Allemande Left!

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!

5 thoughts on “Allemande Left!

  1. Tam

    Time to post a video Murphy it’s hard to get a sense of the melody.. All this reading isn’t by ear 🙂

  2. Janet

    Murphy, it was such a good weekend. I had such a wonderful time pickin’ with you and Nick. I feel I am learning so much, and just want to keep on, keepin’ on. The square dancing was great, (for you, that is, since we didn’t get to dance very much), but I truly enjoyed the pickin’ more than anything. I am so happy for “The Murphy Method.”

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