Tag Archives: square dancing

Murphy Henry

Today’s blog title comes from the lips of Kasey, who uttered those words to her dad, Ben, when he was complaining (only mildly) about not wanting to play Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. He doesn’t like the song because, as he admitted, he doesn’t play it well. Kasey, on the other hands, plays it great. In fact, she’s getting where she plays everything great! She even likes Boil Them Cabbage Down now! (And she had on another pair of awesome boots!)

 

We were eight strong last night for our lucky 13th Tip Jar Jam. And for the first time, we had gender parity: four women, four men. Five women, if you count me. Janet, Kathy, Kasey, and Barbara represented the estrogen side, while Bob Van., Ben, Bob Mc., and Kenney were holding up the testosterone end. Kathy was playing in her first jam ever and she certainly acquitted herself well, picking and vamping. And she said she loved it!

 

Bob Van started the session, singing Blue Ridge Cabin Home before I even got back in the room. (I was grabbing a quick supper of peanut butter crackers and Starbucks instant. And looking at a long-neck, open-back banjo that Ben had been given.) When I was back in charge, we cranked out Banjo in the Hollow. Then I thought we’d do a singing song, so I asked Bob Van to kick off I Saw the Light. He lit into it with what I recognized as a “turn-around.” (Basically the last line of the song instead of a full break.) “Stop! Stop!” I said. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Do the full break, not just a turn-around,” I said. “Well, this is the way I kick it off,” he argued. “I don’t give a sh-t,” is what came flying out of my mouth, much to my chagrin. After the laughter died down I said, “That’s not the way we kick it off in here.” Grumping mightily, he started it over with a whole break. Unfortunately, he was just a-flying, so again I said, “Stop. Too fast. Do it slower.” Rolling his eyes, and saying, “Yes, dear,” he finally managed to get it going to suit me.

 

The jam rolled on through our standard repertoire which now includes Daybreak in Dixie, Somebody Touched Me, and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. We also ventured into the key of C so Kenney and Janet and I could practice Mountain Dew (which we’ll be performing at our upcoming square dance convention) and so Barbara could sing Blue Ridge Cabin Home in a more women-friendly key. (G or A is simply too low for most women.)

 

We had an interesting occurrence during the playing of Mountain Dew. I kicked it off in open C, which means I was playing it in first position without a capo. Bob Van took the next break on guitar (capoed up 5) and then it was Ben’s turn. Well, while I was singing the chorus before Ben’s entry, I saw him turn to Kasey and say something. I caught his eye and laughed because, as I told him later, I thought he was asking Kasey to take his break. (They were both capoed up 5 so they could play in G position.) And, to tell the truth, when he did take the break, there was some scrambling of eggs, as he mentioned last week. So after the song was over, I asked him what was going on over there. He said that when he heard me kick the song off (in open C) it sounded so different from the break he was used to hearing that he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to play! So, he was asking Kasey. And it’s true, playing in open C creates a completely different sound from playing in G position. I should have warned them all about that.
Also, Kasey had an interesting question about the subject matter of Mountain Dew. “It’s about the soft drink, right?” Well, noooooooo.....It’s about white lightning.....corn likker....moonshine! Kenney was kind enough to offer an explanation about the term “mountain dew.” It had something to do with boilers, coils, and condensation but further explanation is beyond the scope of this blog! (Or this blogger!)

 

We closed out with Keeper of the Door, the Gillis Brothers’ song that we resurrected last week. Everyone really liked it, and at least three students went to the Internet later to see if they could find the words. Ben was so sweet when he was telling us all about his search. He said he had watched several versions of the song on U-Tube but, he said, “None of them could hold a candle to the way you sing it, Murphy.” I beamed. I simpered. I basked. I glowed. And then Bob Van ruined it by saying, “I wish I had my boots on. It’s getting deep in here.”

 

And just one more thing: Ben told us as he was leaving that his boss, Jim Green, who had come to one of our jams had gone on our Murphy Method website and had found my Square Dance Song. Ben said Jim just loved it and had copied down all the words. That, of course, made me feel great. I told Ben to tell Jim that if he came back to the jam, that Janet and Kenney and I would play the song for him—it’s a favorite among our square dance friends. It’s kind of a gospel square dance song that talks about being called to that big Square Dance In The Sky. It starts out,

 

When the time comes around

To Load the Old Boat for Glory

And the Caller is calling your name

I know here on earth

My square will be empty

Nothing ever will be quite the same....

 

You can listen to the whole song on our website. I think it’s at the bottom of the opening page. Enjoy! And, hey, if you’re in the area, come jam with us on Wednesday night!

 

Square Dancing Alert: Everyone Invited!

