Banjo Newsletter

September 2004: Augusta Heritage 2004: Shouting On The Hills
By Murphy Henry

It was Friday afternoon, the end of another Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Week in Elkins, W. Va., and I was loading the van to head home. My son Chris (mandolin teacher) and Don Shean (banjo) were helping me. Don asked if I'd like to swap instructional material, something he'd already done with the other banjo teachers. His offer was this huge book of banjo tabs he'd recently published. There were a few mistakes in the book, he said, which he'd be glad to correct. I'd love to trade you, I said. Take one of my beginning banjo DVDs. But don't worry about correcting the mistakes. I made another trip to the van, and when I came back, Don had the book open to John Henry. He pointed to a spot and said, "Now, when you're working through this, you wanna make sure that you play the second fret of the first string, not the open first like it's written." He was working hard to keep his tongue out of his cheek and appear sincere, and I was working just as hard to make him think I was buying it. I put on my gullible face, opened my eyes real wide, and nodded my head at what he was saying. I even asked a few questions about the timing. All with the utmost seriousness. Then, leaving the book in Don's hands, I made another trip to the van. When I came back, I pulled a pen out of my pocketbook and asked Don to make that correction in ink so I wouldn't forget it. Don's expression was utter confusion: Bless her dumb little heart! Doesn't she realize I was kidding her? Isn't she sweet to have me make a correction in a book I know she's not gonna use?" And just as he reached for the pen I said, "Gotcha!" And he realized he'd been had. Chris said companionably, "She does that to me all the time." With good grace Don admitted he'd been "got." He was still shaking his head when I left.

This year coordinator Paul Kovac had assembled his usual crack team of instructors which included Ira Gitlin and Ron Stewart on beginning and advanced banjo. In addition to teaching the advanced beginners, I led the slow jams. I really enjoy doing that because it gives me a chance to sing all the verses to lots of three-chord songs. This year's favorite was My Gal's A Corker, She's a New Yorker. I'd sung that as a kid growing up-probably learned it at some camp-and had had it "legitimized" when I heard Leroy Troy perform it. It's a great way to teach the "two" (II) chord, because in the key of C it uses the chords C (I), D (II), and G (V). And the words are funny: "She's got a pair of hips, just like two battleships/Oh, Lord, that's where my money goes." And so on with various body parts. I also used Old Slewfoot (in G) when I realized it had only two chords in the verse (G and C) and two in the chorus (G and D). One day when I was nattering on as folks adjusted their capos, I said, "This is the only song in bluegrass that uses the word 'bottom' in it. 'Shoot him in the bottom just to listen to him yell.' " Quick as a wink, Jerry, one of the bass players, said, "Well, there is that song Londonderry Aire." It took me a second to get the joke and hear the title as London Derriere. (Which many of us know as Danny Boy.) Touché, Jerry.

Before the week started, I had already tapped my friend Fletcher Bright, fiddle instructor, to jam some with me. (A "mercy jam" I call it.) In July I'd celebrated three years of intense fiddle playing. (Or as intense as I can get given the various distractions life offers: Should I practice fiddle or work on my book? Should I practice fiddle or go to the gym? Should I practice fiddle or pick blackberries with my dad? The distractions often win.) So Sunday night, I almost had Fletcher cornered. We were actually taking our fiddles out of the cases on the big jamming porch when Fletcher heard the strains of Cluck Old Hen coming from the clawhammer banjo of a young teenage girl who was wearing hip-hugger pants and a cropped top. He was gone. I, who have not yet developed a liking for modal tunes, can't play Cluck Old Hen, and haven't worn hip-huggers since I developed Dunlop Disease (my belly's done lopped over the top of my britches), pouted my way over to my real friends where we played some non-modal fiddle standards for a couple of hours. Fletcher finally joined us and had to endure some severe ragging from me, which he absorbed with his usual aplomb-that is to say, it rolled off his back. I was in the middle of suggesting Boil Them Cabbage Down and playing an out-of-tune version, when I heard a voice in the dark say, "Is that the Murphy Method?" "No," I replied immediately, "That's the Fletcher Bright method." Then I heard the voice say, "Aren't you gonna give your son a hug?" and I realized the voice belonged to Christopher who had just rolled in. With his new short haircut, I hadn't recognized him in the dark. I felt pretty embarrassed about that, but Chris was forgiving, as always, and we gave each other bear hugs. It had been over two months since I'd seen him, which was way too long.

Each day, after lunch, Paul held "Bluegrass Roundup" where he made announcements and asked instructors to do something witty or unusual. Chris Jones came up with "The Top Ten Signs Your Band Is About To Break Up." He prefaced his remarks by saying the biggest sign your band is going to break up is the fact that you just formed a band. Other signs included: You all just went in together and bought a bus. The banjo and bass player have become romantically involved. The fiddle player who had been romantically involved with the banjo player is now getting close to the guitar player. The mandolin player, who isn't romantically involved with anyone, has joined a cult. You ask the lead singer if the song starts with a turnaround or a full break and the reply is "Who wants to know?" And finally, the #1 sign your band is about to break up: You just had a band photo taken. (Which Chris's band just did. Job ops opening soon at

Friday's ride home was full of Coke (as in Coca-Cola) and chocolate as I struggled to stay awake after my one bout of late night picking. I listened to the CD of the staff concert and was extremely pleased with the harmony singing Chris and I did on Old Country Church, Midnight on the Stormy Deep, and the grand finale Shouting on the Hills of Glory. Augusta was over for another year. As Shouting on the Hills says, "Now's the time to make your preparations, so stop and make your reservations…" See you next year!