Tag Archives: singing

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The regular crowd met again last night, May 15, for our 23rd Tip Jar Jam. Amazing! Pickers present were: Bob Van, Janet, Kathy, Barbara, Kasey (resplendent in pink shorts with matching pink scarf), Ben, Kenney and Bob A. We sorely missed Scott and Bob Mc who were obviously letting less important things like work interfere with their picking!


As you may have noticed from earlier blogs, more students are stepping up to the plate and singing now! Which I think is wonderful. Here's an easy-to-read list of who sang what:


Kasey and Ben: I Saw the Light

Ben: Old Home Place

Kathy: I'll Fly Away

Bob A: Beulah Land (a Do Lord clone) and New River Train

Barbara: Somebody Robbed the Glendale Train

Bob Van: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms


If you are a wannabe bluegrass singer, the most important thing is finding the right key to sing in! You will not sing all songs in the same key, but there is usually one key where you will sing most of the songs. Generally speaking, most women sing most bluegrass songs in the key of C or D; most men sing in G or A. Since the "default" key for beginner bluegrass jams is G (no capoing!), way too many women think they can't sing bluegrass! NOT TRUE! They just need to sing in higher keys. (Our Harmony Singing DVD explains all this in more detail.)


Oftentimes, when you are singing at home by yourself (and not using your full voice), you may think you sing in a lower key than you actually do. But in a jam session, you have to sing above the instruments which create a lot of noise even when they are playing quietly. Here's an example. Kathy and I both thought she sang I'll Fly Away in A. So she sang it in the jam last week in A but that was too low. So she worked on it at home this week and thought maybe she sang it in B-flat or B. We tried it in those keys at the lesson, but as it turned out, she really sang it best in C. She has all kinds of power there. She did a great job of singing it in the jam last night. And she realized--as we all do--that this bluegrass singing is not as easy as it looks! "Does everyone's mind go blank when they have to sing solo?" she asked, after we finished the song. "Yes!" was the resounding reply. Especially if you are new to singing solo. Or if you are doing a new song for the first time. I pride myself on being a real "words" person, but even I sometimes go blank if I am singing a brand new song for the first time.


Barbara, who has turned the bass playing duties over to Kenney and is now playing guitar, sang a song that was new to the group, Glendale Train. I had kinda forgotten about Glendale Train--which I love--but it was one of my stage songs when I was first getting into bluegrass. (And I borrowed liberally from its melody for my own song, Just Remember Where You Could Be. I'm not sure I realized that at the time I was writing it!) It's basically a three-chord song with one off chord, A, in the verse and chorus. It's different from most of the songs we play at the jam in that chorus and verses are quite long--about twice as long as the verses and chorus of our other songs. So, I used it to demonstrate the concept of the "split break"--where one person plays the first part of the break and then hands it off to the second person who plays the last half of the break.


Bob Van was my guinea pig for this demonstration, even though I had just sprung the song on him during his lesson right before the jam. He came up with an excellent guitar break on the spot after hearing me sing the song through one time. I was proud of him for that! We then worked out splitting the break which he and I had done on a few songs previously. The thing about splitting a break in a jam is that pickers rarely, if ever, announce that they are going to split the break. So you have to be aware of the concept of the split break and realize that, hey, this is a pretty long break I wonder if the person who is playing right in front of me is going to hand me the second half. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But you have to be ready! (Note: this is an intermediate-level skill so don't get all hot and bothered about this if you are a beginning player!) But in the Tip Jar Jam, which is a teaching jam, we will work out the split breaks beforehand. (I can hear your sighs of "Whew!")
Glendale Train also enabled us to talk about a "turn-around."


Actually, Bob Van had opened that can of worms earlier by asking if he could kick off Blue Ridge Cabin Home with a "turn-around." I told him in no uncertain terms that he could not. (He knew that, he was just baiting me!) When Kathy asked why not, I gave her the answer that has no room for quibbling: "That's not the way Lester and Earl did it!" Then Bob A asked, "What's a turn-around?" So I said to Bob Van, "That's your question. You can answer that!" And he did, after a fashion. Upon which I turned back to Bob A and said, "Aren't you glad he's not your teacher?" Bada bing!


