Tip Jar Jam: New Songs and Perfect Rhythm

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

We were cooking last night! With four banjos (Ben, Kasey, Dan, Kathy G) and three guitars (Bobby, Diane, and moi), we explored several new singing songs and had a religious experience with rhythm!

One of the new singing songs was When The Roses Bloom Again Beside The River, which Bobby brought to his lesson and I incorporated into the jam. Originally done by the Carter Family (as far as I know), the song was written in 1901. (Google: words by Will D. Cobb, music by Jeff Tweedy. Will D. Cobb also wrote that great song School Days which has that line "reading, and writing, and 'rithmetic".) I tell you all that because I'm constantly ragging Bobby that this song is a "Tin Pan Alley song," written by a songwriter in New York City. I didn't know that songwriter was Will Cobb, but I could tell from the lyrics (cliches such as "rattle of the battle" and "strolling in the gloaming") that it didn't come from the pen of Bill Monroe or Hazel Dickens!  As the great historian Bill Malone wrote when talking about the songs in the country music repertoire, "The country folk didn't care where a song came from, as long as it was a good song." Who knows where A.P. Carter found this song, but it was found, recorded, and thus preserved.

I like it because it's a three-chord song that Bobby can sing in the key of C, thus adding some much-need diversity to the sameness of our womyn-led singing in C. (I Saw The Light/I'll Fly Away/Circle/Do Lord.) I also like the fact that the progression goes unexpectedly to the V chord which means the banjo players have to listen up attention while they are working out their Roly Poly breaks. But best of all, as Kathy G pointed out last night, Bobby and I have good harmony on the chorus! "When the roses bloom again beside the river, and the robin red-breast sings his sweet refrain..." [Note to Bobby: Woody Guthrie sings "mockingbird" not robin....Google it!]

But enough about Bobby! When Ben swapped his banjo for the bass halfway through the jam, I decided we needed to do some songs in the Key of B. I could see Ben was tired and wore-out from cutting trees all day in the heat so I figured I'd really pour it on him and add to his misery! (The Key of B on the bass has no open strings, so you're always having to hold down two strings of a chord. Strains your muscles, hurts your hands, requires lots of concentration.) I also thought that everyone would enjoy and could handle some new songs, played fast! The first one that popped into mind was Monroe's I'm On My Way Back To The Old Home. I gave it the old Mac Wiseman kickoff (strumming the first chord) and let 'er rip: "Back in the days of my childhood..." I nodded to Dan for the first break and he nailed it, using the short, two-beat D lick that he's been working on.

PREACHING: What Dan did--taking an excellent Scruggs-style break to a song he'd never even heard--is the total point of the Roly Polys. You don't have time to make up a break that follows the melody. So if you want to play anything, you have to use "licks" and if you want it to sound "good" (that is, like Earl) then you have to learn Earl's licks. Lord have mercy, the concept is so simple!

Back to the Blog: Kathy G also took a text-book Roly Poly break (that is, if we used books!) and Kasey followed her with a break based on her favorite Scruggs lick, the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arm lick. (It eats up turf!)

In addition to the great breaks, our rhythm was incredible! We were tight! And that, my friends, is what bluegrass music all about. Achieving that tight rhythm which feels sooooooooo good! (Ditto tight harmony.) I pointed that out the jammers after we ended the song. "Did you feel that? Did you feel how tight our rhythm was? Did you feel how we were all together? That's what all your hard work is for, that "one brief shining moment." ("...that was known as Camelot!")

That rhythmic high carried me through the rest of the jam. And now that we'd experienced it, I could more easily point out to the group when we WEREN'T playing together.

After one more new song in B (In Despair, another Monroe composition, suggested by Dan), I took pity on Ben and we moved back to G for Foggy Mountain Breakdown. From there we went into D, so Casey and Dan could play their D tunes: Soldier's Joy, Liberty, and Arkansas Traveler. I even had mercy on Bobby and didn't ask him to take guitar breaks! (Who loves ya, Bobby?)

We closed out with Bobby singing Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms. (Note: I recently decided to flip the gender on one of the verses. It comes out like this: Now Papa was a beauty operator, Brother could weave and could spin, Mama owned an interest in that old cotton mill, She's watching that money roll in! I love the part about Mama rolling in the money! Go, Mama! Chicos! Walmart!)

After the song was over, Dan noted that when Kasey took her break (Earl's break) she used the same lick, the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick) for both the first phrase and the last phrase. Ever the teacher, I pointed out that at the beginning of the break Earl plays that lick against a G chord, and at the end of the break he plays it against a D chord, which gives that phrase a lovely bluegrass discordance. If you're really interested, listen to Lester and Earl's original Mercury recording of this song (has to be the original). If you have banjo ears, it will knock your socks off!

We'll be jamming next week, Tuesday and Wednesday, July 15 and 16, 7-9. All Murphy Method students are welcome. Suggested tip $20.

Note to Women Banjo Campers: Don't forget our pre-camp Tip Jar Jam, Thursday, July 17, 7-9 at the Courtyard Marriott, the same place we'll be holding the camp. Suggested tip: $20. If you're coming really early in the week, you are also welcome at the Tuesday and Wednesday jams which will be at my TP (Teaching Place)! "And we'll have fun, fun, fun till someone takes our banjos away!"