Improvising

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Again, a quick blog about our recording today. I got through all of the upgrades to the Roly Polys! Hooray! Red may have a time with the editing, but the footage is there. For upgrades (meaning harder licks) I included the Tag Lick, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown Lick, the D lick first taught in Do Lord, the Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms lick, the 8th-note walk-down C lick (which does NOT have a good name!), a hammer-on to the fourth string for the C Roly Poly, the D lick from Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and finally, that cool Ralph Stanley lick that I first teach in When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder. WHEW!

So these are all substitute licks for the basic Roly Poly Breaks which I recorded yesterday. I can only HOPE that the students (this means you!) will not move too fast through the DVD or skip around too much.

When we got done about noon, I didn't even have time to MAKE a sandwich to take with me to my teaching place. So, alas, I had to stop by McDonald's which was on the way. Here is a picture of my lunch:

Lunch

Lunch

I don't know why I'm suddenly compelled to tell you what I have been eating! Maybe because recording takes so much focused energy that I stay hungry all the time!

We still need Casey to add the guitar parts and I am getting Red to play the mandolin on Daybreak in Dixie so you banjo folks can hear what the song sounds like. Much better than me HUMMING through the chords! But we are closing in on being done! Except for that all-important cover shot!

Stay tuned. And thanks for all the positive comments about looking forward to this DVD.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I'd hoped to have more energy to blog in detail about our first day of recording the new DVD, Kick Start Your Jamming! (And a tip of the big ol' Stetson hat to Texas Tim for helping with that title.) This DVD will teach you everything you need to know about the Roly Polys!

We recorded nine songs, from Blue Ridge Cabin Home to Somebody Robbed the Glendale Train, and will be adding the upgrades tomorrow. Then Casey will join me later in the week to add the rhythm guitar. I am extremely pleased with how the DVD is turning out. Can't wait for you to see it!

Post-DVD meal: Eggs and grits

Post-DVD meal: Eggs and grits

Here's a picture of our post-DVD meal: eggs and grits. Cheese grits! I cooked the eggs, and Red made the grits. This has always pretty much been our go-to supper especially when we were playing bluegrass full time and coming back home from a festival or being out on the road. (Okay, sometimes we did resort to that quick Kraft Macaroni and Cheese! Yummy!)

So, I'm not sure how well you can see the things spread out on our eating table (my Mama made the tablecloth) but Red's plate has the most grits on it! Mine are in a bowl. We are also having green beans (compliments of J.P., my fiddle student, who had already strung and snapped them!), cantaloupe, and toast made in the oven and topped with Casey's homemade apple jelly!

But now, it's time to crash and do some serious vegging in front of the TV. I hope there's a pre-season football game on!

We'll be recording some Roly Poly upgrades tomorrow! Stay tuned!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

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

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

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I mentioned in my last Kamp blog that I was going to listen to Carole King's memoir, A Natural Woman, on the long ride home. Well, I did. Carole reads it herself and it is excellent in every way. I highly recommend it.

But coming on the tail-end of my Kamp experience, I was surprised as all get out to hear her talking about improvising! So I grabbed my car pencil and marked down the location on Disc 5 and have just transcribed, word for word, what she said. I think it's that important. (To keep things legal, I give a citation at the end of the quote.)

First of all, for you non-boomers, Carole King is a fabulous songwriter, piano player, and performing artist. Her album Tapestry is probably her most famous personal recording. Her songwriting credits are legion and include You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman (Aretha recorded this) and Come On, Baby, Do The Locomotion With Me (recorded by Little Eva, who was Carole's babysitter at the time!). ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Is this a perfect title, or what? Of course, it will only have resonance or poignancy if you know the song. Irregardless (as we say here in the Valley when we can't decide between "irrespective" and "regardless"!), are these not the cutest little boys you have ever seen? (Of course, all little kids are adorable, I just happen to be partial to these because they are holding a fiddle and a banjo!)

Two Little Boys: Reece and Drew

Two Little Boys: Rhys and Drew

Brothers Drew and Rhys have been to the jam before, but not in a while and they have obviously been practicing! Drew takes from Casey and Rhys takes from David McLaughlin. I've asked David to show Rhys a lot of the tunes that we are playing in the jam, and David has obliged so Rhys now plays Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, and Foggy Mountain Breakdown in addition to some of the singing songs. Drew can play all the tunes on Beginning Banjo Volume 1, all the Misfit tunes, and will start work on Old Joe Clark next. Both boys keep excellent time and can play their tunes both slow and fast. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

One of the comments prompted by my last blog: "Can you give me a quick explanation of the Roly Polys?"

