Tag Archives: women’s banjo camp

BREAKING NEWS: We’ve just added a Novice Class to our Women’s Banjo Camp, July 29-31, in Winchester, Va. No experience necessary!

I had been wondering where I was going to use that quote from George, one of my Tip Jar Jammers. It certainly makes a great title for this blog. Here’s the back story. We usually have a fair number of women at my Tip Jar Jam and one night it was all women. And George. And while we don’t usually drink at the jam, Kathy G had brought in a bottle of port and we were enthusiastically following Saint Paul’s sage advice to “take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” Soon the air was punctuated with ribald remarks, risqué allusions, gales of laughter, and womyn singing. Into the middle of all this walks Dan, another Tip Jar regular. Says George, “Thank goodness you’re here! They’re drinking wine and playing in B-flat!”

And that spirit—the freedom to laugh boisterously, to share jokes in a room full of understanding, to enjoy the sound of womyn’s voices raised in three-part harmony, to pick the banjo however you pick it knowing that you will be supported and not judged--is the spirit that makes our Women’s Banjo Camps so successful. And so much fun. That spirit is the wind beneath our wings. (Even if Alice Gerrard doesn’t like that song!) And in the middle of this “good natured riot,” there is much learning. And perhaps a little wine at the late night jams…

Each of our Women’s Banjo Camps has organically and of its own accord revealed a particular focus. This year my suggested focus will be the idea of playing in open C without using a capo.

What does that mean and why do it? After all, isn’t that why capos were invented, to play in C? Well, yes. You certainly can play in C using a capo and I’m all for that! Just take any song you’ve learned in G, slap the capo on at the fifth fret, tune up the fifth string, and………I hear a question.

What? How do you tune up the fifth string? Well, you use those little spikes that are there.

What? You only have one spike? At the seventh fret? Well, you can put your fifth string under that one spike and then tune it up three more frets. No, the string won’t break. Usually it won’t break…

What? You don’t have any spikes? Well, you can leave the fifth string where it is, tuned to a G note, and that will work. Yes, it does sounds a little funny.

These are a few of the problems I’ve encountered when telling a roomful of banjo players to “capo to C.” Furthermore, once they have situated the capo, tweaked the tuning, and figured out all the fifth string problems, then you are confronted with the very real problem of teaching folks where the vamp chords are. It sounds simple to say “Just move everything you’ve been vamping up five frets” but, in practice, this is extremely hard for beginning or even intermediate players who have little experience using a capo. Their markers are all gone!

Nevertheless, in order to make sure that women can sing in my jams--because women usually sing most bluegrass standards in the key of C or higher--we capo up to C in every jam to do some “womyn singing.” I insist on it. But here’s what the students have taught me: THEY DON’T LIKE TO CAPO IN C. It’s a pain in the butt, it takes too long, there is way too much re-tuning, and they don’t like the way it sounds. (And honestly, the sound of an inexpensive banjo capoed to C is not pleasant.)

Thus, I’ve been teaching my Tip Jar Jammers to improvise in C without using a capo. With one roll, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown roll (2121,5215) which they already know, and a couple of two-finger chords positions (first and second position C, both movable to make F and G), they can play a simple, improvised break to any three-chord bluegrass song. It’s not fancy but it sounds like bluegrass. And they like it. And the “upgrades”—new licks that can be added on—are really fun!
Question: Don’t you have to retune the fourth string to a C note to play in C?

Answer: No.

Question: That’s a bit terse. Could you elaborate?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Well?????

Answer: Sorry, too much Facebook! Yes, you can retune the fourth string down to a C note to play in C. Earl did that in Home Sweet Home, Pike County Breakdown, and (deep catalog!) in his backup to Paul Warren’s Billy In The Lowground. But you don’t HAVE to tune the fourth string down to play in C. And the whole point here is to NOT retune anything.

