From the Archives

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

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.

(July 1983)

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

murphybook_smallThis is one in our continuing occasional series of excerpts from Murphy's Banjo Newsletter articles. This is from the August 1990 issue, and appears on page 169 of Murphy's book ...And There You Have It! I think this is one of the funniest incidents she recounted about me. I remember doing this. The keys didn't even taste bad at all!

My daughter Casey, age twelve, has been taking Suzuki piano lessons for two years. The Suzuki Method emphasizes ear training, which I love. So, I'm in the kitchen (a rare occurrence, I assure you) listening to Casey practice piano, and I hear her picking out the notes to Yankee Doodle. I can tell that she'd doing it by ear because it is a little hesitant, a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward kind of affair. But, eventually, she gets it and plays it all the way through.

"That's great, Casey!" I call to her. "How did you do that?" (I suppose my question was meant to solicit a response such as "I did it all by myself" or "I did it by ear" or "I wasn't using the book, Mommy" or even "I don't know, I just did it.")

Her response? "I did it with my tongue!" She was playing the piano with her tongue. My response" "C-A-S-E-Y!!!"

murphybook_smallThis is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from Murphy's Banjo Newsletter Columns. This article appeared in October 1985 and is one of my favorites. You'll only have to read as far as the first sentence to figure out why! If you want to read the complete column, you'll find it in Murphy's book, ...And There You Have It!

Howdy! I am sitting here at the breakfast table, listening to my daughter practice the banjo. Did you get that? My daughter is practicing the banjo. I am, naturally, delighted, but I am also objective enough to know that it may not last once she gets back to school and her little cronies start whooping it up over Michael Jackson, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper. [Ah, those were the days...] Still, while she is at it, it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about learning, and, consequently, how to teach.

Casey is seven and a half years old, going into the second grade, and is practically perfect in every way (just like Mary Poppins). [Well, duh.] She has, of course, been raised on music---bluegrass, to be precise---with a good hefty dose of folksy kids’ songs thrown in on the side. But her interest in banjo had been almost non-existent until she met Stott.

Now, you don’t know Stott, who is also seven and a half, but he is the answer to every banjo teacher’s prayer. […] Actually, he is a born musician, whose passion is the banjo.

Stott and his parents came over to the house a few months ago, to buy his first banjo. Casey met him then, and he couldn’t play a lick. Then, just two months later, they were back again, consulting about the purchase of an RB-250 they had found. Stott just sat there on the couch, and calmly played through four banjo tunes, including "Cumberland Gap" complete with the up-the-neck break. It made quite an impression on Casey, and she requested banjo lessons immediately after their departure. [Nothing like a little competition to get me going!]

Well, I did not get all excited. I mean, I’d shown Casey things on the banjo before, and I’d shown her lots of things on the piano, but never did she practice for more than one day in a row. But, since I am a marshmallow, I said, yes, I would give her a lesson. Tomorrow. I was pretty sure that by tomorrow she would have forgotten. She did not forget. So, tomorrow found me scrounging around the house, looking for little banjo picks. We already had a little banjo---a 1925 Gibson TB-2 pot assembly, with a 10 1/2” rim, and a short, 18-fret neck that Red had made. When it is tuned up, it comes out pitched in C (just like putting the capo on at the fifth fret of a regular-size banjo.) So I put my capo on, and after the usual preliminaries about picks, hand position, and string numbers, I showed Casey some rolls---forward, backward, and square. She didn’t have too much trouble with them, so I sent her off to practice, and told her we’d have another lesson sometime, IF she practiced a lot and learned her rolls.

[…] Time went by, as it does in the summer, with vacation, swimming, movies. Several weeks passed, and then Casey said, “Can I have a banjo lesson?” “May I have a banjo lesson,” I said. “You haven’t been practicing very much.”

Casey: Sad Face

Me: “Well, okay.”

So we set up for our lesson in the studio. Casey does her rolls for me, but they are merely adequate.

“Casey,” I said, “if you were one of my real students, I would tell your mother that you needed to practice more.”

Giggles and tee-hees. “But you can’t because you’re my mother!” More giggles and tee-hees.

“No, but I can tell you, and I’m telling you that I’m not going to give you another lesson until you have practiced more. Now,” said the marshmallow side of me, “I’ll show you something new. We’ll learn a C chord.” [What is that if not a lesson? Marshmallow, indeed.]

I show her where to put her fingers, and tell her to press down hard, so the strings won’t sound muted.

