2014: The Year Of The Roly Poly

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, here it is, December 31, the last day of 2014. And as Lester Flatt sang, "I've been sitting here thinking back over my life..." And what I was thinking this morning as I drank my coffee and read my favorite new author Louise Penny on my Kindle was, in fact, Roly Polys. 

For me, this was the year that all my attempts to teach improvising on the banjo finally came to fruition in the form of the Roly Polys. In addition to 40 years of teaching (and thank you Tim for that constant reminder!), several things fell into place to coax the Roly Polys into being: My wonderful teaching place in town, the Tip Jar Jams, and an amazing group of courageous banjo students.

The Teaching Place (TP) finally offered a room big enough for a jam session and plenty of parking right in front. I'd tried Misfit jam sessions before---twice in the Barber Shop and once at our house out in the country---but, frankly, I didn't have the skills or experience to make these really work. (And there was no parking at our house. In fact one of the students backed into a tree coming out of our driveway which is how I met Ben Smelser when I called him to come cut it down, but that's an entirely different story!)

murphybookAlthough my goals were noble---to provide a place for students to play with other students---my initial attempts at leading my Misfit Jam pretty much sucked. In my first book, And There You Have It, I revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly in the article "We Are Jamming." I say, "In my naivete, I made out a list of three jamming rules: (1) whoever starts it ends it, (2) one time through for long tunes, twice through for short tunes, (3) vamp quietly when not taking your break." The problems were, as I soon found out, "How can you end a tune if you don't know any ending licks? And what does 'one time through' mean to a beginner?" Plus that, they could barely vamp, having had little practice.

Well into our second month of Misfit jamming we were still struggling with Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, Boil Them Cabbage Down, and, God help us, Cumberland Gap. I hadn't yet learned that what we really needed to be playing were the three-chord singing songs. However, this initial attempt at jamming would inspire the Banjo For Misfits DVD which finally taught songs that would become Tip Jar Jam standards: I Saw The Light, Do Lord, Worried Man (I had not yet unleashed my inner feminist!), and Two Dollar Bill.

Twenty years after this, I was still trying to figure out how to teach students to improvise. I even did a whole video called Improvising: The First Stage. Many students had a light bulb go on when they started working with that DVD, but I still needed something more basic, something easier to apply in a jam session when you are asked to play "on the fly."

Enter the Tip Jar Jams and Kathy Holliday. (I never get tired of telling this story!) Kathy had started talking lessons from me when I was still teaching at Brill's Barber Shop. Dalton Brill knew Kathy's husband and he sometimes told me, "You should meet Kathy, you'd like her." Which, of course, had the exact opposite effect: I did not want to meet Kathy because I knew I would not like her! (And I wonder where my grandson gets his contrarian streak?) We ended up meeting by chance in Martin's Grocery Store when she rolled past me with her cart and then backed up to say, "Aren't you Murphy Henry? Don't you teach banjo? I'm Kathy Holliday! I want to take some lessons!" After seeing her in person I was cautiously optimistic and when she took her first lesson we immediately bonded over Ballad Of The Green Berets and House Of The Rising Sun. Kathy had played guitar in high school, as I had, and she knew many of the same folk songs I did. More importantly she could hear her chord changes and she loved to sing.

But life happens and after taking lessons for a few years, Kathy dropped out to go back to school and revive her interest in painting. We remained good friends, however, (I let her paint me in my bathing suit!), and when I rented my Teaching Place in town, she was ready to take more lessons. She easily remembered the songs we'd learned and on the strength of knowing these (Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap, Boil Them Cabbage, I Saw The Light, Do Lord) she started coming to the Tip Jar Jams. But she didn't have breaks to a lot of the songs we were doing like Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Worried Gal, I'll Fly Away, Circle, and Somebody Touched Me. "Show me something I can do," she said.

Well, at various banjo camps I'd been experimenting with trying to find a way to teach a group of beginning students to play a simple break to a three-chord singing song. Because the problem at camps is that, after Cripple Creek, nobody knows the same songs and you can't play together. And when students do profess to know other songs, they often play out of time. I wanted my campers to play together and in time. I tried having them play the "square roll" (alternating thumb, 3251) in all the chords---G, C, D---but it bored me to tears. I couldn't stand to listen to a break played that way! And, believe it or not, I couldn't teach them to alternate between 3251 and 4251, which would have varied the sound somewhat and made a tolerable break.

Finally, in desperation---again! (that's how I started teaching by ear!)---I landed on the forward/backward roll. For some reason, students could play this pretty easily and it sounded pretty good. Over time and many camps, I tweaked it a little and learned which song to start with (Blue Ridge Cabin Home) and which song to teach second (Bury Me Beneath The Willow) and how to show the advanced beginners how to use the tag lick (if they already knew it) at the end of the break.

So when Kathy asked for me to show her something, I was not without a few tricks up my sleeve. I showed her the forward/backward roll and she took to it like the proverbial duck to water. And here's the amazing part: because she was playing in the jam, other students could see what she was doing and they wanted to do it too!

Before the Roly Polys, the students could only play the songs they had learned in their lessons. So, no matter how much they practiced they were still limited to learning one or two songs a month. But with a grasp of the  Roly Polys, they could at least attempt to take a break on any three-chord singing song. It wasn't always pretty, but, by golly, it was better than sitting there vamping to most of the songs! And the more they tried, the easier it got. And seeing their picking friends working on these same Roly Poly breaks in the jams was inspiring. And if the competitive fires were fanned a bit, well, the students seemed genuinely happy when someone else made it through a Roly Poly break. And, sure enough, soon they started stealing each others licks!

Then, the students started showing me that the Roly Polys could be used to play more complex, three-chord songs: Lonesome Road Blues, John Hardy, Daybreak In Dixie, Glendale Train. Never thought of that

Now students are starting to ask how to improvise in the open key of C. That is, playing in first position without a capo. They don't like the sound of capoing up five frets. And they don't like all the retuning involved.) So, once again, they are teaching me how to teach. So perhaps twelve months from now I'll be writing a blog titled 2015: The Year Of The C Roly Polys. I hope so.

Gotta quit. Dalton, our little contrarian, is coming over for the day and night and I've got to eat breakfast (at 11 a.m.) and get dressed.

Thanks again for reading these blogs and for being excited about the Roly Polys! Looking forward to seeing you at one of our FOUR Murphy Method camps this year--where you can be sure we will be doing the Roly Polys!

You do the forward roll in,

You do the backward roll out,

You do it all again in C 

And then you give a little shout;

You did the Roly Polys and you played yourself a break

That's what it's all about!

3 thoughts on “2014: The Year Of The Roly Poly

  1. B. Van Metre

    Although as a guitar player I don’t understand the banjo lingo involved in the mechanic’s of the RP’s I can attest to the fact that the process does work. A big thanks to Kathy H. for spearheading the RP effort, she certinately has done well with it, as have several other of the banjo students. I’m hoping to get back into the “Jam circle” early in 2015, but I guess we’ll have to see how that works out.



  2. Murphy Henry

    Thanks Bob for your sweet and supportive comments. You need to get back to the jam ASAP and revert to being your usual ornery self!!! Tee hee! I’ve still got duct tape…..We miss you a lot and are still saving you a chair on the floor!

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