Actually Bobby gave a good answer. A turn-around is a short kick-off or a short break. Usually it's the last line or last two lines of the verse or the chorus. And, again, in a "regular" jam, folks often don't announce that they are going to do a turn-around. They expect you to know it, or, at least, to be able to follow it off the cuff. If they are feeling charitable they might say, "I'm gonna turn it around" and then, boom! Off they go.


Anyhow, Glendale Train has such long verses and choruses that using a turn-around for the kickoff makes good sense. So I kicked it off with a turn-around, Barbara did a good job of singing it, and Bobby and I split the one break. We'll keep that one in the repertoire!


We also did Old Home Place, which we had worked on last week. Since Ben is singing it in C, the song, with its two "off chords," provided its usual amount of confusion what with some folks being capoed (the ones who were going to play the breaks they had learned in G) and some not (the one who were just chording). This is one area  of teaching that still frustrates me--having to call out or go through two completely different sets of chords. No wonder Casey called this one a "jam buster"! But we survived and Ben did a good job singing. And I know it will get better and easier. And maybe, just maybe, I'll learn something about how to teach the chords in a better fashion. I hope so!


Being able to introduce harder songs like Old Home Place and Glendale Train into the Tip Jar Jam is a good indicator of how much the students have grown as players--and singers! No way would I have tried these last year. I'm looking forward to seeing what these next few months will bring.


If you are traveling through the Winchester area this summer, come by and jam with us. We'd love to have you. We jam every Wednesday night from 7-9. Call or email for the location.

Murphy Henry

Now that I’ve told you about content of the Harmony Singing DVD, let me tell you about the fun stuff! I picked Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart up at the airport on Saturday night about 7:45. I’d originally told them I’d meet them curbside, but of course by the time I’d made the almost two-hour trip (primed by a Starbucks Tall Americano and oatmeal cookie!) I needed the visit the “loo” as they say in Jolly Olde England. So I met them inside at baggage. I’d told them they could use our instruments, so all they had was two suitcases. (“And no merch!” as they both exclaimed.)

When we stepped outside the terminal, they were both stunned by the cold (22 degrees) which was made even colder by the brisk wind which was making the flags stand straight out. Yikes! We didn’t waste any time getting in the car and cranking up the heat.

I figured they would want to eat something so I told them they had three choices: eat junk food at the airport, eat fast food when we got to Winchester (about an hour’s drive), or wait till we got home and eat some of the food I had fixed. Bless their hearts, they opted to eat at home.

With Janet in the front seat, she and I talked all the way home, with Chris occasionally chiming in from somewhere in the back. She and I had met (and bonded) a few years ago at Mid-West Banjo Camp over a beer at a local tavern and the book Eat, Pray, Love. Deeply engrossed in conversation, we didn’t realize a huge summer thunderstorm had arisen and that we were due back on campus to perform real soon. The only thing to do was to make a dash for it through the pouring rain with lightning flashing all around and “thunder roaring, bursting in the clouds.” We arrived at our dorm drenched to the skin and looking liked drowned rats. We had just time to towel our hair day and change clothes before jumping on stage to sing Love Come Home as a duet. It sounded great. We’ve been buddies ever since.

Arriving back at the house, I warmed up bowls of a slow-cooker roast/stew I had concocted based on my friend Robyn’s recipe which included dumping in a bottle of beer and ¼ cup of brown sugar to the roast and adding onion, carrots, apple, apricots, prunes, and cranberries. By the time I’d added all that there was no room for the sweet potatoes! So it goes. They said it was yummy and I had to agree! (Could have used a tad more salt...)