Well, you know me. I can definitely give you an explanation, I'm just not sure it will be quick! (We will have a DVD that demonstrates everything you want to know about Roly Polys coming out this fall.)

Short explanation: The Roly Polys are a series of banjo rolls I developed to give beginning banjo players (specifically adults) the ability to play banjo breaks to three-chord singing songs ASAP.

Using the Roly Polys, a student can join in a jam and play breaks almost immediately. In order to use the Roly Polys, you have to either be able to hear your chords changes (G, C, D) or else be really good at "reading" the chords from the guitar player's hands. Either way will work!

So, without using tab (!!!), let me try to tell you more specifically about the Roly Polys. They are really the very first level of improvising--"Entry Level Improvising." ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our ever-expanding circle of pickers grew last night as we welcomed new jammers Janice, who takes banjo from Casey, and Tim, one of my guitar students, who recently learned the "boom, chunk, boom, chunk" bluegrass strum--off the Internet!  Janice plays solid and clean and after she got comfortable by playing a couple of tunes in unison with the other banjos, she was quite willing to take a solo break and even kicked off a couple of songs. Tim sat quietly all night long, hammering out some excellent rhythm while watching my hands to see what the chords were.

I was also delighted to see Kathy G back in the saddle again, now fully recovered from her painful encounter with a flesh-eating dishwasher which had taken a bite out of her index finger. As E.T. said, "Ouch!" For some reason, being away from the banjo for a few weeks had not hurt her playing. She made her debut as a lead singer, singing I'll Fly Away in the key of C. Nice job, Kathy! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

[I was stuck for a title until I remembered that I had taken pictures at the jam. The pics have nothing to do with the blog but they are way cool!]

Father and daughter: Boot Scootin Boogie !

Father and daughter: Boot Scootin Boogie !

I am obviously way too distracted to write coherently. (Or maybe it's just that Ben has set the bar too high!) Today we were supposed to be shooting an improvising DVD with Ned Luberecki, but he texted Monday night to say that his flights from Montana to Denver to Nashville were all screwed up so there was no way he could make it here in time to shoot the DVD and get to Boston by 9 a.m. Friday when he had to teach a banjo workshop! So we are trying to reschedule. Meanwhile, we have this Gigantic Snow Storm that is heading our way, bringing perhaps a foot of snow! Naturally I had to join everyone else in Frederick Country at the grocery store where we were all stocking up on Storm Essentials: Beer, Bread, and Bryers. (That's an old Florida Hurricane joke from our banjo-picking buddy Hig.) I skipped the bread and doubled up on the beer! ...continue reading

Chris Henry

There are so many different musical situations in Nashville. Often times I find myself surrounded by the best of the world-class professionals, and many other times I like to jam with folks who just do it for fun. There is an event right outside of town called the Full Moon Pickin' Party, and it was a continuation of a party that got started in the 80's by our lawyer friend and bluegrass enthusiast, Ted Walker.

The party is located in a beautiful section of Percy Warner park and is attended by several hundred folks every full moon. They have a stage set up and bands play from about 7-11, but the main attraction for most of the folks that come is the jamming. It costs $20 for a regular adult admission, but only $5 if one shows up with a qualified musical instrument.

I rode with some friends and got to the park about 9:30 and walked in to see a whole lot of people had showed up as it was a very pleasant Friday evening with perfect weather and a huge Supermoon beaming beautifully overhead. I made the usual rounds and took in the lay of the land as it were.

Johnny Campbell, an ardent Bill Monroe style bluegrass fiddler was there with his dad, Bob, and we started off with "The Old Mountaineer". I rarely get to play those tunes and so that was fun. We then played "The Lonesome Old Farmer", a tune that I had learned off Johnny's brother, Jimmy's album that featured Monroe on the mandolin. Another fine moment.

My buddy Adam Olmstead, my favorite songwriter under 50, is visiting for a couple of months from New Brunswick, and we sang "Sweetheart of Mine". That was the first song we ever sang together one night at the Station Inn about seven or eight years ago. He usually sings lead, but this night I rendered the verses and sang lead on the chorus. Next, we did the Delmore Brothers tune, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", a good jam number that is easy to follow. Then I saw Ted Walker.

Ted and I visited and reminisced for a while until he said something to the effect of, "you better get back in there". One of the party's only drawbacks is that it ends promptly at 11pm and that's right when a lot of people are just getting warmed up. So I took his advice and came back to assume my position in the jam.

I took a mandolin break on whatever was playing when I got back - I can't remember. I dug in and played hard and loud and the crowd responded, and that was satisfying. We got through with that number and someone asked me to sing, so I thought quickly, then launched into the most recent tune I have learned, the Stanley Brothers' "Paint the Town".

