Author Archives: Murphy Henry

The release of the new Murphy Method HD-DVDs prompted the following conversation between Sweet Murphy and Grouchy Murphy:

Sweet Murphy to Grouchy Murphy: Aren’t you excited about the new DVDs? In HD? They look great!

Grouchy Murphy: Hell, no. Do you honestly think I can get excited about teaching all these songs again, on camera? At my age? The first time I taught ‘em my hair was still brown.

new beginning banjo 1Sweet Murphy: But your white hair looks so……so, uh…..so fetching! That’s how it looks! Fetching!

Grouchy Murphy: Bite me. One thing I was happy about was moving Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Volume 2. Why I EVER thought Foggy Mountain Breakdown was a tune for a beginner I’ll never know.

Sweet Murphy: Well, you were young at the time and all excited about this new way of teaching. And everybody wants to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Grouchy Murphy: Well, now they’ll just have to wait till they have a little more experience, won’t they? They won’t get it till Volume 2.

Sweet M: You do know that they don’t have to wait, don’t you? That they can actually learn the songs in any order they choose?

Grouchy M: DON’T SAY THAT! I HATE THAT! They are supposed to learn the songs in the order I teach them on the DVDs.

Sweet M: Calm down! You do realize that you can’t control everything. You’ve done your job. You presented the songs in the best way possible. Now, let it go.

Grouchy M: But it will be so much easier for them if they just do what I tell them.

Sweet M: Why you old softie! You do care!

Grouchy M: Of course I care. Did you ever doubt it?

Sweet M: Well, yes. It wasn’t looking real good a few sentences ago.

new beginning banjo 2Grouchy M: It just makes me mad that I’ve figured out this way for people to actually learn to play the banjo. Yet, they can’t even stick to the simple program of learning the damn songs in order. Why are you laughing?

Sweet M (still chuckling): I’m sorry but you know we were raised Baptist and the picture of Jesus chewing out his disciples for not being able to watch with him for just ONE HOUR popped into my mind. Not that I think you’re Jesus…

Grouchy M: Very funny. Like you’re some saint.

Sweet M: Well, it just doesn’t upset me when people act like people. Of course they think they know better than you. You’re just the teacher. OMG, remember that time, at banjo camp? When this guy came up to you? After the faculty concert? And said he was surprised to see that you could play so well?

Grouchy M: OMG yeah! That was weird. What did I say to him?

Sweet M: Oh, I remember. You were in your best grouchy mood. Probably hadn’t had much sleep. You said, “Now, why would you think that?” He said, “Because we only get to hear you play slow on the DVDs.”

Grouchy M: Just shoot me. Do you think he would have said that to any of the guy teachers? Tony Trischka?

Sweet M: Don’t get started on that. I might have to join you. But back to the new DVDs. We’re supposed to be celebrating their release. I know you swore you’d never re-record these, and here they are, re-recorded. By you!

Grouchy M: Ha! I guess that old saying is right. “If you want to make God laugh, just tell Her your plans.” All I know is that it just came to me one day that I should do this. If you believe in Divine Intervention or a Guiding Light or Putting Your Hand In The Hand, this was it. So I done it.

new beginning banjo 3Sweet M: Stop talking that way. It’s silly. I like the way you worked in some of the new stuff you’ve been teaching, like the Roly Polys.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that worked out well. That IS one of my best new discoveries: how to teach improvising to beginners. I’m rather proud of that.

Sweet M: As you should be. And I like the way you pointed out the tricky spots in the songs. Those places where your local students have shown a remarkable tendency to screw up.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that will probably help some of the students. The ones who don’t write the damn stuff down. That really makes me mad. They are just shooting themselves in the foot.

Sweet M: Yeah and I know you wanted to say, “They’re just pulling a Gene Wooten.” But that wouldn’t be nice and besides Gene, bless his Dobro-picking heart, is gone.

Grouchy M: Well, thanks for saying it for me. Gene’s probably Up There Somewhere laughing his ass off. All I can say is, the ones who write the stuff down cannot play. It mostly makes me sad. I’m usually their last chance, for some reason, and they blow it.

Sweet M: Softie, softie! Are you turning into me? What’s that big word? The one we’ve been trying to remember? About how everything turns into its opposite?

Grouchy M: You’ve been watching way too much American Pie! You’re starting to talk like Band Camp Girl. I can’t remember that fracking word. Let me Google it.

Sweet M: And you’ve been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica.

Grouchy M: Got it. It’s “enantiodromia.” I can’t pronounce it.

Sweet M: Me neither. But it’s a cool idea.

Grouchy M: I don’t want to turn into you!

Sweet M: And I don’t want to turn into you! Hello! We are supposed to be talking about the New High Def DVDs.

Grouchy M: All I can say is that I’m glad it’s over. And I’m very happy they turned out so well. Some of my best work. Those are probably the last DVDs I will shoot. Turning it over to the Next Generation.

Sweet M: I did notice you said “probably.”

Grouchy M: Well, saying “never” didn’t work out too well, did it?

Sweet M: Got any parting words? You know folks don’t read long blogs like they used to.

Grouchy M: I am glad we included the vamping to all the songs. Glad Christopher was around to help us out. He definitely raised the glamor factor.

Sweet M: He’s also a rather good picker. And singer. He was playing with Peter Rowan at Merlefest this past weekend, wasn’t he?

