From The Archives: Polly Wolly Doodle

murphybook_smallThis is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from Murphy's Banjo Newsletter Columns. This article appeared in October 1985 and is one of my favorites. You'll only have to read as far as the first sentence to figure out why! If you want to read the complete column, you'll find it in Murphy's book, ...And There You Have It!

Howdy! I am sitting here at the breakfast table, listening to my daughter practice the banjo. Did you get that? My daughter is practicing the banjo. I am, naturally, delighted, but I am also objective enough to know that it may not last once she gets back to school and her little cronies start whooping it up over Michael Jackson, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper. [Ah, those were the days...] Still, while she is at it, it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about learning, and, consequently, how to teach.

Casey is seven and a half years old, going into the second grade, and is practically perfect in every way (just like Mary Poppins). [Well, duh.] She has, of course, been raised on music---bluegrass, to be precise---with a good hefty dose of folksy kids’ songs thrown in on the side. But her interest in banjo had been almost non-existent until she met Stott.

Now, you don’t know Stott, who is also seven and a half, but he is the answer to every banjo teacher’s prayer. […] Actually, he is a born musician, whose passion is the banjo.

Stott and his parents came over to the house a few months ago, to buy his first banjo. Casey met him then, and he couldn’t play a lick. Then, just two months later, they were back again, consulting about the purchase of an RB-250 they had found. Stott just sat there on the couch, and calmly played through four banjo tunes, including "Cumberland Gap" complete with the up-the-neck break. It made quite an impression on Casey, and she requested banjo lessons immediately after their departure. [Nothing like a little competition to get me going!]

Well, I did not get all excited. I mean, I’d shown Casey things on the banjo before, and I’d shown her lots of things on the piano, but never did she practice for more than one day in a row. But, since I am a marshmallow, I said, yes, I would give her a lesson. Tomorrow. I was pretty sure that by tomorrow she would have forgotten. She did not forget. So, tomorrow found me scrounging around the house, looking for little banjo picks. We already had a little banjo---a 1925 Gibson TB-2 pot assembly, with a 10 1/2” rim, and a short, 18-fret neck that Red had made. When it is tuned up, it comes out pitched in C (just like putting the capo on at the fifth fret of a regular-size banjo.) So I put my capo on, and after the usual preliminaries about picks, hand position, and string numbers, I showed Casey some rolls---forward, backward, and square. She didn’t have too much trouble with them, so I sent her off to practice, and told her we’d have another lesson sometime, IF she practiced a lot and learned her rolls.

[…] Time went by, as it does in the summer, with vacation, swimming, movies. Several weeks passed, and then Casey said, “Can I have a banjo lesson?” “May I have a banjo lesson,” I said. “You haven’t been practicing very much.”

Casey: Sad Face

Me: “Well, okay.”

So we set up for our lesson in the studio. Casey does her rolls for me, but they are merely adequate.

“Casey,” I said, “if you were one of my real students, I would tell your mother that you needed to practice more.”

Giggles and tee-hees. “But you can’t because you’re my mother!” More giggles and tee-hees.

“No, but I can tell you, and I’m telling you that I’m not going to give you another lesson until you have practiced more. Now,” said the marshmallow side of me, “I’ll show you something new. We’ll learn a C chord.” [What is that if not a lesson? Marshmallow, indeed.]

I show her where to put her fingers, and tell her to press down hard, so the strings won’t sound muted.

“It hurts,” she says.

It hurts. Lord, how many times have I heard that? But never has it sent an arrow to my heart like it does now. Those tender little hands have never felt anything as rough and cruel as an old banjo string across the tips.

“I know it hurts,” I said, “but before long you’ll get (showing her my fingertips)…”

“Callouses,” she said. (She and Christopher have always been impressed and intrigued by Red’s huge mandolin callouses.)

“Don’t worry. We’ll quit when your fingers start to bleed,” I said, being jocular. She is not amused.

The C chord does not come easily, and it will definitely give her something to work on. [But at last, after all these years, I can FINALLY make a C chord! 😉 ] I am about to end the lesson now, when it pops into my mind that we should try "Polly Wolly Doodle", since we’d been singing it a lot recently. After all, it only has two chords, G and D7. So I show her D7, and make a mental note that it is easier for her than the C. Then I tell her (and show her) that we will just do a strum with the thumbpick on the open strings. I tell her that the first two words, “Oh I . . .” are pick-up notes, and that we don’t start strumming until the word “went.”

[Blah, blah, blah, she teaches me to strum the song…]

The next day, as I am listening to her practice, I am curious to know if she can play the song all by herself---that is, find the correct pitch, and remember where to change chords. Sure enough, when she starts singing the song, she’s not exactly on pitch, but she soon eases into it. And, sure enough, she misses the D7 once or twice, but I hear her saying, “Ugh. That doesn’t sound good.” But she keeps strumming and singing and trying the D7 in one place and then another, until it does sound right. [These days Murphy would never, EVER use the word "but" in two sentences in a row!] Then she plays it through the right way a few times. Inside I am ecstatic! She’s doing it!!

Now, this singing on pitch and changing chords is the very thing that so many people say is intuitive, but now I have seen first hand that it is not, not intuitive, but it is LEARNED. Sure, some people will learn faster than others, but still and yet it is learned.

And this one song, "Polly Wolly Doodle", with its two chords, will become the basis for learning the chords to other songs. It will be the groundwork; it sets the pattern for learning to change chords, which is a huge stumbling block for so many aspiring pickers.

[And so began the ideas that eventually culminated in the Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD. Apparently, not only did the Murphy Method teach me how to play, but I taught the Murphy Method now to teach! {Ha! Just kidding!} "Polly Wolly Doodle" is still one of my all-time favorite teaching songs. I betcha I'll sing it every day for the entire two weeks I'm at Kaufman Kamp.]

[I should also add that it, in fact, did NOT last. It was another seven and a half years until I actually started playing the banjo for real. I wonder if it lasted for Stott?]

3 thoughts on “From The Archives: Polly Wolly Doodle

  1. martha carlton

    What a wonderful column!!! It is so nice to read the article written by Murphy followed by the comments made by Casey. Even if it did take seven and a half more years for Casey to become really devoted to the banjo, she made up for lost time for sure!!!!

  2. Murphy

    I, too, love re-reading these columns with Casey’s comments! You’re right Casey: I would NOT use “but” in two consecutive sentences. (Casey and I often edit each other’s work and are really into editing!) Today I would change that first “but” to an “and”. Better writing!

    I too wonder what happened to Stott. Maybe I’ll google “Stott banjo” and see what comes up!

    Might I also add that I can totally see your cute 7 year old self, sitting on the floor, holding that still-big-for-you little banjo and playing. Precious memories, indeed!

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