Tip Jar Jams: The Boss of the Song!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

One of the fun things that has developed in the Tip Jar Jams--at least for me--is the singing, especially the harmony singing. Tuesday Janet, Diane, Kasey, and I had some great three-part harmony going in the key of C. And how can we have three-part harmony with four people? Easy! Two people usually sing the lead or two people sing the tenor. We call that "doubling" the part. One time Janet even sang the baritone part along with me!

Harmony Singing DVDSmall diversion: In case you are not familiar with bluegrass harmony terms, "tenor" is NOT a vocal range, as it might be in church singing or opera. It's a vocal harmony part. Tenor is usually the harmony part that is sung right above the lead. "Baritone" is also NOT a vocal range, it, too, is a harmony part. It is usually the harmony part that is sung below the lead. So the three bluegrass harmony parts are: lead, tenor, baritone. They can be stacked in any order, but that's too much to get into here! Janet Beazley explains it all extremely well--and very simply--on our Harmony Singing Made Easy DVD. I highly recommend it!

In the Janet-Diane-Kasey-Murphy stack, Diane usually sings lead, Kasey doubles this part (sometimes so quietly I can't even hear her sing!), Janet sings tenor, and I sing baritone. These jams are really helping me improve my baritone singing! When Kasey takes the main lead, Janet and Diane take the tenor or double the lead (on the chorus only). This Tuesday Kasey brought a new song into the jam: Rocky Top! She sang it in A. Of course, Kenney had learned it in G on the bass, so as I told him, "You're [s-word meaning in trouble]!" Because his "off" minor chord was F-sharp. Nevertheless, we made it through and we will keep the song in the jam because our Fashionista wants to sing it! And she did her usual great job.

Wednesday Kathy Hanson and I did some excellent duo singing, sometimes with her singing lead and me singing baritone and sometimes with me singing lead and her singing tenor. Why the different harmony parts? When Kathy sings lead, in the key of C, the tenor part is too high for me to sing, so I sing the baritone part under her. And when I sing lead in C, the baritone part is too low for her, so she sings tenor. As you can see, the harmony part is all about your own personal voice range AND the key the song is being sung in (to use bluegrass grammar!).

When Kathy was singing Will The Circle Be Unbroken I noticed that she phrased her words on the chorus a little differently from the way I sing it when I'm taking the lead. The particular part I'm talking about was "by and by, Lord, by and by." So since she was the boss of the song (the lead singer) it was up to me to try to make my phrasing match hers. I spent five choruses trying to get it right and finally the last time I got close. Not that it matters in a jam, but our harmony sounded so good I wanted to make it as tight as possible.

We were singing so well together that I decided to try singing a song we'd never done in the jam and that Kathy had never heard, Purple Robe by the Stanley Brothers. (Bobby and I sing this often in his lesson.) I knew the jammers could do it because the chord pattern is simple (I, IV, I, V or "criss-cross" as I have been calling it) and the tempo is slow. But here is the gauntlet I threw down to Kathy: See if you can catch the tenor on the chorus. Because, to me, this song is hardly worth doing if you don't have harmony. Now, remember, she'd never heard the song before and I'm asking her to sing tenor. But, as I told her, this is the way it's done in a jam. One person chooses a song and hopes that someone can jump in on the tenor part. And when that happens, it's magic!

I know Kathy is a good "words" person (remember "no sign of a bra!") and the chorus has some repetitive words, so both these things made the song doable:
Purple robe my Savior wore

Oh the shame for me he bore

As he stood alone forsaken on that day

And they placed upon his head 

Piercing thorns of blood-stained red

The man who wore the scarlet purple robe.*


That last line is also the last line of each verse, so Kathy would hear those words a lot.

So after I explained "catching the words and the tenor harmony" to Kathy, I said, "And, of course, you'll need to improvise a banjo break, too."

"Say what?" was the look on her face!

I am proud to say she came through with flying colors on both counts. (I'd be very interested to hear your take on this Kathy!) Did she sing every single word? Of course not, but she had some sort of "humming" tenor harmony going on and by the end of the song, she was getting a lot of the words, especially "purple robe." To me, this is the essence of jamming--creating something new, a new song with a new tenor singer. It is magic!

