Trying to help Murphy again on these blogs so here goes. At 12:30 campers began checking in and picking up their name tags. After looking around I could tell that some of these faces I had seen before. Yep I was right!! Returning campers from last year's intermediate camp. Going around the room listening to introductions I noticed that some folks did a great deal of traveling. Maine, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, and Southern Virginia. Plus I noticed that most of our heads were grey/white except for one teenager, the gentleman from Maine, and one Banjo instructor. The other instructor's hair has been altered. [Ha, ha!] I would say the average age for this Camp would be probably around 55. Where are all the young people? We've all gotta do better job of getting the youth involved. How many of us wish we wouldn't have waited so long to start playing? Encourage the young! ...continue reading
Yep, that's right folks, the Thursday night Jam was held at the Courtyard Marriott to help accommodate the Murphy Method Intermediate campers who are living there the next few days while attending camp. So....that makes a big house. Bigger than mine anyhow!
Oh yeah, I'm blogging, not Murphy, trying to help her out cause she is busy with the camp. Since we had so many folks there last night I won't get into names. But here's my take!
Once we got the room set up and everyone got in the circle we were ready to jam. I missed the first song due to Murphy forcing me to drive to her studio and get the bass. But I rushed and that was the only song I missed. [It was a 15 minute version of Banjo in the Hollow!] ...continue reading
I know it's last minute, with the dates for the Women's Banjo Camp being July 19-21, but we have scholarship money available for one young woman, age 8-22. The scholarship would cover camp tuition only (it does not cover lodging) but still, it's a chunk of change! ETA: Thanks to an anonymous donor we now have TWO scholarships available.
If you know of a young woman who plays banjo at any level (probably not someone who has been playing less than two months....), who fits the age requirement, who is able to attend (please check on this!), and who could use help with the tuition, please send her name and contact info to us at the Murphy Method email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope and suspect that we will get more than one name, and if we do we will number the entries in the order received, put all the numbers in a hat and have a drawing for the lucky winner. The number will be chosen completely at random and neither Casey nor I will do the drawing.
We will draw for a winner on June 28 and will contact the winner as soon as we draw. So, again, please include contact information. If in any event the winner cannot attend or has to drop out, we will draw again. So you've got two weeks and a half to send in your suggestions.
The camp is being held here in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. We start Friday, July 19, at 1 pm and finish up Sunday, July 21, at 1 pm.
We are soooo looking forward to our first All Women's Banjo Camp! Who knows where this may lead????
Since Casey and I are holding our first-ever Women's Banjo Camp soon (July 19-21), I thought I would reprint my second Banjo Newsletter column. This blog also celebrates (again!) the publishing of my long-awaited book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. As you will see, I've been writing about women in bluegrass for many decades. I guess that's because, as the old joke goes, I are one!
Thirty years ago, in June of 1983, Banjo Newsletter published my first article, "A Day of Banjo Teaching." With my next column in July, "For Girls Only," the cat came out of the bag as I boldly announced that I was a banjo player and a woman! That surprised many folks who assumed that a banjo player named Murphy had to be a man! I took advantage of that combination--woman and banjo player--to offer some advice to my banjo-playing sisters in bluegrass. (Totally oblivious to the fact that most of the subscribers to BNL were men!)
I now present that entire column for your edification and reading pleasure! (This column was first reprinted in my book And There You Have It.)
FOR GIRLS ONLY
Okay. We might as well get this settled straight off: I am a girl. Oh, yes, I know. “Murphy” is a strange first name for a girl, and “Murphy Henry” is practically unbelievable, but there you have it. I am here today to offer some comments on learning to pick the banjo as a girl, and to give some tips, particularly to you aspiring female banjo pickers.
Let’s face it—bluegrass has historically been a male-oriented music, and the banjo has been a male’s instrument. To quote Nat Winston, MD, who as we all know, wrote the foreword to the Scruggs book:
“The five-string banjo has, so far as it’s known throughout its history, been a man’s way to music. It’s a rare woman who has known this instrument understandingly enough to become a virtuoso.”