Grouchy M: Oh, yeah. He’s walking in High Cotton.

Sweet M: What the heck does that even mean?

Grouchy M: I guess if the cotton is high, that means you’ve got a good crop. You know our Granddaddy was a cotton farmer, don’t you?

Sweet M: Yes, I know that. Focus, please. DVDs. Tell them about the counting off.

Grouchy M: Oh, alright! I counted off each song so the students can hear better what beat to come in on.

Sweet M: And THAT is a convoluted sentence.

Grouchy M: Oh, shut up! It’s hard to talk about that crap. That’s why I teach BY EAR. I counted the songs off. The End. (Stephen King ref.) It never occurred to me to count off before. It seemed too “hoity toity.” And I’m a terrible counter. Just ask Casey. Or Chris. I thought the students could hear what I was hearing in my head. My bad! All better now.

Sweet M: Thank you. And now go do something that makes you less grouchy. I don’t know what that would be.

Grouchy M: I do. I’m going back to my other writing. I’m digging into my college history and writing about that. That’s when I found bluegrass. Or, it found me.

Sweet M: You make it sound like it was a religious experience.

Grouchy M: I guess it was. It changed my life. I didn’t get the Name Change though. Guess I’m no Saul of Tarsus….

Sweet M: We are so out of here. Thanks for reading this far. And there you have it!

Grouchy M: Hey, that is MY line….

Sweet M: Go, go. We’re done. Buy the DVDs. Selah.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.

Last week, we undertook one of the biggest projects in our business lives and re-recorded our Murphy Method Beginning Banjo DVDs in high definition (HD), with amazing sound. I never thought I would be doing those again in this lifetime! This makes the third time Red and I have recorded these tunes, starting with our first cassette series in 1982.

One of the reasons I wanted to reshoot these lessons was to put the songs into the order than Casey and I now use in our teaching. Over the years, we have both learned how to teach more effectively and our current “best order” is what you see on these three DVDs.

Our “team” this time included not only Red and me but our son Christopher who played guitar, sang, and helped with the sound. The fourth member of the team was sixteen-year-old Kasey Smelser, my banjo/guitar/singing student, who also proved to have great skills with wardrobe and makeup. When I first taught these lessons I recorded them in our house in Florida wearing only two things: corduroy cut-offs and a tank top. When you first saw me, on our videos, I did buy a new turquoise shirt but other than that, nada. But now, being well into the “autumn” of my life, I realized I needed help. What goes good with grey hair? Kasey figured it out. She also did my makeup. And when her school duties called and she couldn’t be there to apply the “paint and powder,” Christopher stepped up to the plate and did my makeup! Is that teamwork or what? Bill Belichick would have been proud!

I was not familiar with the phrase “Teamwork Makes The Dream Work” until Christopher used it during the shooting. One of his jobs was being on the lookout for Mistakes Mama Makes. So, in the middle of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I heard, “Excuse me, Mom, I think you forgot to mention the pinch at the end of that C lick. You played it but you didn’t explain it.” After using a few choice expletives (which my mama would have whipped me for!), I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you, Chris. I’ll add a little clip talking about that pinch. Thanks for noticing.” To which he replied, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” I loved the phrase, and asked him if he had just made it up, and he said no. (I later Googled it to find out that the phrase comes from leadership expert John C. Maxwell.) So, thanks to our whole team for a great week of shooting DVDs!

So what’s different about the lessons this time? What improvements have we actually made? ...continue reading

Casey and I are excited that our Intermediate Banjo Camp is coming up soon, March 24-26, in Winchester, Va. We’ve been in the Banjo Camp Bid-ness (as we say in the South) only a few short years and we look forward to this cozy, intimate weekend, working closely with about 20 students. We are proud to say our students always learn a lot, and they certainly have taught us a thing or two!

One thing we learned pretty quickly is that students who survive our Beginning Camp…I mean students who LOVE our Beginning Camp in October often want to continue to feed their banjo euphoria by coming to our Intermediate Camp in March. I totally get that. In fact, I encourage students to strike while the banjo is hot, because life has a way of making other plans for you, as I’m sure you all know. To support these dedicated beginners, we’ve started offering a “I Just Barely Became An Intermediate Student By The Skin Of My Banjo Head” level. Which we shorten to “Newbie Intermediates.” You all are welcome at our Intermediate Camp!

Here’s what you Newbie Intermediates can expect:

First of all, our camps differ from other camps in that we have a list of prerequisites for each camp. These songs give us a foundation for our teaching and put all the students on the same page. For instance, to attend Beginning Camp you have to be able to play:

Banjo in the Hollow

Boil Them Cabbage Down

Cripple Creek

To move on up to the Intermediate Camp, Newbie Level, you simply add three songs. (And stir!)

I Saw the Light OR Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low break) Both songs teach, for the first time, the all-important “tag lick.”

Blue Ridge Cabin Home (“roly poly” version)

Bury Me Beneath the Willow (“roly poly” version)

These six songs plus the vamping will get you into the Newbie Intermediate class. Using those songs, which everybody in the class can play, Casey and I can then teach other Intermediate Skills such as:

How to Trade Breaks in a Jam (When do I come in?)

Improvising On the Fly At a Jam (How do I come up with break to a song I’ve never played before?)

Using a Capo (How the heck do I find the vamp chords when I’ve got a capo on! I’ve lost my markers!)