After the song, I see Bob Mc and Bob A conversing in low tones, like schoolboys. So, like a grade school teacher, I ask them what they are talking about. It turns out that they noticed that Purple Robe has the same chord pattern as Foggy Mountain Top, which Kathy had sung earlier. I hadn't thought of that, but I did notice that Bob took a really good improvised lead break.

Then Bob A, who plays guitar, makes a comment about Bob Mc's banjo improv saying, "It looks like you're only doing some rolls in some different chords." Naturally, his choice of words "you're only doing" got me riled up! Sure, it looks easy, but......! (When I think of all those hours Bob Mc and I spent on improvising!) Then we got into a fairly long conversation about the difference in improvising on banjo and improvising on guitar, which is too detailed to go into here. If I remember, I'll try to talk about that sometime. Remind me!

I mustn't fail to give a shout-out to Kristina for playing her new Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms break in A. It was perfect! As I keep telling you, mandolin players don't use capos so Kristina's breaks are "key specific" which means the key of A has completely different fingering and a much different feel. She's also working on Daybreak in Dixie in A and should be ready to unveil that after Thanksgiving. No pressure, though!

NOTE ON UPCOMING JAMS: We will be jamming next Tuesday, November 26 in Winchester but NO JAM on Wednesday, December 27, the day before Thanksgiving.

We will be jamming in Frederick, Maryland, this Sunday, November 24, from 3-5 pm. Call for directions and more info. Beginners welcome at all the jams!

* Note to word sticklers: I know the last line of Purple Robe is really, at least in places, "His raiment was a scarlet purple robe," but the word "raiment" is extremely hard to "hear" on the fly and it's an old word that's not in common usage anymore and when I first learned the song I heard the last line as "The man who wore the scarlet purple robe" and, to me, that phrasing still makes more sense and is more singable. So since I was the boss of the song, not Carter Stanley, I got to sing it my way!

One thought on “Tip Jar Jams: The Boss of the Song!

  1. Kathy Hanson

    As requested by Murphy in this blog entry, I’ll try to give you my perspective of last night’s venture into uncharted waters. First – what a great jam it was! Not only was the group comprised of some of the nicest folks I know, Murphy was able to take advantage of the smaller group size (3 Bobs, 2 Ks) to push us hard in areas like speed, new songs, improvising breaks, etc. While challenging, it was also exhilerating!

    Tis true that Murphy caught me off guard with the challenge she threw down about trying to join her on the chorus with a tenor harmony part….to a song I’ve never even heard of, let alone heard. She added terror to apprehension when, just before she kicked off the song, she casually added, “Oh, and you need to improvise a break.”

    While her praise was glowing (after all, I am paying her), it reminded me a bit of what my mother might have said about my effort. In other words, VERY generous. What might be of interest to those of you who find yourself in a similar situation in a jam, or heaven forbid, knee-to-knee with The Murph, is this: As soon as the song was mercifully ended, I realized that I had been too ambitious. As Murphy said, the song is a pretty standard chord progression, and did follow one I had just played, so that should have been something for which I let my “instincts” take over. But remember, I didn’t know what the actual progression was going to be until we got into to it, so I was concentrating hard on committing to memory what the pattern was. In the midst of that commitment, the chorus snuck up on me, and I bifurcated my brain and tried to simultaneously listen to the words and commit those to my already-overloaded 52-year-old memory. Lemme tellya, that is a LOT of commitment going on! Especially because hanging over alll of that mental chaos was the black cloud knowledge of my upcoming improvised break.

    So in retrospect, I realized I would have been better off letting my Murphy Method “training” kick in and trust it to get me through hearing the chord changes and improvising a break, and saving my limited brain capacity for getting the words to the chorus in my head. I think that even the melody of the chorus would have been something I could have heard without trying too hard if I had just relaxed a little more. The old Zen/John Burroughs adage, “Leap and the net will appear” couldn’t be more appropriate. And FYI, declinging was not an option. I have learned one definitive thing in my first year of Murphy’s tutelage: Banjo players never turn down a break.

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