Bill Gokey is an especially fine banjo player, and a great storyteller. I have been privileged to sit with him over the course of four summers and just let him discuss the banjo and play. This way of learning is more in the manner of a banjo guru and chela (student), and I consider the four weeks near him time well spent.
These chronicles of his trials teaching his friend's son to play are interspersed with a liberal dose of his experiences as a professional banjo player. While I do not completely agree with all he says, I present them as written. My point of views are in the effective learning pages and elsewhere on the site.
These articles first appeared in the Banjo Newsletter in the mid 1980's.
Episodes one through five have been on Paul's site for some time. In early 2007, Bill Gokey told me that he had written eight or nine episodes. These were originally intended for Banjo Newsletter but were never published, there or elsewhere.
I am delighted to report that Bill has graciously allowed me to publish them here, for the first time.
Having now spoken and corresponded with Bill, I can say without reservation that Paul was right - Gokey is a great storyteller.
William F. Gokey, January 21, 1942 - June 1, 2013. RIP.
Teaching the Kid - I
by Bill Gokey
I was just coming in from fishing one afternoon last May. My boat was moving slowly under the bridge that crosses the Oswegatchie River in Ogdensburg, New York, when I heard a voice say, "Catchin' any?" The voice had come from a small aluminum boat that was anchored next to the bridge and in the boat were seated two teenage boys with fishing poles in their hands. I pulled close to their boat and announced that I had caught a few, but they just weren't biting good that day.
The boy in the back of the boat looked at me and said, "Say, aren't you Bill Gokey, the five string banjo player?" I said I was and he continued, "You must remember me; my father and you were best friends when you were kids. My father said you played on the Grand Ole Opry and you really know how to play the five-string banjo. I've been waiting since last Christmas for you to come back from Florida 'cause my father said he'd get you to show me some stuff on the banjo. He let me have his banjo and I'm tryin' to learn how to play it."
The teenager twisted up his face, stuck his right arm straight out at me with his fingers wiggling and stated, "I know I can play a banjo; all I have to do is figure out how to make these fingers go and it shouldn't take me long to get that down. Since you and my father are friends, I thought you'd take an hour or two and show me how to play. You will, won't you?"
I looked the kid in the eyes and said, "Son, there's a lot more to playing a five string banjo than just an hour or two of instruction. It just ain't like takin' a fish off that pole in your hand; some people practice hours a day and still can't play diddeley-do, and what's more, they never will. I'll show you some 'stuff' on the banjo but it's up to you to learn them by practicing and I mean practice five or six hours every day. There's one more little thing you have to have and that's a thing called talent. You have to be able to hear the notes and when you hear them, you have to be able to play them ... when you play the notes you have to be able to remember what notes you played and never forget the notes. That's what they call talent, my boy, and talent is something you're born with; you just don't acquire it ... you either got it, or you ain't!"
The kid looked sort of dumfounded and I don't suppose he knew just what to say to me to calm me down 'cause I'd put on quite a little act of indignation. I guess he thought I was mad at him but he just didn't know me. I let him stew for a little while and then said, "Well, since I knew your father and you want to learn, I usually don't do this but stop over to my house after school tomorrow and we'll see what we see."
Thinking back on that first meeting with the kid, I guess he probably thought that I was just a hard nosed, nasty old fart that hated kids and most likely chewed tobacco and swallowed the juice. That's what I would have thought at the "tender" age of sixteen. If the kid thought that he was wrong. Why, I'm just full of compassion for the "little darlings." I think teenagers are joy to behold; an absolute treasure; God love their tiny little hearts; they know everything and they'll prove it by showing you everything they know in about three minutes, especially teenaged banjo players.
Down through the years I've met a lot of musicians, would-be's and just plain "know-it-alls." The "know-it-alls" are the worst of the lot and for the most part the group I come in contact with most frequently is ... the teenaged, "know-it- all," beginner banjo player. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all teenaged beginners are "know-it-alls" but when you run across one of the aforementioned they're always quite a little treat to watch.
It's amazing how they seem to instinctively know the precise moment to make a complete ass of themselves. They always give me the impression that they think they're Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Van Epps, John Williams of the Boston Pops, Jimmie Hendricks, Charlie Byrd, and maybe even John Phillip Sousa, all rolled into one. Now and then you do get one that will listen to what you tell them and after you're all done telling them something, they'll tell you you're wrong. They know more about it than you and they may even be so gracious as to show you how to play it the "right way."
I don't mind showing a kid how to get over the frets that really wants to learn and will practice what you show him but the "know-it-alls," forget it! It just ain't worth the time or effort, as in my experience, they never do know it all and never will. They never seem to learn how to play behind the singer or featured solo instrument. They don't realize their instrument is supposed to blend in with the rest of the instruments and create harmony. This is what we call music. They always want to play the loudest, the fastest, and be the featured "star" in front of the listening audience at all times. These "know- it-alls" make noise, not music and they find it especially difficult, to say the least, seeking out other players that will put up with them, or even play in the same room with them.
Enough! I'm supposed to be telling you about teaching a kid to play the banjo. I guess I'd better get back to the original subject and forget about "know-it-alls." They will always be around, and to me, they're like AIDS; no known cure!