Actually, it’s also been a rare man who has become a banjo virtuoso, but he doesn’t mention that. I quote him to show you what you’re up against—his is not an isolated attitude. You can learn to pick the banjo, and here are some tips that I hope will make it easier for you. When you are alone by yourself studying Earl and doing your “woodshedding,” it makes no difference whether you are male or female. It’s when you get into a group of people that are playing music that the fact you are a girl will make a difference. It’s in the attitude of the pickers toward you, and your attitude toward yourself in a jam session. Now, you’ve got to understand that I’m talking about learning to play bluegrass banjo—your hard-driving Scruggs style banjo. I don’t think anybody would quarrel with the idea that that is where you need to start, regardless of where you go after that. Okay. That brings me to my first tip:
Tip 1: Be aggressive. If hard-driving bluegrass is being played (or even attempted) it is ninety-nine times out of a hundred going to throw you in with a group of macho good old boys. At ease! Don’t be offended. Just think for a minute and see if it’s not true. Young or old, there is a definite sort of male camaraderie that exists among bluegrass musicians. They are liberated enough so that they won’t exclude you entirely, but you’d better show them pretty quick that you can get down on it.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I mean be aggressive with your banjo playing, not with your self. Jam session etiquette is very specific, and a jam session’s balance is delicate enough to be destroyed by one person who is out-of-step with the jam. Just play quietly until you’re offered a break—and you will be. If you’d like to take it, take it. If it’s entirely out of your range, just shake your head, “No.” Once you’ve got a break, don’t be fancy. Keep it simple. Play hard. I know, I know. There are opposing schools of thought on this. Sonny Osborne doesn’t play hard; J.D. doesn’t play hard. But I say, as a beginner and as a girl, you need to pick hard to get attention, to get respect, and to get good tone. Better to start out picking hard and decide to lighten your touch later on, then to start out picking lightly, and never even be heard in a jam session Male or female, the bluegrass banjo is an aggressive instrument.
Tip 2: Don’t be a hostess. This is important. (We’re assuming here that there are no kids—we’ll talk about this later.) Whether the jam session is at your campsite at a festival or in your home, concentrate on one thing only—picking the banjo. Don’t be hopping up and down getting beer for people. Let them get their own damn beer. Don’t be fixing snacks and serving food. Don’t spend the hour before a jam session cleaning house—spend it practicing. Get your priorities in order at a jam session. Picking banjo is number one!
Tip 3: Don’t let anybody take your banjo away from you. I have never seen this happen to a guy. But it has happened to me, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. There you are, struggling along, trying to play, —maybe the jam’s over your head, and you’re having to hang back—just trying to figure out the chord sequence to Little Rock Getaway or Sweet Georgia Brown—that’s okay, you’re enjoying it and you’re learning. Then, somebody says, “Hey, mind if I pick your banjo?” like it’s in the case or or something. So you say “Okay,” because you want to be nice, and then you never get it back, and the jam goes on without you. Don’t do it! Just politely refuse. Remember, any picker worth his salt wouldn’t have asked to borrow it.
Tip 4: Kids. I told you we’d get around to kids. If you’re serious about your music, learn to play first—then have kids. Girls, this really applies to you only. Somehow, even in this liberated age, it’s not the same for the guys. It’s hard to concentrate on Earl at 16 rpm when your kid is pulling all your books off the bookshelf, or is about to fall off the bed, or is screaming her head off because to keep her from pulling all the books off the bookshelf or falling off the bed you have put her in her playpen. And it’s hard to justify the expense and hassle of putting her in a nursery just so you can practice banjo. And even when she’s older, it’s “Mama, look at this cake I made. Mama, I want something to drink. Mama, don’t play. Mama, Mama, Mama...” And if you think you can wait until evening to practice when the kiddies are all safely ensconced in their little beddies, think again. You’re too tired. Maybe when the kids are grown...
Tip 4a: Kids at jam sessions. I’m talking about your kids. Your little kids, who do not belong at a jam session if you are seriously trying to pick. Farm them out. Kids at practice sessions: Ditto.
Kids at festivals: Not if you are playing on stage there. People ask me all the time if I bring my kids (ages five and two) to our shows. I always answer, “Are you kidding? Do you take your children to work with you?” Playing music is a demanding profession. It takes all of my concentration. If my kids are around, I cannot give my playing 100%. That’s not fair to me or to the audience. Leave your kids with a babysitter you have lots of confidence in.