I started the tune out by playing the verse and then I sang a verse and chorus to realize that it wasn't a number the folks were very familiar with, and so when the break after the chorus came around, I went into "Say Won't You Be Mine", which I thought would be more familiar. I've had good luck switching tunes at the blink of a hat recently with my band, and I was feeling confident that the switch could be made easily. Wrong!!

At these parties, not only is it a little raucous with jams going on every ten feet or so, but the adults of 21 years have the opportunity to consume four complimentary beers with the price of admission. So, folks weren't entirely sober to say the least. When I realized that half of the people were still playing the chords to the original song I had kicked off, I thought it would be a good idea to use my hands to show everybody what chords were in the new selection. Wrong!!

The first chord in "Say Won't You Be Mine" is a G chord. It's also what we call the "one" chord in the Nashville numbers system which is used on stage in tight spots but mostly in the studio to write chord charts for folks who have never heard or played the song being recorded before. When I raised my hand to communicate the "one" chord, two things happened: I had to quit playing the mandolin for a moment. and also, with my monodigital articulation, I inadvertently communicated to several that what I wanted was for people to stop playing, as in the one finger meant - "Hold on a second!".

So with half of the people in the jam stopping, the momentum of the song had ceased, the song was awkwardly and uncomfortably ended, and I had earned another lesson in what not to do in that situation. Next time I will most likely, A) Play songs that I am quite certain will be more accessible(Rollin' My Sweet Baby's Arms, How Mountain Girls Can Love, etc.), and B) Don't assume people are going to know what I am doing if I hold up a finger in hopes of communicating the right chords.

These are a couple of lessons that I am surprised I had not fully comprehended and put into practice, but it just goes to show, that in the thick of things, it's easy to forget simple things that help avoid getting into a jam within a jam!

Murphy Henry

Just a quickie here, folks, to let you know that our second Murphy Method Intermediate Banjo Camp was a rousing success! Sixteen students gathered in Winchester under the watchful eyes of Casey and me to play and play and play! They also did some learning, but I think the playing was the big hit of the weekend. After all, our motto is “Less talk, more playing!”

 

Intermediate Banjo Campers

Intermediate Banjo Campers

One of the surprise hits of the weekend was the singing of Barry, one of our LA students. (And I don’t mean Lower Alabama!) I’ve known Barry from meeting him at many camps over the years and I had no idea he knew so many songs and could sing so well. And since I caught a cold and could not sing (arrrgh!), he stepped into the breach and really helped out. His song choices were excellent—just plain old three-chord songs, but ones that were a bit unusual. The ones I remember are:

Let Those Brown Eyes Smile At Me
Long Black Veil
Your Love Is Like a Flower
Little Cabin Home on the Hill
Hand Me Down My Walkin' Cane

(Help me out, Barry! There was another one about drinking and the one you sang Sunday that had the word “Wander” in it....my brain is muzzy today!)

Barry also played the banjo as he sang and did the kickoffs to all these songs! The rest of the class then had the opportunity to improvise breaks to the songs, on the spot, and play them solo while everyone else vamped. (But only if they wanted to.)

Jim also came through with some good sing-along songs like Worried Man and I Saw the Light. And on Saturday and Sunday Zac came in to be our guitar man. Nothing like playing Blue Ridge Cabin Home fifty times at a very slow pace, is there Zac? He also played banjo on our Saturday night concert and did a bang up job. Bob Van Metre came in to play bass and provide some comic relief with his off-the-cuff remarks...he also provided the medicinal Jack Daniels and I am forever in his debt for that. I still couldn’t sing but I didn’t feel so bad about it!

If I had to describe what we did during the weekend with one word it would be “improvise.” We divided the class into Beginning Intermediates and more Advanced Intermediates and both sections worked hard on improvising. The BI’s learned about it from the ground up—finding basic licks to use in simple three-chord songs and then using those same licks over and over to play more songs. The AI’s improvised to Barry’s and Jim’s songs and to the version of East Va. Blues I managed to croak out. (Not pretty!) Everyone did fantastic, and no one’s break was the same. The AI’s also improvised a break, on the spot, to Bluegrass Breakdown, altho Roy (back again from England) later said he was just copying me. Hey, that still counts! You were doing it on the fly.

There is much more to tell, but I’m out of time. I’d love it if some of you students would chime in with your impressions.

We are already looking forward to next year’s camp which will be this same weekend in March (we hope). Mark your calendars! We picked up great ideas from the students for improvements we can make for next year and we are already laying the groundwork to implement some of them.

Thanks to everyone for making our second Intermediate Banjo Camp such a great one. And don’t forget about our Murphy Method Beginner Camp this October!!!! See you there.