Teaching the Kid - III
by Bill Gokey
"Yeah, yeah, them fancy tunes are OK if you want to play for a bunch of those lah-de-dah people, but I want to learn to play that tune from the 'Beverly Hillbillies.' That uppity stuff just don't do a thing for me." I was playing the swing standard, How High The Moon, and the Kid was having no part of it. He went on with, "Look, play that Jed Clampett thing. I want to learn it so I can surprise my father. He's been tryin' to play that for years and I'll really get one over on him if I play it."
I stopped playing my banjo and told the Kid, "You just don't appreciate real music. It took me a long time to learn how to play that kind of stuff and there aren't too many banjo players that can play that kind of stuff. I'm trying to give you a little education in music, and you turn around and say something like that to me. The problem with most banjo players is they won't take the time to learn anything about music. They want to play like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe in five minutes and they don't want to take the time to practice. You've got to learn the rudiments of music; you've got to learn how to use the left hand so you get the least amount of movement but still play all the notes. Ole Harry Dodds used to call that 'technical knowledge,' and that's what you ain't got. Now, if you want to learn The Ballad Of Jed Clampett you've got to learn the chords in it first, then you learn the pickin' part of it with the right hand ... Am I gettin' through to you?"
The Kid looked at me; looked down at the banjo; then looked back at me with the beginnings of a smirk starting to form across his teenaged face. "You know there, Bill, you and Jerry Falwell would sure make a great team with all that preachin'. Why you might even go so far as to get your own TV show; get to eat with the President; rub elbows with the filthy rich ... just think of it ... you'd be known as the greatest 'technical knowledge' preacher that ever lived! I didn't come over here for a sermon. I came over to learn how to play the banjo. If I want a sermon I'll stay at home and listen to my mother. She really knows how to get on one and she ain't no amateur either!"
The Kid apparently didn't care for my little oration.
The aforementioned scene took place in my kitchen about the third time the Kid had come over for a 'go around" (not lesson) with me. His father and I had been close friends when we were kids and we are still pretty good friends today, although we very rarely see each other anymore. The Kid and I were getting to know each other but I had a big advantage: I grew up with his father before he was even thought of and the Kid is just about a carbon copy of his dad.
"'Well, I guess I'm not getting through to you, Kid. I'm not in the habit of talking to the walls and it looks like that's what I'm doing when I talk to you. I'm not Jerry Falwell, and I'm not preaching no sermon. I'm trying to teach you something and you're fighting me all the way. It's like Buster Murphy used to say: "They dont want to learn anything; they don't care about knowledge. They fight knowledge.' (Buster was a jazz piano player who taught me the chords when I was younger.) If you want to learn the banjo from me we're going to do it my way, not your way. My way, Kid. You understand?"
The Kid got that sarcastic took on his face, shifted around in big chair, crossed his legs, and very calmly said, "Well, at least you've changed a little bit Bill, now instead of Jerry Falwell, you sound like Elvis Presley ... he did it my way too."
This last statement tended to make me see a little red around the gills, but I held my temper and decided to give the Kid some more rope to hang himself with. He was just like his old man; loves to take a shot at you every chance he gets, but the Kid didn't take into consideration that I had 30 years more experience dealing with 'smart-asses' than he did. Sometimes it's best to 'lay in the weeds' until you get a chance to set the hook good ... patience has its virtues ... he who laughs last, laughs best, etc. ...
"OK, Kid, lets get to the Jed Clampett tune ... the first chord is G; the next is A minor; then D seventh, then back to G. Now, you know the words to the song I guess, so you think of the words and change the chord when you get to a certain word ... like this ... G chord, 'Come and listen to my story about a' ... change here to A minor ... 'man named' ....change chord on the word 'Jed' to D seventh ... 'Jed, poor mountaineer, hardly' ... change chords on the word 'kept' to G ... 'kept his family fed ... ' Are you following me?" I was playing the chords and watching the Kid struggling with his banjo neck trying to keep up with me. His mouth was grinding back and forth like a cow chewing its cud, and it looked as if he was about to chew the whole inside of his mouth out; even the comer of his mouth was jerking back and forth as if he was to have an epileptic fit.
I've seen a lot of musicians do various things with their faces while playing their instruments, but the Kid with his 'chewing the cud act' could stand with the best of them. Don Reno used to twitch the sides of his mouth while playing his banjo so he always chewed a wad of gum when he performed. That way, nobody noticed the twitch at the side of his mouth as they thought the movement on his lips was caused by chewing his gum! Don confessed this to me one night about 20 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland at Stabile's Bar. Bill Harrell and Don were playing together at the time and I had stopped by the bar to say hello as they were playing on Sunday afternoons then, and started about three o'clock Earl Younger (The 'Big E') and I arrived about 2:30 and were met at the door by Buck Ryan (Don's fiddle player), who invited us to set at the band's table with Don and Bill. 'Big El proceeded to fill the table with double shots of Wild Turkey and the party got underway. Three o'clock rolled up and Don's bass player wasn't there. Jerry McCoury was playing bass for Don and Bill at the time and he had apparently been way-layed by some lovely young thing from the night before. Don asked me to play bass until Jerry arrived and he also offered to buy all drinks for Earl and me until he was joined by Jerry. He had made me an offer I couldn't refuse! I had to do it; there was no way out.
