Banjo Newsletter

September 2003: Those Memories
By Murphy Henry

Those mem-o-ries...of you still haunt me
Every night, when I lay down
I'll always love you
My little darling
Until the day
They lay me down.

(And thank you, Alan O'Bryant, for that fine song.) Okay, so I'm thinking about a bluegrass camp and not a person. Augusta Heritage, nestled in the heart of the West Virginia hills, in the town of Elkins. Here for six days (and nights) bluegrass is played, old friends are hugged, new friends are made (then hugged when you leave), lessons are learned (both musical and otherwise), memories are made, and Augusta Moments are experienced. Thinking to do a bit of mother-daughter bonding, I asked my daughter Casey about some of her Augusta Moments. She said dryly, "All my Augusta Moments pretty much happened while you were sleeping."

Well, most of MY Augusta Moments happened while I was awake-and jamming on the fiddle. I keep telling you that the only way you're going to learn to play is to get out and play, so that's what I was doing. Leading by example!

The first night I jammed with Fletcher Bright, with Casey on guitar. I think this was pretty much a mercy jam on Fletcher's part, since he's such a good fiddler he can't get much of a kick out of playing Golden Slippers and Liberty and Ashokan Farewell, even if he does get to play the twin part. Nevertheless, I appreciated it, and his kind words about my fiddling ("I think you're getting better") gave me a confidence boost.

Tuesday night was a highlight night as Bill Keith sat in on a jam that had started with just my son Chris, on mandolin, and me. Chris had courteously started off the jam by suggesting tunes he knew I could play: Liberty, Redwing, and Down Yonder. Is he a sweet boy, or what? The rest of the core group included Claire Levine as "guitar slave," Carl Yaffey on clawhammer banjo, and a student bass player. So we're jamming away, when all of a sudden Bill Keith shows up with his banjo and, in the politest way, asks if he can join us. Of course! He does not take over the jam, does not suggest a single tune, just sits quietly and plays way-cool backup all over the banjo, and takes great breaks on all the tunes. I floated back to the dorm that night.

Another Augusta Moment occurred during the informal staff jam. (This time I had the banjo out!) There is always some friendly competition between the players, everyone making sure they get to take a break and do a tune. (Or maybe that's just me!) As a type A personality and the oldest of five girls, I always feel a certain responsibility for keeping the jam going, keeping the energy high, and seeing that everyone gets to play even though I have not been officially appointed "keeper of the flame." Naturally, if there is dead air, I feel it incumbent upon myself to sing or suggest a banjo tune.

So, in during one particular lull, I suggested East Virginia Blues in the key of A. This is a well-known, three-chord song with lots of verses that Casey and Chris and I sing. Since there are so many lead instruments at this jam, we often double up on breaks, play harmony, or split breaks. So I kicked the tune off on the banjo, we sang, the four fiddles took a break in harmony, the dobros played, we sang, the mandolins played in harmony, we sang, the other banjos played, we sang, and frankly, it was time to end the song. But Fletcher Bright is over there, waving his fiddle bow at me, mouthing, "Fiddles, fiddles." So I walk up to him and say, pointedly, "Y'all took a break." He blatantly ignores me and the four fiddles launch into yet another break. Well, that gets my Irish up. So, while they're playing, I'm gathering all the banjo players together with my eyes, and when the fiddles finish, I yell, "Banjos, banjos!" and all the banjos jump in. Then when we're finished, the dobros, who have snuck up behind me, come in with a break. Then the mandolins come in. And to top it all off, Gene Libbea jumps in with a bass break! When he's done, I glare around the circle to see if there is anyone else who wants a break, and then I start the last verse, "I'll go back to East Virginia…" It was a total hoot. There's no business like show business.

By Friday afternoon the camp is officially over. But many folks stay over for one last jam, one last dance (there's square and contra dancing every night), or one last opportunity to do a rap version of Uncle Pen. (Which was, I understand, done by Brian Wicklund in the wee hours.) Again I brought out my fiddle and joined Carl Yaffey and a small group of pickers on the large picking porch. We were well into the jam, when I was startled to find that Bill Keith and his banjo had apparated onto the chair next to mine. I was flattered that he came back for a second dose of my fiddling. Since nobody else seemed to mind (and we did ask!), we started playing old-time fiddle tunes: Ragtime Annie, St. Anne's Reel, and Whiskey Before Breakfast. (The stuff I hate to play on the banjo!) The dobro player wanted to play Angelina Baker in A (it's normally in D) and since Bill didn't have a problem with that, neither did I. I was in a slow tune mood and so I suggested Shenandoah Waltz. ("In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia…") As I was finishing the tune, I heard someone applauding loudly. I looked up to see my friend John Rossbach, musician extraordinaire. I knew Rossbach was ribbing me, so I looked right at him and said something crass. And I'll be durned if he didn't march right over and bite me on the arm! You will pay for that, Johnny Boy.

Since I was enjoying Bill's chording so much, with all those "off" chords and passing tones, I asked the group if they would indulge me while I played Danny Boy. They were game. (I think they were too tired to protest.) Bill said, "Do you want me to put in ALL the chords?" I said, "Put in anything you want to. It doesn't matter on the fiddle, since I'm just playing the melody!" Bill's chording was glorious. I was trying to think of another song that had lots of clever chords in it and the only thing I could come up with was In The Garden. We played it and it was lovely, but then folks started putting away their instruments, which is a sure sign that I'd picked a jam-buster. So it goes.

But my finest Augusta Moment came the next morning when Casey came back from breakfast and related this tidbit. On her way to the dining hall she'd passed a couple of guys who were talking. One said, "Last night I got in a jam session with Bill Keith and Murphy. You know, she's a pretty good fiddle player!" Thank you Universe, thank you Bill Keith, thank you Casey, and a great big thank you to all the students who have suffered though my fiddle practice disguised as their banjo lessons.