Banjo Newsletter

August 2004: Kaufman Kamp 2004
By Murphy Henry

I'm just back from a wonderful week teaching at Steve Kaufman's week-long Acoustic Music Kamp. Making her first appearance as a teacher there was my daughter Casey, who was teaching the newbies-folks who had never touched a banjo before. From all I heard, Casey was adored by her students who considered her a patient, kind, and benevolent slave-driver. One woman was wearing Band-Aids on her fingertips by the end of the week!

Each night there is a Kamp Koncert, featuring various teachers, and this year Casey and I performed together. As you know, I've been seriously working on my fiddle playing for the last three years, so I decided I would make my stage debut during our set with Down Yonder. I knew Casey's banjo playing would cover up any gross errors on my part and to add further distraction, Casey and I were going to buck dance. I would dance first while she played, and then she would dance while I played. I knew during my solo fiddling, all eyes would be on her and where the eyes were, I hoped the ears would follow. At the last minute, I chickened out of flying solo, and enlisted Steve Kaufman himself to play guitar-and do the Down Yonder Signature Guitar Run. Both dancing and playing were a huge success. The next day some of my students asked if Casey and I were doing different kinds of dancing. "No," I said. "She brings her knees up higher than you do," they said. "Hunh! When I was her age, I could bring my knees up that high too!"

For our (planned) encore Casey and I had enlisted the help of Cindy Studdard, a great banjo player herself, who was helping with the sound. We had worked up a Scruggs medley: Earls' Breakdown (me), Randy Lynn Rag (Cindy), Flint Hill Special (Casey), and Foggy Mountain Breakdown (all of us). When we were rehearsing, I kicked off Earl's Breakdown, but Casey stopped me saying, "Mom, could we play it a little faster?" "I thought I was playing it fast," I replied tersely. She just rolled her eyes. People say that as you age various things are the first to go, but for me it was speed on the banjo. When we encored with three women playing kick-ass banjo (accompanied by Steve), we got a standing ovation. Sweet!

Later in the week Dennis Caplinger (banjo), Roscoe Morgan (mandolin) and I did a session on Learning to Play by Ear. Since I had the guitar, and Roscoe knows lots of traditional bluegrass songs, I suggested we sing some. Roscoe handled the lead, I sang tenor, and Dennis caught the baritone. We did the standards like On and On and I'm On My Way Back to the Old Home. When we took questions, a woman said she could hear the parts Roscoe and I were singing but she couldn't hear Dennis's part. We all immediately said, "Great! That means he's doing a good job. You're not supposed to be able to hear the baritone." (Which is true.) So on the next song, Little Cabin Home on the Hill, I noticed Dennis moving closer to the woman so she could hear him. Well, what can I say? The devil made me do it. I immediately said to Roscoe in a whisper, "On the next chorus, let's stop singing after the first line." That, of course, would leave Dennis singing the baritone all by himself. Too funny. So we quit singing but kept playing, and there was Dennis, all by his lonesome, singing: "And left me here all aloneā€¦" (Astoundingly appropriate!) Of course afterwards he said, "I quit!" But he was kidding. (I hope he's not into paybacks!)

Now a word about Joel (not his real name). Joel, a forty-something dentist and trumpet player, was in my beginner class. He could play a little, but was new to bluegrass. He almost got my dander up the first day when he asked, rather pointedly I thought, "Why don't bluegrass musicians talk about the music in terms of theory?" Hackles rising, I told him that on my part it was kind of a reverse snobbery: I like pretending I didn't know much about theory. Some part of me likes that hillbilly, "aw-shucks-'tweren't-nothin' " image. (Twisted, I know.) But it's more than that, I said. For me, it's all about communication. Many people I play bluegrass with don't know any theory-and they play great-so to talk about II chords and relative minors is pointless. And arrogant. So we talk about playing in "C chord" (not the Key of C), about "off" chords (like F in the key of G), and if we don't know a chord, we hunt for it by sound. Joel did not seem happy.

So after class, as I was leaving, I saw that Joel had gone across the hall to talk to Dennis. Now Dennis knows ALL about theory. He's been to school for it, and his blackboard is always covered with letters and numbers and arrows. Still he never fails to point out, in his gentle California accent, "You don't have to know this to play bluegrass." So today Dennis has written out the chord progression for Salty Dog: I, VI, II, V, I. Or, in G chord: G, E, A, D, G. Above each letter he has written the three notes that make up each chord. As I come in, he's saying the G-sharp note in the E chord is not in the Key of G, and asking rhetorically why does this chord progression work. (Because when you play the E chord, you are momentarily changing to the Key of A, he said. Amazing!) Joel-who probably had never heard Salty Dog-was enthralled. He then asks Dennis why the relative minor chord (like the E minor in Foggy Mountain Breakdown) is so powerful. Dennis says, "Well, to explain that, I'll have to go all the way back to the Greeks." Joel's face lit up like a kid's at Christmas. Me? I was outta there. Casey was waiting on me to take her back to the motel and I was late.

I realized, with rising guilt, as I walked back to the van through the rain that Casey didn't have a van key. I wondered if perhaps she might be waiting on the porch of one of the buildings. But no. As I neared the van, I could see a big black umbrella propped upright and open on the ground behind the van. Underneath, barely visible, was Casey, hunched up beneath, calmly reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (For the third time.) Does she know how to jerk the heartstrings or what? What a picture! It reminds me of a poem.

Under a toad stool crept a wee Elf,
Out of the rain to shelter herself.

Under the toadstool sound asleep,
Sat a big Dormouse all in a heap.

Trembled the wee Elf, frightened, and yet,
Fearing to fly away, lest she get wet.

To the next shelter-maybe a mile!
Sudden the wee Elf smiled a wee smile,

Tugged till the toadstool toppled in two.
Holding it over her, gayly she flew.

Soon she was home, dry as could be.
Soon woke the Dormouse-"Good gracious me!"

"Where is my toadstool," loud he lamented.
And that's how umbrellas first were invented.

(The Elf and the Dormouse by Oliver Herford)

Buy an umbrella and come to Kaufman Kamp next year!