“It hurts,” she says.

It hurts. Lord, how many times have I heard that? But never has it sent an arrow to my heart like it does now. Those tender little hands have never felt anything as rough and cruel as an old banjo string across the tips.

“I know it hurts,” I said, “but before long you’ll get (showing her my fingertips)…”

“Callouses,” she said. (She and Christopher have always been impressed and intrigued by Red’s huge mandolin callouses.)

“Don’t worry. We’ll quit when your fingers start to bleed,” I said, being jocular. She is not amused.

The C chord does not come easily, and it will definitely give her something to work on. [But at last, after all these years, I can FINALLY make a C chord! 😉 ] I am about to end the lesson now, when it pops into my mind that we should try "Polly Wolly Doodle", since we’d been singing it a lot recently. After all, it only has two chords, G and D7. So I show her D7, and make a mental note that it is easier for her than the C. Then I tell her (and show her) that we will just do a strum with the thumbpick on the open strings. I tell her that the first two words, “Oh I . . .” are pick-up notes, and that we don’t start strumming until the word “went.”

[Blah, blah, blah, she teaches me to strum the song…]

The next day, as I am listening to her practice, I am curious to know if she can play the song all by herself---that is, find the correct pitch, and remember where to change chords. Sure enough, when she starts singing the song, she’s not exactly on pitch, but she soon eases into it. And, sure enough, she misses the D7 once or twice, but I hear her saying, “Ugh. That doesn’t sound good.” But she keeps strumming and singing and trying the D7 in one place and then another, until it does sound right. [These days Murphy would never, EVER use the word "but" in two sentences in a row!] Then she plays it through the right way a few times. Inside I am ecstatic! She’s doing it!!

Now, this singing on pitch and changing chords is the very thing that so many people say is intuitive, but now I have seen first hand that it is not, not intuitive, but it is LEARNED. Sure, some people will learn faster than others, but still and yet it is learned.

And this one song, "Polly Wolly Doodle", with its two chords, will become the basis for learning the chords to other songs. It will be the groundwork; it sets the pattern for learning to change chords, which is a huge stumbling block for so many aspiring pickers.

[And so began the ideas that eventually culminated in the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD. Apparently, not only did the Murphy Method teach me how to play, but I taught the Murphy Method now to teach! {Ha! Just kidding!} "Polly Wolly Doodle" is still one of my all-time favorite teaching songs. I betcha I'll sing it every day for the entire two weeks I'm at Kaufman Kamp.]

[I should also add that it, in fact, did NOT last. It was another seven and a half years until I actually started playing the banjo for real. I wonder if it lasted for Stott?]


murphybook_smallThis is the second entry in a new series of posts called "From the Archives." They will be pulled from Murphy's many years of monthly Banjo Newsletter columns. Some of these are collected in her book ...and there you have it! This excerpt is from her August 1983 article, in which she talks about her approach to teaching banjo.

I know exactly why I teach. One: to make money. I'll be the first to admit that it's great to make money doing something you enjoy. Two: to keep the banjo in my hands five hours a day, twice a week. If I didn't teach, I seriously don't think I would take my banjo out of the case between gigs. Three: to keep me learning. I learn so much by teaching. Just last week I finally learned Earl's last "D" lick in The Ballad of Jed Clampett---the one with all those backward rolls. I was so excited. I played if for Red. He was unexcited but appreciative. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to say to your spouse, "Listen to this D lick out of Jed Clampett!" and have him not only understand what you are talking about, but also say, "You missed a note." I love it.

I started teaching banjo in 1974, which means I have been teaching for nine years. I started out with the Earl Scruggs book and one student. I had only been playing banjo for a year but I knew more than she did, so we went at it.

I had the makings of a good teacher. I loved playing the banjo. I loved teaching, and I had a lot of patience, but, with hindsight, I can see that I was not yet a good teacher. I had to teach myself how to teach. I am still learning how to teach. [...]

When I started teaching I was concerned only with teaching lead breaks. I was (and still am) a firm believer in three aspects of teaching banjo. One: students want to learn to play something immediately, so show them hand position, three rolls, and start them on a song! Two: students should learn the basic Scruggs style first, and learn it right. Three: students need to hear how the songs sound so record them on a cassette, both fast and slow.

My philosophy of teaching was summed up beautifully in the June 6, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated. It was in an article about Warren Bosworth, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association teaching pro. The article said: He believes the standard teaching methods are so wrongheaded that they scare off thousands of beginners each year. "Generally," he said, "the attitude of teaching pros is, 'If you don't learn what I teach you, you're a dummy.' My approach is, if you don't learn, I'm the dummy."

