to walk a long way in the hotel to wherever it is we’re going. As we’re trudging along, one of the guys says, “Murph, can I carry your banjo for you?” I said, “Thanks, but I consider it a point of honor to carry my own banjo.” (Wishing like heck I’d never written that Banjo Newsletter column 27 years ago that advised girls to “carry your own banjo.” What was I thinking? Probably that I’d never grow old!)

We get to where we’re going and find it’s the prestigious After Party for everyone who put on the festival and all the callers. Lots of food and, hallelujah, beer! Nick, the guitarist, and I set our instruments down and head for the buffet line. Nick, a Past Director of the Festival, says, “Let’s just wait and see what develops.” Fine by me, I was starving. I load up on cheese and crackers, shrimp, chips, and celery and go sit down. Someone brings me a beer but my Spider Sense is tingling and I think I may have a chance to sing my square dance song, so after a couple of sips, I set it aside.

After a little eating, a little talking, and a passing of the torch to next year’s directors, Nick says, “Let’s go get our instruments.” We bring them back to the main room, tune up, and say to each other “What shall we start with?” (Nick and I have played together possibly a total of 20 minutes at two square dance lessons. He used to play country music for a lot of dances in the local area a few years back and is very good at following tunes by ear.) Nick suggests Going Down The Road Feeling Bad and with no introduction or anything, we start playing. We’ve never played it together before, but of course it’s nothing but Lonesome Road Blues. I kick it off (low break) and slowly people stop talking and start listening. Very cool. I am the Center of Attention and Loving It.

After we do this one, Nick says to me, “Do you think you could do your Square Dance Song?” I say calmly, “I would love to.” (Inside I’m going WHOO HOO!) So now Nick stands up and starts talking about me being a New Dancer who loves dancing so much that I wrote this song about it. I whisper to him, “Tell them it’s a gospel square dance song, so they’ll have some idea what to expect.”

I grab my capo, throw it on at the second fret, and prepare to play out of D position. “What key?” says Nick. “E,” I say. (We have actually played through the song two or three times but it was several weeks ago.) I stand up, grab a D position, and try to set some sort of rhythm for Nick. It’s that weird Stanley Brothers 6/8 time: 4th, pinch, pinch, 3rd, pinch, pinch. As I sing I mostly just strum the banjo using my thumb. I feel like a cross between Grandpa Jones and String Bean. “When the time comes around, to Load the Old Boat for Glory...” People are still talking, but as I start singing they quieten down to listen. One of the callers, the great Mike Sikorsky, stands up to listen to me.

I realize at the moment I start singing that the cold I have been fighting off all week has now settled in my throat and I don’t have much of a voice. Too bad, I think. Just do the best you can. I try to sing with conviction and the love I put into this song. I just hope they can hear me.

I feel a great joy at getting to sing my square dance song for a room full of people who will recognize all the calls I am singing about. When I sing “It was Relay the Deucy and look out for Lucy” they know what I’m talking about! When I sing the line my square dance instructor (and co-author) Mike wanted me to change so that the choreography made sense, I look at him and grin. By the time I sing the chorus for the fourth and last time, people are starting to sing along with me! “If you get to the dance hall before me, my darling, save me a square on the floor.” That was awesome. Then the people really clapped. They liked it!

Nick and I sat back down and played a few more songs: Foggy Mountain Breakdown, You Are My Sunshine, Red River Valley. Then Nick wisely said, “Let’s leave ‘em wanting more.” So we finished off with Down Yonder. As I was putting my banjo away, a man came up and took Nick’s guitar from him (with permission of course) and started doing the Dueling Banjos riff. There was nothing to do but put my picks back on and answer him. I felt like I was on the set of Deliverance! The on-the-spot arrangement might have had a few rough edges, but it was all in good fun and the folks loved it.

As I was packing up the banjo for the second time, a number of folks came up to say they liked my song. I had made up a few CDs of the song to pass out, and wished I had made more. I can’t tell you how rewarding and connecting it is to write a song and have it touch people and make them feel something. It is one of life’s great pleasures to me. And I hope I have given a little tiny bit of something back to the square dance world which has already given me so much.

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