Teaching the Kid - IV
by Bill Gokey
The last week of June, in the far reaches of northern New York, is probably the best fishing week of the whole year and I am almost always there to take advantage of it. I like to catch bass, and I get out and grab a few almost every day when I'm in Ogdensburg. Last year, I had two problems to contend with: the weather just would not cooperate; it was cold and raining the whole month of June, and when the weather was good, the "kid" was at my front door wanting a banjo lesson. I live directly across the street from the high school which made it quite convenient for the kid to waltz himself across the street and come "rapping, softly tapping, at my chamber door." (Thank you Edgar Allen Poe for help in writing this story.)
The kid had flunked English and Math so he was forced to attend summer school in the mornings. His dismissal at 11:00 AM coincided with my wake-up and coffee hour. He was at my door every morning at 11:05, pounding and yelling his favorite greetings. One morning he showed up at his usual time and I was still in bed. I had watched TV until six o'clock in the morning and I just didn't feel like getting up at eleven.
He pounded on the front door, rang the doorbell, rapped at the windows, and finally, he took to throwing stones up at my bedroom window. I tolerated the siege as long as I could, and I finally decided that I may as well get out of my bed as the kid wasn't giving up his assault on my house until his goal was achieved. I threw on my robe and went downstairs to open the front door, muttering choice little obscenities all the way down. "Well, it's about time you got outta that bed ole man; you're gonna get bedsores if ya don't start gettin' outta that thing in the daytime!"
The kid was standing in my front yard with a handful of stones in one hand and his banjo in the other. "You dirty little x*"#Z#* - what do you mean by waking me up when I'm sleeping ... what in hell's the matter with you? Throwin' stones at my bedroom windows!" I was a little upset at being rousted in such a barbarous manner and I had no qualms about letting the kid know about it. "You know, if you weren't my good friend's son I'd get my shotgun an' put a load 'o buckshot in your -. You sure as hell wouldn't be getting any banjo lessons outta me. I wouldn't touch you with a ten foot pole!"
The kid had climbed the steps and was crossing the porch saying, "Rave on, rave on, rant an' rave, rant an' rave, ole man, rant on ..."
This was the first time he had ever called me old man," and I didn't particularly like the sound of it. As he came through the front door I yelled, "What do you mean by callin' me ole man? Ole man - ain't that just a fine way to show respect? No respect ... you kids are all the same ... you ain't got no respect for yer elders!"
The kid brushed by me and started for the kitchen saying, "Alright, alright, Rodney, you gonna show me how to play Shuckin' The Corn or are you gonna stand there in the doorway screamin' you don't get no respect all day? You quit callin' me 'the kid" and I'll quit callin' you ole man," and I ain't quittin' 'till you do... so how does that grab you?"
I just shook my head and went back upstairs to brush my teeth and put some clothes on. The kid was right at home in my house by now; he had known me for almost two months, and that's time enough to be close friends when you're 16 years old. Upon entering my kitchen, I saw that he had made a pot of coffee, a couple of pieces of toast, thrown his coat in the middle of the floor, and was leaning back in my chair, playing my banjo, with his feet propped up on the kitchen table. God love the "little darlin's," they're such a treasure.
"You all nice and comfy? Can I get you anything? Hope I'm not disturbin' ya ..." I don't think he heard a word I said. He had his head down; his eyes looked like they were rolled up into his head, and he was deep into butchering Shuckin' The Corn on my old Mastertone. Can't say as I blame him for wanting to play my banjo over his ... his banjo sounds like somebody beating on a tree trunk with a club ... especially when he plays it! I don't like to let other people play my banjo because some people have perspiration on their hands, and when they run their fingers up and down the strings they also coat the strings with their sweat. The sweat causes a chemical reaction on the strings and they get corroded, causing them to loose their tone and go dead. I've had it happen to me a number of times before I found out what was causing it. It just takes a minute for someone to ruin a set of strings by playing on them with sweaty hands. Be careful of who you let play your instrument ... always make sure their hands are dry and they don't sweat before you turn loose of your most prized possession. Don Reno imparted this little bit of knowledge to me when I was still "wet behind the ears," and it has probably saved me quite a few sets of banjo strings down through the years.
