Teaching the Kid - V
by Bill Gokey
Today was the day I was to teach the kid a lesson that he wouldn't realize he had learned until he had already learned it! The lesson wasn't planned and as you'll see, it just happened that way. Dave Nichols and I had been planning a trip to the Martin Guitar Company to pick up a couple of machines and we were discussing it on the phone when the kid showed up on my front porch. I told Dave I had to drive down to Cap's Bait Shop that afternoon so I would stop by his place before I picked up my bait and we could continue our conversation in person. The kid had never met Dave so I decided I would surprise him with a little trip to Dave's Custom Pearl Inlay (at this time Dave was in Waddington NY, next to Ogdensburg where Bill lives in the summer. Dave Nichols is now at 177 Low Road, Malone NY 12953. If you look on a map, he is actually in the metropolis of Whippleville.- ed.)
I hung up the phone and went to the front door to let the kid in. "Mornin' Bill. You gotta show me Sweet Georgia Brown. My father says you used to play that tune when you both were kids an' I wanna surprise him; it'll blow him right out of the house when I play that song ... it'll really kill him!"
Apparently the kid was planning to assassinate his own father by playing him to death with a banjo. I tipped my head down while looking at him from the tops of my eyes. "Oh no kid, I'm not going to be a party to any murder ... no way. According to what your mother tells me you had her almost dead last week from hearing you practice on that gourd of yours ... she told me you had her right on death's doorstep ... at the end of her rope ... said she had to throw you out of the house so she could regain her life and sanity. Now you want to kill your own father with that banjo and you've even got the gall to ask me to help you. I've known your father since we were little kids and I'm not gonna be a party to his murder ..."
Looked like I had the kid going again. "No-no Bill, I didn't mean I wanted to murder my father, I just want to surprise him by playing Sweet Georgia Brown for him you take everything the wrong way I wouldn't kill my father. My mother doesn't like to hear me practice on my banjo says it drives her right out of her gourd when I play. She makes me go out in the garage so she can't hear me ... why she even threw my banjo right out the back door one day last week!"
I really did have the kid going so I stoked the fire a little bit more. "Well that's the whole idea ... you're supposed to drive people out of their minds when you play ... look at those weirdoes on MTV; they make so much noise that they drive each other out of their minds. You ever see 'em roll around on the floor, jump up an' down, smash up their instruments ... a couple of 'em even bite the heads off live chickens. They call people that do that a geek. That's where the money's at kid ... when you get to where you drive people outta their minds with your playin' you make lots of money. Just think, you've only been playing the banjo for six months and already you're capable of causing people to loose their minds when they hear your playin' ... you don't need anymore lessons. Why, you're in the class with those superstars of rock... you might even play better than they do ... all you need is to be discovered. I'll bet ya won't even know me when you get on the tube!"
The kid made a fist with his right hand and smacked his opened left hand. "Bang ... zoom, you're goin' to the moon, Bill. One of these days yer gonna get yours!" It looked to me like the kid had been watching a few episodes of The Honeymooners and had stolen Jackie Gleason's line, although I thought he looked and acted more like "Norton" than "Ralph Cramden." I shook him up a little with my next line. "OK Norton, come out to the kitchen an' we'll have a cup of coffee ... you'll have to make it. cause Alice and Trixie are both out shopping."
The kid had been coming to my house for his banjo lessons every weekday morning for almost two months. He was spending all of his time practicing what I had showed him and he was beginning to play tunes that were actually recognizable ... to the trained ear, that is. He had one very serious problem: his banjo was a piece of junk. It sounded like one of those Chinese three stringed things that you might hear in "Wong's House of Flied Lice." It really sounded bad.
The first requirement of the beginning banjo player is a good instrument; a banjo that sounds like a banjo. You can't learn how to play on an inferior instrument; this holds true not only for the banjo, but all other instruments as well. Many a would-be musician's career has gone down the tubes without ever learning how to play music because of a junk instrument. They loose their enthusiasm to learn music because it sounds so bad on a junk instrument. Even a professional can't make a junk instrument sound good; you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
There used to be a bar in Ogdensburg, New York called "Myrt's Where It Hurts." Myrt had what was purported to be live music in her establishment six nights a week and Sunday afternoons too. Myrt's Place, Myrt and Stanley the waiter are all gone now, but the legend of Myrts Where It Hurts lives on.
