Report on Midwest Banjo Camp

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I am happy to tell you that Midwest Banjo Camp was a smashing success. The campus of Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan, was lush and green and the food in the dining hall was more than edible and at times even good. (Okay, maybe I was just hungry!) The accommodations for the staff were new, four-bedroom, two-bath student townhouses with a kitchen, which we didn’t actually use except to chill our bottled water in the fridge. (Thank you, Stan Werbin, for that!) The temperature in the bedroom seemed quite hot the first night, but when I figured out that the air conditioning vent was under my bed and slid the frame over, all was cool from there on out. So, those are the things that matter to an instructor!

The classes? Oh, those were good, too. Camp directors Ken Perlman and Stan Werbin (of Elderly Instruments) had assembled a mighty team of bluegrass instructors including Bill Evans, Bill Keith, Jens Kruger, Ned Luberecki, Pete Wernick, Dave Talbot, Ryan Cavanaugh (jazz banjo), James McKinney, Mike Sumner, and moi (the lone female).

One of my favorite classes teamed me up with three of the old-time banjo players—Mac Benford, Michael Miles, and Brad Leftwich—to demonstrate singing while playing the banjo. Having never workshopped with those guys (to coin a verb), I didn’t know what to expect and thought we might all do some playing together, trading breaks bluegrass style, but instead we each took a turn singing a song of our choice while playing the banjo. Normally, I have a full bluegrass band backing me up when I sing, or at the very least Red on guitar, so this was something new for me. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot and for my first number sang "I’m Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" ("Lonesome Road Blues") because it has lots of verses and the old-time guys were all singing these mournful ballads with interminable story lines. Singing while sitting down, I seemed to be channeling Uncle Dave Macon (or at least Leroy Troy) and started stomping one or both feet exuberantly as the spirit began to move me. I only wished I had known how to spin my banjo around!

For my second number I chose "East Virginia Blues" (seven verses), which, as I told the folks, “sounds exactly like "Lonesome Road Blues" except for the words.” (I only realized the chord pattern was the same as I was introducing it.) Then for my third number I gave ‘em a little "White Dove", “just to show you I can sing something besides Lonesome Road Blues.” They all thought that was funny and laughed so I felt loved. Which is all I wanted anyhow.

What was really cool on "White Dove" was that by the third chorus folks were starting to sing along, so we had sort of a Morman Tabernacle Choir effect with some marvelous, rumbley bass voices. At the end I had them double back and sing the chorus one more time saying, “I think you’ve just about got it!”

Perhaps that gospel number was what inspired Michael Miles to trot out "I’ll Fly Away". He was playing a fretless banjo, which was tuned low, maybe in F, and he sang the song fairly slow (not bluegrass tempo) and asked everyone to sing along on the “I’ll fly away’s” and the choruses. Once again, there were those throbbing bass voices, not too loud, perhaps a bit tentative even, but resonant and....well, comforting. I think now, as I’m writing this, that that sound probably reminded me of my granddaddy’s bass singing in church when I was little. So hearing everyone joining voices together sparked one of those special moments for me, when I felt all this emotion welling up inside and I was aware enough to pay attention to it, to feel it, and to think, “This is what I like about this music.” As Brad Paisley says in a current country song, “I live for little moments like that.” Those are the ones that keep you going. And that one has certainly kept me going.

I’m looking forward to experiencing and perhaps creating some more “magic moments” at Kaufman Kamp which commences in only ten short days. Hope to see you there!

7 thoughts on “Report on Midwest Banjo Camp

  1. Stan Fleener

    What a great camp (my first)!…I’m still thinking about that “muso” guitarist, Leslie? and her wonderful voice. You so graciously encouraged her to sing for us. If she ever puts something on a cd please blog about it. I’d love to hear more from her.

  2. Steve (in Japan)

    That’s “Mormon” and not “Morman.” I ain’t no Mormon, ahem, I’m a Christian and a Methodist! There’re plenty of Mormon missionaries here and one young Mormon man corrected me by saying, “The term ‘Mormon’ is derogatory.” They’re to be called LDS. That kind of shocked me and so, I just wanted to tell you that in case you’re one of the politically correct types. And by the way, you look great and sing well in the “Beyond Vamping: Fancy Banjo Backup” video. Thanks to you and Casey for making that video. It’s a good one!

  3. Ben from Back When

    Enjoyed reading your report, Murphy, thank you. Glad it was a successful camp, and that it provided you one of those special moments.

  4. Lindsay Petroff

    Thanks Stan, for the encouraging comment 🙂 My name is Lindsay (very close!!)
    I have a few demo songs posted on this website: … but hopefully by the end of the summer will have a full length, polished album. Also, thank you Murphy for the awesome blog and for the encouragement at camp. It was my first banjo camp, too, and I had such an amazing time that I can’t wait for next year!!

  5. Stan Fleener

    Ok Lindsay, I got the name down now. Thanks for responding and the website info.
    It was a treat to hear you sing, you’ve got the tools…wishing you the best in getting the album done.
    Bring the new album to camp next year!

  6. Stacy Holt

    One of the best parts I thought was the pre-camp session on teaching with you, Pete Wernick and Bill Evans. I am very fortunate to live in Austin, Tx and have Eddie Collins as my instructor for the past 3 yrs and since I only have had the one instructor (and his method), I was very interested in hearing what others had to say on the subject. I think ya’ll were not sure what the approach was in the session since I think the thought was you were addressing people who mostly taught, but then found that some of the class (like me) were non-teachers.
    What I found out, and also talking to some other faculty there, that there is a wide range of thoughts on the subject, and I think your comment rang the truest: Do what works best for you. So I learn some from tabs, I bought one of your DVDs while there and the new one from Casey. I am trying to improvise more soloing to improve the jamming capabilities (Pete) and your great jam DVD helps me with that. As I told you at camp, leaving the holes for me to play is very helpful. I find it hard to play over someone else playing banjo break at the same time.
    I really appreciated the chance to meet you and get some great ideas and teaching from you live. I hope to get the chance again in the future.

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