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A Huge Slumber Party Full Of Banjos By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Sunday, August 5, 2018

Casey and I held our sixth Women’s Banjo Camp this past weekend and, because Kristin Scott Benson was playing in Winchester with the Grascals, we were able to invite her to come talk to our students about all things banjo. After being in the room for only a short while, the first thing Kristin said when she sat down to talk was, “This is like a huge slumber party full of banjos!”

I’d never thought about this camp being like a pajama party (but then, I don’t stay for the late-night jamming when the wine starts flowing) but it definitely has a “girls-night-out” vibe. There is something about the atmosphere we create together that feels containing and accepting and allows students to try things on the banjo that they might not have been brave enough to attempt before. Here the women cheer for your successes and, if you make mistakes, they also cheer for the courage you had to try.

So, we have women singing who have never sung before, women taking solo breaks on banjo for the first time, women who have never performed playing their banjos in front of the group while Casey and I back them up, and women improvising breaks to songs they have never played before. All these accomplishments are greeted with loud applause and sounds of “You go, girl!” and “Good for you!” Sometimes we all get to laughing so hard at something somebody said that we can hardly get ourselves focused back on the banjo. 

But focus on the banjo we did and with amazing success. By the end of the camp the advanced class was playing the movable Boogie Woogie lick (in the keys of G and C), an up-the-neck break to Amazing Grace, and the entire song Theme Time. They also insisted on learning the trashy D lick which uses triplets all the way down the neck that they had heard me stick into John Hardy when I sat in with Tom Adams, David McLaughlin, and Marshall Wilborn at our camp concert. Seeing Tom play a brilliant version of Theme Time was what gave me the idea to teach that tune.

The other class was also having amazing success. They learned their first song in Open C, Blue Ridge Cabin Home, using one roll and three chord positions. They also learned to do basic roly polys in G to several songs: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Bury Me Beneath The Willow, You Are My Sunshine, and This Land is Your Land. Then Joan added an “upgrade” to the D roly poly which she’d learned from Jane in my monthly slow jam. It’s the Scruggs lick with the hammer from 2-3 on the second string that fits perfectly at the end of so many songs, right before the tag lick. (Pretend you know what I’m talking about!) The others picked up that lick from her and started using it, too. It was that kind of weekend—women were stealing licks from each other left and right!

Seeing them all use this lick with ease made it possible for me to go out on a limb. (It was pretty sturdy limb!) I told them that the roly ploy break they used for You Are My Sunshine would also fit Lonesome Road Blues. That was because the chord pattern to both songs was almost the same. (Close enough for bluegrass!) Eyebrows rose skeptically. “Trust me.” I said.  “Everything will be fine. I promise.” [I just finished watching the last season of Sons of Anarchy and Jax Teller says that ALL THE TIME. And nothing is ever fine. But I digress.]

They trusted me and played their break to You Are My Sunshine while I sang and chorded Lonesome Road Blues. It worked! Then we also played that same break to “East Virginia Blues.” That worked, too. I decided not to burden them with “I Don’t Want Your Rambling Letters.”

Now they were fired up. Dawn, who plays in a gospel group, asked, “Can we do roly polys to gospel songs?” Oh, yes. So we did Will The Circle Be Unbroken. And when we changed classes and Casey came in to teach this one, they added I’ll Fly Away to their burgeoning repertoire.

I know that they won’t remember every song we did in the class. But the idea that you can play a banjo break to almost any simple singing song will stick with them. And they know that they now have the tools to do this.

We celebrated the end of camp on Sunday with a lunch of fried fish and cheese grits (aka Georgia ice cream) catered by Bonnie Blue in Winchester. The euphoria in the room—from both students and teachers—was palpable.

I’ll leave you with quotes from three of the women who were at the camp:

From Sue:

“Annie and I love Winchester, we love the camp venue, and we love both of you. But I must say, I love the most that you both are so patient and inclusive of all the banjo levels in camp. We are so lucky to have such great teachers who are so willing to work with adult ‘misfits.’ ” 

From Joan:

“Wow!!! What a fabulous weekend. I learned so much—I am still processing it all. You and Casey really know how to put everything together to give us such a great experience. A true labor of love.


I also so enjoyed meeting the other campers. Everybody was so generous with their ideas on different makes of banjos, learning to play, how to develop confidence, and much more. Such an interesting, diverse group of women. And, what a treat to meet Kristin and hear her play in concert.

Thank you so much for sharing your excellent instruction and your own inspiring banjo playing with us.”

From Cindy:

“Every year I think that camp can't get much better, but it always does! This year was the best yet! 

You and Casey are such special people. I count it an honor and a privilege to know you both and learn from you. Like I said at the beginning of camp, I would not be where I am in my playing (and singing) if it weren't for both of you. I sincerely mean that!

Thanks again for everything! See you at Intermediate Camp in March!

Long live the Trash Lick! Love it!”

Thank you, Cindy and Joan and Sue, and all the women who made this a wonderful weekend.

Future Camps:

Except for the Women’s Banjo Camp, all of our other camps are mixed gender and we welcome both women and men. All camps are in Winchester, Va.

Beginning Banjo Camp: October 26-28. Our prerequisites are here.

Intermediate Banjo Camp: March 2019, date TBA. Prereqs here.

Advanced Banjo Camp: With Tom Adams and Casey Henry, April 2019 (date TBA). Prereqs here.

Come join the fun at these small camps where students cheer for your successes and, if you make mistakes, they also cheer for the courage you had to try. Pajamas optional!

Note: The Roly Polys are taught on our DVD/download Kickstart Your Jamming. Playing in Open C is taught by Casey on Key of C & Beyond: Improvising in C & D. And "Theme Time" is taught on Rawhide and Other Blistering Banjo Favorites.

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