How to Interchange Licks in Songs You Already Play (Really? I can do this?) Yes, you can. We call these “upgrades.”

Our focus is never on speed. We focus on helping you develop the courage to play a break in a jam by giving you the tools you need. (Which are listed above.) Nowadays, we almost never focus on teaching new songs. You can get those off of our DVDs. Instead we focus on teaching you to actually play the songs you already know in a friendly jam setting. And that’s what we do with the Newbie Intermediates.

What do we offer our Advanced Intermediates?

First of all, the Advanced Intermediate class also includes you Intermediate Intermediates (which always reminds me of the character “Major Major” in the book Catch-22). The prereqs for our Advanced Intermediates are all of the above plus a few songs of your choice from this list:

Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low and high)

John Hardy

Old Joe Clark

Lonesome Road Blues

I Saw the Light

Worried Man

Two-Dollar Bill

Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (a must!)

The Advanced Intermediate class plays faster (but not too fast!) and we move through the new material faster. In this class we almost always work on whatever new thing I am currently gung-ho about in my banjo teaching. This year it is playing in three-quarter (¾) time. Working with my own Tip Jar Jammers this past year, I have come up with a great list of songs in ¾ time that work with ¾ time roly polys: Amazing Grace, Before I Met You, In The Pines, All The Good Times Are Past and Gone, and Angel Band. We will start out with the simplest way to play these and then, if the class is willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll move on to a more complicated way.

We will also be delving into my last year’s passion, playing in the key of C without using a capo. We’ll take one or two of the three-chord songs you already know in the key of G, and learn to play it in C. Doing this usually leads us into a discussion about playing in D, which opens that can of worms labeled “I hate to tell you this, but when you capo at the second fret you’re not always playing in A.” Huh? Really? Yep, really. You could be playing in the key of D! Casey and I will explain all. And then we’ll let YOU play in D—based on what we just learned to play in C.

Our goal in this camp and all our camps is to help you become better banjo players. We want you to walk in on Friday playing at one level and walk out on Sunday playing at a higher level. We do this by playing the songs—over and over and over—that you already know how to play. Sometimes we will play them at different capoed positions, usually A (two frets) or C (five frets). We also encourage you, gently, to play improvised breaks to simple, three-chord songs that you’ve never played before. But this is only after we show you how.

To support everything that you’ve learned during the day classes, we offer instructor-led jams at night in which everyone who wants to play breaks gets to play breaks. In these jams, we play slow for the Newbies and faster for the more advanced players. Kathy Hanson has been our jam leader for the last few years and we are excited to have her back again this year.

If spending a weekend actually playing the banjo, in company with like-minded people and under the tutelage of two seasoned, caring teachers (one more seasoned that the other!), sounds like your cup of tea, join us March 24-26 in Winchester, Va., home of Patsy Cline and Lynn Morris. All the details are here.

This month, in this Season of Giving, I want to share a story that my friend Ben Smelser wrote. Ben is a back-slidden banjo student, a bass player, and father of Tip Jar Jam fashionista Kasey Smelser. I’ve shared some of Ben’s wisdom before and I’ve also shared some of his non-wisdom, like the time he kept working on Fireball Mail after Casey Henry, his banjo teacher, told him not to!

The Universe dropped Ben into our lives when one of my students backed into tree alongside our driveway and I decided to have the offending object removed. (Tree, not student!) Thus, I stumbled onto Smelser’s Tree Service. This tree removal begat banjo lessons and which begat playmates for grandson Dalton (Ben, Kasey, and his grandson Cam), which begat a babysitter for Dalton (Kasey), which begat a friendship between two families. When we visited Ben’s family for a Fourth of July party, I admired the gorgeous table he’d made for his wife, Tina, and I said I’d love to have a table like that. Ben being Ben, the rest is history. Here is the story, originally handwritten, that Ben delivered along with the table.

I Am Your Table

img_5847
I am your table. If you are reading this, then I have made it into the home in which I will stay. You see, I wasn’t always like this. So take a second and admire my beauty.

Many years ago I stood tall and proud. I was a walnut tree in a family’s yard. I’ve seen many seasons come and go. I’ve survived powerful thunderstorms, crippling ice, blazing hot summers, droughts, and snow up to my first limb. My canopy was huge and it shaded the family home and the children who played under me. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve held the nest of many robins and watched the mother care for and nurture her young until they took flight. Squirrels would race across my limbs gathering nuts. Kids would swing from my branches. An old man napped in his hammock while I held him and I cherished that.

...continue reading

We just finished up our SIXTH Beginning Banjo Camp here in Winchester. I had one of the best groups of intermediate beginners ever, and this was mainly due to their own hard work before the camp. They all had learned their prerequisites and they all knew their vamp chords which made playing together so much easier. Norman was one of those hard-working students. With his permission, I’m sharing our email exchange which began in August. These are real emails. I have lightly edited them to take out details about airplane flights and directions to Winchester and the price of eggs in Alaska!

Emails, August 2016 BC (Before Camp)

Hi,

I'd like to come to your beginner camp in Oct. and, since I'm from Colorado, would like to dovetail that with a lesson or two. Perhaps come on Thursday for a lesson, stay till Monday for another Sunday afternoon. If you have any energy left.

I've been picking away for some time but need direction, better practice habits and so forth.

I've not played much with others but know a reasonable break to the songs that you've mentioned, plus some back-up. I'm open to suggestions.

