Teaching the Kid - II
by Bill Gokey
Like I said in the first episode, the kid's banjo was a rare sight to put an eyeball on. It was a 5-string allright, but it only had four strings on it. The kid said he had broken the first string about a week before and he didn't know where to get one. Donnie Woodcock made an observation about the missing string by saying, "Well, you've got four strings on that gourd and that's all I have on my fiddle ... I won the New York Fiddlers' Championship so many times that they had to retire me and give me a special trophy ... only used four strings to do it too ... got the trophy out to the house anytime you'd care to see it." All the time Donnie was saying this he was looking at me out of the comer of his eye and winking. (He must have had something in his eye.)
I couldn't resist the temptation; it was too much. I had to do it. "Ya know kid, I once knew a music teacher in Nashville, he worked at the biggest music store there, name of the place was Hewgley's. You know, they only got the best there in Nashville ... don't put up with no amateurs ... first class all the way." I shot Donnie a glance and tipped my head sideways a couple of times towards the kid while continuing, "That music teacher, he taught guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle. Hell kid, he could play anything with strings on it. He told me the only way to teach somebody how to play a stringed instrument was to show 'em one string at a time." I looked across the kitchen table at Donnie and a sly little smile was starting to form on his face; he knew me well enough to tell I was going to lay down a line of outlandish bull on the kid. Donnie also knew that he would be called on to substantiate my little tale by a nod of his head - an "oh yeah," or maybe I might even go so far as to call on him for a testimonial by swearing it was the Gospel Truth. It was a situation where one of us lies and the other swears to it. Not that we had done this sort of thing before, but there wasn't a doubt in my mind that Donnie would come through like a trooper for me.
I used to play banjo for Mac Wiseman quite a bit when I was younger, and Mac is right in his glory when he's pulling one on a kid. He absolutely loves to get one over on you and he'll do just about anything to accomplish his goal. I've seen Mac pull a lot of jokes down through the years; most of them were funny, but I've never seen Mac get malicious, mean or deliberately try to hurt someone. He simply likes a good joke and he'd almost rather put someone on than eat. If you remember how big Mac used to be, it's almost unbelievable that he'd rather pull a joke than eat!
One of Mac's favorite put-ons was what I call the "Tell A Bad Joke And Make The Kid Laugh Bit." The routine requires at least two other people, besides Mac, that are in on it, and at least one person that ain't in on it. The following is a true account of how it works:
I was living at Mom Upchurch's in Nashville about 25 years ago and Mac called me to go on a date in Florida. I asked Mac who else was going and he said he had Scotty Stoneman on fiddle, Benny Williams on bass (how they get base out of bass I'll never know; I always thought a bass was a fish that Stringbean and I used to catch in Dale Hollow), me on ban- jo, and he needed one more musician to fill the contract. Mac asked me if I knew any steel players that we could get to go and I suggested he take a new kid that played the Dobro. I told Mac that I had met the Dobro player in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge; we had played together in a jam session and I knew he could cut Mac's music. Mac said to get him and he would pick us up the next day at Mom's. (The identity of the Dobro player will remain unknown as the following account may tend to embarrass him.)
Mac picked us up in his Pontiac right on time at Mom's and we headed out of Nashville for Florida. Mac was driving the car, Scotty Stoneman was riding shotgun in front, Benny Williams, myself and the Dobro player sat in the back, with the Dobro player in the middle. This was the Dobro player's first job with Mac and he wanted to make a good impression. I had set him up for the bad joke routine by telling him, before Mac picked us up, that Mac liked to tell jokes and the best way to make Mac like him was to tell good jokes and be sure to laugh at Mac's jokes. Mac had set Benny and Scotty up for the routine before he picked us up at Mom's.
Benny told a funny joke and everyone laughed; I tried a new one and everyone laughed; the Dobro player told a real funny one that we had never heard - nobody laughed. We all just stared at him and Mac asked him when he was going to tell the punch line. The car roared on into the night and finally Mac told one. He said a bunch of dribble that, in the wildest imagination, could not be construed in any was as being funny. Mac turned around and gave us a wink at the end of his unhumorous oration, and we all laughed and laughed and laughed. I gave the kid Dobro player a dig in the ribs, and whispered in his ear, "You'd better laugh and laugh loud so Mac can hear you. Remember what I told you about laughing at Mac's jokes; you gotta laugh at every one or he won't like you."
The Dobro player started to laugh real loud and Mac told another one of his "dishwasher stories." This time the Dobro player was the first to start laughing; he didn't even wait until Mac finished. Scotty, Benny and I laughed a little but we didn't get carried away like the kid. He was really carrying on. It's pretty hard to laugh at something that isn't funny, even though what we were doing to the kid was funny. Mac told a couple more and each time the kid laughed louder and louder. Now it was time for the coup de gras. Mac gave us the signal and we knew what was coming next.
Mac started to tell one of the "classic" jokes that everyone finds funny. You can't help but laugh at this one no matter how droll your sense of humor may be. Mac took his time and really did a good job on the joke, taking a full five minutes to lay it out. I had to almost bite my tongue to keep from laughing while Mac told it. When he came to the punch line the kid started laughing so loud that he was bellowing. None of us even cracked a smile.
