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Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I am in the midst of learning something and don’t quite know what to make of it. Maybe you can help me!

I have just begun to realize that some of my students don’t “hear” the words to songs. They don’t listen to the words while playing or vamping, and when I encourage them to do so, they have trouble retaining the words.

Now, I am a 100% words person myself. I even sometimes hear words to instrumentals! In the tune “Ashoken Farewell” I hear the words “You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me” on the last line. And in Monroe’s “Road to Columbus,” at the beginning of the second half I hear “Come and sit by my side little darling...” I could go on. So memorizing words comes automatically to me.

So, my question to myself is: Can you play bluegrass (and I’m talking about jamming) without knowing the words to the songs? And by “knowing,” I don’t mean knowing all the verses to every song, but at least being able to recognize the chorus of the song when it comes up. Or is this just me imposing the way I do something on someone else?

I didn’t realize this was a problem until Susan and I were working on jamming skills and how to anticipate whether you might be asked to play a break or not. I was explaining to her that there are some songs that usually start off with the chorus (Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms). In that case, the singer might give the nod for a break after that initial chorus OR she might choose to sing chorus/verse/chorus without a break. It happens all the time. And that in any singing song, the break always comes after a chorus. And it never comes after a verse. Unless the song is all verses and no chorus.

Well, Susan (who is a wonderful folk singer) couldn’t tell the difference between the chorus and the verses. Bluegrass is a new music to her, these are all new songs to her, and she hadn’t been paying attention to the words. After all, she had her hands full learning to play the breaks and doing the vamping. So the question came up in my mind: Is it necessary to ask you to learn the words to the choruses of all these songs you’ve never heard before?
It seems to me that it is. But, as I say, maybe that’s just me. After all, we all play instrumentals fine without hearing any words. But what happens when someone asks you to kick off a singing song you can’t quite remember? I always use the words to get me on track. Maybe it’s possible to recall a melody without the words. I simply don’t know.

Can I get some feedback from all y’all? What are your thoughts? Anybody else having trouble remembering words to songs? Anybody doing just fine without knowing the words? Talk to me, folks!

Murphy HenryAs I’ve been telling you, I’ve got several students who are working hard on improvising right now. And one of the things that has become even clearer to me lately is how important it is to hear the words of the song in your head as you are playing your break. You don’t need to know all three verses and the chorus but you do need to know the words to a verse or a chorus that go along with what you are picking.


Because if you don’t—and I’m talking specifically about learning the songs on the Improvsing DVD—you end up defining the songs by how many beats of G or C or D they have. I mean, you’ve got to remember these breaks somehow. And, yes, they do all sound alike! The licks are pretty much the same. That’s the point!

If you don’t know the words, then “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” becomes the song that has four beats of G, C, and D, in that order. And “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” is distinguished from “Foggy Mountain Top” by the fact that “Willow” has four beats of C and FMT only has two. So by the time you get to “Your Love Is Like A Flower,” which happens to have the same chord pattern as “Willow,” your head is a complete jumble of chord patterns--that you can’t remember!

But while these breaks are very much alike, the songs themselves are quite different. And what is this difference? The melodies and the words!

So now I am becoming quite insistent that the students LEARN THE WORDS to the break they are playing. And, yes, that does slow down the learning process in the short run, but it makes everything easier in the long run.

And the best way to learn words? Listen to the song and WRITE THEM DOWN. Bet you never thought you’d hear me saying that! Pulling them off the internet won’t do. Sure, it’s  easy, but that doesn’t help you learn them. It’s the listening over and over as you write them down that helps.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improvise a break to a song you’ve never heard before if you are in a jam session. Of course you can. But in that case, you will be relying more on watching the guitar player’s hands and trying to find some way to remember—for the moment—the chord progression. If you wanted to learn a more permanent break to the song, you’d have to learn the words. And, hey, if you can learn a banjo break to any of the songs on these DVDS, you can learn four lines to a chorus! Start a notebook....