Stanley told me that Myrt had gotten into a squabble with her house band about money and it ended with the house band quitting her on the spot. This left Myrt in "dire straits" for a band and in desperation, she hired a bunch of teenagers with junk instruments to entertain her customers while she tried to negotiate with her former house band to return to work. The teenage band had played two sets and were on a break when, as Stanley put it, "Bill, they were bad. I mean terrible. I was walking across the room carrying a big tray of glasses when some wise guy stuck his foot out and tripped me ... the glasses flew everywhere and made an awful noise when they hit the floor and broke ... everybody got up and started to dance - they thought it was the band playing!"
Now I've heard some really bad bands and some really bad instruments in my time but Stanley's story tops anything I've ever witnessed.
Back to the kid in the kitchen and the secret lesson. He was really hot to trot for me to show him how to play Sweet Georgia Brown ... no matter what I tried to show him he wouldn't come up off his father's favorite tune ... he even went so far as to whistle the tune while I was trying to teach him something about harmony. I gave up. He had brow beat me into submission. I played him his tune in the key of F.
"Now that's what I've been wanting to hear since I came in the house ... show me how ya do that ... I like that song."
I played it about four times for him and said, "This piece is being played in the key of F and the first chord is D major; next chord is D minor to a quick F sharp augmented right in to G and then you go to C seventh."
The kid interrupted with, "Hold on, how come you're playin' it in F? I don't know the changes in F. Play it in G. That's where I want it. In G."
"Well kid, if you want to learn how to play Sweet Georgia Brown you'd better learn it in the key of F. This ain't no bluegrass tune and the bluegrassers ain't gonna play it with you. They'll back right up on ya and quit. Ya see, it's got more than four chords in it plus a few minors and augmenteds and most bluegrassers won't play it cause there's too many chords in it they never took the trouble to learn any thing about chords ... in fact, it's even quite a feat for them to play the E minor chord in Foggy Mountain Break- down. The only people you're ever gonna get to play that with you are accomplished musicians who are used to playing songs with more than four chords in them. Jazz musicians, pop musicians, pros on their instruments. The song was written in F major and that's where the pros play it. They'll think you're nuts if you try to blow it on them in G!"
The kid wasn't buying any part of my lecture. I could tell from the look on his face. "I don't care where the pros play it. I want it in the key of G. Play it in G for me, Bill."
I got up out of my chair, walked over to my banjo case, tucked my old Number 6 in it, snapped all the snaps and locked it in with my key. The kid was this was just as good a time as any to end the lesson and maybe teach the kid a lesson at the same time. He'd have to learn someday that you don't argue with somebody who's trying to teach you something; someone who knows more about the subject than you do. It just isn't the way to go about getting a person to teach you something out of the "goodness" of their heart. Oh, I liked the kid all right but he had to learn the difference between the teacher and the student; the teacher and the teachee, as the old southern joke goes. He had to learn that his last act would not be tolerated ... it just ain't done ... you don't argue with the teacher ... especially when you ain't payin' him!
"Come on kid, the lesson's over. You're leavin'. Did you have a coat? I'm going down to Dave Nichol's place and if you be real nice and keep your mouth shut I'll take you with me. Dave's got three sons about your age; they're a lot bigger than you and they'll tear you apart if you get outta line at his place. Keep your mouth shut and listen ... you might even learn something."
The kid got in the car and never said a word until just before we pulled into Dave's driveway. I couldn't believe the kid could keep his mouth shut for 20 minutes and I had myself almost talked into believing he had actually been taught a lesson when he said, "I know why you quit playing and put your banjo away when I asked you to play Sweet Georgia Brown in the key of G. You can't play it in G; that's why you acted like you was mad and quit playing. You can't play it in G, can you? You're taking it out on me by actin' mad so's ya can cover it up. Ain't that right Bill? Ya know, I'm not as dumb as you look!"
The kid had missed the lesson completely and there was no point in arguing about it so I agreed with him by saying, "Yeah kid, guess you're right. Can't get anything by you. You got me pegged ... can't play in G ... guess I'm getting old ... a has been or never used to was. Come on, get outta the car, we're here."
To get to Dave's workshop you have to go through his house and down a flight of stairs leading from the kitchen to the basement. The first thing you see in the basement is the walls on all sides of you are adorned with banjos, flat-top guitars, mandolins, fiddles and three or four dog-house basses. I hadn't told the kid what Dave did for a living and he was really speechless when he put his eyeballs on the instruments. We continued on into the next room where Dave and his apprentice Randy were busy inlaying pearl in fingerboards for the Martin Guitar Company.