We all turned and looked at him like he was nuts, but he kept right on laughing. Mac pulled the car off the road and stopped. The kid was still bellowing. Mac turned his head around, faced the kid and said, "Is there something wrong with you, son? You havin' an epileptic seizure or something?"
The kid stopped his laughing and replied with a straight face, "That last joke you told was the funniest thing I've ever heard and nobody's even so much as crackin' a smile."
Mac said. "Son, there's either something wrong with us, or there's something wrong with you. I know there's nothing wrong with us for the simple fact that there happens to be four of us, and only one of you. You'll have to get a hold of yourself; there was nothing funny in what I was saying, was there boys?" We all shook our heads and agreed with Mac. He squinted his eyes at the kid and continued, "Say there, young fella, you ain't been poppin' any of them pills, have ya?" Mac looked real stern at the kid and went on, "I don't allow no potheads or pill poppers in my band, and if I catch somebody doing that I fire 'em on the spot ... you sure you're not a doper?"
Mac looked over at me and said, "Goke, what kind of people are you recommending to me ... I'm gonna lose faith in your judgment ..."
The kid interrupted Mac and swore up and down that he didn't use dope, and as a matter of fact, he didn't even smoke or drink. Mac told the kid that he'd better behave himself and we went down the road "laughin' and scratching" as Don Reno used to say.
It wasn't until about two weeks later after we got back to Nashville that I told the kid about what we had pulled on him. He didn't like it too much then, but now he loves Mac's "tell a bad joke and make the kid laugh routine." I ran into him at a bluegrass festival a couple of years ago, and he told me he pulls it on every new musician he can. Beware of "The Old Country Boy" - Mac Wiseman. He'll do you in!
There I go getting off the subject again ... that's what happens when you've been a musician for 35 years ... you tend to get a little drifty at times. Back to 'teachin' The Kid" and my tale for him. Let's seeeee ... Donnie, the kid, and I were in my kitchen and we were drinking coffee. The kid had just dragged out his "gourd," and I was starting to put a story on him ...
"Yeah, that music teacher made them take off all the strings but one, and then he made them learn every note on that one string." The kid had stopped fooling with his banjo, and by the look on his face, he was really engrossed in what I was saying. "When they knew every note on the first string, he gave them a second, then a third, and when they finally got the last string on their instrument, they knew how to play. Donnie, you've heard about that method of teaching, ain't ya?"
Donnie reared back in his chair, took a sip of coffee, and said, "Sure I've heard of that way of teaching, and what's more, I knew a fiddle player once that learned that way ... think the Japanese came up with that method just after the war ... call it the Suzuki Method, or Sukiaki Method ... something like that ..."
The kid looked at Donnie, then back at me. We both had a real serious look on our faces. The kid said, "That sounds good for learning the notes on the strings, but how are you gonna play any chords if you only have one or two strings to work on?"
My little game hadn't worked; the kid was smarter than I thought he was, so I said, "Well, I never did think too much of that guy's method ... enough of the Sezz-zuke-eee Method. Let's have a look at this banjo of yours."
The banjo looked like a cheap, bottom- of-the-line, Sears-Roebuck model, made about 30 years ago. It had no tone-ring and the strings were elevated-so far over the fingerboard that a house-cat could've run under them and never scratched its back. The head was a rare work of art. It was hand-painted with flames around the edges; lightning bolts were painted in silver and gold and distributed generously all over, and in the middle was the crowning glory," - the initials R.A.M. in sparkly paint. Ooooo, it was a real masterpiece, a treasure, a family heirloom! It was absolutely breathtaking. I almost fell off my chair when the kid dragged that thing out of his "classic Hefty Garbage Bag case."
Donnie took a look and said it's getting late, and he had to go home and milk his cows. He crossed to the sink, deposited his coffee cup, said goodbye, and was gone before I could get up from my chair.
"Well son, this banjo ain't the best one in the world for you to learn on. The strings are too high in the first place. Let's get one of my old Mastertones, and we'll see what you can do on it." I went upstairs and returned with my 1927 #4, raised-head, Gibson Mastertone, and handed it to the kid. HIs eyes looked like a couple of Christmas trees when he got a gander of that. He set it on his lap, looked it up and down three or four times, and then started to strum a C chord on it. "Boy, this is a real banjo ... look at all that fancy stuff on the neck (he was referring to the "Flying Eagle" pearl inlay) ... it's real heavy ... wow! listen to the sound of it ... it sounds like it is being run through a PA system ... I've never heard anything like it. Wow!"
I thought about the first time I ever picked up a Mastertone and ran my hands over it, and I knew just how he felt. There just ain't nothin' like the sound of an old Mastertone, it'll run chills right up and down your spine. Don Reno once told me, when I was about 16, "When I'm playing my old Mastertone, and everything's cookin', I can feel the electricity running up and down my right arm and I can see sparks flying out of my fingers. No other banjo does that to me, Bill."
While the kid was amazing himself on my Mastertone, I took his banjo apart and shimmed the neck back, so at least he would be able to play a chord without tearing up his fingers. I then went into the dining room, got out my 1929 gold-plated #6 Gibson Mastertone, and brought it into the kitchen with me. I sat down and started to play Back Home In Indiana for the kid. He told me he was impressed and wanted to know how to play the Ballad Of Jed Clampett. I played it for him and then he asked me how many old Gibsons did I have, I just smiled and said, "A few ..."
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 17 Jun 2007 by WF