Just last week, I broke this cardinal rule of mine. Well, it was a private party, and the kids were invited especially to play with the other kids there, and frankly, I felt it would be a breach of social etiquette to refuse. But, never again! The videotape they made of the party showed me, in the middle of Shucking The Corn, breaking away from the mike and fiercely whispering, “Christopher! Christopher! Don’t you touch that fiddle! Don’t you touch it! Put it down! Put it down! ” And playing Flint Hill Special was a disaster because Christopher was prancing around in front of the band balancing a potholder on his head. I was in stitches, and completely flubbed the ending by detuning the second string instead of the third. Never again!
Tip 5: Don’t use being a girl as an excuse for anything—good or bad. Especially don’t use it as an excuse for mediocre picking! Carry your own banjo case.
And finally, ignore all Slack-Jawed-Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up conversation with the comment, “You’re pretty good for a girl.” I don’t guess that we’ll ever stop hearing that, but a calm “Thank you” would be a sufficient answer. Don’t simper. After nine years of professional playing, I heard one of the standard variations on that again this week-end: “You’re the best lady banjer picker I ever heered.” What can I say? We were twenty miles from the nearest flush toilet, so maybe I was.
Sometimes the best compliments are the ones you don’t hear at all. Just being accepted into a group of good pickers is a supreme compliment. You don’t have to prove anything, just pick and enjoy. My own personal favorite compliment is one I never heard.
We were playing a festival down here in Florida with the Johnson Mountain Boys and, typically for that spring, it was cold and pouring rain. So, to entertain the loyal fans who were still sticking it out, the Johnson Mountain Boys and Red and Murphy & Co. got on stage for a jam session—no microphones, mind you, it was too wet—just a good ole acoustic jam session, where you usually can’t hear anything but the banjo (fortunately not the case that day). Dudley Connell (guitar) and Richard Underwood (banjo) had just put the finishing touches on their tuning when Dudley launched into his terrific, ninety-mile-an-hour rendition of John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man. I was standing there vamping, trying to make my fingers move in that cold, wet air, when I got the nod from Dudley to take a break. I jumped down into first position and let her fly, just hoping I wouldn’t break a string, drop a pick, or forget how to do a forward roll.
I needn’t have worried. After the first phrase I saw Dudley look over at Richard, and Richard look back at Dudley, and Dudley was grinning, and Richard was grinning, and I felt like I wanted to burst wide open, but I didn’t. Instead, I just finished up my break with a few Ralph Stanley chokes (in Richard’s honor) and led into the next verse. That was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received about my picking and they never said a word.
Note: [I added this note to book And There You Have It .] This was the second article I wrote for BNL. I remember that aggressive, bright-eyed, hell-bent-for-leather, excited, determined, yet vulnerable little banjo player. She was very young. An older, calmer, slowed-down version of her is editing this book. I suppose now, the title of this column would be politically incorrect. But back then, I felt like a girl.
PS: Adding this note right now, June 5, 2013: Wow! How fascinating to realize that all these thoughts, ideas, and feelings would eventually become part of my new book, Pretty Good for a Girl.
PPS: Careful readers will note that I FINALLY changed the gender in Tip 4: Kids. As originally written and reprinted in my first book, I'd used the default gender which was male. I just now realized how stupid it was for me to be talking about MY KID, Casey, who was a girl, using the male gender! As you can see, I was as caught up in the cultural stereotypes and "norms" as anyone. It took me a long to break old habits! DUH!
Things to keep in mind:
June 8, Saturday: Book signing at the Winchester Book Gallery, 3 pm
July 19-21: First Women's Banjo Camp!!!! in Winchester. Spread the word! We still have room for more women!
Folks, I'm heading to Nashville Thursday morning, so I won't be blogging about our 24th Tip Jar Jam (unless I can find time to do it from my laptop while I'm away....not likely!)
I'm going to Nashville to give the first presentation on my book, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass. I'll be speaking at the prestigious International County Music Conference held at Belmont University in Nashville. I've presented papers there twice before, the first one on Sally Ann Forrester, the second on Bessie Lee Mauldin, both of whom are are in my book. So, I'm not as nervous about this presentation as I might be.