 

If you are in the local Winchester area, Shenandoah University is holding a Barn Dance this Friday, February 22, with a live old-time band (The Biscuit Eaters) and a caller (Bill Wellington). You don’t have to know how to square dance to come to this.  The caller will teach the moves right there on the floor. It’s so much fun and it’s great exercise. Casey and I will both be there. If you feel like shaking a leg (or shaking your bootie) or just watching, come join us. It starts at 8 pm at the Brandt Student Center on campus. For more info: http://www.su.edu/blog/therell-be-lots-of-dancing-and-maybe-a-few-goats/

Murphy Henry

I’m just back from our big square dancing convention in Alexandria, Va., where we spent four glorious days dancing, laughing, shopping (you should see my new square dance outfit, complete with red petticoat!), and, yes, playing bluegrass!

No, I don’t play for any of the square dances (in truth, there is little banjo or fiddle music in modern western square dancing) but I got in plenty of playing with the Ragweed Trio which comprises Janet on rhythm guitar, Nick on lead guitar, and me on banjo. For three nights running, after we finished dancing (about 10 or 11 or even 12 pm!), we’d hightail it back to the room and break out the instruments! Janet is now singing harmony with me, so we had some really good trios on songs like I Saw the Light, Somebody Touched Me, Mansion Just Over the Hilltop, and Worried Man.
New to our repertoire this year is an instrumental version of Amazing Grace which starts out in G major and then moves to G MINOR and then back to G major. My fiddle student Susie came up with this idea and she and Janet and I have been playing it some at their back-to-back lessons. Susie had figured out the notes to both the major and minor all by herself, but it took me a little while to figure out the chords that went along with the minor part. (Em, Am, and B7 if you are interested.) Nick, who can pick up chord progression with ease, jumped right on this and soon had a lead guitar break worked out—on the fly, of course.

Janet also unveiled her own lead picking on Dueling Banjos! Not on stage, yet, but definitely in front of the folks in the room, a supportive crowd if I’ve ever seen one. She did great!

Nick and I had a lot of fun with Steel Guitar Rag (in E) which is an old country song I used to square dance to in Georgia at the Mountain City Playhouse way up there in Rabun Country. I loved buck dancing to it then and I love playing it on the banjo now.

The Ragweed Trio actually had two scheduled performances this weekend, one at the fashion show (!) and one at the Friday night stage show after the dance. This year’s theme was Rolling on the River so, naturally, for the fashion show we worked up a bluegrass version of Proud Mary (which I used to sing when I was with Betty Fisher’s band in the, gulp, seventies!). We did it bluegrass style in the key of A then segued into the key of D where Nick sang a version that he had written new square dance words to. He even showed me the chords to that awesome entrance the original version kicks off with: CCC, A, CCC, A, CCC, AG, FFFFF, D. (Supply your own timing! You’ll either hear it or you won’t!)

Then for the stage show we did three songs: You Are My Sunshine, This Land is Your Land, and Rocky Top, all in A. We don’t perform a lot with microphones or in front of a big crowd (several hundred seated people) so I can only blame what happened next on that. We got up to the mikes, positioned them appropriately, and then I kicked off THE WRONG SONG! While trying to kick off You Are My Sunshine, I accidently found myself in the middle of This Land is Your Land! Poor Nick and Janet were gamely following along, wondering what the heck was going on!

When I realized what I was doing (it took a few seconds!) my mind started furiously trying to think of what to do to get us out of this mess. Should I just start singing This Land is Your Land? No, I’d already told the crowd we were doing You Are My Sunshine. Should I stop playing, admit I’d made a mistake, and try again? NEVER! The show must go on! My only option was to brazen it out and start singing You Are My Sunshine when I finished my break. Fortunately it was in the same key so I figured it would work. And luckily it did. And I’m guessing the crowd had no idea I’d…… made a blunder of royal proportions. (Not what I wanted to write, but this is a family blog!) We survived. And got some nice compliments on the show. Then it was off to the room for more picking and much grinning.

Saturday night we played a few songs at the After Party, which is where all the organizers and callers gather to congratulate themselves on a job well done and pass the baton (so to speak) to next-year’s directors. This turned into a bit of a sing-along which was fine with me, since we didn’t have any mikes and the room was noisy. We gave them a little I Saw the Light, Worried Man, You Are My Sunshine which I morphed into This Land is Your Land (on purpose this time!), and my square dance song, Save Me a Square on the Floor. I was happy to note that a number of people were singing along on the chorus to my song. Very gratifying. Then it was back up to the room for more picking!

