June 2003: Twenty Years Aog
By Murphy Henry
Twenty years ago
On a cold, dark night,
Hub Nitchie called
And he asked me to write
A column for the folks
Who were trying to play
The five-string banjo
And who didn't know the way.
She writes these words
Every month without fail,
They come to you
In the U. S. Mail.
What hits the trash but me.
Okay, it's a pitiful rhyme, based loosely on Long Black Veil. I really should have come up with something better to celebrate TWENTY YEARS of writing for Banjo Newsletter. My first column appeared in June of 1983. It was titled "A Day Of Banjo Teaching" and it described a typical day of my banjo teaching. It was written in response to an article by the same name with which I violently disagreed. (No surprise there!) I thought mine was mildly humorous-I mentioned I had a (non-existent) bumper sticker that said "Scruggs Do It Earlier." I've been thinking for twenty years now that I should print up some bumper stickers like that! I told a story about a guy's banjo getting busted up in a bar brawl and was able to use the line "He was thinking about having some work done on it anyway." I thought that was hilarious. I also wrote the words "I don't use tab" for the first time. Readers would see those a lot in the next two decades. Some would get extremely tired of them!
In fact, merely a year later, Hub Nitchie himself had to write and tell me to tone it down. (Those were some of my dad's favorite words: You girls tone it down!) Hub said, "It seems to me that we are getting in a rut with this dialogue over which way is the best way to learn…I realize you have strong opinions on the subject of learning via tablature and I respect them…However, I still maintain that there are numerous ways to learn, as I attempted to point out in my editorial in the Sept  BNL. Your last column goes over that position again and I'm afraid we are entering the area of whipping a dead horse…I know you have received lots of favorable mail which you have kindly shared with me. However, I have gotten some pretty angry stuff that is upset by the narrow (their words) stance you take about the learning process…But BNL has been and will continue to be a journal that pushes for the open-mind. It has also built its longevity on the inclusion of tablature as part of each issue." Bless his heart, he was so nice about it and he continued to let me write. I did try to tone it down (although it was hard!), and I think having to turn my mind to other subjects made me a better writer.
Have I mellowed in the ensuing twenty years? In some ways I have. I no longer insist that students use their thumb on the second string when they play the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick, I am letting one of my students use Ernie Ball fingerpicks (with those tiny points), and if students don't practice I sometimes go over their songs with them during the lesson, something I used to think was a complete waste of my time. But I still think learning by ear is the way to go when it comes to the banjo. So to some extent, I'm still whipping that dead horse. Only now I try not to lay it on with a jackhammer in my column. I save that for my workshops!
In my second column "For Girls Only," I revealed (for that's how it seemed to me) that I was, in fact, a girl, even though you couldn't tell it from my name. Pontificating to other "girl" banjo players, I said, "Ignore all Slack-Jawed Bimbos who have the audacity to try to strike up a conversation with the comment 'You're pretty good for a girl.'" I also said, "I don't guess we'll ever stop hearing that." And it's true: someone said that to me at a festival just yesterday! I think his exact words were, "You know, for a girl, you're the best banjo picker I've ever heard." I must be mellowing because I didn't even think of him as a slack-jawed bimbo. I knew, in his own way, he was giving me the best compliment he could. So I said "Thank you."
It wasn't until September 1990 that I ventured totally outside the realm of banjos and wrote a column titled "You Can Go Home Again" which was about me going back home and playing piano in my Granddaddy's old church. Since I hadn't mentioned banjos even one time, I felt a little trepidatious (a word I often used in my column until I found out it wasn't a word) about sending it to Hub. Bless his heart (again), he said he loved it, thereby signaling that the columns didn't always have to be about banjos! That opened the door to mandolins, fiddles, Suzuki piano, Owensboro, and white rats.
Twenty years ago I wrote my columns out in longhand and Red typed them up for me on a TYPEWRITER and I mailed them in. When I started writing, we were living in what I described as "the outskirts of the Hawthorne, Florida, metropolis." Casey was five and Christopher was two. Yes, that would make them 25 and 22 now. (It's becoming harder and harder to say, as Jack Benny did, that I'm still 39! Unless you think I copied Loretta Lynn!) Back then, Red and I made our living playing bluegrass on the road and supplemented our income with my banjo teaching. We had just started the Murphy Method and had only one cassette tape series for Beginning Banjo. It included eleven banjo tunes, all of which I still teach except Little Darling Pal of Mine, which proved over time to be incomprehensible to the students. In 1983 Red and I still were making record ALBUMS. Which we also released on eight-track tapes! In those days I thought going on the road to play bluegrass was a grand adventure. I loved eating at McDonald's and Burger King (can you believe that?) and adored staying at the Day's Inn. I hated leaving my kids when we went traveled, but loved having time to myself (an odd way to think of sharing van space with three to five other people!) to read and sleep. Still do!
A lot of things have changed since then, but one thing remains the same: I still look forward every month to sharing my bluegrass (and some non-bluegrass) adventures with you. Many times while having said adventures I think, "This will make a good story for Banjo Newsletter." Thank you for letting me share my life with you.
I'll close with these words that appear in my book of collected Banjo Newsletter columns:
"Dedicated to Hub Nitchie, founder of Banjo Newsletter, for his vision, his persistence in publishing, his open-heartedness toward his writers, and his love of the banjo."
And thanks to Nancy, Donald, and Spencer for keeping that vision alive.