I really enjoy this conference because I get to rub elbows with many of the major writers in the bluegrass and country music field. So I've gotten to meet that late Charles Wolfe, who wrote a number of excellent books, including Good-Natured Riot, a wonderful book about the Grand Ol' Opry; Nolan Porterfield who wrote the definitive biography of Jimmy Rodgers; Bill Malone, who wrote the earliest and best book on the history of country music, Country Music U.S.A.; Wayne Daniel, who wrote Pickin' On Peachtree, a book about country music in Georgia; and Richard Smith, who wrote Can't You Hear Me Callin', the biography of Bill Monroe that stirred up so much ire in the bluegrass community. And lots of others.
So my paper is written and I've been practicing my performance, recording it on my I-Phone! I will speak for about 22 minutes and then answer a few questions.
Now, about the title of this blog! [Minimal bluegrass content.] Our local square dance club, the Apple Valley Squares, held a big dance last Friday night which featured a fast and furious caller who kept us hopping! And thirsty! The host club always provides snacks and drinks, so my friend Becky said she and her husband Tommy would be bringing the drinks, the "soda pop" as they call it up here. Or sometimes just "pop." Or sometimes just "soda." Very Northern. Down in Georgia, we called everything Coke (short for Coca-Cola; even shorter than Co'- Cola). We even called Sprite Coke as in "What kind of Coke do you want?" "I think I'll have a Sprite."
Well, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Coke drinker. And I don't mean Diet Coke, either. Or Coke Zero. I want your honest-to-goodness Classic Coca-Cola. No Pepsi products for me. No RC. No Shasta Cola. (Remember that???) And I knew Tommy was also a Coke drinker so I didn't bother to grab a cold can of Coke out of the fridge to bring along, since I knew there would be plenty of Coke there.
Imagine my surprise and dismay when I got to the dance to find NO Coca-Cola. Only two big liter bottles of some off-brand drink. Yuck. Naturally, I complained to Becky. "Where's the Coke? I thought for sure you'd be bringing Coke!" I've forgotten what her reply was, but it sure didn't seem like a big deal to her. So I settled on drinking water. But I had been hoping for a caffeine boost, since I had been babysitting all day!
So we danced a few dances and I was drinking my water and eating my No Bake Cookies which were fast disappearing (which is always gratifying). Then after one dance, I walked back to the eats table to see a great big liter bottle of Coke sitting there. Becky was also close by, as was her daughter Sara. I said, "What's this?" Becky says, "You said you wanted Coke!" I said, "Did you call Sara and have her bring down a bottle of Coke?" "YES!" was Becky's reply. (They do live near by and Becky is a mover and shaker, a "get 'er done" girl.)
I turned to Sara, a perky twenty-something who was looking cute as a bug in her nursing uniform, having just gotten off her shift. I said, warmly, "Thank you! I really appreciate your bringing this." Her extremely swift reply was: "Is it worth a free guitar lesson?" Well! With everyone standing right there looking at me, what could I say but, "Sure!" (I knew from Becky that Sara had been "fooling" with the guitar, as the saying goes.) I also quickly added, "You are your mother's daughter!" And that, folks, is how I ended up paying $30 for a liter bottle of Coca-Cola!
Postscript: Later on during a break in the dancing I was rehashing all this with Sara's dad, Tommy. (Square dancers love to rehash!) Tommy said, "I think Becky put Sara up to that." "Really?" I said. "Yeah," said Tommy, "she'd have never thought of that on her own."
So naturally, the next time I met Becky at snack table (where we gravitate after every dance!) and she and I were rehashing my $30 bottle of Coke and laughing, I said, "Did you put Sara up to saying that?" She said, "No! I did not. She thought of it all by herself!" "Really?" I said, "Tommy was sure it was you!" "Nope," said the proud mother, "it was all Sara!" Indeed, the apple does not fall far from the tree. And I guess Sara fell on the Becky side of the tree, because I know Tommy would never have done anything like that!
I guess I'll be giving my Coca-Cola lesson when I get back from Nashville. Who knows? Maybe I'll get Sara hooked on playing bluegrass! That would so be worth $30!
And that, folks, is your blog for this week!
Before I explain the title of this blog (courtesy of Bob Van), let me explain this picture that you see right here:
Ben took this photo at the banjo camp and thought it was hilarious. He showed it to me then and I was considerably less amused (“Ha, ha, Ben”) but boys will be boys and I thought no more about it.