We played the first set and then took a 20 minute break. We played the second set, and then the third set, but Jerry was no where to be found. Those 20 minute breaks between sets were filled with jokes, road-stories, and, of course, our good friend, the Wild Turkey. Jerry showed up just before the last set and took his place at the 'helm' as if nothing at all had happened, Don mentioned something to Jerry like he was glad to see Jerry had got the chance to drop by and he hoped he'd get to see more of him in the future. He had taken the wad of gum out of his mouth and had set it on a piece of paper on top of his banjo case. Jerry dragged his bass fiddle up onto the stage, and tipped over Don's banjo case, causing the gum to fall off the case and go down a crack in the floor. Don was out of gum and there was no time to run across the street and buy some. He had to play that last set without his gum!
He started with Charlotte Breakdown, and I noticed the sides of his mouth twitching when he got to the high part. Even Earl noticed Don's mouth twitching. The set went on and Don's mouth went on twitching with every break he took. The set was over and Don came back to the table for some more Wild Turkey. I told Don about his mouth twitching and he said, "Bill, I got into the habit of moving my mouth when I play at a very early time in my musical career and I couldn't stop it from moving when I play the banjo so I hit on the idea of chewing gum when I play; that way people think you're chewing the gum instead of twitching the mouth. It works pretty good, and you don't look like a fool to the audience when you play."
Don came up with a winner when he thought of the "chew the gum" ploy.
Other musicians make different contortions when they play. I have seen a guitar player with a well-known group that looks like he's reaching out and biting the notes out of the air with his mouth. Ralph Stanley stands on his toes when he wants to augment a lick. Lester Flatt used to wince when he made his famous 'Lester Flatt Run.' Some people look as if they're really mad at their instrument and they attack it with the ferocity of a wild beast. Don't get me wrong, I'm not putting any of these fine musicians down. The people I have mentioned here are just about the finest bluegrass musicians in the business. We all have our little 'twitches and contortions' that we go through while playing. Some of them are noticeable, and some of them are so subtle that only the person behind the instrument being played can detect them. I've been known to have a few of these twitches myself and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it except, maybe, chew a wad of gum to cover it up.
"Stop, you're going too fast for me. I can't grab them chords as fast as that!" The Kid was right. He was still in the G chord and I had gotten half way through the song. He had quit chew-ing his cud and was throwing his hands in the air. He was pretty burned up and he resembled the Biblical "flaming bush." You remember the bush that talked?
"What's this A minor chord you're talking about? I don't know no A minor chord. How do you make it?"
I looked the Kid in the eye and said, 'Well do it like Elvis Presley."
The Kid looked puzzled and said, "How's that?"
Now to set the hook. "We'll do it my way. Heh ... heh ... heh."
"OK. OK, so you got me this time but you won't get me that easy again, Bill. Now show me how to play that A minor chord and I promise I'll do it your way."
I showed him the A minor chord as used in the Jed Clampett theme; the one on the first two frets, and the Kid observed, "Why, that aint nothin'. It's easy to make that A minor chord. It aint nothin' but a C chord with a tail on it!"
I've met a lot of musicians; seen a lot of comedians; worked with a lot of entertainers in my time but I've never heard anyone describe an A minor chord as a C chord with a tail on it. I just sat there in my kitchen chair and shook my head, I was speechless. The Kid had pulled one of the funniest ones I had ever heard about music and he didn't even know it. He was dead serious when he said that!
"I'll go home and practice that A minor chord and by tomorrow I'll be able to grab that thing just as good as you can ... maybe even better. Now, show me how to work my fingers on the right hand for that Jed Clampett song." The Kid was excited and if he had had a tail it would have been wagging all over the place. I told the Kid that if banjo playing was all as easy as learning the A minor chord, the world would be full of banjo players and no one would even want to see a banjo, let alone listen to one.
I showed the Kid the roll I used and we went over it for about an hour. He finally got so he Could do the roll, but he was stopping his roll at the end of every measure and starting it over again. I tried to explain to him that you can't stop the roll at even intervals. The roll has to flow at an even pace and you can't be stopping your roll at the end of every four beats. Most beginners have this problem; they can't change chords and keep their roll going at an even pace. They have to stop the roll, change the chord, or note the string to be played, then they start their roll again. This method of playing has to be overcome if you are ever to be a professional banjo player. There's no easy way to do this and no one else can do it for you. You have to do it yourself, or forget it! The only way to accomplish a smooth roll is to practice the roll over and over, at the same time changing chords with the left hand, until you can play the changes smoothly, and with no hitches in the flow of the music. I gave the Kid the exercise that was taught to me by Rudy Lyle when I was a novice, young, would be banjo player.