Of course by now it was 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning which meant it was time for gospel music! So we trotted out I’ll Fly Away, What A Friend We Have in Jesus, In the Garden, Amazing Grace, Lily of the Valley (for caller Rich Steadman), and a bunch of other gospel songs we’d done before. We called it a night with When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. By 3 a.m. I my head was on my pillow and I was drifting off to dreamland.

But we were by no means done with the picking! We still had the Sunday Morning Gospel Show! Which kicked off a mere 6 hours later! Last year we performed in our pajamas but this year we opted for clothes. Nick’s wife Chris welcomed everyone to the First Church of Square Dancing and we reprised just about every gospel song we’d done during the weekend and probably added a few more.

Some of our friends popped by to listen but couldn’t stay long. When I kidded Rhonda about leaving such good gospel music she replied, “I already feel uplifted.” To which Janet immediately replied, “A good Playtex would do the same thing.” We rolled with laughter, laughed till tears came into our eyes. And this was 9:30 in the morning! Finally we were pretty much picked out. We closed with Save Me A Square on the Floor and then Rich’s wife Lou offered a word of prayer. We all held hands and the feeling of community and communion was very strong. We did the requisite hugging and then Chris said, “Only 364 days left till the next WASCA!”

I told Janet my goal for next year is to get her husband Kenney to play bass with us—at least on some of the more familiar three-chord songs. Kenney has been taking some bass lessons from me, using my electric bass, just to see if he liked it. Apparently he likes it a lot because he bought a guitar bass at a music store in Alexandria while he was down there for the dance. Hmmm, guess we’ll have to change the name of the group. Ragweed Quartet sounds pretty good! Bow to your partner, bow to your corner. This dance is over!

Murphy Henry

I’m just back from a big weekend of kicking up my heels at the West Virginia Square Dance Convention in Buckhannon. “And this is relevant to bluegrass how?” you might be asking. Well, since I spent this past year learning to dance the man’s part, not only did I dance some with my friend and student Janet Moore, but when we got back “home” after the dance we entertained our friends by playing music (banjo and guitar) in the lobby of our hotel.

Here are some of the songs we played:

Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Lonesome Road Blues
Old Joe Clark
John Hardy
Down Yonder
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
I’ll Fly Away
When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
Amazing Grace
Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
Battle Hymn of the Republic (in C)
Rocky Top
Country Roads
In The Pines
Mansion Over the Hilltop
Kicking Mule
You Are My Sunshine
This Land Is Your Land
Save Me A Square on the Floor (my square dance song)
I Saw The Light
Chinese Breakdown (in C)

Murphy jamming it up at the square dance!

Murphy jamming it up at the square dance! (Photo by Bonnie Pollock)

Janet and I had rehearsed most of these songs many times, but "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (which was a request) we’d only gone over once, just messing around, and "In the Pines" (another request) we’d never played together. And I’m telling you, Janet is so gutsy! When I take one of these requests all she says is, “Where do I put my capo?” Of course, if it’s the Key of C, she might make a small face because she still hates making that F chord, but she goes ahead and does it anyhow. And she has a very good ear for hearing chord changes, so that helps enormously. In fact, that’s what makes it possible for us to try unrehearsed material. Which is part of the fun of playing for me.

Janet holding down that rhythm guitar.

Janet holding down that rhythm guitar. (Photo by Bonnie Pollock.)

New to our “show” this time was Janet’s singing. She sings very well and knows the words to most of the standards. I’d only planned for us to sing in unison but she was singing so strong that on "Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms" I switched to the tenor and we had a real bluegrass duet! That worked so well that I also tried it on "You Are My Sunshine" which sounded so good that Janet’s husband Kenney jumped up and applauded!

Word of our Friday night picking spread through the crowd at the dance and we had folks coming up on Saturday and asking, “Will you be playing tonight?” Which is always flattering. One woman said to me, “My friend told me that you and your daughter were playing banjo and guitar at the hotel.” Oh, my! Did Janet (who is about my age) ever love that!

So many thanks to our square dancing friends for listening, for requesting tunes, and especially to Ron for bringing the Wild Turkey!

Murphy Henry

I am a big Kris Kristofferson fan and the title of this blog refers to the line in one of his songs that goes, “There’s nothing short of dying, half as lonesome as the sound, of a sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning coming down.”

I can remember feeling that way in college—not the “coming down” part (didn’t do much of that)--but the “lonesome” part, when I was up early and the whole town of Athens, Ga., seemed to be asleep.

This past Sunday, the last day of the square dance convention in Alexandria, Va., was the exact opposite. Not lonesome! I rolled out of bed at 9 a.m. (having gone to sleep at 3 a.m. after some late night picking!) and 30 minutes later I was in a nearby room playing the banjo in my pajamas!

