Banjo Newsletter

May 2004: We're Still Jamming
By Murphy Henry

I trust you are all now listening to your copies of The Essential Earl Scruggs (which I wrote about last month). Isn't it magnificent?

Here's a response I got from my February column which started off with a mention of Turpen's Drug Store in my old hometown of Clarkesville, Ga. This is from Mark Fry, out in California (where Molly done as she please). Mark is actually FROM Clarkesville. (God knows what he is doing so far away from home. He'll come back. I mean, I moved away, but I only went to Virginia.) Mark is a new banjo player (Welcome, to the fold, Mark-your shepherd's name is Earl…) who has been getting BNL for only a couple of months now, so he still finds my columns a treat. In fact he says, "It's always a treat to read your article, especially when you mention Clarkesville. Turpen's Drug Store. He-[that would be L.R. Turpen who ran the store with his pharmacist brother Ed]-should've declared us as dependents on his taxes, we stayed there so much! He used to have a little jewelry [pronounced 'jury'] display off to one side. I can't tell you how many five-dollar diamond rings I bought there for girlfriends. (In the sixth grade.)" Thanks for sharing, Mark!

I've been telling you about this new jam session I started with my intermediate students. (They are currently unnamed, waiting patiently for me to come up with something as catchy as the Misfits. Ideas welcome. I'm thinking Murphy's Mafia, in honor of The Sopranos.) I was so good for so long, sitting there patiently playing rhythm guitar, but I finally talked myself into playing fiddle with them. (No surprise there other than it took so long!) Here are my reasons (read:rationalizations): They are strong enough now with their rhythm not to need me on guitar (two guitars and a bass); the lead instruments need to practice coming in after a fiddle (pure sophistry); Patty (the fiddler) needs to hear more live fiddle playing (right); when some of them are absent and there's only been one lead instrument, the fiddle provides an opportunity for swapping breaks (so why not play the banjo?); the fiddle provides a second lead instrument when somebody wants to play a tune no one else plays lead on (so why not play the banjo?). So you can see what the real reason is…

This struggle to grow older gracefully brings about some surprising twists. During the jam session, I have actually let one of the students plug in. In fact, I encouraged it! No, not one of the banjo players! But Annie, the 16-year-old lead guitar player, was having trouble being heard in the group even though we all were playing as quietly as we could. So we had this acoustic guitar in the shop that has a place to plug in. And we had a little amp. So I suggested to Annie that she try it, and she was game. After a little fooling around with the levels, we finally decided that she should turn the volume up when she took her break (with a sliding control on the guitar) and turn it back down when she played rhythm. Voila! Now we can hear Annie, Annie can hear Annie, and she's picking better.

The point of the jam session is to have the students become comfortable playing a small body of songs really well. (And to provide a place for Bob Van Metre to learn to play bass.) This will give them a solid foundation to advance even further. Before the jam, all of them had gotten to a place where they "knew" lots of tunes and could more or less play them. Yet the tunes weren't ingrained in that absolutely automatic way they have to be before you can successfully play them in a jam session. So it seemed pointless to me to keep teaching them tune after tune (even by ear) when there was so much work to do on the tunes they already knew. Hence, the jam session. And they are all much better players than they were six months ago. No, progress has not been by leaps and bounds, but it's been slow and steady, much like that of the good old tortoise who finally won the race.

Many intermediate students who come to camps and workshops have this same problem-they "know" a lot of tunes, but when it comes to playing them, fergedaboutit (as Tony Soprano would say if he was from Georgia). And it's not their "fault." It's just that you can't learn to play by sitting at home playing. Sorry. Learning to actually play requires actually playing in a group. I've said it a thousand times.

So, now we are getting pretty good on our core tunes: Lonesome Road Blues, John Hardy, Bury Me Beneath the Willow (which Greg sings), Old Joe Clark, Salt Creek. These are tunes everybody can take a break on, including Annie on guitar. Then there are a few tunes that Patty plays on fiddle that the banjo players, J.P. and Jean, can play: Down Yonder, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, and Amazing Grace. Our latest accomplishment has been to have everyone-even Bob-learn to play the echo on that six-note run in the middle of Down Yonder: dah-dee-dah-dah-duh-dah. (Don't you hate it when someone puts "dah-dee-dahs" in to represent notes? How are you supposed to know what it sounds like?) And Greg's got some other singing songs, Slewfoot, Prayer Bells Of Heaven, which his wife Jean can play on banjo. Another thing we've been learning to do on songs like I Saw the Light and I'll Fly Away is to have split breaks. One person plays the verse, and then another comes in on the chorus. As we found out last week, it's not as easy as it sounds! And Bob has demanded that I show him a bass run. So at our next session, I'll show him how to put one in Lonesome Road Blues. The key here is that he's been playing the song for months, so he's got it ingrained in his head.

And if I could close with just one word about the fiddle…My sister Claire celebrated her birthday recently and all five of us Hicks Sisters were there. We were actually included on the invitation: "The Hicks Sisters will play bluegrass music." That is my kind of party. With Casey on banjo, I was able to fiddle to my heart's content. At one point Claire, who is a great buck dancer (that's Georgia for clogging), wanted to dance so I gave 'em a little Down Yonder, with the help of my brother-in-law Mike Johnson. That turned out so well, that later on we gave 'em a little Soldier's Joy. They really "hoed her down" as they say here in the Valley.

And speaking of birthdays, I'd like to say Happy Birthday to my dad, who will be 79 on May 18. I was born on his 27th birthday, which has always been a source of great satisfaction to me. (You do the math!) See you at Kaufman Kamp or Augusta Heritage!