Banjo Newsletter

April 2006: The Banjo Cruise
By Murphy Henry

Okay, last month I promised we'd talk about the chords to Polly Wolly Doodle, and we will, but first I have to tell you about the banjo cruise. Imagine spending a week on a big ol' boat-the Splendor of the Seas--that bon voyaged to Mexico and featured banjo workshops! Ross Nickerson did the grunt work of pulling the event together and he was kind enough to ask Casey and me to join him as banjo teachers. For an event of this magnitude (Mexico! Casinos! Bingo! Mayan ruins! Corona!) the whole family joined in: Red, Chris, and my most excellent mother-in-law Renee. (Rhymes with genie.)

Picture this: Every morning you wake up in the comfort of your little cabin home on the boat where a gentle knock on your door informs you that room service has arrived with your breakfast. Which you eat in your pajamas.

Shortly thereafter (no longer in pajamas) you pop up a flight of stairs to the four rooms set aside for the banjo workshop. Smiling faces with banjo cases greet you as you walk in precariously balancing Stelling, DVDs, CDs, and bottled water. Novice players sit nervously with banjos by their chairs. Workshop veterans tune industriously. Seasoned players tickle their strings quietly. The game is afoot, the lessons are about to begin.

In the week ahead, twenty-five students will bare a portion of their souls to people they have never met, bound by a common passion for this musical oddity with five strings, the banjo. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, frustration, despair, exhaustion, sore fingers, and occasional urges to smash this perplexing instrument which so painstakingly gives up its secrets, reveals its beautiful music. Still, joy and laughter will also abound, eyes will shine, faces will glow, and hope will spring eternal as the proverbial light bulb goes off and a student discovers that C in the first position sounds the same as C at the fifth fret.

And thus endeth the poetic portion of this column.

One of the things Ross wanted all the teachers to talk about early on was right-hand position. For this lesson, I was imparting knowledge to the folks who had been playing for a number of years. So, the first thing I told them was this: No matter what I say, no matter what anyone says, no matter how you see me holding my right hand, no matter how J.D. Crowe holds his right hand, do not change your hand position. At this stage of your playing careers you most likely have arrived at something that works for you. And if it ain't broke….

Right hand position is becoming quite a sore spot with me. Too many teachers, wanting to be helpful and looking for something concrete to tell a student to fix, suggest a change in hand position. It's an easy thing to say and can even seem appropriate if the student's hand position is unconventional or looks awkward. And especially if the playing is ragged and the tone is muddy. I have often wanted to make this suggestion myself and, in fact, have occasionally succumbed to the urge. (The Devil made me do it!) The Teacher is happy to offer sage advice, the Student is happy to have something to work on. The Student sees the Teacher, using the suggested "correct" hand position, playing well. Said Student thinks, "If I change my hand position, I too will play well." If only it were so easy!

Unfortunately changing hand position is not a cure-all. It will not fix everything. It is extremely hard to do, it takes months and months of concentrated effort, and worst of all, it often has disastrous consequences. Such as completely screwing up a student's playing. I would urge anyone who is contemplating a change of hand position to first get out and play lots and lots with other people. How do you really know what your hand wants to do, what your hand will do, unless you put yourself in a situation where you have to play on automatic pilot. And, if it needed fixing, it may fix itself. (I'm beginning to think that playing with other people is the answer to just about everything.)

Looking for some examples of various right-hand positions, I just now flipped through that treasure-trove of information, Masters of the Five-String Banjo. Here my eye happened on a quote from Earl Scruggs. I should have known Earl would have thought this thing through. Speaking of right-hand position he said: "Over the years I have seen banjo pickers hold their hands all different ways, and I have learned that no way is what you would call 'right.' The way that works for you and your hand is right." On placement of ring and little fingers he says, "I use [anchor] both the ring finger and the little finger-it comes easy for me that way. But there's some people that can't do that…If it hinders you, don't try it." Earl said it, I believe it, that settles it! And that's all I'm gonna say about right-hand position.

Okay. That brings us (abruptly) to Polly Wolly Doodle. I trust you've done your homework and can now chord to Skip To My Lou. Here are the words to Polly (for those of you who didn't learn them watching the Woody Woodpecker show!):

Verse: [Oh I] went down South
For to see my Sal
Singing Polly Wolly Doodle all day
My Sal she is a spunky gal
Singing Polly Wolly Doodle all day.

Chorus: Fare thee well (Fare thee well)
Fare thee well (Fare thee well)
Fare thee well my Fairy Faye
For I'm going to Louisiana
For to see my Susianna
Singing Polly Wolly Doodle all day.

Again, this song uses just two chords, G and D-7, and the verse and the chorus have the same chord pattern. Polly also introduces the concept of pickup notes, which are notes that come before you actually start strumming. "Oh I" are the pickup notes. So your first strum comes on "went." (That's called the down beat.) You sing "Oh, I" and when you say "went" you start strumming a G chord on the banjo. Strum along in G until it starts sounding wrong, then change to D-7. [Clues to changes at bottom of column.] Strum along in D-7 until that starts sounding wrong, and change back to G. And so it goes, all the way through the song. Once you start strumming, don't stop or pause till the end of the song.

Note: The words "Polly" and "Wolly" and "Doodle" all get one strum each-you don't strum on every syllable. Some words like "day" get three strums, and some word groupings like "Fare thee" get only one strum. It all sounds very confusing on paper! So the best thing to do is get out the five-string, tighten up the hide, and go to it!

Where the chords change: (Don't cheat and look at this first!). Verse: change to D-7 on the first "day," change back to G on the next "day." Chorus: change to D-7 on "Faye" and back to G on "day." When you're in the Key of G (which we are), you always end on the G chord.