Banjo Newsletter

December 2004: 'Tis The Season
By Murphy Henry

I've not written anything about fiddles for a long time, but I can't hold back any longer. I've just got to tell you about my Christmas fiddlers. 'Tis the season, you know.

But first, a word about how much I like teaching. Whether it's banjo, guitar, mandolin, or fiddle, teaching allows me to sit down while I work. Can't beat that. I can also eat while I work (if I need to) and drink while I work (if I want to). I usually drink bottled water although I have been known to upend a celebratory beverage if the occasion calls for it--such as when my long-time West Virginia bass-playing student and friend Bob Van Metre brings one in. Bob and I have such a comfortably cantankerous relationship that one of my new students wanted to know if we were married to each other. "Just shoot me," was Bob's comment. "Ditto," was mine.

Teaching also allows me to wear comfortable clothes, usually blue jeans and tennis shoes. Years ago, when I was younger, in a time I like to refer to as B.C. (Before Cellulite), I occasionally wore shorts to work. But after teaching at many banjo camps and seeing other banjo players sitting in front of me with shorts on, and noticing how far one could see up the legs of the shorts if one were inclined to look (not me!), I decided to stop wearing shorts.

But the best thing about teaching has always been that it keeps an instrument in my hands for a certain number of hours a day. I mean, I don't really like to practice, And even when I call my practice "playing," I can't always find the time. (Okay! Don't make the time!) So I've found a way to get paid for practicing: I teach. Such a deal.

As the oldest of five girls, when I get interested in something musically, I usually get my sisters involved. So lately, my youngest sister Laurie and I have been playing Christmas carols on our fiddles. Raised in the same Baptist church, we hear the same hymnbook arrangements in our heads. I play the lead , Laurie plays the harmony. All by ear, of course. At first we were just hunting and pecking, but now we are starting to sound pretty decent. (At least the cat has quit running away!) We stick to the simple tunes, Silent Night, Joy To The World, Jingle Bells, eschewing the harder stuff like We Three Kings of Orient Are and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.

You may be asking why am I not talking about playing these tunes on the banjo. Well, mainly because I can't play them on the banjo. Okay, I can play Jingle Bells, do a half-fast version of Joy to the World, and hack at Silent Night. But what I can't figure out is all those augmented, diminished, and suspended chords that make Christmas carols so beautiful.

Other banjo players do this kind of thing quite well. Craig Smith has a killer solo version (and hidden cut) of Sleigh Ride on Laurie and Tom's CD, Winter's Grace. Tony Trischka has done a wonderful Christmas CD, Glory Shone Around, with lots of hard tunes including It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Angels We Have Heard on High, O Come All Ye Faithful (Scruggs style), Deck the Halls, and a band arrangement of Sleigh Ride, with singing. And while I love to listen to these, I feel no compulsion to play them myself.

But I love to play them on the fiddle. And since my real sisters are not around, I've found some surrogate sisters: Patty, Sandy, Robyn, who are all my students, and Charlotte, who cuts my hair. All adults, all beginning fiddlers. Although I can't really call Sandy a beginner because she played the violin in high school where she was sternly discouraged from doing anything by ear. But Sandy has an incredible ear. If she can hear it, she can play it--in several keys. At our first lesson (at which I was prepared to show her Mary Had A Little Lamb), she blew me away by playing You Are My Sunshine, Amazing Grace, My Old Kentucky Home, and Way Down Upon the Suwannee River in several different keys! She'd never played them before. So I sent her home with a Chubby Wise CD and she came back the next week having learned Bonaparte's Retreat and I Can't Stop Loving You, totally new songs to her. And she's got great technique and intonation from her violin-playing days. Someone who heard her playing at her lesson later told me, "She'll be better than you before long." Oh, great. Something else to worry about.

So the Surrogate Sisters have been getting together for about two months and now have five songs in our repertoire, all learned by ear: Silent Night, Joy to the World, and Good King Wenceslas, which I call Gentle Mary Laid Her Child (same melody) because I can't pronounce "Wenceslas." (Well, I can pronounce it, it's just when I pronounce it like I learned it in Georgia, "Wench-a-lus," it makes Red and Casey flinch.) We also do Jingle Bells, and Little Drummer Boy, which we call Little Drummer Girl. We're working on our finale, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We figure with a short program like that we can hit the nursing homes, a few Christmas parties, and the local coffee shop, the Daily Grind. I'm already thinking DVD…

And just to show you that the Universe is in my court on this (and to add something else about banjos!), I just finished talking to Bill Keith on the phone. I was picking his brain about Bessie Lee Mauldin, the bass player when Bill Keith was in Bill Monroe's band. (For my book about women in bluegrass.) Anyhow, I was asking Bill if he was going to be teaching at the Midwest Banjo Camp in Lansing, Michigan, that Ken Perlman is putting together (June 3-5). He said, yes, he was, and I told him I'd be there too, and was looking forward to seeing him. And you know what he said? He said-I swear he did-"Bring your fiddle!" He said he'd enjoyed playing with me at Augusta Heritage last summer. I am on cloud nine and don't anybody tell me to get off of my cloud! So, I'll be checking the banjo and toting the fiddle.

And since turn about is fair play, I urge you all to buy the recently released CD Bill Monroe: Live at Mechanics Hall, recorded in November 1963, which features Bill Keith's mind-boggling banjo playing, especially on Devil's Dream and Rawhide. As Bill Keith pointed out, when he recorded Devil's Dream with Monroe, he'd only been in the band a few weeks so the group hadn't really come together. But by November, the group, with Del McCoury on guitar, was cooking. I suspect Bill Keith's innovative playing challenged Monroe and sparked him to new heights in his own playing. Both Bills are hot, hot, hot! And Monroe's duet with Bea Lilly on What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul and Monroe's comments before and after are priceless.

And now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go practice my fiddle!