I remember when I was learning to play the banjo I almost always capoed up to play in C. At that time I was, of course, in thrall to Earl, which is not a bad thing, and I loved learning his breaks to songs note for note. I prided myself on sounding like Earl. But since I often sang in C, I’d have to capo up five in order to play Earl’s break in the key where I could sing it. It did not occur to me to try to work out a different break—my own break—in open C. That only came years later. At the time, I was completely invested in trying to sound like Earl as much as possible so I would be accepted by the banjo-playing community.

I remember the great banjo picker, Jim Fee, heard me play the song Just Because at a festival in Florida where he was running sound. My husband and bandmate Red was singing it in C, so I capoed up five to play my break.  I thought I had done a pretty good job until Fee-Fee saw me later and said, in his gruff Kentucky way, “Why’d you pick it way up there, Murph? You oughta pick in it open C. That’s where the sound is!” Of course, I wasn’t nearly the picker Jimmy was (then or now) and it would have been too hard for me to play the melody in open C then. So I was just doing the best I could. But that thought sorta stuck in my mind, and as the years went by and I got more confident in my own playing, I began to try a few songs in open C and I discovered that Jimmy was right. Of course he was! Open C has a bigger, more robust sound. And yes, when I play Earl’s songs there (Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Little Girl In Tennessee) I don’t sound “just like Earl” anymore, but I like to think that his spirit—playing the melody “as she is sung”—is still there.

If you are interested in being a part of a weekend filled with the joyous spirit of womyn picking the banjo and singing their hearts out, join Casey and me July 29-31 in Winchester, Va., for our Women’s Banjo Camp. All levels are welcome. And we have just added a Novice Class in which no experience is necessary. All you need is a banjo and a set of picks. Kathy Hanson will be teaching the Novice Class. And, yes, we may be drinking wine and playing in B-flat. Bring your own wine!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our camp is open to women banjo players at any level (except total newbie). You should be able to play a tune or two, and know how to make the vamp chords (G,C,D) in the "F" shape. We welcome women from age 12 on up, and we have scholarship money available for young women. If you have any questions, call Casey at 615-513-8620. Or email us at themurphymethod@gmail.com. Camp info and registration here.

Last year (2013) Casey and I held our first women's banjo camp here in Winchester, Va. It was a rousing success! We are planning our second Women's Banjo Camp July 18-20, 2014, and we invite all you women banjo players at any level to come join us for a weekend of picking, singing, jamming, hilarity, and, of course, bonding!

One of the BIG things that made the camp fabulous was actually a surprise. It was the SINGING! Since all of us were women, we put our "singing songs" into keys where we could actually sing the lead--and not just the tenor. As you know, most women do not sing in the "default" bluegrass keys of G and A. All we can do there is sing tenor. Which is fun, don't get me wrong, but not as much fun as being the boss of the song yourself! So we got out our capos and pitched our songs in the keys of B and C and the singing--often with THREE PART HARMONY--sounded GREAT! We encouraged all the women to join in and they did! Fun, fun, fun! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Casey and I are excited and proud to say that our first-ever women's banjo camp was a tremendous success! We had 18 women and 4 of these were young teens. I came away with a new nickname--AJ--for "Alpha Jammer" and Kathy Hanson was tagged "AJ Jr" for her outstanding leadership in the late night jams (which went on until 1 am on Friday and ended earlier, midnight, on Saturday!).


I was dubbed "AJ" after Casey and Janet and I did a Friday afternoon session on How To Jam. (This will become a standard Friday event at all our camps from now on.) This was more than just a "jam etiquette" session. We talked about "friendly" or "nice" jams and demonstrated what might happen there and we also talked about "not-so-nice" jams or "unfriendly" jams and demonstrated what might happen there.


Note: Many jams are not "unfriendly" on purpose--these are higher-level jams, often with seasoned players, who most always play fast, who know harder songs, and who don't cut newcomers any slack because they don't want the jam to be anything other than "top notch." Players assume other players will know the material so songs are often not even named--they are simply kicked off. You are expected to know what the song is AND THE KEY IT IS BEING PLAYED IN.