How that happened was like this: Nick and Janet and I had played for the party following the dance on Saturday night. Nick wisely limits our playing there, saying we should leave them wanting more, rather than wear out our welcome. So we did four songs--Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Save Me A Square On The Floor, Lonesome Road Blues, and You Are My Sunshine—and called it quits. But we were in the mood to pick and I hadn’t even had one beer, so we adjourned to Chris and Nick’s suite to continue the party.

We played from about 1:30 a.m. till 2:30, closing out the evening with a bunch of gospel songs since it was, in fact, Sunday morning and Chris (Nick’s wife) said she was concerned about missing church. We called it our “late night church service” and sang Circle, I’ll Fly Away, I Saw the Light, When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, Mansion Over The Hilltop before ending with Amazing Grace. It was so much fun and I left well satisfied, especially after tasting something they called “apple corn.” Really good!

It was 3 a.m. before Becky and Darla (my roomies) stopped talking and turned off the light and it was a little past 9 when I woke up. Becky was heading for the shower and asked if anyone needed to get in there before her. I did and was just coming out when I heard this light “scritch-scratch” on our door. I looked through the peep hole and saw Janet standing there. After saying good morning and “I hope I didn’t wake you” she said, “Chris wants to know when the second Sunday morning church service starts.”

Then I had one of those “moments.” I thought, “Why not?” I’ve square danced before in my pajamas (the same ones I had on) so why not pick in my pajamas? It just seemed like the thing to do! So I told her, “Tell Chris I will put on a foundation garment and be right down.” I grabbed my banjo, my cup of hot tea, and headed down the hall barefooted. In my pajamas. (Long-sleeved red flannel if you need a picture.) And for the next hour Nick and Janet and I played gospel songs to our hearts’ content, entertaining the folks who were packing up and getting ready to leave.

What did we do? In addition to all the gospel songs we did just six hours ago, we did Precious Memories (especially for Chris), Washed in the Blood, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, What A Friend We Have in Jesus, The Old Rugged Cross, and a bunch more that I have forgotten. In the middle of our “service” Rich (the caller for the Martinsburg, W.Va. Panhandlers) passed the offering plate (a paper plate) and we netted 88 cents, 3 Cheerios, a black plastic fork, and a breath strip. I’ve sure played for less! But seldom, if ever, have I had more fun. Nick was playing fantastic lead guitar, mostly on songs he’d never played lead on before (but songs that he knew), and Janet was solid as a rock with her rhythm. I was in my element, calling the songs, doing the singing, and picking the banjo. It was So Much Fun. As Scott left the room, he said what we were all thinking, “Only 361 days till next year’s convention!” Amen to that! I’m already looking forward to more picking and dancing!

Murphy Henry

So, last Friday we had a square dance in Front Royal, Va., with the Rivermont Ramblers Square Dance Club. I brought my banjo and I asked Nick and Janet to bring their guitars so we could practice "Hey Good Looking" which we are performing this weekend at our big square dance convention, commonly referred to as WASCA (Washington Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association). I wasn’t sure at what point in Friday’s dance we might sneak off to practice and as it turned out there was no sneaking off time because we were too busy dancing, visiting, and eating. So Nick suggested we take our instruments over to the Melting Pot, a pizza place we retire to without fail after our Rivermont dances for more eating. I was game and Janet is always ready to pick at the drop of a hat, so that was that.

When we got there, we had the whole back room to ourselves so it wasn’t like we’d be bothering anybody else who wanted to converse or just eat in peace and quiet. I had just finished my turkey sandwich when Nick said, “Are you ready to play?” Poor Janet had just started in on her pizza, but she jumped up and grabbed her guitar as I was getting out my banjo. That girl is ready!

Nick had just put new strings on his guitar so he was tuned a little low and had to bring it up to pitch. He did this by ear, as he hasn’t quite gotten used to these new-fangled things called tuners.

We started out with Hey Good Looking which I used to sing in G. My cold dropped it down three frets to E which suited Nick just fine since he doesn’t use a capo and plays lead and rhythm using barre chord formations. I told Janet to capo at the second fret and play out of D. And that the “off chord” would be an E shape. (A two chord if you need more info.) Nick wasn’t using the two chord at first (an F-sharp for him), but he liked the sound of it and said he had thought there was something missing. He took some nice lead guitar breaks while Janet held the rhythm steady and I added some “vamp diddlies” as Casey calls them.

With that song worked up to our satisfaction after a couple of passes through (unlike Lynn Morris I am not a big fan of practice!), we decided we were having so much fun that we’d play some more. We did Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Lonesome Road Blues, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and my square dance song, Save Me A Square on the Floor. Nick also accidentally started playing Under the Double Eagle (in C) so I took a break and that was fun, since I don’t pick that one much. After we’d finished he said he hadn’t meant to play that, he’d meant to play Wildwood Flower! So we did that one too. We ended with I’ll Fly Away which had the other dancers singing along. I could have sung all night, but, alas, it was closing time and we had to go.