Fast forward to the Tip Jar Jam last night. I always sit with my back toward the fireplace and the mantle with the huge mirror over it. So I’m sitting there and we’re jamming, maybe we’ve played two or three numbers and all is well. Then, I stood up for something and Ben says to me, “Your hair is sticking up in the back.” Huh??? Whoever notices my hair? (Except Kathy and Kristina! Thank you, ladies!) “It is?” I say, touching my hair thinking maybe my glasses have ruffled it up. Everyone at the jam nods their heads in agreement. So naturally, I turn to the mirror to look, and there, on the mantle, I see this framed 5 x 7 picture, pouty lips and all, staring back at me. I burst out laughing and immediately said to Ben’s daughter, Kasey, “You should have warned me!” She says, “I wanted to but he wouldn’t let me!” Ben does love his little jokes! So we all had a good laugh about the picture and I agreed with Kathy’s earlier comment at her lesson: at least my hair looked good!
Now back to the title of the blog. We kicked off the jam with Banjo in the Hollow but that’s not a particularly good song for the fiddle or for the bass. So next I called for Blue Ridge Cabin Home. I spent some amount of time finding out who could play a break, reminding fiddling Suzi of how the melody went, and telling Barbara, on guitar, that the first line was “There’s a well beaten path on this old mountain side” or, I said, as some folks sing, “There’s a half-eaten calf...” In other words, I talked about the song A LOT.
Then I turned to Bob V, sitting beside me, and said, “Will you sing it?” (Actually I probably said, “You’re singing this” because he always does.) And then he says, “Are we doing Little Cabin Home on the Hill?” And I look at him like he’s insane and say, “No, we’re doing Blue Ridge Cabin Home. Where have you been for the last five minutes?” And naturally, he can’t just let it go, but has to give me lip: “You said Little Cabin Home on the Hill.” Me: “I did not.” Him: “You did too.” So I turned to the other jammers and asked, “How many people heard me say Blue Ridge Cabin Home?” And everyone, grinning broadly, raised their hands high in agreement because they knew that Bob was......wrong. “S.O.B if you didn’t,” Bob said. To which Kathy replied, “I guess you just got thrown under the bus!” And I grabbed my yellow pad and pen while saying, “Thank you, Bobby, for the blog title!” And he’s growling, “Where’s the duct tape?”
We were ten strong last night with five banjos, three guitars, one bass and one fiddle:
Kenney (on his new upright bass!)
Barbara (on guitar after a month’s hiatus)
In addition to our standard repertoire we worked in one completely new song, Soldier’s Joy in D, so Suzi could have an honest-to-goodness fiddle tune to play. Bob V had also been working hard on his lead guitar break (in open D, which is a pretty hard key) and I thought it was time for him to try it in the jam. When we practiced in his lesson he did just fine. Unfortunately, when he went to pick it in the jam, he had a brain fart and thought he was picking in the Key of G so that didn’t go too well. But we’ll keep at it, because the only way to really polish a song is to play it in a jam. And all the banjos did great with their vamping in D. (No need to capo if you’re just vamping!)
Barbara sang It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels in the key of A to which everyone played their break to Blue Ridge Cabin Home which fits the chord pattern and is close enough. While we were there (capoed two) we did all our A stuff: Old Joe Clark, Somebody Touched Me, Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I’ll Fly Away, and Daybreak in Dixie.
We closed out with Keeper of the Door and right after we finished I said to Scott, “Go ahead. Kick off Midnight Train. I know you want to.” So he did and we ended with that. A rousing good way to end another excellent jam. We had so much fun! If you’re ever in the area, come jam with us!
Hey, hey, hey! We are excited to let you know that Geoff Stelling, of Stelling Banjo fame, will be coming to our Murphy Method Intermediate Camp on Friday, March 22, to give a demonstration about banjo set-up. Geoff is a whiz at banjo set-up and he knows how to talk about it so that the lay person can understand it. He will also be bringing some Stelling banjos for you to play.
As you know, I’ve been playing a Stelling for years ever since Geoff gave me one after hearing me jamming at the SPBGMA convention in Nashville. That one was a Top Tension and when I decided it was WAY too heavy to tote around, I got a walnut Masterflower since I coveted the one my student Opal had just gotten. (You know what the Good Book says: covet earnestly the Best Things!) I liked the Masterflower a “right smart” but I missed the arched fingerboard that my other name-brand banjo had. And I missed the size and shape of that other neck, which fit my hand perfectly. So, gathering all my courage together, I finally asked Geoff if he would build me a neck like that other banjo had, a smaller neck with what we are now calling a “radiused” fingerboard. He was more than willing and thus the MurphyFlower was born.
