Tip Jar Jam #21: That’s The Weirdest Thing You’ve Ever Done

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Okay, the title of this blog is not from the jam. Instead, it comes to you courtesy of one of my new beginning banjo students. He met with a business friend for lunch last week and was telling said friend of his latest endeavor, banjo lessons. His friend replied, "That's the weirdest thing you've ever done." That struck me as funny so I'm passing it on!


I woke up this morning wondering how Ben was doing with the tree he had to cut down. He was stewing about it all during the jam to the extent that he couldn't even remember that he and daughter Kasey could play Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, a song we sing almost every week. A client had called him in the middle of the jam last night saying that he--the client--had tried to cut down a big tree near his house and had made the "notch" in the wrong place and had gotten the saw hung up and would Ben come and fix it. Since it was dark Ben declined but said he would cancel some of his other tree work and be there early the next morning. But Ben was worried that the tree might fall on the guy's house which is a powerful distraction when you're trying to play banjo.


We were ten strong last night, with all three Bobs present again: Bob V, Janet, Kathy, Barbara (on guitar), Scott, Bob A, Ben, Kasey, Bob Mc, and Kenney. This is pretty much our core group now. We always welcome new pickers and guest pickers, but there is something comfortable about a session with the regulars. We can do our "core" material with few problems now. Even songs that were troublesome at first like Lonesome Road Blues and Old Joe Clark are smooth sailing.


And last night we had a special treat.


As you may remember, Kasey, Ben's almost-teenage daughter and our resident fashion queen (she was dressed in delicious hot pink last night with sparkly shoes) has been taking some singing lessons from me. She has a strong clear voice and is not afraid to put some power into her presentation. Ben told me that they had been singing together some at home, so I asked him to sit in on her next lesson so I could check that out. Well! As it turns out, Ben is quite the singer himself. When I asked him to sing Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which was Kasey's lesson this week, he just rared back and let 'er fly. I had started him off in the Key of G because, as Julie Andrews says, "it's a very good place to start." But Kasey, being a girl, sings Circle in the higher key of C. So I was curious. How did their singing together work? Did he sing the lead in a "low" voice (an octave lower)? Did he sing the lead in a falsetto voice? Did he sing a harmony? As it turned out, he could also sing the lead to Circle in the key of C in his normal singing voice. It was a little out of his range, but it still sounded fine.


Now that I knew that Ben could sing along with Kasey, I thought she might be willing make her solo singing debut in the jam. She hemmed and hawed a little bit when I asked her, but with her dad sitting right there, with encouragement written all over his face, how could she say no? I suggested I Saw the Light, a song we play almost every week. We usually do it in G, with Bob Van singing, but Kasey had been working on singing it in C. And the jammers been doing some songs in C already, so I knew they could handle it.


I asked Kasey how many verses she could do without looking at the words she had printed out on paper. She said she thought she could do the first verse and the chorus. Ben said he thought he knew the words to the other two verses if I could prompt him. So they got out out their banjos and we gave it a run through. No problem!


I hope you're noticing how much thought and planning and attention to detail goes into singing a song in a bluegrass jam. Especially for the first time. As I keep telling my students: this stuff ain't easy! Even though it looks easy! You have to know the key you sing in, you have to know the words, you have to understand the bluegrass "way" of arranging a song--kickoff, sing verse/chorus; break, sing verse/chorus; break, sing verse/chorus, repeat the last line and end it. And, while it's not strictly necessary, it helps if you can kick off the song on your instrument. What is essential is that you be able to come in singing on time after the kickoff and after each break.


Kasey and Ben performed beautifully at the jam. Interestingly enough, Kasey actually knew the words to all three verses, once I prompted her. I think she's one of those lucky folks who memorize words to songs unconsciously, just from hearing them sung so much.


Ben showed such strength as a singer that I asked him to sing Keeper of the Door for our next to the last song. That song has always been way too low for me in the Key of G, but I dared not move it any higher because Bob Mc had learned some fancy Scruggs backup to it from Casey and I knew he would lose all his place markers if we went to A! Ben did a great job, so guess who will be singing that song from now on? And as he was singing, I noticed Kasey's sparkly shoe resting against his work boot. Too sweet!


As you can see (if you made it this far!), singing is becoming a big part of our jam. And I love, love, love to see the students beginning to sing.


I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Kathy played an excellent trick on me before the jam. She offered me some peppermint candy that she said was really good. ("I got it in South Carolina.") It was in a cute little wooden box with a wooden lid that slid open. As I was pulling the lid off in expectation of sugary goodness......BOOM! Out jumped a mouse! Naturally, I screamed. And, naturally, Kathy was busting a gut laughing while videoing me on her Iphone. Since Bob V and Janet (laughing also) had stood by and let it happen, I pointed my finger at each of them in turn and said, "Damn you! And damn you! And damn you!" (Metaphorically speaking, of course! And the mouse was fake.) Too funny!


Alright! I'm done! We jam every Wednesday night from 7-9. Come join us.


And don't forget our Longest Day Jam, on Friday, June 21, from 9 am - 9 pm, to raise money for Alzheimer's research. Thanks to everyone who has so GENEROUSLY donated already!