There are banjo teachers closer by but they're generally band members and not in the business of instruction.

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you. Norman  ...continue reading

BREAKING NEWS: We’ve just added a Novice Class to our Women’s Banjo Camp, July 29-31, in Winchester, Va. No experience necessary!

I had been wondering where I was going to use that quote from George, one of my Tip Jar Jammers. It certainly makes a great title for this blog. Here’s the back story. We usually have a fair number of women at my Tip Jar Jam and one night it was all women. And George. And while we don’t usually drink at the jam, Kathy G had brought in a bottle of port and we were enthusiastically following Saint Paul’s sage advice to “take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” Soon the air was punctuated with ribald remarks, risqué allusions, gales of laughter, and womyn singing. Into the middle of all this walks Dan, another Tip Jar regular. Says George, “Thank goodness you’re here! They’re drinking wine and playing in B-flat!”

And that spirit—the freedom to laugh boisterously, to share jokes in a room full of understanding, to enjoy the sound of womyn’s voices raised in three-part harmony, to pick the banjo however you pick it knowing that you will be supported and not judged--is the spirit that makes our Women’s Banjo Camps so successful. And so much fun. That spirit is the wind beneath our wings. (Even if Alice Gerrard doesn’t like that song!) And in the middle of this “good natured riot,” there is much learning. And perhaps a little wine at the late night jams…

Each of our Women’s Banjo Camps has organically and of its own accord revealed a particular focus. This year my suggested focus will be the idea of playing in open C without using a capo.

What does that mean and why do it? After all, isn’t that why capos were invented, to play in C? Well, yes. You certainly can play in C using a capo and I’m all for that! Just take any song you’ve learned in G, slap the capo on at the fifth fret, tune up the fifth string, and………I hear a question.

What? How do you tune up the fifth string? Well, you use those little spikes that are there.

What? You only have one spike? At the seventh fret? Well, you can put your fifth string under that one spike and then tune it up three more frets. No, the string won’t break. Usually it won’t break…

What? You don’t have any spikes? Well, you can leave the fifth string where it is, tuned to a G note, and that will work. Yes, it does sounds a little funny.

These are a few of the problems I’ve encountered when telling a roomful of banjo players to “capo to C.” Furthermore, once they have situated the capo, tweaked the tuning, and figured out all the fifth string problems, then you are confronted with the very real problem of teaching folks where the vamp chords are. It sounds simple to say “Just move everything you’ve been vamping up five frets” but, in practice, this is extremely hard for beginning or even intermediate players who have little experience using a capo. Their markers are all gone!

Nevertheless, in order to make sure that women can sing in my jams--because women usually sing most bluegrass standards in the key of C or higher--we capo up to C in every jam to do some “womyn singing.” I insist on it. But here’s what the students have taught me: THEY DON’T LIKE TO CAPO IN C. It’s a pain in the butt, it takes too long, there is way too much re-tuning, and they don’t like the way it sounds. (And honestly, the sound of an inexpensive banjo capoed to C is not pleasant.)

Thus, I’ve been teaching my Tip Jar Jammers to improvise in C without using a capo. With one roll, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown roll (2121,5215) which they already know, and a couple of two-finger chords positions (first and second position C, both movable to make F and G), they can play a simple, improvised break to any three-chord bluegrass song. It’s not fancy but it sounds like bluegrass. And they like it. And the “upgrades”—new licks that can be added on—are really fun!
Question: Don’t you have to retune the fourth string to a C note to play in C?

Answer: No.

Question: That’s a bit terse. Could you elaborate?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Well?????

Answer: Sorry, too much Facebook! Yes, you can retune the fourth string down to a C note to play in C. Earl did that in Home Sweet Home, Pike County Breakdown, and (deep catalog!) in his backup to Paul Warren’s Billy In The Lowground. But you don’t HAVE to tune the fourth string down to play in C. And the whole point here is to NOT retune anything.

I remember when I was learning to play the banjo I almost always capoed up to play in C. At that time I was, of course, in thrall to Earl, which is not a bad thing, and I loved learning his breaks to songs note for note. I prided myself on sounding like Earl. But since I often sang in C, I’d have to capo up five in order to play Earl’s break in the key where I could sing it. It did not occur to me to try to work out a different break—my own break—in open C. That only came years later. At the time, I was completely invested in trying to sound like Earl as much as possible so I would be accepted by the banjo-playing community.

I remember the great banjo picker, Jim Fee, heard me play the song Just Because at a festival in Florida where he was running sound. My husband and bandmate Red was singing it in C, so I capoed up five to play my break.  I thought I had done a pretty good job until Fee-Fee saw me later and said, in his gruff Kentucky way, “Why’d you pick it way up there, Murph? You oughta pick in it open C. That’s where the sound is!” Of course, I wasn’t nearly the picker Jimmy was (then or now) and it would have been too hard for me to play the melody in open C then. So I was just doing the best I could. But that thought sorta stuck in my mind, and as the years went by and I got more confident in my own playing, I began to try a few songs in open C and I discovered that Jimmy was right. Of course he was! Open C has a bigger, more robust sound. And yes, when I play Earl’s songs there (Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Little Girl In Tennessee) I don’t sound “just like Earl” anymore, but I like to think that his spirit—playing the melody “as she is sung”—is still there.