As I made the requisite pit stop in the little girls’ room I passed one of the guys who works at the Melting Pot. He had on a T-shirt that said, I swear, Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music!*

It was a fitting ending to a fun evening and I thought, “I’ve got to blog about that.” So I did.

I leave tomorrow for the big WASCA convention where we will play Hey Good Looking at a fashion show for square dance attire. The last time I played for a fashion show I was in high school. I played piano for a 4-H club fashion show which was held on the stage of the old Clarkesville Elementary School. Ruby Dean Crider was our 4-H leader and Birdie Moss, as ever, was her dependable second in command. (These details are provided for the benefit of our Clarkesville, Georgia, readers who might remember the old school and those good folks. Are you there, Mark?)

Hope you have a wonderful weekend. I’m looking forward to dancing all day and all night. As I told Janet at her lesson, “I hope we have some time to do some picking.” She said, “Well, we will have if you can ever quit dancing long enough.” We’ll see!!!

* That reference, for you youngsters, is to the movie Deliverance which features men in canoes, paddling very fast, and lots of banjo music. Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT watch this movie without your parents’ permission. It gets pretty raunchy. But the picking is very good. AND, by the way, one of the banjo players on the sound track, Eric Weisberg, will be at Mid-West Banjo Camp in June. I’m leading a jam with him. How cool is that????? I can’t wait!

Murphy Henry

And what did I do this New Year’s Eve? I went square dancing! And so did Murphy Method students Susan and Bill Morrison. I thought you might like to see a picture of us in our square dance attire! Don’t you love Susan’s scarf? Don’t you love my Chicos blouse? (Thank you sister Claire for that gift certificate!) Don’t you love Bill’s western shirt and string tie? We were styling!

Murphy Henry with Bill and Susan Morrison

Murphy Henry with Bill and Susan Morrison

Susan and Bill started learning to square dance back in September, going to the same class that I attend. I had originally planned on helping out as an “angel” in the class, which is a more experienced dancer who dances with the new students. But then I decided to learn to dance the boy’s part, so I became a student again myself! Now I can dance the girl’s or boy’s part and will never have to be without a partner again. (I hate sitting out dances!) I have a badge that says “Man” for when I dance the boy’s part. I definitely take a lot of ribbing, but it’s all in fun.

The New Year’s Eve dance was open to students (who didn’t even have to pay to get in) and I encouraged Susan and Bill to come. I told them I would make sure that they had “angels” to help them through the first two dances, and I that I would personally dance with Bill. We had a ball! They both did very well and, since they stayed for the whole dance and the Big Breakfast afterwards, I think I can safely say they had a good time.

Janet, Murphy, and Nick

Janet, Murphy, and Nick

Bluegrass content: And after the dance, as you can see, I brought out the banjo and Janet Moore (another MM student and angel for when I’m dancing the boy’s part) and Nick Copozio (the president of the Rivermont Ramblers square dance club) brought out their guitars and we played a few tunes while the folks were eating. What did we play? Lonesome Road Blues, You Are My Sunshine, This Land Is Your Land, my square dance song Save Me A Square on the Floor, and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. And then, as Nick says, we left them asking for more rather than asking us to stop playing! We also made $13 in tips! I gave Janet one of the dollars so she could frame the first money she made playing music, and we donated the rest back to the club.

We resume square dance lessons this week as well as banjo lessons. I’m looking forward to both!

Murphy Henry

I thought I’d ease back into the blogging groove by trying to find some connection between my latest passion—square dancing (been at it a year now!)—and banjo playing.

We started a new square dancing class in Winchester last week (first two classes FREE! Y’all come!) and four of my students earned stars in their crowns by coming out for the event. Fiddle sister Sandy declined to get on the floor but gamely stayed for the whole two hours, watching us whirling and twirling. Thanks, Sandy. I felt supported.

Fiddle sister Robyn honored her promise of months ago (given under some duress while we were hiking) and came, thinking she too would sit out and talk to Sandy but I said, “No, no. That’s not what you promised. Saying you would come implied that you would come dance. If I tell you I’m going hiking with you that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit at the trailhead and watch you hike.” So, she danced. And had a good time. But she’s already told me she just can’t add one more activity to her already busy schedule. Maybe another time. Logan, beast that he is, did not come. But he was working his part-time job at Chick-Fil-A so he is somewhat forgiven. (Exciting news about Logan: he was nominated for Homecoming King at Winchester’s Handley High School! Go, Logan!)

