Tip Jar Jam: Sitting In Bob’s Chair

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Last night's jam started off in a sedate fashion, with five banjos and two guitars circled up ready to pick. Then, while everyone was tuning up, I heard some thrashing around in the adjoining room. I did a quick calculation, ticking off students who I knew weren't coming and I couldn't quite figure out who it was. Then just as Kathy G was fixing to kick off Banjo In The Hollow (this time in G!), in walks......Bob McQueen! "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays!" Even though he "officially" lives in Florida now, I'm sure Winchester still feels like home sweet home. He was nattily attired in all things "Steeler" from his jersey, to his hat, to his tennis shoes! Go, Big Ben!

After the excitement of seeing Bob, things settled back down for a while. We did a bunch of G tunes and then Kathy H sang I Want My Dog Back, which is fast becoming a favorite. All the banjo players--which also included Ben, Kasey and Betty---tried Roly Poly breaks and they all got an A for effort but the odd chord pattern was really throwing them, even with me yelling "Short D! Short D!" So after the song was over we "workshopped" it a bit, with Kathy H singing the melody lightly while I called out the chords and everyone Roly Polied at the same time. I now know that the first half of the break has an extra two beats of G and, as Diane (on guitar) pointed out, the second half of the break does NOT have those extra two beats of G. Confusing! Especially when you're trying to play a break on the fly. Which is one thing that makes bluegrass so much fun! 

We then moved up to C for some womyn singing. Diane started us off with Circle, kicking it off on guitar. I love her guitar break, which she made up herself. It's got a little something different in it, a couple of choice notes I wouldn't have thought of, and I always look forward to hearing those particular notes.

And then the fun started.

The four womyn who were harmonizing---both Kathys, Diane and me---were spread too far apart. Now remember me telling you that we're keeping the chair next to mine empty to remind us of how much we miss Bob Van? Kathy G was sitting in the chair just past Bob's empty place. So I said to Kathy G., "Bobby wants you to sit in his chair tonight." Kathy looked at me like I was crazy and said, "I'm not sitting in Bob's chair!" (So much loyalty, Bobby!) I said, "He won't mind. And, really, I want you to be closer to me so we can harmonize better." Well, that worked and she moved over into Bobby's chair, removing the roll of duct tape before she sat down. But this "wide-ass chair" (which I love!) did not suit her so she took her chair with the cushioned seat and swapped it out with Bobby's chair. (I thought I heard Kathy H mutter something about the princess and the pea, but it could have been my imagination...)

From then on it was like the demure and lady-like Kathy G was channeling Bob Van! I thought I was going to have to get out the duct tape! Case in point: She was singing her new song, When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, and Kathy H and I were harmonizing. After the song was over, Kathy G says to Kathy H, "Your harmony was beautiful!" I immediately said, "What about me?" (Being in a room with 5 other womyn makes me revert to my childhood with 4 sisters!) Kathy G immediately said, "Your harmony was good, too." I said, "But you said it to her first." Quick as a whip Kathy G said, "I was going clockwise!" We all howled. And then we agreed that Bobby would have responded, "What's your point?"

We tried out several new songs last night including Dooley which Kathy H is playing in Open C (no capo). She's also playing Do Lord in Open C and doing a good job. I'm hoping that 2015 might prove to be the Year Of Open C. I'm already working with Dan on several songs in open C and he's helping me realize that before you can improvise in open C, you have to have a bunch of open C licks. So stay tuned!

Before we played Dooley, I mentioned to the group that the chord pattern was just like Boil Them Cabbage in the key of C. When it came time for the improv breaks, Kasey, remembering what I said, played the Boil Them Cabbage Break--superbly. Bob Mc, not surprisingly, wanted to do something "different" but couldn't quite make his hands do what his brain was thinking about. I don't think he'd mind me telling you that this has been a constant battle between the two of us. I want him to play something that he knows, something that will work in the moment. He wants to try the hardest thing, the newest thing. I don't suppose I'll ever change his mind or he'll ever change mine!

Our other brand-new song was Old Slewfoot. But first we had to have a discussion about what "slewfoot" meant. I thought it meant an animal (in this case a bear) with a "gimpy" leg, like a hurt leg that sorta stuck out sideways. Let's see what Google says. The Merriam-Webster Free Dictionary (which spells it "slue-foot") says, "having big, clumsy, or turned-out feet." (The word is not even in my hard-copy dictionary!) So, I was close but no cigar.

I chose Old Slewfoot (there's a YouTube video of Johnny Horton singing it) because it has a weird chord pattern: the verse just uses the I (one) and IV (four) chord. And then the first half of the chorus just uses the V (five) and the I (one) before it reverts back to sounding like the verse. When you do this song in a jam the break is usually the verse but sometimes the break-taker will finish the verse and pass the rest of the break---which would be the chorus---to the next player. So basically you have to be able to play the verse and the chorus. And be on your toes!

So, first I had everyone improv to the verse. Then I had every other player improv to the chorus after the person beside them played the verse. So it was Bob Mc, verse and Kathy H, chorus; Kasey, verse and Kathy G, chorus. (Betty was taking a phone call and Ben was on the bass.) Then I switched it around and had the verse people playing the chorus and the chorus people playing the verse. It may sound confusing here, but it worked out pretty well. I think that one will be a keeper.

It's really fun now to be able to watch the students stretch out and improvise on songs that have more difficult chord patterns, although we're still sticking with the three basic chord forms, G, C, and D. And it does keep everything from sounding so much alike.

We've got one more jam this year, December 17, and then we'll be taking off for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, which both fall on Wednesday this year. Then we'll be back in the saddle again on Wednesday, January 7, 2015.

Hope you're getting your holiday shopping done!