I got my nickname when I was demonstrating this "fast jam" procedure. I kicked off Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms as fast as I could play it without announcing the title. It was in the key of A which caused Janet to have to scramble for her capo. (Note: if a major player starts putting on her--or his--capo in a jam, it's a safe bet you are going to be playing in a different key! Get ready!) Of course, Casey knew the drill so she was totally able to come in singing the chorus with me right after I finished the kickoff. I also might have gotten the nickname because I admitted to actually liking some aspects of these fast jams! And for saying that I always wanted to be the only banjo player in a jam!


Casey and I mentioned that, in our experience, jams that featured mostly all women tend to be a bit more "touchy feely" with the drill being something like this. Everyone in the picking circle gets a chance to select a song. So the conversation often sounds like this:


It's your turn to pick a song, Casey.


Ok, what about Shenandoah Breakdown? Does everybody know that?


No, I don't play that one.


Okay, what about Daybreak in Dixie?


What key?


I do it in A.

(Mandolin player): Oh, I learned it in G. I can't do it in A.


Casey: Well, I can do it in G. Is that okay with everybody else?


Nods all around and the song gets played. And afterwards, the next person picks the song.


Some of the jam rules we mentioned were:


Whoever kicks the instrumental off is the one who ends it and puts on the ending lick. For anyone else to do this is rude.


For singing songs, most jams want only the three basic vocal parts: Lead, tenor, baritone. Don't sing along if the part is already covered.


If you are new to the jam and you get the nod to take a break, DON'T PASS IT UP. Even if you can't play something very good, at least play something! You might get one more chance, but if you pass up a break twice you are not likely to get asked again.


After our demonstration (which also included some jam session "role playing" by Martha and Susan), Casey and I were both worried that we had scared everybody off with too many rules and regulations! And these "unspoken" rules can be confusing when thrown at you all at one time. But afterwards, the women said they had really enjoyed the session and almost all of them felt it was better to be forewarned!


Of course our jams at the camp--with 18 banjos--were completely different from what we took to calling "real" jams. We usually had all the banjos playing the breaks together and we WELCOMED everyone singing all the time on whatever part they could sing.


Another highlight of the camp was our Harmony Singing Workshop which we did Sunday morning. Based on what I had learned about teaching harmony singing from the magnificent Janet Beazley (who is on our Harmony Singing Made Easy DVD), Casey and I were able to demonstrate all three vocal parts-- lead, tenor, and baritone--and have the women learn to sing each one. We all agreed that baritone was the hardest! We will definitely make this a part of our Women's Camps but it's almost impossible for women to teach harmony singing to men. (That's why Bill Evans and Chris Stuart are on our DVD!)


Lynn Morris was kind enough to drop by for lunch on Saturday. She mixed and mingled with the women there and I everyone was honored by her presence. We gave her one of our "Pick Like a Girl" T-shirts and she put it on and had her picture "took" with the rest of us. I gave her a copy of my book Pretty Good for a Girl because she has a whole chapter in it. She is truly one of the pioneers in bluegrass and I admire her so much.


banjo campers

Murphy Method Women's Banjo Camp Campers

Friday night Casey and I showed off the playing of our local women with an hour-long concert. Participating were: Kathy Hanson, Kathy Holliday, Kristina, Kasey Smelser, Barbara, Janet, Casey Henry, and moi. Did it go off without a hitch? No it did not, but the hitches were small (although I'm sure they didn't seem small to the hitchees) and I was so proud of everyone for being willing to be up there in front of a crowd giving it a shot. The audience responded enthusiastically and I thought Ben Smelser was going to swoon with pride when Kasey was singing I Saw the Light. Kasey said she even got a compliment from her brother who said, "Good job." She was ecstatic over that!