Then, a few years later, after schlepping that banjo (on my back) up and down the hills of West Virginia (Augusta Heritage camp) and across the plains of Maryville College (Kaufman Kamp), I decided it needed it to be lighter. So I took the banjo down to Geoff to see what he could do. Basically, I wanted to take out the tone ring. Ever helpful, he put together several different “pot” options and I played them all. I finally decided on what I think was an older Tony Pass rim and a little metal hoop for a tone ring. It sounded fabulous and was considerably lighter. My back said “thank you” a thousand times! (We may just have to take my banjo apart at the Intermediate Camp to see what’s in there! I did lose a bet to Marty one year when I insisted that the banjo had no tone ring at all!)
Geoff will also be offering tips about what you can do to make your banjo sound better, Stelling or not. And he will answer any questions you may have about banjo set-up, strings, tail pieces, bridges, head tension, and all that delightful minutia that trips the trigger of so many banjo players. (Not me!)
I think he’s also going to hang around and play in our little concert that night (with Steve Spence and Scott Brannon) and then remain available for jamming later on.
So, if you’ve ever wished you could ask one of the best banjo builders in the world some questions, this will be a golden opportunity!
We still have a few openings left for our Intermediate camp. As you know, we try to keep the camps small so you can have lots of individual attention from Casey and me. And we try to create a comfortable atmosphere so you can feel free to play and ask questions. We never intimidate and we think all questions are good ones! Give us a call or shoot us an email if you’d like to join us or if you just want more information. 1-800-227-2357. See you real soon!
Casey and I are both getting excited about our upcoming Intermediate Banjo Camp (March 22-24). This will be our third Intermediate Camp and, following suggestions from last year’s attendees, we have a new location--the Courtyard Marriott in Winchester (so everyone can stay in the same place)—and we have asked a couple of our professional musician friends—Scott Brannon, guitar, and Steve Spence, bass--to be on hand for the late night jamming. (Something Casey and I can’t do and still be energetic enough to teach the next day!)
Scott and Steve will also be joining Casey and me to play in the Friday and Saturday night concerts. That should warm them up for the jamming! Scott and Steve won’t exactly be leading the jam but they will be present to provide excellent rhythm and sing or harmonize if necessary. And Steve did say he would be willing to “wheelhoss” the jam if the situation needed it. On the other hand, if the jam is flowing just fine, he and Scott will just sit back, play, and enjoy!
Now a word or two about the fellers:
Scott Brannon, from Martinsburg, West Virginia, has been leading his own Scott Brannon Band for years and has a number of recordings out. He has a wonderful, smooth, deep voice and loves to sing the old songs, especially those done by Charlie Moore and Reno and Smiley. He can also cut loose on some Stanley Brothers numbers, too, and Riding on That Midnight Train, How Mountain Girls Can Love, and If I Lose are several of my favorites. His rhythm guitar playing is impeccable and that means it’s G-O-O-D, good! He’s an easy-to-get-along with kind of guy and you will love picking with him. I had the opportunity to play with him lots of times when we were both members of Dalton Brill’s Wildcats. Scott was kind enough to put up with my fiddle playing (very rough and barely serviceable although I believe I did get a little better over the years) and in return I often served as his beer “getter.”
Steve Spence was managing editor at Bluegrass Unlimited for years, and made the phone call to me 25 years ago asking me to write the General Store column for the magazine. (Thanks, Steve!) Early on he played banjo in a band with his sibs and father, the Spence Kids, which later became the Grass Reflection. More recently he played bass with Cliff Waldron. He, too, is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and he loves, loves, loves bluegrass and playing bluegrass. He knows lots of the old songs and both he and Scott can tell many a story about the old days and the old players.
In the last couple of years, Red and I have played few local gigs with Steve and Scott and have thoroughly enjoyed it. These are the kind of guys who know all the songs in the “Deep Bluegrass Catalog” (as Eddie Stubbs calls it), know all the “pitiful” and “poor pitiful” songs that Red and I like to sing so well (Please, Papa, Don’t Whip Little Benny, Flood of 57, Rank Strangers, White Dove, etc etc etc), and aren’t afraid to tackle something they have never heard, either. Steve is awesome at adding a third harmony part below my lead, something that is a rare talent.