Meanwhile Bill Evans was making his way to the house in his rental car. (He’d flown in earlier in the week to visit his sister in Richmond and to do a banjo workshop.) I called him and he said he’d be there at precisely 10:26. So of course, at 10:27 I called and told him he was late! He had a good excuse: he was almost in sight of the house when he found the road blocked and a “blue light special” (police cars) surrounding a truck which had run off the road and had “fetched up” with its front tires in the lake. The cops had rerouted him up the mountain which was taking longer than he had expected. I was aghast at the police cars because Chris and Janet and I had passed that same truck on our way in. (No police cars at the time.) I had laughed about it because there was a can of beer sitting by the truck and had said, laughingly, “Welcome to our hillbilly subdivision!” The truck looked abandoned and I certainly didn’t think anyone was in it. (And I hope to goodness I was right). But still, I realized as Bill was telling the story that we should have stopped to make sure.

Anyhow, Bill arrived safe and sound, and joined us in our evening meal and conversation. We batted around a few ideas for the DVD, talked about what time we’d like to start filming (11ish) and then....what do you think we four banjo pickers did? Did we rehearse? Did we break out four old fives and get down with some Earl? Some Ralph? Some Sonny Osborne (one of Bill’s favorites)? No, we did not. Sad to say, being the Baby Boomers that we are, we all went straight to bed. (Okay, Bill probably stayed up a while and did Facebook and email from his bedroom.) But, maybe, being Baby Boomers, we just realized that we had work to do tomorrow and that the RESPONSIBLE thing to do, was get a good night’s rest. I prefer to think of it that way!

And now, as my grandmother would say, “Mouse is run, my story’s done.” At least as much as I can tell now. Now it’s time to go record a few extra introductory clips for the DVD. When you get the DVD, you can check closely to see if you can tell which ones I added today! The clothes will be the same, the earrings and necklace with be the same, but the hair never turns out the same way twice!

This is one in our continuing occasional series of excerpts from Murphy’s Banjo Newsletter articles. This is from the September 1990 issue, and appears on page 127 of Murphy’s book …And There You Have It! If you're a long-time Red and Murphy fan you're recognize the events in this column as inspiration for Murphy's song "How They Loved To Sing."

When I was little, growing up in northeast Georgia, we spent a lot of time going to church. As many people in Georgia did, we attended the Baptist Church. My favorite part of church was the singing. I could have a good time just looking through the hymn book. I was always very conscious of the songs we sang, and some of them I liked better than others. The Sunday morning selection of songs was never high on my list because, for one thing, we didn't do enough of them. I mean it was like, poof, two songs and then they were taking up the offering. In addition, the songs we did sing were too formal, to staid, too lifeless: "Crown Him With Many Crowns"; "All Hail The Power Of Jesus' Name"; "Holy, Holy, Holy." They were good for practicing your alto and for seeing how many versus you could sing without looking at the book, but that was about it. There was no joy.

Sunday evening was better because it was more relaxed. The men came without their coats (although not without their ties), and the ladies came without their hats, the choir forsook their robes, and the singing was "all together lovely." (Sorry. I couldn't resist. "All Together Lovely" is a song that only the most dedicated Southern Baptist would recognize.) Sunday evening was when we did the good singing: "Washed In The Blood"; "The Old Rugged Cross"; "Amazing Grace"; "Glory To His Name"; and maybe even "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder", although we didn't do that one much because it generated too much toe-tapping. And you know where toe-tapping leads. Straight into dancing. And that is a no-no. Now, those were some songs you could put your heart into. But, even those songs paled alongside the singing that the folks did at our family reunion.

The Hicks-Sisk Reunion was held each August, the hottest month in the Georgia year, at a little country church that my Granddaddy Hicks had attended as a boy. The road leading to Amy's Creek Baptist was red Georgia clay, the cardboard fans found on the back of the pine pews were from the local funeral home, and a Sears Roebuck catalog graced the outhouse, which was a three seater.