If you are interested in being a part of a weekend filled with the joyous spirit of womyn picking the banjo and singing their hearts out, join Casey and me July 29-31 in Winchester, Va., for our Women’s Banjo Camp. All levels are welcome. And we have just added a Novice Class in which no experience is necessary. All you need is a banjo and a set of picks. Kathy Hanson will be teaching the Novice Class. And, yes, we may be drinking wine and playing in B-flat. Bring your own wine!

Last year Casey and I held our first-ever Women’s Jam Camp. It was a fantastic experience for everyone and so we’re doing it again July 8-10. What was so fantastic about it? Three things stand out.

Women's Jam Camp 2015

Women's Jam Camp 2015

Harmony singing! As we discovered serendipitously at our first Women’s Banjo Camp, most of the women loved to sing and loved to harmonize. In many bluegrass jam sessions, however, women are often relegated to singing the tenor part so they have little experience with singing high baritone or low baritone or even low tenor. In other words, they haven’t experienced the full range of bluegrass harmony. So in our camps, we put songs in women’s keys (often C, D, or E) and demonstrate the various harmony “stacks” that are possible. Then we work on singing them. (Shout out to Janet Beazley! Everything I know about teaching harmony singing I learned from her!)

We also work on lead singing and every woman who wants to gets a chance to sing lead—in the key of her choice. As I’ve said many times, most women cannot sing lead in the key of G. This is unfortunate because G is the “default” key for beginning bluegrassers thus leading many women to conclude that they can’t sing bluegrass. That is why I make it a point to play in the key of C in all of my jams sessions, including beginning-level jams, so the women can sing the lead. They love it! At the jam camp we help women find the best keys for the songs they sing. And when women are singing lead, other women usually have an easier time finding the harmony parts because the song is now pitched in their vocal range. We don’t think that women need to wait to get to heaven to “sing, sing, sing”!

Totally supportive atmosphere. You know, I find the men in my Tip Jar Jam and the men who come to our mixed-gender camps to be some of the most supportive and kindest men on the planet. But, as most women will tell you, there’s just something different about playing bluegrass in an “estrogen jam.” It’s really hard to explain. But let me just say it hasn’t been too long ago that many people thought—and wrote—that women could not play bluegrass. To wit: “Bluegrass bands are made up of between four to seven male musicians.” In 1965, when this first appeared, there were already plenty of women playing bluegrass. It’s just that nobody, apparently, noticed. Then there is this: “Few women seem to possess the technical skill necessary to play bluegrass instrumentals properly and few women can sustain the ‘punch’ or ‘drive’ so essential for the successful presentation of bluegrass vocals.” Fortunately, the fabulous Alice Gerrard pointed out that “women have not been encouraged to develop these skills and qualities; or have been made to feel that the skills were not in keeping with their oft-defined roles as women.” And finally guitar-picking whiz Marcy Marxer said that she often battled the idea—spoken and unspoken—that “women aren’t strong enough to play guitar.” [References below.] These statements are not just innocuous words on a page. Whether we knew it or not, we women internalized these thoughts. So when a woman ventures out to learn to play a bluegrass instrument, she almost always has to contend with these negative inner voices. And when you’re in that vulnerable place of having to screw up and fail—in front of people--before you get it right, it helps to be around other women who are experiencing the same things or who have been there already and survived.

To quote from that wonderful poem by Cheyanne Whien, “When you have to walk that lonesome valley and you have to walk it by yourself [i.e. play a solo break in a jam session] the women will be cheering you on, praying for you, pulling for you, intervening on your behalf, and waiting with open arms at the valley’s end.” That’s what happens at Women’s Jam Camp.

Working with a second instrument. Since the camp is open to women who play at all levels (except rank beginner), women who are learning a second or third instrument come because, again, it’s a comfortable place to fall on your face as you go back to square one. It’s not easy to go from being a competent banjo player who can rip through breaks to being a wannabe fiddle player who hears every wrong note she plays yet who knows she has to keep playing in order to get better. Been there, done that! And the most supportive thing ever said to me about my fiddle playing was said by an older woman. I was working hard on a difficult new fiddle tune, playing it repeatedly and making many mistakes. We were at a vacation cabin and people were starting to wander into the living room where I was sawing away, so I became self-conscious and apologized as I left to take my fiddling out onto the porch. I said something like, “Sorry I sound so terrible.” Then this woman, herself a long-time professional bluegrass bass player and singer said, “You don’t sound terrible. You sound like a good musician who is trying to learn a new song.” OMG! I feel all choked up just writing that. Nobody had ever said anything like that before. I felt so supported. And though this happened years ago, I’ve never forgotten it. Thank you, Polly Johnson, bass player with the Sounds of Bluegrass from Jacksonville, Florida.

At our Women’s Jam Camp you will be supported and cheered on! If you need to play slow, we will play slow. If you want to play a fast one, we will support you with rhythm even if we can’t play lead. If you want to sing, we will help you find the right key and we will harmonize with you. And sometimes we may all sing the lead together just because a chorus of women’s voices is so beautiful!

And with apologies to the old gospel song “Heaven’s Jubilee,” this just popped into my mind. I can’t help it!

Dozens there will join the throng

With them we shall be

Singing bluegrass all day long

Jam Camp Jubilee!

 

CAMP DETAILS: JULY 8-10, 2016

This year our Women’s Jam Camp will be held July 8-10, 2016, in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. (They love us there!) There is a limit of 20 students.

