Tag Archives: flatt and scruggs

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, Marty and I just finished two days of marathon banjo lessons--four hours on Saturday and another three hours on Sunday. And I am happy and proud to report that on Saturday, during our last hour, Marty tried improvising for the first time and he could do it! Honestly, I was stunned. He just got it. He improvised good breaks to “East Virginia Blues,” “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine,” “My Dixie Home,” and “Somebody Touched Me.” I was sitting there, open-mouthed, going, “Wow!”

This is a guy who has been playing banjo for a mere 13 months, who had no previous musical background, and who, not long ago, could not reliably vamp on the off beat, as he often mentioned in blog comments.

So, the question is: What did he do right?

The short answer is that he used the Murphy Method DVDs and practiced his butt off. At this point he has learned all the songs on Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 except “John Hardy,” all the Misfits songs, all the Improvising songs except “Roll On Buddy,” plus “Old Joe Clark.”

In addition to this, for the last year he has totally immersed himself in all things banjo. He went to every banjo camp and clinic he could, took a number of marathon lessons with me while regularly taking lessons from Julie Elkins down in N.C., sought out jams in his area and went to them, persuaded friends to play with him even when he was a rank beginner, bought his wife a bass guitar so she could play with him, listened to lots and lots of bluegrass music, kept a notebook of bluegrass lyrics that he himself copied down, and attended lots of live shows.

Plus that, he bought a good beginner banjo early on (after I told him the one he brought to his first lesson was the worst banjo I had ever seen) and after about six months he upgraded to a Stelling MurphyFlower. Hey, a quality instrument helps!

So, folks, I hope Marty’s story will inspire you. You can learn to play, you can learn to improvise. You don’t even have to do it in 13 months. Slow and steady also wins the race. Practice, practice, practice; play with others, play with others, play with others; listen, listen, listen.

BTW, Marty told me that the Flatt and Scruggs’ album “Foggy Mountain Banjo” has been re-released. Put it on your Christmas List NOW. (I just Googled it to make sure. It is available at the “Flatt and Scruggs Store” on Amazon! Wow! While you’re there, might as well get “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” for $6.99. These two CDs are the bible of Scruggs style playing. And if you want a third one, get the Mercury Recordings. Those are truly the Big Three!)

PS: I can’t believe that I saved this blog on my computer under the date “December 7, 1941.” I knew I had Pearl Harbor on my mind when I typed December 7, but finding I’d also typed “1941” was a shock. Let’s take a minute to remember the horror of that day, and the brave men and women who died, and those who lived to continue fighting in that sad, calamitous second World War.

Murphy HenrySo, one of my students gave me an iPod for my birthday! How cool is that? It came programmed with 989 tunes! I’ve never had one before, so now I feel all 21st century.

I was worried at first about the song selection. How could he possibly know what I like? He is a banjo student so I had visions of getting the entire Flatt and Scruggs oeuvre. Or perhaps 900+ bluegrass numbers. Nevertheless, I was anxious to embrace this new-fangled listening device.

But first, I had to figure out how to make it work. I could make it come on, but I couldn’t hear it. So I looked for the volume button. Finally I figured out that I probably needed to charge the battery. So I did that.

Meanwhile, I sent an email to my student, thanking him for the iPod and telling him I was looking forward to using it. He wrote back saying he was glad it got there and mentioning that it came fully charged.

Hmmm, that was puzzling. How was I supposed to hear it?

I went back to the box it came in, looking for enlightenment. There I found a secret compartment containing—you guessed it—ear buds. I put them in, and viola! Sound. It had been there all along.

Now I could hear the first offering, Across the Great Divide by Nancy Griffith. Yeah! Great song! And the second, Running Against the Wind by Bob Seeger. Love it! One of my faves. Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie was up next, and while I knew of the title, I’d never heard it and didn’t realize it is a talking blues (about garbage) and funny as hell. Soon I figured out that the titles were in alphabetical order. So I got to hear All My Ex’s Live in Texas, Amanda, American Woman, Amie, Angel From Montgomery (by Bonnie Raitt), and Anticipation by Carly Simon, which I am sorry to say brought to mind the Heinz Ketchup commercial. All these were well-known, much-loved songs.

Then there was At Seventeen by Janis Ian. This number with its beautifully crafted lyrics was unknown to me. It starts off with the line “I learned the truth at seventeen that love was meant for beauty queens” and finishes by dedicating the song to “those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.” I’ve never heard anyone capture the experience of the not-so-popular high school girls with so much veracity and compassion. What a song! I doubt if I would have ever heard it if not for this amazing iPod.

Shortly after that we were into the B’s with Back in the Goodle Days by John Hartford, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and oh crud! Now I’ve done something so I can’t see the list of songs anymore! (And I am getting a prompt that says “Connect to power.”) Oh well, I’ll just tell you about two more.

I laughed out loud when Big Bad John (by Jimmy Dean) came on, and then I sang along, pretty much remembering all the words including the ending “at the bottom of the mine lies a big, big man.”

And then there was Blue Ridge Cabin Home. By Flatt and Scruggs. Just what I’d been dreading. Only because I’ve been singing that song for my students for years. I’ve been Blue-Ridge-Cabin-Homed to death. But it’d been a while since I’d heard Lester ’n Earl lay into it. Ohmygoodness! It was unbelievable! In fact, if it weren’t for the family nature of this blog I would use much stronger language. It is pretty much The Perfect Bluegrass Song. What Eddie Stubbs calls “the real deal.” I just kept listening to it over and over. Lester’s singing is perfect, Curly Seckler’s tenor is perfect, Earl’s banjo breaks are both perfect, his backup is perfect, the fiddle and the dobro are perfect. I remembered why I love Flatt and Scruggs so much.

Not content with experiencing this much joy on my own, I brought my iPod into Logan’s lesson so I could make him listen to Earl’s backup and then learn it. Fortunately, Logan already had this song on his own iPod! And had been listening to it intensely. So there we were both listening to Earl on our individual iPods. And not only was Logan able to learn several of those licks, he was able to play them in the jam later on. It was ethereal! And if it hadn’t been for this amazing iPod, the surely would not have happened.

So, now I’m into the C’s. As I travel through the alphabet I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with other beloved songs as well as seeing what other treasures are awaiting me. (I hope Set ‘Em Joe And Play Walking The Floor and Walk Right In are on there, but I’m not peeking!) And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go charge up my iPod.

PS: I’d been wondering what the correct words to the chorus of BRCH are. I now know. I share them for your edification.
It was the prepositions and adverbs that were tripping me up.

Oh I love those hills of old Virginia
From those blue ridge hills I did roam.
When I die won’t you bury me in the mountain
Far away near my blue ridge mountain home.

And there you have it!