So, have I bragged on these guys enough? Can you tell I’m really looking forward to picking with them? I sure hope so!
And, for those of you who have already signed up and are arriving early, don’t forget the Tip Jar Jam Thursday night, from 7-9. That will be held in my teaching digs, and Casey will provide the address.
Also, both Casey and I are available for private lessons on the days before and after the camp. Contact us to get your slot!
And we still have a few slots open, if you haven’t signed up for the camp yet. Contact Casey about that. Looking forward to seeing you all real soon!
I’ve been trying to work up to writing this blog all morning, but catching up on email has hampered me.
Just got back last night from the Murphy Method Workshop we put on in Portland, Oregon. It went super! First of all, a huge THANK YOU to Portland Patty and Portland Claire (!) for doing all the leg work that made this possible. All I had to do was fly in and teach—and square dance Saturday night—which makes it easy for me.
Second of all, thanks to all the students who showed up and worked hard for three days on their banjo playing. Since my workshops are always hands-on, the students have to do a lot of playing and thinking, which is exhausting! Many of them also were willing to “crash and burn” by volunteering to take solo breaks on various songs. Thanks for your courage! I truly think being willing to do that helps you learn to play better and think fast on your feet.
I loved everything we worked on—ending licks, kick offs, playing in C without a capo, using the capo in different keys—but I was especially happy with the work we did on improvising.
My approach to improvising on the banjo is simple: licks against chords. Which is to say, playing Scruggs-style licks in the chord progression of the song. At the simplest level you play Scruggs rolls in the appropriate chords. Which is where we started, using the song Bury Me Beneath the Willow. As we found out, that chord progression is used in many other bluegrass songs, so it’s a good one to know. (My banjo student Marty has been telling me that for years!)
So first, we learned the chord pattern by vamping, using either the open chords or the four-finger vamp chords. Then, as I said, we use one roll—the forward and backward roll (3215,1231)—to play through the whole song. Then we added a slide to the forward roll in G, then we added a pull-off to the backward roll in G with pinches on the end. Voila! We had an excellent Scruggs-style G lick that Earl used lots and lots. It immediately made the break sound 100 times better. This gave us a good-sounding basic break that just about everybody could do. Then, if the students already knew some other Scruggs licks—and that’s the crux of the matter, they had to already be able to play them—we added the tag lick and the D lick (or an equivalent) from Foggy Mountain Breakdown. We left the C lick alone till Sunday, when we added a hammer-on.
And we played that break over and over and over, playing together as a class. I’ll bet we played that same break close to 50 times during the course of the weekend. And that—the sheer repetition--is what makes the break get into your hands.
Then Sunday, I threw another song at them, I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home, not telling them anything about the chords or the break. As we played through it, me singing, them vamping and listening, a few of them realized that they could use the same break they’d learned to Willow. AMAZING!!!!! We also did the same thing with Your Love is Like a Flower. Exact same break. And then we ventured into I’ll Fly Away, which has a slightly different chord pattern, but still uses the same licks. So, basically, they got FOUR good solid Scruggs break for the price of one!
I hope to blog more about the workshop, but for now I’m out of time. Got to go teach!
If you would be interested in having the Murphy Method sponsor a workshop weekend in your area, all we need is a hard-working facilitator who can find the venue and do the local advertising. The Murphy Method assumes all the financial risk and pays all the expenses. So, if this is something that sounds fun and exciting, contact Casey, who handles the business end. I love doing these workshops and spreading the gospel of learning by ear!!!!
The students also got to do some quality listening. Friday night Casey’s new band, the Gooseneck Rockers (with Marshall Wilborn on bass and Tom Adams on guitar) performed. They were excellent, of course, with tight harmony, unusual song selection (not the SOS), and Casey’s inventive, playful banjo picking. The quirky emceeing of Tom Adams is also a plus. Casey, who was fighting a cold, had a coughing fit during one of the songs and mouthed to me from the stage, “Cough drop!” I sprang into action, ran to my table of “stuff,” poked a hole in a brand new, cellophane-wrapped box of Fisherman’s Friend cough drops, and extracted a lozenge. Then, approaching the band from behind, I sidled up to Casey and popped the cough drop into her open mouth. She didn’t miss a beat!