Susan and Bill Morrison, banjo and bass students, also showed up and danced all night long. I was Bill’s “angel” [partner who already knows how to dance] and danced with him most of the night. Both he and Susan caught on quickly and they said they’d be back. They were surprised at how vigorous the dancing was and both thought it was good exercise.

And then there were Liesel (rhymes with “diesel” and “weasel” she says) and Lars (rhymes with “bars”), a twenty-something couple who showed up. I was in Chicos shopping one day and one of the sales clerks ask me how my square dancing was going. I said “Fine” and then Liesel, who was working the register, chimed in and said, “Square dancing? I’d love to learn to square dance!” (She had just gotten back from the big Clifftop Old-Time Music Festival and was smitten.) I immediately said, “There’s a class starting here in Winchester next month.” I gave her all the info and then said, “Give me your number and I’ll call and remind you.” Which I did. But she and her fiancé, Lars, had remembered all by themselves and were already planning to come. And they were SO enthusiastic. And adorable. And did I say young?

Then I found out that Lars is—can you believe it?—an old-time fiddle player. So, this Thursday he is going to bring his fiddle and I am going to bring my—guess what?—banjo and we are going to pick some in between dances. He told me he has a great love for “crooked” tunes (which usually means extra beats per measure when you’re not expecting them!). I told him I’d do my best to follow him. So we will see......

I realize this is a stretch, writing about square dancing and working banjo playing into the corners. But, hey, it’s a start!

Murphy Henry

(Very little bluegrass content but banjo is mentioned!)

After spending a productive five days at Kaufman Kamp last week, I headed north to Louisville, Kentucky, for the National Square Dance Convention. I was driving 250 miles so I could dance for one day! Held in the Kentucky Expo Center, the convention was a huge affair which drew over 8,000 people from every state in the Union and several foreign countries.

One of the things I was looking forward to was dancing with Murphy Method student, Travis Cook. When I blogged about Square Dancing and Banjo Playing back in March, he sent a comment saying, “As a young caller (and beginning banjo student) from Kentucky, welcome to the world of Square Dancing! Glad you’re enjoying it!”

I sent back an email inquiring if he were a young person or just a new caller and asking if he was going to the Nationals in June. He responded saying he was 22, had been dancing since he was 13, started calling a few years later, and was originally from Knott County, Kentucky—“Coal country, deep in the hills. Bluegrass was a way of life!” He is now studying Computer Engineering in Louisville and works as a Web Services Consultant for First Quality Music and Sullivan Banjo Co. And he said, yes, he would be at the Nationals. He closed by saying, “Have fun at the festival! I hope you'll write about your time there. I look forward to following your square dance journey!”

So a few days before Kaufman Kamp, I sent Travis an email with my contact info, telling him to call me on Saturday so we could hook up for a dance. He did and we did!

There were a number of different dance halls at the Expo Center—easy square dancing (Mainstream), harder square dancing (Plus), round dancing, clogging, a youth hall, a solo hall, and the arena with a live band at night. Travis was calling a “tip” (two dances in a row, one a singing call) and serving as emcee in the solo hall (for dancers who come without partners), so we arranged to meet there at 7:30 Saturday night.

As I walked into the solo hall, I realized that I didn’t know what Travis looked like, and if he had been watching the Beginning Banjo DVDs he might not recognize me, twenty years after their making! But since he was the only young man in the room I figured it out, and we delightedly gave each other a big “yellowrock,” which is square dance lingo for “hug.” He introduced me to his girlfriend, Dorothy, who is also a dancer.

Travis didn’t have to call right away, so he asked me to dance and away we went! He is a smooth and confident dancer who likes to create a good time on the dance floor. We danced a tip, and then he had to get ready to call, so I sat down beside Dorothy. We talked a bit and she told me she and Travis had met at a square dance and that they had been going together nine years. So it occurred to me that if she had been dancing that long.....she probably could dance the boy’s part (as many women do) so I asked her if she could and she said yes, so we hit the dance floor!

Dorothy is a lively, assured dancer, and we were dancing in a square that had several other female couples and it was so much fun! Between dances the composition of the square changed a little bit, and at one point there were SEVEN women and one man squaring up. Then a woman from the sidelines jumped up and asked the man if she could dance in his place and he graciously ceded his spot to her, so we had an all-female square. I found out later I can get a “dangle” to hang on my square dancing badge that says I’ve danced in an all-female square. I can put it alongside my two other “dangles,” one for square dancing in an IHOP (!), and the other, a Purple Heart, for dancing in a square with three callers! Great sense of humor, these square dance folks!