While I'm on the subject of things like that a little thing that happened to my 1929 Gibson #6 last summer. I was down at Smokey Green's festival and I was playing in a jam session, about one in the morning, when I was set upon by mosquitoes as big as a chicken. They were so big that, according to Ed Ferris (Bill Harrell's bass player), four of 'em got Ed by the shoulders and had him two feet off the ground before he knew it! If you four mosquitoes, even as big as chickens, couldn't begin to do the job ... they'd have to be as big as a condor to even think about a task as big as that!
Skeets Richards, a banjo player from Williamstown, Massachusetts, offered me some mosquito repellant in a spray on can. I sat my banjo across my legs and proceeded to spray the stuff on my arms, neck and face. It smelled like the DuPont Chemical Factory across the St. Lawrence River in Canada when the wind is blowing from the north towards my home. While I was spraying this "junk" on my arms, some of it got on the back of my banjo neck. Skeets and I sat and talked for a few minutes and then we went back to playing. Upon picking up my banjo, I noticed and it felt like it had little pits in it. On did have little pits in it, and the lacquer finish was bubbling and being eaten off. We immediately washed off the neck with water on a sponge, but it was too late; the damage was done. The mosquito repellant had ruined the finish from the 12th fret right on past the heel, and it even took some of the finish off my resonator! A piece of advice: Don't get mosquito repellant or insect spray anywhere near your instrument ... it cost me quite a little piece of change to have Dave Nichols refinish my neck ... an expensive lesson, to say the most!
Back to the kid and Shuckin' The Corn. The kid looked up and said, "I got a tape at home of Flatt and Scruggs playin' Shuckin' The Corn, and I thought you'd show me that one today." He took a sip of his coffee and continued "raping" my old six. "Listen to this ... I've been practicing ... pretty close to it, ain't I? Just one little spot here, ain't exactly right ... here, you play it. Show me that little part I ain't gettin' just right."
I took my "abused" banjo, sat it on my lap, and said to the kid, "Hummphh, what little part are you talkin' about? You don't have any of it right. You're playing a C chord where you should be playing a C 7th chord, and then you're not holding the C 7th long enough ... It'll be a wonder if my old six will ever play for me again after what you've done to it here this morning ... it's probably mad at me for turning a half-crazed teenager loose on it. It'll never be right again." I wrapped my arms around my banjo and started kissing the back of the neck. "I'm sorry ole six, I love you ... you know I do ... please forgive me for the atrocity inflicted upon you by this teenaged pervert ... I thought I had your case locked so no beady eyed degenerate like him could get their pernicious hands on you. Please ... say you'll forgive me. I promise ... it'll never happen again ... pleeeeze ..."
The kid's eyes were getting as big as billiard balls; he was up out of his chair and backing toward the kitchen sink with his mouth wide open and a look of amazement his face. "My father told me you were crazy and I told him anyone that played as well as you can't be crazy ... you're not crazy ... you're nuts ... nuttier than a squirrel. You belong down at simple city ... the nut house!" I came out of my "spell" and said, "Yeah, I guess I am crazy for even letting you in my house ... what made you think you could just walk in and pick up my best banjo, call me dirty names, throw your coat on my floor, throw stones at my windows, put your stinkin' feet on my kitchen table, and then top it all off by telling me that I belong in a nut house?" I was starting to growl by now. "If you think I'm gonna allow you to commit these atrocities, you're the one that belongs in the nut house ... you don't wake me up in the morning or any other time; you don't ever touch my banjo unless I invite you to; you don't throw your clothes in the middle of my kitchen or put your feet on my kitchen table ... and about those stones ... you don't throw stones at my windows at eleven o'clock in the morning. It ain't respectable to be stoned before noon. I've never been stoned before noon until you came along. I'm gonna tell your father that you came over here and stoned me before noon. How you like them apples kid? How does that grab you?
