Learning By Ear

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Thanks for all the favorable comments on my story, “The First Banjo Lesson.” I’m glad so many of you could relate to it. As you know, learning to play the banjo, especially as an adult, is no easy task. Here, in this second installment, we follow Peg as she continues her banjo lessons with her teacher Jill. Comments welcome.

The Further Adventures of Peg and Jill: Banjo Lesson #2

Slowly Peg walked up the steps of the old house where she took her banjo lessons. She had not had a good week of practice and she was afraid Jill was going to yell at her.

She didn’t feel any better when she heard Jill saying to the student in front of her, “Dammit, Bob, you missed that C chord again. How long have we been working on this?”

“I just can’t hear it,” came the reply. “There’s no damn melody.”

“I don’t care if there isn’t any damn melody. Memorize the damn pattern. Come on in Peg. We’re done.”

Peg cautiously entered the room to see a man with a thick head of grey hair putting his guitar in the case.

“Peg, this is Bob. Bob, Peg,” said Jill, getting up out of her chair. “Go ahead and sit down, Peg, and get your banjo out. I’ll be right back.” ...continue reading

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.

Tip Jar Jam: When The Roll Is Called Uncloudy Day

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(Psst: The title is not a typo. Read the blog. All will be revealed.)

Well, we didn't have a Tip Jar Jam on Wednesday because, first of all it snowed. Then after I had ratcheted up my courage to drive into town in the snow (I'm from Georgia!) I got into my new-to-me, all-wheel drive Honda Pilot (2008) and darn thing wouldn't crank! Deader'n a door nail. Not a sound. Naturally, I took that as a sign from the Universe that I was to stay home. It was January 21 which would have been my mom's 90th birthday. So, I figured I'd lounge around the house in my pajamas and think about Mama.

Naturally, I shared my car woes with Ben Smelser. He texted that he was coming out this way to look at trees and did I want him to swing by and see what was wrong. Oh, yes! I told him I thought it was the battery and that I'd probably left a light on. He said he'd bring a "battery pack" (whatever that is) and charge up the battery. Fine with me.

Long story short: It was NOT the battery! Nor the starter! Nor the alternator, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come.... Whoops! I let my Baptist slip out. Anyhow, Ben found out that the battery cable had slipped off the battery post. He put it back on but it wouldn't stay because the post was too skinny. (Too much cleaning by my automotively-obsessed nephew?) So, being the resourceful redneck that he is, Ben took some tinfoil, folded it up into several layers, and wrapped it around the post to thicken it up! Brilliant! Now my "new" car has a bluegrass fix! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Instead of blogging about last night's Tip Jar Jam (wonderful though it was with Kathy H, Kristina, Heather, and David), I thought I would share some thoughts from our second Women's Banjo Camp, which was totally amazing. We're already looking forward to next year, July 24-26, 2015.

Women's Banjo Campers 2014

Women's Banjo Campers 2014 (Thanks to Peggy for the photo!)

Michigan Sue, who also attended our Beginning Banjo Camp last fall, thoughtfully provided me with today's title. Sue has made a lot of progress in the nine months since "Baby Banjo Camp" and I congratulated her on it. Whereupon she uttered this amazing sentence: "It finally dawned on me to start listening to bluegrass! It's made a huge difference." I thought that was profound so I grabbed a marker and wrote it down. Another woman added that she had been listening to bluegrass on Sirius Radio in the car "all the time" and pointed out, "It soaks into you!" Indeed it does! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(The title references a tongue-in-cheek torch song, Pink Toenails, from an early Dixie Chicks album, Little Ol’ Cowgirl [1992]. In my book I called it the best song on the disc.)

First off: Grandson Dalton said the name of his first banjo tune today! Was it Cripple Creek? Boil Them Cabbage? Old Joe Clark? No, he's apparently more into Ralph...

Here's the story: We were sitting on the couch this morning watching "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child" DVDs. (Huge shout out to these re-visioned old favorites. They are multi-cultural and sometimes gender-flipped. For example our first DVD was "Robinita Hood and her Band of Merry Chicas!") While I was drinking my first cuppa, he was barking out orders --"Take out the yellow one, put in the blue one!"-- and, in the manner of three-year-olds everywhere, picking his nose. I looked over at him inquisitively and he looked right back and said, "Big Booger." Which is the name of one of Ralph Stanley's banjo tunes! Fortunately Dalton's mother, Casey, is a Ralph freak and it is with her kind permission that I bring you this cute tale. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Murphy blogs every month over on Banjo Hangout, and we will be cross-posting these blogs so they'll be all here in one place. This first one was originally posted Friday, August 23, 2013.

Hi, I'm Murphy Henry! And welcome to my first article for Banjo  Hangout. You might have heard of my method of teaching--The Murphy Method. (I like alliteration!) We teach by ear. We do not use any tablature or written music, ever. We teach all the bluegrass instruments but, because I'm a banjo player, we are perhaps best known for our banjo instruction.

