Since Casey and I are holding our first-ever Women's Banjo Camp soon (July 19-21), I thought I would reprint my second Banjo Newsletter column. This blog also celebrates (again!) the publishing of my long-awaited book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. As you will see, I've been writing about women in bluegrass for many decades. I guess that's because, as the old joke goes, I are one!
Thirty years ago, in June of 1983, Banjo Newsletter published my first article, "A Day of Banjo Teaching." With my next column in July, "For Girls Only," the cat came out of the bag as I boldly announced that I was a banjo player and a woman! That surprised many folks who assumed that a banjo player named Murphy had to be a man! I took advantage of that combination--woman and banjo player--to offer some advice to my banjo-playing sisters in bluegrass. (Totally oblivious to the fact that most of the subscribers to BNL were men!)
I now present that entire column for your edification and reading pleasure! (This column was first reprinted in my book And There You Have It.)
FOR GIRLS ONLY
Okay. We might as well get this settled straight off: I am a girl. Oh, yes, I know. “Murphy” is a strange first name for a girl, and “Murphy Henry” is practically unbelievable, but there you have it. I am here today to offer some comments on learning to pick the banjo as a girl, and to give some tips, particularly to you aspiring female banjo pickers.
Let’s face it—bluegrass has historically been a male-oriented music, and the banjo has been a male’s instrument. To quote Nat Winston, MD, who as we all know, wrote the foreword to the Scruggs book:
“The five-string banjo has, so far as it’s known throughout its history, been a man’s way to music. It’s a rare woman who has known this instrument understandingly enough to become a virtuoso.”
Actually, it’s also been a rare man who has become a banjo virtuoso, but he doesn’t mention that. I quote him to show you what you’re up against—his is not an isolated attitude. You can learn to pick the banjo, and here are some tips that I hope will make it easier for you. When you are alone by yourself studying Earl and doing your “woodshedding,” it makes no difference whether you are male or female. It’s when you get into a group of people that are playing music that the fact you are a girl will make a difference. It’s in the attitude of the pickers toward you, and your attitude toward yourself in a jam session. Now, you’ve got to understand that I’m talking about learning to play bluegrass banjo—your hard-driving Scruggs style banjo. I don’t think anybody would quarrel with the idea that that is where you need to start, regardless of where you go after that. Okay. That brings me to my first tip:
Tip 1: Be aggressive. If hard-driving bluegrass is being played (or even attempted) it is ninety-nine times out of a hundred going to throw you in with a group of macho good old boys. At ease! Don’t be offended. Just think for a minute and see if it’s not true. Young or old, there is a definite sort of male camaraderie that exists among bluegrass musicians. They are liberated enough so that they won’t exclude you entirely, but you’d better show them pretty quick that you can get down on it.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I mean be aggressive with your banjo playing, not with your self. Jam session etiquette is very specific, and a jam session’s balance is delicate enough to be destroyed by one person who is out-of-step with the jam. Just play quietly until you’re offered a break—and you will be. If you’d like to take it, take it. If it’s entirely out of your range, just shake your head, “No.” Once you’ve got a break, don’t be fancy. Keep it simple. Play hard. I know, I know. There are opposing schools of thought on this. Sonny Osborne doesn’t play hard; J.D. doesn’t play hard. But I say, as a beginner and as a girl, you need to pick hard to get attention, to get respect, and to get good tone. Better to start out picking hard and decide to lighten your touch later on, then to start out picking lightly, and never even be heard in a jam session Male or female, the bluegrass banjo is an aggressive instrument.
Tip 2: Don’t be a hostess. This is important. (We’re assuming here that there are no kids—we’ll talk about this later.) Whether the jam session is at your campsite at a festival or in your home, concentrate on one thing only—picking the banjo. Don’t be hopping up and down getting beer for people. Let them get their own damn beer. Don’t be fixing snacks and serving food. Don’t spend the hour before a jam session cleaning house—spend it practicing. Get your priorities in order at a jam session. Picking banjo is number one!
Tip 3: Don’t let anybody take your banjo away from you. I have never seen this happen to a guy. But it has happened to me, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. There you are, struggling along, trying to play, —maybe the jam’s over your head, and you’re having to hang back—just trying to figure out the chord sequence to Little Rock Getaway or Sweet Georgia Brown—that’s okay, you’re enjoying it and you’re learning. Then, somebody says, “Hey, mind if I pick your banjo?” like it’s in the case or or something. So you say “Okay,” because you want to be nice, and then you never get it back, and the jam goes on without you. Don’t do it! Just politely refuse. Remember, any picker worth his salt wouldn’t have asked to borrow it.