After that last little act, I'm sure that the kid was firmly convinced I was loosing my marbles, but he hung right in there and insisted that I show him Shuckin' The Corn, crazy or not! He didn't know me as well as he thought ... I may be a little "whacko," but I'm not certifiable by any stretch of the imagination. You've got to have a few screws loose before you can put up with teachin' a "kid."
"Now, look here ... watch my left hand ... see what I'm grabbin' before the C 7th. You don't just play that F note on the fourth string; you play an A on the third and an F on the first. Leave the second string open ... hear how nice that sounds? Now you jump to the C 7th ... hear that? You try it."
The kid had it almost down, but he didn't know when to get off the C 7th chord. One time he'd hold it too long, and the next time he'd come off it too soon. "Count your time with your feet ... watch my foot. When you get to the C 7th start counting the beats of your foot, like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 - now, when you hit that seven, let go of that C 7th chord; go to a G chord at the count of eight, and go to a D chord on the count of nine. You got that, kid?"
He played it over and over. After about an hour he proclaimed that he had it down, but it wasn't quite the way Earl Scruggs played it on his tape. He accused me of not showing him the whole thing. Holding out on him. Hiding the licks so he wouldn't be able to get as good as I was. The kid had a very suspicious nature.
"I'm not holding anything back ... you're just not gettin' it. You're not hearin' it right. Listen now. I'll play it again ... you hear that? The kid bad his face about eight inches from my right hand and he was observing with all the concentration of an accomplished brain surgeon.
"You're doin' it different ... you're not playing it the same way you showed me! You're changin' it ... your fingers are goin' a different way. Slow down so I can see what you're doin' with them fingers!" I guess the kid couldn't believe his own eyes; I was playing the same as I always play - same roll on the right hand - same notes on the left.
I slowed the roll of my right hand to the pace of about two notes per second ... it wasn't slow enough for the kid. He kept saying, "Go slower ... slower ... that ain't slow enough. Go slower." I was playing so slow at that point that I began to loose track of what I was playing. Try playing real slow; it's really hard to do.
"If I play this tune any slower I'll be playing it backwards. That's an idea ... you're obviously retarded ... retarded means backward in case you're interested. I'll just play it backward; that way you'll be able to learn it. Backward banjo for retarded "kid" banjo players. That's what I'll call it. May even use it for an album title. Just think of it."
The telephone was ringing and I had to go to the living room to answer it. It was my fishing buddy, Howard Flack, and he wanted me to go fishing with him that afternoon. I told him to pick me up in a half hour and then went back for more abuse in the kitchen.
"Schools over. I don't know where you're going, but you can't stay here. I'm going fishing and you aren't invited." The kid had removed his shirt and was sitting there practicing. I asked him why he took his shirt off and he said it was too warm in the kitchen for him. I couldn't resist so I responded by saying, "Well, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen!" It didn't mean a thing to him ... didn't even get a snicker out of him. Guess he probably never heard of Harry Truman.
"You ever hear of Harry Truman, kid?"
The kid had picked up his belongings and was headed for the front door. "You know I don't know all them bluegrass pickers yet," he replied. "Who does he play with? Bill Monroe?"
No wonder the kid was attending summer school!
The kid hadn't put his shirt on yet and he was headed out the door when I noticed he had some bruises and scratches on his side. "What happened to your side? Did you fall down? How'd you get those bruises and scratches?"
The kid was half way down the front steps when he turned around with a smirk on his face and said, "Remember when you opened the front door this morning to let me in? Remember what you said about the ten foot pole?"
I said, "Yeah, what about it kid?" I sensed his devious little mind had conjured up some sage little remark, but I had already taken the bait and it was too late.
"Well, this is what happens to you when you get touched with a ten foot pole ... see you tomorrow, ole man."
... To be continued. (Maybe. If the pain and mental anguish suffered by me while recalling these joyous moments doesn't do me in ... )
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