My bona fides? You want bona fides? Oh, ye, of little faith. (Yes, I was raised Baptist! In Georgia.) I am one of three women included in the book Masters of the 5-String Banjo by Trischka and Wernick. (The other two? Lynn Morris and Alison Brown.) I started playing banjo in 1973 and have recorded seven actual vinyl LPs (and numerous cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs) with my husband Red and our band. I have taught at numerous banjo camps across the country including the Tennessee Banjo Institute and the Maryland Banjo Academy. And for years I wrote the On The Road column for Banjo Newsletter. (I still write the General Store column for Bluegrass Unlimited.) Will that do ya? If not, there's always Google!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

We were back in the saddle last night after a week's layoff due to my cold and also to my trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to talk about my book. (That's another whole blog!)

We were seven strong counting me. For the second time we welcomed David, one of Casey's beginning students. He knows the Big Three plus Cumberland Gap and I Saw the Light. When we would play one of David's songs, I would have all the banjos play the lead together, very slowly, so that David could ease his way into group playing. Strength in numbers, you know! Then, I'd ask David if he was willing to play solo and kick the song off. He's an extremely good sport so he always said yes. Then we would go around the circle and everyone would play. Scott, Jon, and I were all playing banjo. This, of course, gave David a chance to hear other people playing the song and his comments were interesting. ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I wish I could use one of Betty's colorful expressions about her banjo playing for the title of this blog, but she would kill me. In fact, right after she said what she said, she looked right at me with a steely glare and said, "You better not use that in the blog!" To which I could only reply, "Yes, ma'am!"

Some of Betty's frustration centered around John Hardy. She has been playing it slowly and without inflection, as Casey and I both insist that beginning students do. But, as Betty said, when she hears the rest of us play John Hardy in the jam it sounds like a completely different tune! I know what she means. And it's not the speed that makes it sound different (although the speed does play a part), it's more the inflection or the bounce, as we say in the banjo world.

Let me try to explain.  ...continue reading

Red Henry

Folks, I recently participated in couple of picking sessions that showed something about what to do--and what not to do-- in a jam. Let's call them Jam Session #1 and Jam Session #2.

Jam Session #1 was the good old Thursday evening session at Linda's Mercantile fruit stand, run by David and Linda Lay on U.S. 522 a mile or so north of Winchester. Everybody's welcome, so we always have a mix of talent. There are folks who've only been playing a little while, and folks who've been playing all their (long) lives. There are folks who know just a few tunes, and folks who know lots. So when I go pick at Linda's, I know that I'll be fitting in with a dozen or fifteen other pickers of widely varying experience and musical skill.

Usually during the evening at Linda's, I'll sing two or three songs as well as backing up and taking breaks on everybody else's numbers. What's important when playing at Linda's? At least a few things, such as:

(a.) When it's your turn to sing, pick out a song that LOTS OF PEOPLE KNOW. They'll be playing along in back of you, so make sure that you sing a song they know and can play along with. And DON'T PLAY TOO FAST. Then everybody can play along together, and the music sounds good. And the pickers (as well as the audience) like it.

(b.) When you are playing lead or backup on someone else's song or tune, always remember the K.I.S.S. principle of bluegrass music: Keep It Simple, Stupid! When play your break on a number with a wide variety of pickers, that is not the time to show how hot a player you are and how many notes you can pick. It is the time to play AS PLAINLY AND CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE so that everybody can hear what you are doing and play along. That's the way to keep the picking session sounding good.

Now, let's consider Jam Session #2. This session happened to include just three people, at an old-time music gathering where the rest of the folks were taking a supper break. The instruments present were a fiddle played by a good player, a guitar played by a non-guitar specialist, and a mandolin played by me. So, as one of just two lead players it was my turn to pick out every other tune. I selected interesting but well-known numbers that sounded good even in such a small group, and were easy for the guitar player to back up even though guitar wasn't his best instrument.

BUT... when the fiddle player picked out tunes to play, they were not like that. They were some of the fiddler's favorite rare, obscure, "unsquare" tunes, which neither I nor the guitarist knew or could play well. By the time we'd gone through each tune several times I had learned the basics of it, but the effect of a learning mandolin player and a hesitant guitar player meant that the tunes sounded a lot weaker, and to me (at least) were much less satisfying to play, than the tunes I had picked out specifically to avoid that situation and help us all sound good. I thought that the fiddle player lacked good manners.

So whatever session you're in, YOU use good manners. Pick tunes that the other musicians can play, and play them in such a way as to make it easy for the others to play along. Sometimes in advanced sessions, this means that you can play about anything you want any way you want to, even without announcing the name of the tune. But in other sessions, it means that you have to pay attention to the other musicians and help make everybody sound good. Think about it.


