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And I Did It Without Vomiting! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Yes, I know that's a gross title. I can hear my Mama tut-tutting me from Heaven. (Although, maybe, because it's Heaven, she's saying, "That Murphy! She's always doing something to get attention! What a cutie! Bless her heart!") And she's right, it's all about attention--getting your attention!  

And now that I have it....As many of you know, I lead a weekly jam for my students, and Casey's, in Winchester. This has been a valuable learning experience for all of us--especially me--and I now firmly believe that you can't really learn to play the banjo (or any bluegrass instrument) without being a part of some type of regular jam session. As I've said a million times, learning to play banjo may seem easy, but it's not. And every Wednesday night I am reminded of just how hard it is and how brave these students are to put themselves on the firing line. There is so much more to learning banjo than just playing the tunes. 

Take Dan for instance. Dan is learning to sing. He'd been told his whole life that he couldn't sing, yet now he is SINGING. And he has a lovely voice. He sings with expression. His voice has "personality." You've heard of the "high lonesome sound"? Well, Dan's voice has that  "low lonesome sound." Dan didn't plan on learning to sing, but when we first began working on adding more melody to his improvised breaks, we discovered immediately that you can't add more melody if you don't know what the melody is. So, he had to start singing. Easy to say, harder to accomplish. But he was so willing to try, so gutsy.

I mean, in the the beginning just finding his starting note for a song was a challenge. I'd pick the note on the banjo and say, "Alright, sing this note."  And then I'd be saying, "No, higher. Higher. Too high. Nope, too low. Come up just a little bit. There. There it is. Can you hear it? Can you feel it?" And eventually it got easier.

Our first song was Do Lord (in G), a song he already knew the words to, a song that he already played a break to, and a song with a simple melody that is easy to sing. Many bluegrass songs SEEM simple, but they are, in fact, deceptively hard. It's my job as a teacher to make sure my new-to-bluegrass students stick with the simple songs. From there, Dan went on to Your Love Is Like A Flower, I Still Miss Someone, I'm On My Way Back To The Old Home (still a work in progress because it's pretty hard), and his latest, Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music. 

Dan stumbled on Dim Lights through Pandora. A big fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers, he was listening to all things Burrito when Dim Lights popped up. Dan really liked it and thought it would make a good bluegrass song. Imagine his surprise when he Googled it and found out that Lester and Earl had thought the same thing sixty years ago!

Aside: Flatt and Scruggs recorded Dim Lights in 1952. As Neil Rosenberg writes, "During the postwar years songs about down-home loneliness were superseded in country music by honky-tonk songs dealing with the harsh facts of urban life." From Neil's excellent liner notes to the Time-Life Country & Western Classics: Flatt and Scruggs, 1982.) 

Anyhow, I am inching my way toward explaining the title of this blog. 

At our last jam, I asked Dan to sing one and he chose Your Love Is Like A Flower. He sang it well, and right after he finished Betty said, "You sounded really good, Dan." To which he responded, "And I did it without vomiting." Lord love him, he is blunt. He went on to say that singing in public, even in our small, super-supportive group, terrifies him. (In his "real" life he is a fabulous public speaker.) But then he added that he does it anyhow because "the fun overcomes the fear." I love that!

Kasey Smelser, our resident teenager who just got her learner's permit, also rose to the occasion in that jam. I was singing Will The Circle Be Unbroken in C and, having a tiny bit of a cold, I was wanting to shift down to the lower baritone part on the chorus. I only realized this when I was singing the last lines of the first verse, "when I saw that hearse come rolling/for to carry my mother away." So in that two-beat space before the chorus started, I looked over and said, "Kasey, sing the lead." She was a tiny bit startled but she jumped right in there, "Will the circle, be unbroken..." while I moved to the baritone. I was so proud of her! That was one of those "bluegrass moments" when Kasey and I were on the same wavelength and we "clicked" and the song went smoothly on. Sweet!

One more comment about Kasey. The second song Dan sang was the aforementioned Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music. That's not a song we do a lot in the jam, so I announced the full name of the tune after Dan said he was going to sing Dim Lights. I don't think Kasey had ever heard of the song because what she heard me say was "Them likes thick smoke and loud, loud music." And if you hear it like that, it's pretty bizarre! But maybe not so much in a musical genre that also includes He Went To Sleep And The Hogs Eat Him, Please Papa Don't Whip Little Benny, and Mother's Not Dead, She's Only A-Sleeping.

Casey and I are looking forward to our fifth Beginning Banjo Camp coming up October 23-25 right here in Winchester, Va. This year, for the first time, we are offering a novice banjo class. This is for you folks who have never played banjo before but would like to give it a try. You do have to bring your own banjo! But you don't have to know how to tune it! If you know someone who's been wanting to take the plunge, tell them about our camp. Looking forward to see some of you there!

8 comments on “And I Did It Without Vomiting! By Murphy Henry”

rwat Says:
Tuesday, October 6, 2015 @5:37:08 PM

Excellent, Excellent, keep up the good work. rwat

bulldogpride Says:
Tuesday, October 6, 2015 @5:51:39 PM

Great story! I recently played for the first time in public at the pub that I manage. I'm a beginner at best but when the Western Australian Scottish Fiddle Band rang and booked a table and asked if it was ok if they brought their instruments I couldn't book that table fast enough. On the night I took my banjo to work for the first time and got the standard "paddle faster, I hear banjo" jokes but when the fiddle band asked me to join them people soon shut up. The band was very helpful for an absolute beginner and I thank them for putting up with me. It felt amazing to play with other people for the first time and I made a few mistakes but the mandolin players were very helpful. All I can say is if you get the chance play in public and bury the fear in your music. You will be a better player for the experience.

kjskipper Says:
Tuesday, October 6, 2015 @7:25:41 PM

" can't really learn to play...without being a part of some type of regular jam session". This is the BEST advice for any aspiring musician. There are many learning experiences that can pretty much only be encountered in the spontaneous jam environment. You learn about your instrument, yourself, and about working cooperatively with others. No other experience can equal the jam.

pbeck15 Says:
Wednesday, October 7, 2015 @8:44:00 AM

I recall "Dim Lights etc." being so frequently mis-heard that it became known by the corrupted version, "Dib Lides, Tick Moke." Next life, my award-winning, genre-confounding band will be called "Tick Moke."

Tam_Zeb Says:
Tuesday, October 20, 2015 @10:30:25 AM

Hi Murphy & Casey

I am sure many of your distance learning students (those living outside the USA) would love to have the opportunity to sit-in your weekly Wednesday jam sessions.

I know I certainly would have when I was a beginner.

Is there no record these an make them available on your website.

Sometimes I would look in at Chris Talley Armstrong's Bluegrass Shack Blog page and watch her students. It helped me a lot watching other students going through the same learning stages as myself.

Here is a link to one of those jam sessions

caseyhenry Says:
Tuesday, October 20, 2015 @10:48:13 AM

That's a good idea, Tam, but not technologically feasible right now. Maybe if we had a motivated youngster who came to the jams to arrange it!!


Tam_Zeb Says:
Tuesday, October 20, 2015 @3:19:46 PM

Sound like a plan Casey.

BTW Please excuse my typo's in my earlier post.

davehicks Says:
Thursday, October 22, 2015 @6:08:39 AM

Good story, a long time ago when I was learning (STILL LEARNING) I picked with a feller from Va way at a jam session in Wv. Can't remember his name, he used to camp close to my papaw at festivals, so the aura was good between us. Anyway, he suggested that I learn to sing, that it would help with my backup, it did!

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