At 3:30 the next afternoon I was sitting in my favorite chair, in my living room. Some yo-yo on the TV was trying to con people out of their money by telling them they could be a millionaire if they just paid a "small" fee for taking his real estate seminar. He was just explaining how one of his followers, after just one week, had made a no-money down, surefire, cool, ten thousand dollars and, for just one phone call and a reasonable fee ...
The doorbell was ringing so I looked out the window and saw that it was pouring rain and the wind was blowing so hard that the flagpole at the school across the street was bending. There on the front porch stood the kid. He looked like a drowned muskrat. He had, what appeared to be a Hefty trash bag under his arm with pieces of string tied around it into the shape of a banjo. "This," I said under my breath, "has got to be the classiest banjo case I've ever seen."
I opened the front door and was greeted with a blast of wind and rain in my face. The kid had his head down, both hands on the banjo neck, with the pot or tone chamber, pressed between his right elbow and his side. The neck was pointed straight at me, like a jousting lance, and before I could step aside, the kid charged at me like a football player. I did get a chance to turn sideways and it's a good thing I did; I could have been skewered like a shish-ka-bob on a banjo neck, right there in my own home. His shoulder hit me square on my right side and I was on my way to the floor before I knew it. Thump, and I was down.
"What in the hell are you trying to do ... kill me? What is this, a mugging or a robbery?" I had never heard of anyone being robbed or mugged at banjo point before, but I guess there's always a first time for everything. Maybe he was so bad at playing the banjo that he had it in mind to knock me down and play me to death.
I was struggling to get up from the floor but he had stepped back to help me, and was standing on the back of my bathrobe. I couldn't get up with him standing on my robe so he grabbed me by both arms and started pulling for all he was worth. I heard a tearing sound coming from in back of me. It was my robe and the kid was so engrossed in getting me to my feet he didn't hear the ripping sound. I'll say one thing for him, he's not lacking in the physical strength department. He dragged me to my feet and as I was coming up, the whole side of my robe was torn from me, leaving half of it on me and the other half on the floor, under his feet.
Ahh, yes, the little darlin's, they're such a joy to the heart ... "What's the matter with you? Are you crazy or something? Do you always attack people with a banjo and tear their clothes from them when you come to their house, or is this just your way of greeting people?" I was really hot under the collar until I looked at the kid's face. He was in a state of utter terror at what he had just accomplished and he was saying, "I didn't mean it ... I didn't mean it!
The thought struck me that what had just happened was really pretty funny and, after all, I wasn't hurt. The bathrobe was an old one I was going to throw away and there was no real damage done.
What if some catastrophe like this had happened to me the first time I had gone to see "Old" Harry Dodds, the first banjo player I ever knew. Harry was in his mid 70's at the time and an attack like the one which had just been mounted on me, most likely would have killed him. If it didn't kill him, I would have been scared to death that he was going to throw me out, never to be talked to again, never to learn anything from, or never to even be looked at again.
I started to laugh, and the more I thought about it the harder I laughed. The kid just stared at me and finally he started to laugh too. We were standing in the doorway; the wind and rain howling, laughing like fools, when I became aware of a third voice: "Did I miss a good one Bill, or have you finally taken to doing drugs like most of the rest of them Nashville musicians?"
The voice was coming from Donnie Woodcock, three-time New York State Fiddle Champion, and an old friend. He often stops by for a coffee and, due to our hysteria, had reached the doorway unnoticed. "You do these shows at your front door very often Bill, 'cause if you do, I can make arrangements to draw a crowd!" Donnie looked me up and down and then looked at the half of my bathrobe lying on the floor. "There's just one thing I'd like to know Bill, and that's what you're planning on doing for an encore ... a little soft shoe ... maybe even a striptease, huh?"
I looked at Donnie and said, very calmly, "Donnie, you just don't recognize real talent when you see it ... we're gettin' up a new act for 'Rock Concert' and we were just rehearsing it when the wind blew the door open. We were right in the middle of the act so we couldn't quit. These are really tough lyrics to get synchronized on and, once we've got it down, I think the kids will really go nuts for it. Of course, you're only seeing the first, rough cut," and you won't recognize it once we get a ten piece orchestra and voices dubbed in ... by the way, what do you think of my stage clothes?
Donnie stood there gawking at me with his mouth open and the kid looked like he couldn't believe what was going down. After a long pause, Donnie addressed my question by saying, "I think you've finally gone over the edge Bill, and I'm not too sure that your young friend here ain't nuts too!" He scratched the side of his head and continued, "You know, they got a place for people that tear their clothes off and run around laughing in the pouring rain and I might just be able to book you in for an extended tour ... it wouldn't pay much but they even give you free room and board."
I asked Donnie to come out to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and he made me promise not to do any more of my 'Rock Concert' act or he'd have to leave. The kid picked up his parcel and followed us out. I put on another robe and poured a cup of coffee for the three of us while telling Donnie what really happened in the hall. He got a bigger laugh out of it than we did! The kid was carefully taking his banjo "case" apart; Donnie was still laughing and I was drinking my coffee.
The kid's banjo was a real sight to behold, but I guess I'll just save the description of that for the next episode.
Text Copyright ©1987 by Bill Gokey. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. Reproduction in any form prohibited.
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 15 Aug 2013 by WF