Murphy Henry

If you are a Murphy Method banjo student (especially a beginner), then you are already acquainted with the music of Doug Dillard. He wrote Banjo in the Hollow! You also probably know the Dillards (Doug, his brother Rodney on guitar, Dean Webb on mandolin, and Mitch Jayne on bass) from their appearances on the Andy Griffith show as the Darling Family. The Dillard biography, Everybody on the Truck, notes that while the boys were enthusiastic about landing a job on the show, they were “reluctant to appear on television as ignorant hillbillies.” Having grown up in the Ozark mountains in Missouri, Rodney, in particular, wanted to make sure that they “weren’t going to be making fun of the people they grew up with.” And in spite of the long-lasting appeal of their performances on the show, years later Rodney still had reservations about accepting the role. But there is no telling how many fans of the show were first introduced to bluegrass and banjo playing through the music of the Dillards.

I came into the music of the Dillards in a sideways fashion. I sorta married into it. Red and his banjo-playing uncle John Hedgecoth were big Dillards fans, since the Dillards' albums—Back Porch Bluegrass (Elektra, 1963) and Live, Almost (Elektra, 1964)—were some of the few bluegrass albums that were commercially available in Jacksonville, Florida, in the early sixties. And, of course, now that I want to write about those albums, I can’t find them anywhere! I guess I put them in a safe place. Or they are in a parallel universe. Nevertheless, thanks to Google, I can report some of the song titles. From Back Porch Bluegrass: Banjo in the Hollow, Doug’s Tune, Hickory Hollow (all written by Doug), Dueling Banjos (one of the pre-Deliverance arrangements), Old Home Place, and Dooley.

And from Live, Almost! (whose cover pictured Rodney Dillard lying “dead” in front of the other band members, Dean Webb, Mitch Jayne, and Doug): Old Blue, Walking Down the Line, I’ll Never See My Home Again, Dixie Breakdown, Pretty Polly, and Sinkin’ Creek (which I taught, while John played it, on our original Melodic cassette series!) This album also featured some of Mitch Jayne’s humorous stories, from which Red borrowed liberally before coming up with his own assortment. These include Mitch’s story about the song “Old Blue.” My favorite lines from that story (uttered often by Red when we used to sing “Old Blue”) was when Mitch was saying that the Dillards had a “lot different attitude about dogs than they do in Los Angeles...we don’t put rhinestone collars on them too much. If there was a rhinestone collar to spare around the house, it went on Mommy.”

The Dillards also recorded a third album for Elektra in 1965, Pickin’ and Fiddlin' with Byron Berline. I actually have that vinyl copy in hand. Since it didn’t have any singing on it, it was never one of my faves, although I think Red and John liked it a lot and learned a bunch of tunes off of it which they would trot out in the late hours of a picking party. Songs like Hamilton County, Fisher’s Hornpipe, Tom and Jerry, Cotton Patch Rag, Durang’s Hornpipe, Wagoner, Sally Johnson, Crazy Creek, and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (not the nursery rhyme!). Good songs, all, but I still can’t play a banjo or fiddle lead to any of them!

Doug eventually left the Dillards and teamed up with Gene Clark, playing more of a folk-rock-county music. From their album The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark I particularly liked Git It On Brother (a funky arrangement of Flatt and Scruggs' Get In Line, Brother) and She Darked the Sun. Other Dillard and Clark classics included Don’t Come Rollin’ and With Care From Someone.

I write about albums because I don’t have but one personal Doug Dillard story to tell. I met him at one of the early IBMA Trade Shows in Owensboro. We had just come out with our first video, Beginning Banjo Volume One, which kicked off with Banjo in the Hollow. I was all excited to tell Doug about using his tune and introduced myself to him and dragged him over to our booth to see a clip of it. He was real sweet about it and seemed interested, which I appreciated. As I remember it, we had been trying to get hold of his publisher so we could pay the royalties for using his song. After meeting Doug personally, I think his publisher called us!

I was fortunate to get to see the Dillards play several times. Once at IBMA, once at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and once at the Hiawassee Fair in Hiawassee, Georgia. I also got to see Doug play with his own Doug Dillard Band, which featured Ginger Boatwright on guitar and lead vocals. I saw them play in Alaska and at the Tennessee Banjo Institute. And I saw the Dillards from afar, sitting in the audience in the Ryman Auditorium when they were inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 2009. I’m not sure but I think Mitch Jayne said, when he stepped up to the mike to accept the award, “I thought we were going to have to die to get in here.” It was a near thing, for now both he and Doug are gone. I’m so glad they made it in. Casey had her picture taken with Doug at the pre-awards party. She keeps it up in her house now, in her office, right across from her Big Earl poster.

It’s sad to lose two such amazing banjo players in such a short period of time. But we still have their music. If you’ve not heard much of Doug’s playing, get on the internet and buy some of it! I think those first two albums are on CD now, and if not, vinyl copies are still out there. And I highly recommend the book Everybody on the Truck: The Story of the Dillards by Lee Grant with the Original Dillards. It’s short, easy to read, and packed with inside information. And pictures!

John Hartford was good friends with Doug and Rodney and they played together early on, pre-Dillards, in a band called the Dixie Ramblers. I can imagine John and Doug, on Heaven’s Bright Shore, uncasing the fiddle and the five and kicking back for a joyous musical reunion. I treasure the thought.