I always rode to the reunion with Granddaddy and Grandmother so I could get there early without having to wait on Mama and Daddy who usually arrived at dinner time (that's lunch time to you) with my younger sisters and our portion of dinner on the ground. Getting there early meant I had to sit through a fire and brimstone sermon, but it was worth it because to get to the sermon you had to go through the singing. And those people could flat out sing. They were still using the old Stamps-Baxter paperback hymnals with the shaped notes and they sang all the good songs: "I'll Fly Away"; "Precious Memories"; "Life's Railway To Heaven"; "Farther Along"; "Just A Little Talk With Jesus"; "On The Jericho Road". It was the custom at that little church to invite everybody in the congregation to sing in the choir (otherwise they wouldn't have had a choir). Not wishing to appear to anxious, I always said "no" two or three times, just to be polite, you know, before I gave in. At the time, I hardly knew any of the songs but that didn't bother me. I made a joyful noise as loud as any of them. They didn't care.

After the preaching we would adjourn to the outside where already some of the ladies would be spreading out their tablecloths on the raw pine boards stretched between saw horses in one continuous long line. They would open the trunks of their cars and bring forth picnic baskets and pasteboard boxes full of fried chicken [Editor's note: no Kentucky Fried for them, no ma'am!], potato salad, green beans, homemade rolls, watermelon rind preserves, chocolate cake, and every good Southern delicacy that you could think of. We would eat until we were about to pop and wash it all down with Dixie cups full of iced tea or lemonade.

When all the eating was over and the tables had been cleared and the men had finished smoking, someone would toll the church bell and back into the church we would all go for my absolutely favorite part of the whole day: more singing. This was the time when you could call out the number of the song you wanted to sing: "Never Grow Old" (Number 210); "Come Unto Me" (142); "Victory In Jesus" (92). Different men would get up and lead the congregation in singing their favorite song. Granddaddy would always lead "Amazing Grace". When things started to wind down someone would get up and mention by name all the relatives who had passed away since our last reunion. Then we would sing "That Glad Reunion Day" (Number 300) and it was over. Except, of course, for more visiting and the lengthy Southern goodbyes. Those are my musical roots. This is where my musical soul lies. When the single exception of having to wear a dress, it was just about a perfect day.

[The article continues on to tell about going back to Amy's Creek many years later with her kids. But if you want to read that, you'll just have to get the book!]

Murphy HenryToday as I write this, January 21, is my mama’s birthday. She is 84 years old and just as cute as she can be with her snow white hair and her still beautiful complexion. She’s not as tall as she used to be (who is?), but she can still play a mean game of Scrabble and Chinese checkers, neither of which demands a great deal of height!

Mama was my introduction to music, as many mothers are, rocking and singing me to sleep when I was a baby. Of course, I don’t actually remember that, but I saw her do the same thing with my four younger sisters, and I figured she’d had to learn it somewhere, which was by practicing on me!

What did she sing? Songs that were popular in her youth: “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-O,” “Missouri Waltz,” “Three Little Fishes” (with that wonderful line “boop, boop, didem, dahdem, whatem, choo!), “Shine On Harvest Moon,” and our all time favorite, one that started out, “There’s a little cabin where the honeysuckle twines....” (Casey recorded that as a banjo instrumental on her CD Real Women Drive Trucks.)

She also sang kids songs like “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” “Billy Boy,” “Bye O Baby Bunting,” “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain,” “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad,” and “Rock-a-By Baby” (which I never liked, what with the bow breaking and the cradle falling). And since we were raised Baptist, “Jesus Loves Me” was also hot on the charts, and was the first song I learned to sing.

Singing has always been a big part of my life and I attribute that to Mama. She didn’t play an instrument but she sure seemed to know a lot of songs. When she was sick just before Christmas, my sisters and I all gathered at the house to be with her, and we entertained her (and ourselves) by singing for her. We were trying to pull out all the old songs and in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned we sang tunes like “My Gal’s a Corker, She’s a New Yorker,” “K-K-K Katy,” “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “Jesus Loves The Little Children,” “Reuben, Reuben, I’ve Been Thinking,” and “My Tall Silk Hat.” And all the Christmas carols we could think of.

So, I guess there’s no real point to this, other than to say thank you, Mama, for inadvertently pointing me in a musical direction. And HAPPY BIRTHDAY, OLD PIE!