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Tip Jar Jammers: Celebrating Four Years By Murphy Henry

Tuesday, December 5, 2017 @10:29:12 AM

Note: Peg and Jill will be “coming back but I don’t know when” to quote the old bluegrass song. Stay tuned.

Second note: I’m starting a new Slow Jam. See below.

Tip Jar Jammers: Celebrating Four Years

In November, the Tip Jar Jam celebrated its fourth anniversary. I have learned so much about teaching from this jam that if I could start my teaching career over, I would do things considerably differently.

Oh, I’d still teach by ear, that’s for sure, but I would give much more attention to the “singing songs” and how to construct “generic jam breaks” (which I call “roly poly” breaks) and would worry less about students learning Earl’s versions of Lonesome Road Blues and Fireball Mail.

In fact, I’d probably have two tracks for students. Those who were not interesting in jamming would follow the original Murphy Method Track which consisted primarily of learning tunes, most of them Earl Scruggs standards. From Cripple to Sally Goodwin, I taught them all note by note.

But the Jammers, while they would still start off with the Big Three--Banjo In The Hollow, Boil Them Cabbage Down, and Cripple Creek—would quickly be introduced to vamping and “roly poly” breaks. The roly poly breaks are all about “making G noise in a G chord and making C noise in a C chord” as Banjo Newsletter editor Hub Nitchie once said. But, as I found out, you can’t just say “make some G noise” or “do some G rolls” to a beginning or even an intermediate student. You have to teach them how to make the G noise. And so I did. I found the roly polys. Down through the years I tried many different roll patterns trying to find ONE ROLL that worked. Then I finally realized that the basic forward-backward roll (3215/1231) was the perfect roll. I took out all flourishes: no slide on the third string going forward, no pull-off on the third string coming backward.

Using that one roll in the chords G, C, and the little D7, my Jammers were actually able to takes “vanilla breaks” (as my student George calls them) on the basic singing songs. And, over the years, that one concept has taken the jam in a completely different direction from what I had envisioned.

And though the Jammers think I am a complete control freak in the jam, especially when it comes to the songs I will “allow” in the Jam, it’s really the Jammers themselves who have slowly and patiently, one song at a time, turned this jam into singing jam. And while in the beginning, only a few people sang, usually Bob Van Metre and me, gradually more students wanted to sing, so now almost everybody sings. And while we still play mostly in G and A and C (capoed and uncapoed), we are venturing now into D and E, and sometimes B-flat (with or without wine!) and B.

Here are some of the songs we now do weekly. If you compare this list to my early blogs about the Jam, you will see quite a change.

Dan: who thought he couldn’t sing because that’s what he’d been told as a child, now sings Ride Me High, Factory Girl (thank you Danny Barnes!), Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, You Win Again, Today I Started Loving You Again, Sing Me Back Home, Jesus On The Mainline, Your Love Is Like A Flower, and Angel Band.

Kathy: started out singing I’ll Fly Away and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder and Bury Me Beneath The Willow but has lately upped her game to include Your Cheating Heart, Nine Pound Hammer, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, and Where The Soul Of A Woman Never Dies. (We love to gender flip songs!)

George: who has an amazingly strong, deep voice and who says he’d never sung a solo before, now solos on A Few Old Memories, Pearl (the dog song), Salty Dog, Lay Down Beside Me, Take My Hand Precious Lord, Amazing Grace, Little Mountain Church House, and I Saw the Light.

Kasey Smelser: who has been at the Jam all four years, ages 13-17, sings, in addition to all her original songs, Are You Teasing Me, Mama Tried, I Still Miss Someone, Circle, I Saw The Light, Jolene, Meeting In The Air, and is currently working on That’s How I Got To Memphis.

David: Thanks to his new love for Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, he now sings the words to Old Joe Clark and Boil Them Cabbage Down, which we do old-time style, meaning everybody sings on the chorus and everybody plays on the break. Rowdy, I reckon! He also sings Two Dollar Bill, Mountain Dew, Prayer Bells Of Heaven, I’ll Go Stepping Too, That Was Before I Met You, and my favorite, I Don’t Want A Praying Mantis Love Affair (written by Paul Shelasky). His latest addition is I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels, learned in response to Kathy’s It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.

Laura: “new” to the jam (1.5 years) and usually our only mandolin player, with an enormous vocal range and a gorgeous voice, sings Dark Hollow (one of the few G songs for a woman), Faded Love (in E!), and All I Ever Loved Was You (one of my all-time favorite songs). We tried hard to work in the Hazel and Alice song Won’t You Come And Sing For Me, but it was just a little above our pay grade. Last Thing On My Mind hasn’t quite caught on yet, either.

Gregg: also a new singer, now wows us with Circle, Lonesome Road Blues, Love Please Come Home (which introduced the Jammers to use of the “F” chord in a singing song), Wandering Boy, and his newest, in B, Darling Think Of What You’ve Done.

Chuck: had a fabulous voice from the get-go and his list of songs is so long I’ll only mention the ones he has sung in the Jam which include Roustabout, Crawdad Song, Katy Daley, White Dove, Little Georgia Rose (stolen from William) and recently Tennessee Waltz for which both Gregg and Dan worked up melody break in open C!

William: our second mandolin player, with an amazingly big, classically-trained voice, has been AWOL for a while but when he’s there he sings Roving Gambler, Little Georgia Rose, and How Mountain Girls Can Love.

Betty: our beloved Betty who is having to drop out of the Jam, brought us Paradise (in A, to which she created a break totally on her own) and Baptism Of Jesse Taylor. She also brought some great harmony singing.

Now, propelled by the skills they have learned in the Jam, several Jammers are performing in their own bands. Gregg and Chuck have a group called the Savage Mountain Stillers, George just joined a gospel group, Kasey Smelser gave her own house concert, and Kathy H. and Kristina, former jammers, now have their own group called Handsome Molly. And the Jammers, en masse, have performed several times, the last time being at a local coffeehouse, on their own, without me, ably led by Dano.

And let me remind you that, except for Kasey, most of these folks are comfortably past the age of 50. Most of us would gladly paraphrase the Jimmy Martin song and sing, “I’d like to be 50 again and know what I know now!”

I am so proud of all these dedicated jammers, who now, through their own efforts, with a little help from their friends, can now actually play the banjo. (To borrow a quote from John Hartford.) If you are interested in actually learning to play the banjo and in putting your lesson skills to work, I am starting a new slow jam in January. Right now, as I test the waters, it will only be once a month, but if there is interest, we could do it more often. Check it out below.

And may all your picking be merry and bright! Happy Holidays!

NEW SLOW JAM STARTING: In January, I will be starting and leading a brand-new, once-a-month Slow Jam on Saturday afternoon for Beginning and Intermediate players. It will be limited to 8 people, and we will jam for two hours. Jammers will pay a set fee, and I only need to know that you’ll be there a few days before the jam. No long-term commitment necessary. Exact date will be determined month by month. If you’re interested, you can email me at or send me a private message via Facebook and I will send you more information. If you really want to learn to play the banjo, jamming is the only way to go. And instructor-led jamming is the easiest way to start.


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