"Uncle Willie, just the man I wanted to see." Dave looked up from his work. "Who's the little darlin' ... that the kid you've been telling me about on the phone?"
Before I could answer the kid said, "You been talkin' about me! What's he been tellin' ya about me?" The kid was always suspicious; his father was a cop.
"Oh, Bill's been telling me you're going to be the next Isaac Perlman of the five-string banjo ..." Dave had his cynical smile on his face, "Maybe even another Bach, eh Bill?"
The kid had a half-smile and said, "I don't know if that's a compliment or a put-down; who's this Perlman and Bach? They play on the Grand Ole Opry?"
That was the second time the kid had made an ass out of himself by forgetting to start his brain before he put his tongue in gear. The fist time was when he asked me who Harry Truman played banjo for ... and now this!
Dave gave a little chuckle and we started talking about our trip to Pennsylvania. The kid was looking around the workshop picking up this and that; ooohing and aaahhing, sucking his teeth and muttering in amazement at the many tools of a luthier's trade. There was a pause in Dave's and my conversation so the kid jumped in, "You cut all this fancy pearl and make these guitars, Dave?"
"Yes son, I cut the pearl patterns you see up there hanging on the walls ... I didn't make those guitars ... that one on the bench belongs to Johnny Cash ... sent it up to me to have some work done on it. That one over there belongs to a Grand Ole Opry star; it's an original pre-war D-45 Martin and it's worth over ten thousand dollars. That gold plated pre-war Mastertone up there on the wall is worth a dollar or two ... all in here for repairs or re-finishing. I repair and build instruments or any thing else that's made out of wood."
"Yeah," I said, while picking up a Martin fingerboard. "Dave does most of the new Martin fingerboards and a lot of their custom pearl work. That's why he calls his business Custom Pearl Inlay. He's just about the best in the world at what he does."
We could hear a muffled voice coming from upstairs and the sound of footsteps above us. "Anybody home ... you down there Dave?" The footsteps came down the stairs and into Dave's shop. It was Danny Gotham, former winner of the World Championship Flat-Pickin' Contest in Winfield, Kansas. Danny wanted Dave to replace a couple of frets on his Martin and Dave jumped right on it. I knew Danny would want to try out his axe when Dave finished installing the frets so I picked the gold-plated Mastertone off the wall and ran through a few chords on it.
When the frets were finished Danny picked up his guitar and said, "Bill, let's run through a tune or two so I can see how it plays; not that I doubt your work Dave, I just want to make sure it plays right." We played two or three tunes and then the kid did just what I thought he would.
"Play Sweet Georgia Brown. I like that song ... play it."
I looked at Danny and said, "OK, Georgia Brown in one sharp Danny." One sharp is the key of G but the kid didn't know that. The kid was firmly convinced I could only play the song in the key of F. Now was the time to teach him the lesson he wouldn't realize he had learned.
We played in the key of G and when we finished the kid said, "That was in F. Now play it in G ... I wanna learn it in G and Bill can't play it in G. Can you play it in G, Mr. Gotham?"
Danny looked surprised and started to say something but I cut him off with a wink of the eye and said, "All right Danny, I tried to tell the kid he ought to learn it in the key of F but he wants it in G ... let's try it in the key of G ... One flat, Danny." One flat happens to be the key of F.
We played it in F and when the last note of the song was played the kid exclaimed, "There, I told you it'd sound better in the key of G didn't think you could play it in that key Bill sounded pretty good even though you are gettin' old; a few rough spots. Now how about showin' that to me right now." The kid was now an accomplished music critic.
I took the kid upstairs to Dave's music room and taught him how to play Sweet Georgia Brown in the key of one flat ... we even taped the whole session so the kid would have it for reference at home.
The kid now plays Sweet Georgia Brown in the key of one flat and he is positive that one flat is the key of G. I also told the kid that when he wanted to play the song, "Make sure the musicians you're playing it with can cut the chords and instead of saying the key of G, you always say 'one flat'." This would most assuredly impress them with his "vast knowledge" of music!
I took the kid to a bluegrass festival later that summer where he used his "one flat" line on some professional musicians ... that was when he realized the lesson he had already learned but that's another story.
... To be continued
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