I approach teaching from the standpoint that I can teach almost anyone to play the banjo if they have a reasonable amount of intelligence, dexterity, and dedication. (I only ask for thirty minutes a day---every day. I know my people have jobs and families.)

Then, if a student is having trouble learning, I must assume I am doing something wrong. And that is generally one of two things: the arrangement of the song is too hard, or I am trying to make him learn too fast.

There is more to this column, and if you have Murphy's book you can find it on page 4. If you don't have Murphy's book then, well...why don't you have Murphy's book!?

murphybook_smallThis is the first entry in a new series of posts called "From the Archives." They will be pulled from Murphy's many years of monthly Banjo Newsletter columns. Some of these are collected in her book ...and there you have it! This excerpt comes from the very first column she wrote in June of 1983. [Editor's note: I was five at the time. She was younger than I am now! Yikes! -Casey]

2:30 I leave our house on the outskirts of the Hawthorne, Florida, metropolis and head toward Gainesville, where I teach at Modern Music Workshop. Do I have everything? Two notebooks---one for book-keeping, one for writing down snatches of songs that might occur on the twenty-minute drive to and from Gainesville (the ones I jot down at night are the best---car weaving from one side of the road to the other---pen weaving from one side of the paper to the other as I try to write in the dark). [Editor's note: and we think texting and driving is dangerous?!] Cassette of Ralph Stanley to listen to in case someone doesn't show up. Pocketbook. Checkbook. Money. Banjo? Banjo! Expletive deleted.

As I turn the car around and had back home, I remark to myself that this happens only about twice a year, and why does it have to happen today when I'm late already?

Five minutes later, banjo safely ensconced behind the seat of my 1971 Pinto with the bumper sticker that reads, "Scruggs Do It Earlier," I am on my way. [Editor's Note: If anyone has ever seen an actual bumper sticker that says that, please let us know.]

I arrive at the studio right at 3:00 to find my first student waiting. I teach ten students a day, two days each week, running half-hour lessons back-to-back from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.

3:00 My first student is Freddy. He is seven years old and has been taking banjo for nine months. He has an El Cheapo banjo which we have to capo up to the fifth fret in order for him to reach the fingerboard. Freddy started with me and can play nine songs: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and so forth. For today he was to learn the second phrase of the low break to Foggy Mountain Breakdown---that's the E-minor part.

We tune up and he plays Foggy Mountain Breakdown. he does a good job and I can tell he has put in a lot of time practicing. You can always tell. I remind him again to be sure to use his thumb the second time he does the FMB hammer-on. We go over that a few times, and then I record the last phrase of the tune for him. I don't use tab, so I play the tune onto a cassette tape and explain it note-for-note. Then I play the whole tune slowly so that he can play along. We spend the rest of the time playing together, with me on guitar. I am amazed at how well he can play--not perfectly, but he seems to have the knack. Then the time is up. See you next week, Freddy.

3:30 My next student is Mary McEntyre. She doesn't show up. She does that a lot.

4:00 My next student is Bill. He is a transfer from another teacher who taught strictly by tab. This is his second lesson with me. Hill knows a lot of songs, but he plays too fast and his playing is really sloppy---I've told him so. But I've learned that it's best not to try to correct the tunes a student already knows. Instead, we start on new ones, get them right, and hope that the new technique transfers. I had put down Groundspeed for him last week; it was his first experience learning from tape. "Did you have any trouble?" I ask. "No." he says. "Okay," I say. "We'll see." he has learned all the notes, and can play them, not as cleanly as I would like but okay. I correct his right hand fingering on all those "G" positions moving down the neck. For next week, what shall we do? "Do you know Cumberland Gap?" "Yes." "Then, for next week we'll do Sally Goodwin." (I'm to find out later that he only meant he knew the low break to Cumberland Gap---not the high break, which is essential to learning Sally Goodwin. This will result in a frantic phone call to me late one night---"I can't get it!"---whereupon I will talk him through Sally Goodwin over the phone, and listen to him play until he gets it right. Fortunately, it's on his nickel. See you later Bill. [Editor's note: You can tell these were Murphy's early days of teaching. These days she won't give Sally Goodwin to anyone unless they've been taking from her for years!]

Tune in next week for more of Murphy's exciting adventures in banjo teaching!