Dorothy and I were dancing while Travis was calling and he did a great job. He’d been tossing down cough drops like candy because he had bronchitis, but you couldn’t tell it when he hit the stage. His singing call was “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” one of my favorite songs, and his voice was coming out strong and clear. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d ever be square dancing while a Murphy Method banjo student did the calling. Life does take some wonderfully unexpected turns!

After Travis’s tip, I congratulated him on his singing and calling and said goodbye, with another yellowrock, of course. It’s the square dance way! I headed for the Plus hall where I danced until 11:00 p.m. Then I took my tired and blistered feet back to the hotel room, crawled in bed with a couple of cold Coronas, watched some old episodes of House on TV, and blissfully fell asleep.

My square dance journey takes another completely unbelievable turn this Saturday when I will square dance on a parade float in Middletown, Virginia. The only thing I can think to say about that is: Well, I never!

Stay tuned for my next blog which might possibly be about banjo!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(This is, like, way long! Sorry! As Virginia Woolf says, “Nothing has really happened unless it has been recorded.”)

This past weekend I had the unbelievably fun experience of spending Friday and Saturday at a square dance festival at the Hilton Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Oh, my! [Here's a clip] of one of the dances. You can see Murphy at the 3:20 mark on the right side of the screen, a little ways back in the crowd, wearing a turquoise skirt, buff-colored shirt, dancing with a tall guy with a mustache dressed in black.]

We danced from 10 a.m. till 11 or 12 p.m. both days with an hour off for dinner and supper. Okay, I didn’t dance the whole time—because thanks to the IBMA World of Bluegrass and Banjo Camps I have learned to pace myself--but by golly, I didn’t miss much!

Two of my most memorable hours were spent doing the “Hot Hash” and “Die Hard” dances. In “Hot Hash” the caller calls just as fast as he can, giving you zero time to think. You only have time to react. And you better get it right! (Sorta like trying to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown really fast in a jam.) If we “get back home” without train wrecking, it’s whoops and hollers all the way around. As my old friend Becky (also a new dancer) tells people about square dancing, “It’s the most fun you can have without drinking!”

The “Die Hard” dance, from 11 p.m. till midnight, was the last dance of the weekend. All the callers participated and you danced for one solid hour with NO time to sit down between songs. As soon as one song was over, another caller stepped to the mike to start the next one. (Picture an hour-long jam with maybe thirty seconds between songs!) By the end of the dance, I was ready to collapse and head back upstairs to make good friends with a brewski.

But no! The bluegrass part of the evening was just beginning! We were walking toward the elevators when we met some of the folks from our local square dance clubs who basically said, Go get your banjo and come with us. So my friend Becky and I fly up to the room, rip off our sweaty clothes (both exclaiming about how wonderful it is to peel off our panty hose), throw on our jeans, grab the banjo, and head back down.

We have to walk a long way in the hotel to wherever it is we’re going. As we’re trudging along, one of the guys says, “Murph, can I carry your banjo for you?” I said, “Thanks, but I consider it a point of honor to carry my own banjo.” (Wishing like heck I’d never written that Banjo Newsletter column 27 years ago that advised girls to “carry your own banjo.” What was I thinking? Probably that I’d never grow old!)

We get to where we’re going and find it’s the prestigious After Party for everyone who put on the festival and all the callers. Lots of food and, hallelujah, beer! Nick, the guitarist, and I set our instruments down and head for the buffet line. Nick, a Past Director of the Festival, says, “Let’s just wait and see what develops.” Fine by me, I was starving. I load up on cheese and crackers, shrimp, chips, and celery and go sit down. Someone brings me a beer but my Spider Sense is tingling and I think I may have a chance to sing my square dance song, so after a couple of sips, I set it aside.

After a little eating, a little talking, and a passing of the torch to next year’s directors, Nick says, “Let’s go get our instruments.” We bring them back to the main room, tune up, and say to each other “What shall we start with?” (Nick and I have played together possibly a total of 20 minutes at two square dance lessons. He used to play country music for a lot of dances in the local area a few years back and is very good at following tunes by ear.) Nick suggests Going Down The Road Feeling Bad and with no introduction or anything, we start playing. We’ve never played it together before, but of course it’s nothing but Lonesome Road Blues. I kick it off (low break) and slowly people stop talking and start listening. Very cool. I am the Center of Attention and Loving It.

After we do this one, Nick says to me, “Do you think you could do your Square Dance Song?” I say calmly, “I would love to.” (Inside I’m going WHOO HOO!) So now Nick stands up and starts talking about me being a New Dancer who loves dancing so much that I wrote this song about it. I whisper to him, “Tell them it’s a gospel square dance song, so they’ll have some idea what to expect.”

