Banjo Newsletter

October 2003: Sailing Around The Ocean
By Murphy Henry

I was going to title this column "North To Alaska" but I found out I'd already written a column called "North To Alaska" ten years ago (Sept. 1993). So, casting a net through the backwaters of my mind, I remembered the chorus of Handsome Molly: "Sailing round the ocean, sailing round the sea…" It's perfect, because I've been on a cruise. A week-long cruise to Alaska. With my excellent children Casey and Chris and Red's excellent mother, Renee (rhymes with "beanie"). And Renee's brother, John Hedgecoth and his wife Lynn (also both excellent), who played in a group called the Homestead Act, lo, these many years ago.

John, banjo player extraordinaire who once filled in with Bill Monroe, now works at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville and plays mandocello in Butch Baldassari's Mandolin Ensemble. Ah, the things a banjo player has to do to make a living. Naturally, when it came to choosing an instrument to bring on the cruise, John chose the fiddle. As did I. (And you were SO hoping I was actually going to write about banjo playing. Sorry!) But believe me, as I was standing in those long lines waiting to go through customs and security, I was SO glad that I wasn't carrying twenty pounds of banjo. (Which is what my Stelling weighs in its case.)

The cruise was exciting in many ways. The first night I locked myself in the bathroom. I had gone in there without turning on the light (the switch was outside the door) because I didn't want to wake myself up any more than necessary. And I had closed the door all the way so it wouldn't bang around as the ship moved and wake up Casey and Chris who were sharing the cabin with me. But when I tried to get out, I couldn't find the handle, which was recessed into the door. Panic set in! I was trapped! There was no way out! Arrrrgh! I can't breathe! "Chris, Chris!" I shouted, banging on the door. "Let me out! I can't get out!" Chris was out of bed like a rifle shot. He opened the door. "What's wrong?" he asked, in a slight panic himself. "Sorry," I said, mortified. "I went in without turning on the light…" Yadda, yadda, yadda, words, words, words. Luckily I was able to get back to sleep. Middle age is so much fun.

And I have to tell you about the salt. On the previous cruise, a few of the passengers had come down with a stomach virus. Well, the whole ship had been thoroughly disinfected before we got on, but salt and pepper shakers were not allowed on the tables in the dining room. So any time you wanted salt (or pepper), your server had to shake it onto the food. Well, I'm from Georgia, and am totally unreconstructed as far as the use of salt goes: I like my salt! And since the poor servers, bless their hearts, never put enough on, I was forced to ask them to pour out some salt on a plate so I could salt my own food. (You can take a girl from the country…) Finally, on the third day, we stopped in Juneau, and when John and Casey and I got back from our five mile hike, I went into a store and bought my own shaker of salt. ( I reluctantly rejected the much easier idea-which did come to mind-of "borrowing" a salt shaker from the tavern we visited after the hike. You can take a girl from the Baptist Church…) With Satan firmly behind me, I enjoyed my salty food.

But before we even got on the boat, while we were at a quaint hotel in Seattle, we had an Exciting Thing Happen. We met Bob from Sesame Street! I wasn't quite sure it was him at first but the picture of Big Bird on his backpack was a dead giveaway. I walked over and boldly asked, "Aren't you Bob, from Sesame Street?" Yes, he was. "I just wanted to say hi. My kids loved you and the show." I didn't tell him there was many a morning that Red and I, after a late-night gig, had tried to catch an extra hour of sleep by sticking a two-year-old Casey in front of Sesame Street with a raw hotdog and a banana for her breakfast.

On the last night of the cruise, Casey and Chris and I signed up for a pub tour in Victoria, British Columbia. We got on a big bus and were driven to three distinctly different watering holes where we were given small samples of their wares. At our last stop Chris mentioned to his tablemates that he and Casey and I played in a bluegrass band together. "Oh, sing something!" they gushed. So Chris leaned over to me and said, "They want us to sing something. How about East Virginia Blues?" Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, maybe it was the pale ale, but I didn't need him to ask twice . "Hmmmmmm-to get us on pitch-I was born in East Virginia, North Carolina I did go…" We sang all seven verses and got a large round of applause. Then it was back to the ship where we went immediately to Renee's room and sang it again for her and John and Lynn. But this time we only did three verses.

But you want to know about the picking. Well, it was mostly fiddle tunes. Surprise! When John and I played, with Casey on banjo, John suggested that we go around and each suggest a tune. Well, that seemed fair especially since I wanted to take Complete Control and suggest all the tunes. As it turned out, Casey didn't want to suggest any tunes, so John and I split the honors. Aside from the "core" tunes (Liberty, Soldier's Joy, Turkey in the Straw, Old Joe Clark), he and I have decidedly different tastes. So it was good for both of us to try to play out of our comfort zones. Here's a partial list: Waiting On The Robert E. Lee (me), Going Up Caney (John), Whiskey Before Breakfast (me), Texas Gales (John), Pretty Little Indian (me), Big Mon (John), Leatherbritches (me), Jerusalem Ridge (John), Kiss Me Waltz (me), Katy Hill (John), Over The Waves (me). I would have so hated that jam session if I'd been playing banjo. Every once in a while, I would feel sorry for Casey so I would suggest a banjo tune like Fireball Mail, that I could play on the fiddle.

And how could we play music on a cruise ship without thinking of the Titanic? Really and truly. I mentioned to John and Casey that the most poignant part of that movie to me was when the band decided to get out their instruments and play while the ship went down. That is so brave and heartbreaking all at the same time. I thought about playing Nearer My God To Thee, but somehow it seemed almost sacrilegious, as well as like waving a red flag at the gods. I just said, "Well, if the ship goes down, at least we're practiced up." Fortunately it didn't, and I lived to write yet another BNL column. Next month I promise: something about banjos!