Tip 4: Kids. I told you we’d get around to kids. If you’re serious about your music, learn to play first—then have kids. Girls, this really applies to you only. Somehow, even in this liberated age, it’s not the same for the guys. It’s hard to concentrate on Earl at 16 rpm when your kid is pulling all your books off the bookshelf, or is about to fall off the bed, or is screaming her head off because to keep her from pulling all the books off the bookshelf or falling off the bed you have put her in her playpen. And it’s hard to justify the expense and hassle of putting her in a nursery just so you can practice banjo. And even when she’s older, it’s “Mama, look at this cake I made. Mama, I want something to drink. Mama, don’t play. Mama, Mama, Mama...” And if you think you can wait until evening to practice when the kiddies are all safely ensconced in their little beddies, think again. You’re too tired. Maybe when the kids are grown...
Tip 4a: Kids at jam sessions. I’m talking about your kids. Your little kids, who do not belong at a jam session if you are seriously trying to pick. Farm them out. Kids at practice sessions: Ditto.
Kids at festivals: Not if you are playing on stage there. People ask me all the time if I bring my kids (ages five and two) to our shows. I always answer, “Are you kidding? Do you take your children to work with you?” Playing music is a demanding profession. It takes all of my concentration. If my kids are around, I cannot give my playing 100%. That’s not fair to me or to the audience. Leave your kids with a babysitter you have lots of confidence in.
Just last week, I broke this cardinal rule of mine. Well, it was a private party, and the kids were invited especially to play with the other kids there, and frankly, I felt it would be a breach of social etiquette to refuse. But, never again! The videotape they made of the party showed me, in the middle of Shucking The Corn, breaking away from the mike and fiercely whispering, “Christopher! Christopher! Don’t you touch that fiddle! Don’t you touch it! Put it down! Put it down! ” And playing Flint Hill Special was a disaster because Christopher was prancing around in front of the band balancing a potholder on his head. I was in stitches, and completely flubbed the ending by detuning the second string instead of the third. Never again!
Tip 5: Don’t use being a girl as an excuse for anything—good or bad. Especially don’t use it as an excuse for mediocre picking! Carry your own banjo case.
And finally, ignore all Slack-Jawed-Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up conversation with the comment, “You’re pretty good for a girl.” I don’t guess that we’ll ever stop hearing that, but a calm “Thank you” would be a sufficient answer. Don’t simper. After nine years of professional playing, I heard one of the standard variations on that again this week-end: “You’re the best lady banjer picker I ever heered.” What can I say? We were twenty miles from the nearest flush toilet, so maybe I was.
Sometimes the best compliments are the ones you don’t hear at all. Just being accepted into a group of good pickers is a supreme compliment. You don’t have to prove anything, just pick and enjoy. My own personal favorite compliment is one I never heard.
We were playing a festival down here in Florida with the Johnson Mountain Boys and, typically for that spring, it was cold and pouring rain. So, to entertain the loyal fans who were still sticking it out, the Johnson Mountain Boys and Red and Murphy & Co. got on stage for a jam session—no microphones, mind you, it was too wet—just a good ole acoustic jam session, where you usually can’t hear anything but the banjo (fortunately not the case that day). Dudley Connell (guitar) and Richard Underwood (banjo) had just put the finishing touches on their tuning when Dudley launched into his terrific, ninety-mile-an-hour rendition of John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man. I was standing there vamping, trying to make my fingers move in that cold, wet air, when I got the nod from Dudley to take a break. I jumped down into first position and let her fly, just hoping I wouldn’t break a string, drop a pick, or forget how to do a forward roll.
I needn’t have worried. After the first phrase I saw Dudley look over at Richard, and Richard look back at Dudley, and Dudley was grinning, and Richard was grinning, and I felt like I wanted to burst wide open, but I didn’t. Instead, I just finished up my break with a few Ralph Stanley chokes (in Richard’s honor) and led into the next verse. That was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received about my picking and they never said a word.
Note: [I added this note to book And There You Have It .] This was the second article I wrote for BNL. I remember that aggressive, bright-eyed, hell-bent-for-leather, excited, determined, yet vulnerable little banjo player. She was very young. An older, calmer, slowed-down version of her is editing this book. I suppose now, the title of this column would be politically incorrect. But back then, I felt like a girl.
PS: Adding this note right now, June 5, 2013: Wow! How fascinating to realize that all these thoughts, ideas, and feelings would eventually become part of my new book, Pretty Good for a Girl.
PPS: Careful readers will note that I FINALLY changed the gender in Tip 4: Kids. As originally written and reprinted in my first book, I'd used the default gender which was male. I just now realized how stupid it was for me to be talking about MY KID, Casey, who was a girl, using the male gender! As you can see, I was as caught up in the cultural stereotypes and "norms" as anyone. It took me a long to break old habits! DUH!