Banjo Newsletter

August 2005: Banjo Camps: In My Happy Place
By Murphy Henry

I'm sitting in the audience at Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Music Camp in Maryville, Tenn., watching Dennis Caplinger, Don Stiernberg, and Steve perform. Dennis has just played a jazzy rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the fiddle with his eyes closed through most of it, and as he's getting out his banjo for the next number Steve turns to the audience and says, "Did you notice Dennis's face on that last song? He was in his happy place."

I'd never heard that expression before, but during the week it occurred to me that I was in my happy place--teaching banjo at a camp! You sit down all day, you play your banjo a lot, people hang on your every word and tell you how great you are, and you get paid for it! Plus, there's the additional appeal of always being the best banjo player in the room! And coming from a Southern Baptist background, I find it extremely satisfying to be able to preach the gospel of learning to play by ear. (Even if I often feel like John the Baptist, "a voice crying in the wilderness"!) Sometimes I wonder if I should offer an alter call, sing Just As I Am, and shake hands with people who come forward vowing to renounce tab!

Kaufman Kamp was the third camp I'd taught at in a month, and each camp was different and delightful in its own way. First there was Ken Perlman's Mid-West Banjo Camp in Lansing, Michigan, home of Elderly Instruments. This weekend event was held in a huge dorm on the campus of Michigan State University. I walked into the building on Friday afternoon and didn't set foot outside until Sunday afternoon when I left to fly home. Everything took place in that one location: sleeping, eating, classes, performances, jamming, and the all-important camp store. (Next year's dates: June 2-4, 2006. See you there!)

Then it was out to the Left Coast for the California Bluegrass Association's pre-festival camp for all instruments. Here, after only three days, my small class of beginning students felt so confident about the newly-learned Banjo in the Hollow that we decided to join the student concert and play it on stage. Calling ourselves Safety in Numbers, we "out done" ourselves with our performance and were practically giddy afterwards.

Finally, it was on to Kaufman Kamp which gets the most press because it's the last one I did. Here students rotate between the teachers, so I taught players at all levels. Although I love to teach beginners (complete control!), I thoroughly enjoyed this year's crop of Advanced Students which included a number of teenage boys. Of course, most of them are still in the fast and furious stage and are prone to playing an over-abundance (in my opinion) of melodic and jazz licks-which I told them I did not want to hear in my class. In here, I said, we were going to pick like Earl. A couple of them still tried to sneak melodic licks into their breaks, but after I stopped them and told them to start over and make it sound Scruggsier, they good naturedly got the picture. We started with Foggy Mountain Breakdown, with everybody playing together (a glorious cacophony!) and then solo, followed by its predecessor Bluegrass Breakdown, and then moved on to Rawhide. In our second session, stealing tricks from Bill Evans, I taught them Theme Time and then Dixie Breakdown. They soaked it up like sponges, and perhaps I rescued a few of the perishing.

The youngest player in the class was nine-year-old Gary Jackson who pretty much kept up like a champ. But he did get lost at one point, which led to an act of kindness that I felt privileged to witness. Bennett Sullivan, one the finest of the teenage players in the class, saw that Gary was having trouble with the backup chords to one song and took some time to lean over and help straighten him out. To me, that was incredibly moving.

This year I was leading the Banjo Orchestra, trying to fill the big shoes of last year's conductor, Jens Kruger, who had taught the group his arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner. Deciding to stay on more familiar turf, I had concocted a medley of Big Panther Creek Waltz (a major to minor tune composed by my daughter Casey based loosely on Banjo in the Hollow), the ubiquitous Banjo in the Hollow itself, Cripple Creek, and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Bennett was a part of the orchestra, as was Gary. As we worked though the songs, it occurred to me that since Bennett was the only teenager to participate, he should be rewarded with a solo on Foggy Mountain Breakdown. You know how they do in orchestras, somebody stands up and takes a solo? So I asked him, on the spot, if he would do that, and he immediately replied, "Yes, but could we make it a duet?" He wanted to include Gary. Such a big heart! As we say in the South, this boy is sure to Go Far.

I was also excited to reconnect with Joel Daves, an old picking buddy of Red's that I hadn't seen for three decades. Through the years, I'd heard so much about Joel that he had attained almost mythological proportion. Joel's guitar, a Martin D-18, attracted major attention at the camp. Purchased new in 1948, the aged six-string looks like it has been "rode hard and put up wet," which it has, including the time it was used as a boat paddle. Although obviously a Martin, at some point the signature headstock decal had been sanded off when it was refinished. (No one thought twice about refinishing a guitar back then.)

Now, some of you may be familiar with an inexpensive brand of guitar called "Stella." Sometime in the late sixties at a picking event in Florida, Joel had wandered off to take a little nap under a palmetto tree, leaving his Martin unattended. In his absence, his friend Ellis Padgett (who played bass on some of the first Circle album) thoughtfully took out his pocketknife and carved the word "Steller"-which is Southern for "Stella"--in the headstock. It was still there. I had heard this story from Red but had never seen the guitar. And here it was, the word made flesh, so to speak.

Our last class at Kauf Kamp was a wrap-up that focused on individual style and included the instructors on all the instruments. After we each talked about how we arrived at our particular styles, mandolin instructor Emory Lester said he was curious about what we would actually be listening to on our way home and asked us to tell. Honestly compelled me to say that I would be listening, not to music, but to The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice, an audio book. And I did, most of the way. But about two hours away from the house, I made a pit stop and walked back to the car with cassettes (they were cheap!) by the Drifters (Under the Boardwalk) and Sam Cooke (Bring It On Home to Me) and a CD of Conway Twitty (Hello, Darling). Listening to these the rest of the way home, I realized that this is what I had missed at all the camps. There was lots and lots of great picking, but I didn't get to hear much singing. And that, too, is where I find my happy place.