Dede Wyland will be our harmony singing teacher! She will join us Saturday, July 9, for a workshop and she and her band will play a concert that night. I’m so excited about this!

Seasoned players: If you’ve been wanting any of the women in your life to give jamming a try, this is a golden opportunity. We welcome new jammers. You do have to know your chords and be able to change quickly. Guitar players and banjo players have to be able to use a capo. Capos are also encouraged on mandolin. For everything you want to know about the camp and the requirements click here

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References: All the quotes in this paragraph are from my book Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass, University of Illinois Press, 2013, pgs 3, 4, 182, 344.

Murphy, BJ Dove, Bob, Barb VanMetre at the Apple Blossom After Party

Murphy, BJ Dove, Bob, Barb VanMetre at the Apple Blossom After Party

My dear friend and long-time guitar student Bob VanMetre, 68, died Thursday, October 15, 2015, after a valiant battle with kidney cancer. He was buried October 19 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. At his request, I got together a band and played at the funeral. Since Red and Casey and Chris were all out of town, I called on mutual friends David McLaughlin and Scott Brannon to help out. Patty Massey, also a Bob friend, volunteered her husband Tim to play bass. We sent Bob off in style! I'm sure he was tapping his toes as he crossed over to the other side of Jordan!

Over the years, I wrote a lot about Bob both in Banjo Newsletter and in our Murphy Method Blog. When my heart is hurting, it helps me to talk. My second-best help is writing. So I will write out some of my grief by telling Bob stories.

Just four days before Bob died, Ben and Kasey Smelser went with me to see Bob and play music. Bob was in a hospital bed in his living room and couldn't play the guitar any longer but he surprised the hell out of me by singing his heart out. I was stunned! He remembered most of the words, too. Or as I told him on an earlier visit, "Hell, you remembered as many of the words as you did before you got sick!" [For some reason, Bob brought out the cussing in me. I include it here because it makes these stories seem more real.] Of course there were tears because who can sing White Dove without bawling, especially if you yourself are on Death's doorstep? And even Blue Ridge Cabin Home, one of Bob's regular songs, ends with the line "When I die won't you bury me on the mountain, far away in my Blue Ridge Mountain Home." Tears! But what a wonderful memory.

Kasey Smelser, 15, played the best banjo I've ever heard her play, loud, strong, and confident. She's another student that Bob helped along the bluegrass path with his kind and kidding encouragement. As Ben told me, when he and Kasey first came to our jam, Bob greeted them in the waiting area and said, "Do you play anything?" Ben said, "We take banjo lessons from Casey." Bob said, "Just what this world needs, another damn banjo player." But it was said with a smile.

Chick Caldwell, Steve, Bob VanMetre, Murphy, Mark Zimmerman, Susan Morrison, Bob McQueen

Some of Murphy and her latter-day Misfits: Chick Caldwell, Steve, Bob VanMetre, Murphy, Mark Zimmerman, Susan Morrison, Bob McQueen (Ellen Zimmerman photo.)

I started giving Bob lessons way back in 1995. His first lesson set the tone of our relationship for the next 20 years. He told me he had bought my cassette series on how to play the guitar Carter Family Style. Now, in this style of guitar playing you play two or three melody notes and then you do a strum. And I had explained every note and every strum. I asked him to play one of the songs for me. He played Wildwood Flower. And while he played all the melody notes correctly, he left out all the strums! Which meant the song made no sense. There was no musical timing!

I was so taken aback that all I could do was croak out, "What about the strums? Where are they?"

He fired right back, "I didn't know I was supposed to put them in!"

To which I answered, "Didn't you listen to the cassettes? Didn't you hear me say 'fourth string, STRUM; fifth string STRUM'?"

"Yes, but I didn't think they were important," he replied, defiant to the end.

Thus was born the first Bob and Murphy Story. I've told that many times and I told it again at his funeral. It is now a precious memory.

Another memory from early on was the day Bob came in and sat down and started strumming chords on his guitar. He was doing it in some sort of regular fashion so I figured he was up to something. I kept waiting for him to start singing but he never did. I doubt that I let him go on for very long before interrupting to ask, "What are you doing?"

Bob: "I'm playing a song."

Me: "You are?"

"Can't you tell what I'm playing?"

"No, I can't. I can't recognize a song just from the chords."

"Well, I don't know why not! I CAN TELL WHAT I'M PLAYING."

I'm pretty sure this is before we started cussing freely in the lesson, so I said, patiently, "I know YOU can tell what you're playing because you can hear the song in your head. All I'm hearing is a bunch of chords. It could be anything. I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT IS."

"Well, Jesus Christ, it's (and he named some well-known bluegrass song). I thought anybody would recognize that, especially you. You're a professional musician."

"Bob, nobody can recognize a song just by the chords if you don't tell them what it is first! If I sit here and play this (and here I played a simple chord pattern on my guitar) can you tell what it is?"

"No, but I'm not a professional musician."

Me, losing patience, "Even a professional musician can't tell a song from just the chords! They don't know what's in your head. THANK GOD!"

"Whatever." Which meant he wasn't convinced but he wasn't going to argue anymore.

God, he was hard headed!