I was 12 years old at the time and Bill Monroe was due to play the Gouverneur Fair & St. Lawrence County Fair. Anyway, the fair was the biggest function in our county when I was a "kid." My grandmother lived in Gouverneur and she just happened to be acquainted with one of the officials that promoted the fair. I had to see Bill Monroe at any cost! I lived 30 miles away, but during the fair week, I was permitted to stay at my grandmother's house so I could attend the fair.
The fair started on Monday so I got my father to ride me to grandmother's on Sunday night She had procured two grandstand tickets for us on the night Bill Monroe was to play. But I didn't want to sit in the grandstand. I wanted to be backstage where I could watch the banjo player. I told my grandmother about my plight, and she said she would try to get me backstage through a friend of her.
The big night came and I was so nervous that I could have threaded a sewing machine with it running! My grandmother took me to the fair office where she introduced me to "Commissioner" Earl Brasie, my ticket to backstage and Bill Monroe's banjo player. Commissioner Brasie escorted me to the back of the stage and there they were: Bill Monroe with his mandolin just a-hummin' and Rudy Lyle a-poppin' his old Mastertone. They were running through the night's selection of songs, and I was there, right in the middle of it!
This was the first time I had ever had the chance to observe a bluegrass banjo player in action and I didn't want to miss a note of it. Commissioner Brasie introduced me to Bill Monroe, but I wasn't interested in him; I wanted to talk to the banjo player. I had a thousand things I wanted to ask him, and Bill Monroe, in my estimation, couldn't answer any of them. I told Commissioner Brasie that I really wanted to meet the banjo player because I played the banjo and wanted to learn how he made all those notes come out of that banjo. They certainly weren't coming out of my banjo and I wanted to know how it was done.
He got the banjo player by the arm and hustled him off to the side saying something about someone wanting to meet him. The Commissioner asked the banjo player's name and was told, Rudy Lyle. Rudy had an old Mastertone and he seemed glad to see a 12 year old kid interested in what he was playing. He gave me an exercise to practice on the banjo that has helped me all down through the years and here's how he put it to me:
"You number the thumb of your right hand #I; the first finger #2; the middle finger #3 ... got that, son? Now, you know Glenn Miller's In The Mood, don't you? You move your fingers 1-2-3- 1-3-2, in the same rhythm of In The Mood and at the same time you play a C chord, an F chord, and a G seventh chord; four beats on the foot. Practice this day and night until you can change the chords real smooth, without missing a note or breaking the roll. When you get so you can do this, come see me again and I'll give you something else to learn."
You can't show a kid this exercise very often anymore, for the simple reason that today's generation never heard of Glenn Miller or In The Mood. It was on all the juke boxes when I was a youngster, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the 12 to 18 year old bracket that knows the song. If you want to show them this little exercise, you have to teach them how to play In The Mood before they even begin to understand what you're talking about.
I was fortunate in the fact that the Kid just happened to know In The Mood. His mother had a recording of if and had played it quite a bit around the house. He caught on to the roll in about 15 Minutes and got really excited about it. It reminded me of the first time I had got it down to where I could PLAY it. It's one hell of a feeling and you never forget it!
The telephone rang and I went to the living room to answer it, leaving the Kid to enjoy his new found skill in the solitude of my kitchen. I talked on the phone for about 20 minutes and then returned to the kitchen where the Kid was hard at work, laboring over the 5 string.
He was so intent on what he was doing that he didn't notice me enter the kitchen and set down in my chair. I watched him for a good five minutes. He was really into it. His mouth was twitchin' like a jackhammer and his jaws were going back and forth like the teeth in a hay mower. Finally, he looked up and saw that I was back. "Who was that on the phone ... it wasn't my mother, was it?"
I took a sip of my coffee; and said, "No, it was worse than that ...... it was a call from the President's Department of Energy in Washington and they asked me about you." His mouth dropped open and he went on with ... "They don't even know me, unless they heard me playing the banjo over the phone ... what did they want?"
I looked real serious at him and said, "Well, it seems there's a real energy shortage in New York City. You know, short on electricity ... the fella said that they'd heard about you and all the contortions you go through with your mouth and face when you're playing the banjo ... they got some scientist down there wants to see if he can harness all that energy you waste when you're flailing away on that gourd and turn it into electric power ... says he could light half of New York City if he could get you to volunteer for the program ... just think what a Godsend you'd be to humanity ... contortin' your way to fame and fortune."
What was it the Kid said earlier ... "You won't get me that easy again." What was it?
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 05 Apr 2007 by WF