Banjo Newsletter

April 2003: Life is Short
By Murphy Henry

You know, if any of my banjo students had done this, they would have SO been put on the rack and yelled at. Among other things I would have told them that they should have spent their time learning something useful. I, as a teacher, should have known better.

What did I do? I spent hours and hours learning an obscure fiddle tune that will almost NEVER get played in a jam session. I was totally obsessed with it! And don't think this doesn't apply to banjo, too. I have been on Joe Page's case about this more times than I can count. First it was New York Chimes. I adore the tune, but with apologies to Tony Trischka, it's not likely to come up in a jam session. At least not Down Here. Then it was Spring Break, which my daughter Casey wrote and put on her CD. Flattering, but pointless. Nobody else (except Red and Chris and I) knows Spring Break. Then it was Hot Burrito Breakdown, Crazy Creek, Shrimp On The Barbie (another Casey tune), Greenwood, Riding The High Iron, and Daddy's Dream. Jam-busters all! (Apologies to the composers!) My theory is simple: Life is short. Learn tunes that you can play in jam sessions.

What was my offending tune? Thanks for asking. Pretty Little Indian. Told you it was obscure. Before I started on it, I couldn't have hummed it if you'd promised me Earl's Granada. It's not only obscure, it's what fiddlers call "crooked"-it has extra beats in it. Or it's a beat or two short in places. Depends on how you hear it. Even now I'm not sure if it's got two three-beat measures or two five-beat measures.

Why did I start on this particular musical adventure? I was looking for a new tune to learn. (Like I didn't have fifty other tunes that desperately needed work.) But, I was tired of playing them, I was B-O-R-E-D, I wanted to play something different.

So I got out a fiddle CD by my friend Fletcher Bright to see if anything caught my eye. Pretty Little Indian jumped right out at me. My brother-in-law, Mike Johnson (Florida banjo player who also made the neck for my Gibson), loves to play Pretty Little Indian on the fiddle. But I confess I've never enjoyed accompanying Mike on banjo or guitar when he played the tune, because I couldn't hear the melody or the chord changes, and never felt sure I was playing it right. So I thought I'd learn Pretty Little Indian myself and then when Mike started playing it, I could grab my fiddle and join him.

I found Fletcher's version too hard to follow, and I didn't have a way to slow the CD down. So I went back to basics-an old-fashioned record album. Curly Ray Cline and His Lonesome Pine Fiddle. I did what I used to do with Earl: I slowed Curly Ray down from 33 rpm to 16. And there I had a fighting chance. Now, I don't know how it is for other people who learn by ear, but for me it's always been "hunt and peck." I can't identify a note just from hearing it. I have to hold that note in my head, then go looking for it until I find a note that sounds the same. It's a tedious process. Occasionally I'll get lucky and "hear" several notes in a row. (Or maybe a whole phrase will come up that I already know.) When I get a new phrase down, I turn off the record and practice that phrase. Then I turn the record back on and play along to see if I got it right. Often as not, I have to do some tweaking-maybe one note is wrong and then I have to hunt for another one. But when I'm working this way, on banjo or fiddle, I am so obsessed that the process is actually FUN. (Caffeine helps, but it's not essential!) I get in that weird head space where there is nothing I want to do more than learn this tune RIGHT NOW. So I stuck with Pretty Little Indian for HOURS.

I finally cobbled together a version of the whole tune and played it numerous times along with the record at half speed. I've got it now, I thought! I'm grooving! Then, I set the record back to regular speed to see if I could play along with that. There was no way! It was "imposserous," as the Cowardly Lion said. Why? It was too fast. So, with my tail between my legs, I went back to playing it slow. Not with Curly Ray, just by myself. Over and over and over.

Many reps later I thought, now I've got it! I'll ask Red to play guitar with me. So Red tolerantly gets out the guitar and tunes it up. We play through the tune a few times slowly, but I feel frustrated. Somehow playing along with the guitar destroys my illusion of how good I was sounding. Of course, it's the illusion that sustains me. It's the illusion that sustains us all while we're learning. Otherwise, how could we bear it?

Now here's the embarrassing part: when I got up the next day and tried to play the tune, I couldn't remember it! Not the first note! I was totally blank! I had to go back and listen to the record to get it back in my head! Sigh...

I spent the next couple of weeks obsessing over the tune. Red copied Curly Ray's version onto a CD so I could listen to it in the car. I listened to it over and over, I played it over and over. And still, that "crooked" timing often eluded me. I would play it wrong and would have to go back to the record. But finally, I got the tune down. It's slow, but I've pretty much got it in my head (I can hum it) and sort of in my fingers.

But here's the sad part: there's nobody to play it with. It's not a song I can bring up in a jam session. Nobody knows it. And it's too hard to teach to people on the spot, even if I could play it and teach it at the same time, which I can't. I've learned a jam-buster! The other thing is, since spending this incredible amount of time and energy learning Pretty Little Indian, I haven't played as much fiddle. Did I burn myself out? I think so-at least temporarily. I just haven't wanted to pick the fiddle up. So, overall, has this been a good thing for my fiddle playing? I think not. I should have listened to my own advice: Life is short. Learn tunes you can play in jam sessions. (Still there's a part of me that can't wait to get together with Mike and play the living hell out of Pretty Little Indian! Look out, bro!)