And here is another of my favorites from Banjo Newsletter, August 2002:

"Bob, who is from West Virginia, describes himself with pride as a Southern Redneck. He's recently been working on moving from the chords to the lead when flatpicking Old Joe Clark. I explained the mechanics of it over and over and recently concluded that he just wasn’t hearing it--he couldn't get the timing right. Finally I sang the words onto a cassette. He comes back next week and says, yes, that did help and he thinks he’s got it. I say let’s play it. So I’m sitting there with my banjo, running my mouth, reminding him that he should be hearing the words to the song while he’s playing his guitar break. Bob is sitting there, apparently deep in thought, and I think he’s hanging on my every word. I feel a little like God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. When I finally wind down, Bob says to me, in his blunt West Virginia way: “I’m just trying to figure out how to kick the sonofabitch off, Murphy.” Touché, Bob!"

And one more short story. I was having a small student jam in Brill's Barber Shop where I was still teaching in 2004. Bob is by now playing bass. I have a new fiddle student, Sandy, who can play a simple melody break to any song she can hear. She and her husband have recently retired to Winchester and she barely knows me and doesn't know Bob at all. After nine years of lessons, Bob and I had a comfortably cantankerous relationship and were going at it tooth and nail about something. Probably about him missing some bass notes. Finally Sandy asked, "Are you two married to each other?" "Just shoot me!" said Bob. "Ditto!" said I.

Bob's long tenure as a student was broken only twice. Once, when he had the insane idea to start working for the railroad and once when I raised my prices. That did not go well!

"Fifty dollars an hour? Jesus Christ! I don't make fifty dollars an hour."

"But, Bob, I don't work forty hours a week. I also have to pay for my own health insurance. And I don't have a pension plan!"

"I don't care. I'm not paying fifty dollars an hour for guitar lessons!"

So he quit. He stayed away for about a year. But eventually he came back. We forever more referred to that as our "divorce." I think we both missed each other!

Before he died, knowing that eventually I'd be writing this very blog, I asked Bob to jot down some thoughts about our lessons. This is what he wrote:

"Fact: I bought guitar new in 1995 I think, first approached you about lessons at barber shop in ’94 maybe. No openings at time. This went on until sometime in fall of ’95 before you had an opening. 

(BS on my part) First lesson, you ask me if you could see my guitar. I said sure. (Being the pessimistic SOB I am, I’m thinking “this gal is thinking: this dumb-ass 50 some year old redneck will drop taking lessons in 6 months and I’ll buy that new guitar cheap. (Fooled you on that scheme didn’t I. Don’t laugh now, you asked me to help tell this story)."

OMG, that story tickles me! As many of you know, I'm probably the least instrument-aware person in professional bluegrass. I didn't give a rat's ass about Bob's guitar, other than I was glad he bought a Martin. I only asked to see it because I knew that he would expect me to! So, I am laughing now, Bobby, because it's so damn funny. And I wish you'd told me this earlier so we could have laughed about it together. I would have called you a "dumbass redneck" and you would have said, "Bullshit! You know you wanted that guitar!" And then I would have said, "The hell I did. Let's pick Salt Creek." (Knowing he hated Salt Creek!) And he would have said, "Where's the duct tape?" Meaning, he should have just kept his mouth shut.

Bobby, wherever you are, thanks for the friendship, thanks for the laughter, thanks for all the help you gave me whenever I needed it, thanks for all the calls to say, "Just checking in to see how you're doing. How's Red? How's Casey and Chris?" As Chris said to me when we were talking about you recently, "He's just about my favorite redneck." I agree with him. I am going to miss the hell out of you. In fact, I already do.

Here's the song we did that I loved the best, Step Off On That Beautiful Shore by Paul Williams. I loved your guitar break. (Readers, check this out on YouTube!)

Down here we have family reunions
Where we'll visit for just a short while
Then we'll part and we'll not see each other
For a year or more at a time
But someday when life here is over
And all of our troubles are o'er
There'll be an everlasting reunion
When I step off on that beautiful shore.

Chorus:

Someday (yes, someday)
I'll cross the river (cross the river)
And step off on that beautiful (beautiful shore)
After while (after while)
I'll see my Jesus (my Savior)
And live in His presence evermore (evermore)
I've got (yes I've got)
Lots of loved ones (friends and loved ones)
Who are waiting for me to come o'er (to come o'er)
I'll be (yes, I'll be)
There forever (yes forever)
When I step off on that beautiful (beautiful shore).

I'll see you again, my friend.

I've taught at many bluegrass camps down through the years, and one thing I noticed early on is that the various instruments have little common ground when it comes to tunes. Tunes that are easy for the fiddle or mandolin, like Liberty or Soldier's Joy, are not easy for the banjo. Many lead guitar players start with tunes like Red-Haired Boy or Salt Creek, which are ADVANCED-level banjo tunes. (And even the chords are beastly.) Guitar players cannot usually take breaks to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Fiddle, mandolin, and banjo players can sometimes find common ground with Cripple Creek or Boil Them Cabbage, although capoing to A for these can be a struggle for beginning banjo players. But these aren't great tunes for lead guitar players.

This disconnect is frustrating. How can you get a jam off the ground if no one knows the same tunes?

For years I dealt with this by having fiddle and mandolin players play their tunes, banjo players play their tunes, and guitar players play their tunes while everyone else scrambled to find the chords or just sat and watched. THAT, friends, is not a jam session. That is an organized practice session. A jam session is where everyone gets a shot at participating in the tune.