I joined the Rockers for their second set, which was really a Casey and Murphy set backed up by Tom and Marshall. Our pre-planning had consisted of Casey and me saying, ten minutes before we went on, “What shall we play?” We decided to open with a medley of Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. We also decided our other instrumentals would be Earl’s Breakdown and our twin version of Dixie Breakdown. The singing songs we would just wing! We ended up singing East Virginia Blues, I’ve Laid Around and Played Around in This Old Town Too Long, and I'll Fly Away. We ended with Will the Circle Be Unbroken and invited everyone to sing along. It was great!
Saturday night my newest crop of Misfits performed and I was so proud of them! Scott, who had been playing banjo only since January, played Lonesome Road Blues (low and high breaks), Dueling Banjos, and then kicked off and sang Long Gone, vamping while he was singing, and then coming back in for several breaks. I played guitar and sang tenor.
Bob Van was up next. He, along with Janet, was one of our rhythm guitar players for the weekend but the concert gave him a chance to show off his flatpicking and singing. With me playing second guitar and singing tenor we did Step Off on That Beautiful Shore, When the Roll is Call Up Yonder (instrumental), and Kneel at the Cross. We also entertained the crowd with some of our good-natured Bob and Murphy banter. Murphy: “What do you want to start with?” Bob: “Do I have a choice?” Murphy: “Yes, we can do one of these three songs.” Bob: “It doesn’t matter what I say, you’re going to do what you want.” Murphy: “Ok, how about starting with When the Roll?” Bob: “No, let’s do Step Off on that Beautiful Shore.” Murphy (rolling eyes): “Whatever.” And on and on and on....
Janet (guitar) and Kenney (on bass) and I (banjo) had worked up three songs. Janet and Kenney are my square dancing friends, and, as I told the students, Janet is sometimes my partner when we don’t have enough men to dance and I dance the man’s part. So, we’ve played together a few times to entertain our square dancing friends. (Not for the dancing, though!) Saturday night we started off with Janet and me singing Somebody Touched Me. Then we did the Boogie Woogie so we could feature Janet taking a lead guitar break! She took a total of three breaks and did a fantastic job! We closed out our portion of the show with Rocky Top, which has a lot of tricky chords. Kenney, who has only been playing bass for about 8 months, didn’t miss a one!
Then it was time for Zac. You’ve read about Zac before in this blog. Zac is now a senior in high school and I’m happy to say he has really kept up with his banjo playing. He can now play REALLY FAST. So, with Bob Van on bass and me on rhythm guitar, we burned through Crying Holy Unto the Lord, Down Yonder, Sally Goodwin, and Fireball Mail. The great thing about Zac’s playing is that, even when he’s playing fast, he plays really clean. And his vamping is right in the pocket (as we say) and never too loud.
That ended the first half of the concert. We took a short break and then regrouped with all the Misfits to demonstrate the fine art of jamming. Scott, Bob, Zac, Janet, and Kenney had never played together in a group before, so they were going to have to reply on all their “jamming” skills. Of course, since I was there to act a facilitator, I was able to make sure the songs were well known to all the players. We did some standards like I Saw the Light, Blue Ridge Cabin Home, John Hardy, Salty Dog, and Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. We ended with Foggy Mountain Breakdown, played slow at first, and then we turned Zac loose! Again, I was so proud of my students. And I hoped that seeing them play would serve as an inspiration to all the students at the camp. That is certainly part of the pay off for me as a teacher, seeing my students playing and seeing them enjoying it so much!
Camp ended with lunch on Sunday. Some folks had had to leave early to deal with Hurricane Sandy. I’m happy to say that here in Shawneeland we survived with no loss of power and no trees down. Ditto for Casey in Winchester. Hope the rest of you were as lucky.
Our next Winchester camp will be our Intermediate Camp March 22-24. This will be held at the Marriott Hotel in Winchester. Plenty of room for night-time jamming! Hope you will join us there!
And for you folks in the Portland, Oregon, area, I’ll be out there for a Banjo Workshop January 11-13. We had a great time last year, and I’m looking forward to working with all y’all (as we say here) again!
**All photos courtesy of Janet. She took most of them except, obviously, the ones that have her in them!**