I grab my capo, throw it on at the second fret, and prepare to play out of D position. “What key?” says Nick. “E,” I say. (We have actually played through the song two or three times but it was several weeks ago.) I stand up, grab a D position, and try to set some sort of rhythm for Nick. It’s that weird Stanley Brothers 6/8 time: 4th, pinch, pinch, 3rd, pinch, pinch. As I sing I mostly just strum the banjo using my thumb. I feel like a cross between Grandpa Jones and String Bean. “When the time comes around, to Load the Old Boat for Glory...” People are still talking, but as I start singing they quieten down to listen. One of the callers, the great Mike Sikorsky, stands up to listen to me.

I realize at the moment I start singing that the cold I have been fighting off all week has now settled in my throat and I don’t have much of a voice. Too bad, I think. Just do the best you can. I try to sing with conviction and the love I put into this song. I just hope they can hear me.

I feel a great joy at getting to sing my square dance song for a room full of people who will recognize all the calls I am singing about. When I sing “It was Relay the Deucy and look out for Lucy” they know what I’m talking about! When I sing the line my square dance instructor (and co-author) Mike wanted me to change so that the choreography made sense, I look at him and grin. By the time I sing the chorus for the fourth and last time, people are starting to sing along with me! “If you get to the dance hall before me, my darling, save me a square on the floor.” That was awesome. Then the people really clapped. They liked it!

Nick and I sat back down and played a few more songs: Foggy Mountain Breakdown, You Are My Sunshine, Red River Valley. Then Nick wisely said, “Let’s leave ‘em wanting more.” So we finished off with Down Yonder. As I was putting my banjo away, a man came up and took Nick’s guitar from him (with permission of course) and started doing the Dueling Banjos riff. There was nothing to do but put my picks back on and answer him. I felt like I was on the set of Deliverance! The on-the-spot arrangement might have had a few rough edges, but it was all in good fun and the folks loved it.

As I was packing up the banjo for the second time, a number of folks came up to say they liked my song. I had made up a few CDs of the song to pass out, and wished I had made more. I can’t tell you how rewarding and connecting it is to write a song and have it touch people and make them feel something. It is one of life’s great pleasures to me. And I hope I have given a little tiny bit of something back to the square dance world which has already given me so much.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I’ve discovered square dancing (modern square dancing—circle up four couples) and have fallen in love with it! I started taking lessons last September and at first it was no big deal. Fun, but I didn’t obsess about it.

Then, in December, my new square dancing friends Marion and Tony pestered me into going to a real dance. OMG (as we say now), it was so much fun! So then we went to a dance the next weekend, and soon we were going every Friday and Saturday night. This on top of the now THREE lessons we were taking every week. Obsessed? Just a little bit!  (I even wrote a gospel Square Dance Song that you can listen to right here and download for free!)

So what does this have to do with learning the banjo?

Well, with square dancing, once again I found myself in the role of student. Sure, I knew some of the basic moves (from a college PE class!): do-si-do, allemande left, right and left grand, head ladies chain. But “make a wave”? “Boy run around the girl”? “Allemande Thar”? (What’s a “thar”?) “Flutterwheel”? And their definitions of “shoot the star” and “cloverleaf” weren’t anything like what we did in Georgia where we circled up just four people (two couples) and buck-danced like crazy the whole time.

So, I’d learn something at the Thursday lesson, go home, not think about it all week, come back the next Thursday only to find I’d completely forgotten it! (Does that sound familiar?) And believe me, I don’t like not knowing how to do stuff. I want to be the one in the square who is helping everybody else! Luckily at the classes we have seasoned dancers (“Angels”) who help pull us through when we have a brain lapse.

Then Tony, a new dancer who seemed to really know what he was doing, told me he was studying the calls on line and learning the definitions of the calls. So I went on line and started studying, too. I’d fill up notebooks with the definitions of calls. I even made diagrams! But that, for me, was about like trying to learn to play banjo from tablature. I could quote you the definition of Spin Chain Through [turn half by the right, ¾ by the left, centers trade, ¾ by the left], but I couldn’t dance it. On the dance floor, there was no time to think! (Does that remind you of jamming?)

The only thing that helped me was—guess what? Getting out and dancing with other people. And the repetitions that come with that. By the time a two-hour dance was over, I had done “Pass the Ocean” so many times that I finally figured out I needed to grab the oncoming girl by the left hand and—hello!—Make A Wave! And the definitions? They are finally starting to make sense now—but only because I can (usually!) dance the moves.

You can see where this is going, right? It’s the third P. PWOP: Play With Other People. Or for me it is DWOP: Dance With Other People. You just have to get out there and do it. It helps if you’re obsessed....and if you have some friends like Tony and Marion to urge you along and join you on the journey.