It took me a long time to realize that the common ground for student jams has to be singing songs.

ASIDE: I just remembered that this idea initially came to me forty years ago when I was discovering bluegrass at the University of Georgia where I was in the Pre-Med program. (That would last only a few more shaky semesters until "the lure of the honky tonk" wrecked my young life!) When I would come home on weekends I wanted someone to play bluegrass with, and who were better candidates than my four musically talented younger sisters. Argen, our middle sister, was particularly keen on it and she played guitar. But, really, what's the fun of playing only banjo tunes when neither you nor the guitar player is very good or very fast? So, early on, we all started singing bluegrass songs together. That way everybody could participate and I still got to take all the banjo breaks!! Win-win! Our early bluegrass repertoire was eclectic, since we were newbies and had barely heard of Flatt and Scruggs: Delta Dawn, Bugler, Let The Church Roll On, Brush Arbor Meeting, How Mountain Boys Can Love (gender flipping even then!), I'll Fly Away, Farther Along, They Baptized Jesse Taylor, Brethren We Have Met To Worship, and lots of other hymns. I started songwriting early so we also sang Grandmother's Song, There's A Frog In the Pond, and The Florida Song. The point was everyone participated.

BACK TO THE BLOG: Is this focus on singing songs a perfect arrangement? No, it is not. But even if you can't play a break, the chords themselves are not hard to follow and even bashful singers can "pour out their hearts in song" and make a joyful noise! And, with some basic improv skills, three-chord bluegrass songs are flexible enough to accommodate very very very simple breaks. Some of my lead guitar students can pick out the melody to songs like Do Lord and I Saw The Light and Worried Gal on the spur of the moment. It's pretty amazing. My one fiddle student can play about anything as long as she knows the song in her head. Banjo players are learning to do "roly polys" to easy songs. Mandolin players? I'm working on something for you!

The point is, with singing songs you don't have to know a preconceived break to be able to make a stab at playing something! As my friend Marty Bacon points out, "Bluegrass may not be easy, but it is accessible."

Of course, making a stab at playing something requires a great deal of courage. You have to take that leap of faith and accept the fact that you're gonna screw up. Just like learning to walk, you're gonna fall down, you're gonna scrape your knee, you're gonna bump your head. But does this embarrass a kid? No way! It may piss her off and bring on some tears, but she gets right back up and tries it again. And pretty soon: WALKING! RUNNING! Skip, hop, and wobbling!

So, especially to all you wonderful womyn coming to our Jam Camp in July: bring your courage, your singing songs, and your big girl panties, and get ready to jam!

 

Susan Morrison at our Women's Banjo Camp

Susan Morrison at our Women's Banjo Camp

Howdy, folks,

Casey and I are really getting excited about our upcoming Women's Jam Camp! This is a new venture for us and we're looking forward to jamming with women on all the bluegrass instruments, not just banjos!

NOTE: We are offering two scholarships to the camp. These will cover the cost of the camp and the meals there, but will not include the hotel. Call or email Casey for more details.

Singing and learning to harmonize will be a BIG PART of our weekend. Most women don't sing in the "typical" bluegrass keys of G or A, and because these are the "default" keys for most jams, often women don't realize that they CAN SING BLUEGRASS. They just need to find the right key, which is usually C or D or E! We'll be talking about all that.

We will also explain and practice a lot of harmony singing. Bluegrass uses two harmony parts called "tenor" and "baritone." (Not to be confused with men's vocal ranges of the same name!) Casey and I will be showing you how to find the tenor and baritone parts when they are higher than the lead, and when they are lower than the lead. You will learn by doing so we'll be doing a lot of singing!

On a non-playing note, it sometimes takes ovarios to be a woman in bluegrass. It can be awkward in a jam to insist that you need to sing a song in the key of C, even if it means taking time to capo. Especially if the other jammers are saying, "That ain't where Monroe done it!" And it was always painful to me to sing a song in my key only to find out that no one (read: none of the men I was jamming with) could sing the harmony. That often kept me from suggesting some of my favorite songs. I had to get over that. (Still not quite over it....) [By the way, Red could always find the harmony part, so I wasn't talking about him! But sometimes even great players can't sing harmony with a woman. Sad.] And sometimes it's just not fun to be the only woman in the jam circle. It can take courage to even suggest a song. We will talk about always choosing a song or tune you can flat nail to the wall. Sometimes, in Rome, you gotta act like a Roman!

As Casey and I discovered at our first Women's Banjo Camp, it's a wonderful experience to work with a room full of women. An estrogen high! We love you menfolk, but it's a completely different vibe when it's just us womyn. We don't get to experience that often. (Yes, there are risque jokes!)

To sweeten the pot, on Friday night we will feature a concert by Linda Lay and Springfield Exit from right here in Winchester and on Saturday night we will present Marteka and William Lake from Hacker Valley, W. Va. Both Linda and Marteka are outstanding performers and musicians.

If you've been thinking about signing up, now's the time. We still have some slots open. We are expecting those slots to fill up once July rolls around.

Dates for our Women's Jam Camp are July 10-12. It will be held in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. All bluegrass instruments are welcome: Scruggs-style banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, bass, and Dobro. We also welcome all skill levels except for those of you who are just beginning to play. You can come next year! For more information and registration: consult the website.

PS: If you can't come to camp due to conflicts (or gender!), please help us spead the word by forwarding this blog! Thanks!