Saturday night mandolin player Tracey Rohrbaugh joined Casey and me for a concert. After only 7 minutes of rehearsal (!) we managed to pull together 9 or 10 songs that sounded really good. Tracey is an awesome singer and we were able to get some really good three-part harmony. Casey's Skype student, Sydney, one of our teenagers, was our special guest. She kicked off and sang Rocky Top and Blue Moon of Kentucky and did a fantastic job. Sydney actually has some stage experience because she plays in a band with her father and uncle. But I believe she said this was the first time she'd played with any other women. (I did notice Kasey watching Sydney like a hawk, so I'm thinking Rocky Top is likely to be a singing request soon!)


I'm totally out of time to say more if I'm gonna eat my oatmeal and take a shower before my teaching day starts.


Let me close by saying THANK YOU to all the wonderful women who came to the camp. Thanks for making it a success. I think there was a whole lot of bonding going on, and being a woman myself, I liked that!


And a special thanks to my totally awesome daughter Casey who came up with the idea for these camps to begin with and who shoulders the lioness's share of the detail work which I abhor. Couldn't do it without you, Case! You are the woman!


See all y'all next year. And don't forget our Mixed Gender Beginner's Camp October 25-27, 2013.



Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I know it's last minute, with the dates for the Women's Banjo Camp being July 19-21, but we have scholarship money available for one young woman, age 8-22. The scholarship would cover camp tuition only (it does not cover lodging) but still, it's a chunk of change! ETA: Thanks to an anonymous donor we now have TWO scholarships available.


If you know of a young woman who plays banjo at any level (probably not someone who has been playing less than two months....), who fits the age requirement, who is able to attend (please check on this!), and who could use help with the tuition, please send her name and contact info to us at the Murphy Method email address: themurphymethod@gmail.com


I hope and suspect that we will get more than one name, and if we do we will number the entries in the order received, put all the numbers in a hat and have a drawing for the lucky winner. The number will be chosen completely at random and neither Casey nor I will do the drawing.


We will draw for a winner on June 28 and will contact the winner as soon as we draw. So, again, please include contact information. If in any event the winner cannot attend or has to drop out, we will draw again. So you've got two weeks and a half to send in your suggestions.


The camp is being held here in Winchester, Va., at the Courtyard Marriott. We start Friday, July 19, at 1 pm and finish up Sunday, July 21, at 1 pm.


We are soooo looking forward to our first All Women's Banjo Camp! Who knows where this may lead????

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

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.)




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.

(July 1983)


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!







Murphy Henry

As you will be reading in our next Newsletter (coming soon!) Casey and I have decided to do a Women’s Banjo Camp.  It will happen next July 19, 20, 21, 2013, here in Winchester and we are really excited about it! It will be for all levels of banjo-playing women, beginners through advanced. We welcome younger women and we welcome older women.


(That reminds me of those T-shirts with the word GRITS printed on them: Girls Raised In The South. Those apparently proved to be so popular that they came out with a batch for older women: SEASONED GRITS! Love it!) But I digress....


Part of our reason for doing this camp is to make a real effort to get more women to attend banjo camps—any banjo camps, not just ours. We know there are women out there who are learning to play the banjo, but they don’t often show up at camps. A few do, but not many. So we thought perhaps a women-only environment would seem less scary. If you’re going to fall on your face playing the banjo, somehow it seems easier to do amongst a group of women! And we’re hoping if they have a good experience at our camp, this will give them the encouragement they need to attend other camps.


So, please help us spread the word! And feel free to write (themurphymethod@gmail.com) or call (800-227-2357)  us with any questions.


And, although we didn’t exactly plan it this way, the camp will coincide with the publication of my book, Pretty Good For A Girl: Women in Bluegrass, by the University of Illinois Press. (Which also published Neil Rosenberg’s classic work Bluegrass: A History.) My book is scheduled to come out in June 2013. As I’ve mentioned, I worked on it hard—but somewhat intermittently—for TEN years! So I am ecstatic to have it out of the house and in the hands of the publisher. I will really feel like it’s done, of course, when I’m holding my first copy! And, if all goes well, we should have copies for sale at our Women’s Banjo Camp next July!