Teaching the Kid - VIII
by Bill Gokey
It was about time the Kid went to a real bluegrass festival and experienced first-hand what the music he was trying to learn how to play was supposed to sound like in person. A Canadian friend of mine was putting on a bluegrass festival about eighty miles from my home in New York State; he had invited me to attend and he had even mailed me two passes. I decided to take the Kid to his first bluegrass festival. He was in my kitchen studying his ‘revolutionary” new method of writing banjo music when I told him about it.
I had the flyer advertisement in my hand and said, “Look here, they’re having a bluegrass festival up in Renfrew, Ontario – the voice with a heart is going to be there along with J.D. Crowe and a whole line-up of well-known bluegrass bands and entertainers. Here, take a look at it.” The Kid snatched the flyer, read it over for a minute or so and then exclaimed, “It doesn’t say anything about the voice with a heart – who’s the voice with a heart?” I looked surprised. “Mac Wiseman, is the voice with a heart – Tis Sweet To Be Remembered, Wabash Cannonball, Jimmy Brown The Newsboy, Love Letters in The Sand, and I could go on and on with all the hit records he’s had!” The Kid gave me a blank look and said, “Does he play the five-string banjo?”
I didn’t fly off the handle at the Kid’s remark because it reminded me of what I had done when I was about fourteen years old; the first time I ever met Stoney Cooper. Back in the 1950’s, the Kid’s father and I used to be inseparable friends when we were that age. We had procured a twelve mile ride across the border to the arena in Brockville, Ontario, because Ray Price, Hank Snow, Grandpaw Jones, and Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper were appearing there on a Grand Ole Opry package show. Stoney’s band featured a banjo player and I wanted to get him alone and attempt to learn some stuff from him. We got to the arena about two hours before the show was scheduled to start and the two of us walked right in without paying like we belonged there. We made it all the way back to the dressing room area before a man dressed in a suit asked us what we were doing. I told him we were looking for Stoney Cooper’s banjo player. He took us to Stoney’s dressing room and attempted to introduce us to Stoney Cooper. “Mr. Cooper,” he said as he drew us up to Stoney, “here’s two young fans of yours that are interested in…” Stoney, ever the gentleman, politely interrupted, put on his best “fan smile,” and extended his hand to us exclaiming, “Well upon my word, it’s really good to see two fine young Canadian boys such as yourselves taking an interest in our West Virginia Mountain Music...” (Since we were in Canada, Stoney thought we were Canadians – he liked to imagine himself an “ambassador of good will” whenever he was appearing outside of the United States.) I brushed right past him and cornered the banjo player leaving the Kid’s future father to take care of the greetings and salutations with Stoney. I wasn’t interested in meeting Stoney Cooper at that particular time of my life; I was only interested in interrogating the banjo player.
A few years later I was hired on the recommendation of Mac Wiseman as Stoney Cooper’s banjo player. One night after I had been working with Stoney for about six months, we were riding in Stoney’s bus and I told him the story of our first encounter with each other. When I had finished with the story, Stoney twitched his moustache back and forth a few times, looked at me over his glasses, and very calmly said, “Cripes, Kid, I still remember that rude little teenager that insulted me by fluffing me off in Brockville, Canada, and all this time I thought it was a Canadian kid. It’s a good thing I didn’t know it was you, or you would never have ended-up being the banjo-player in my band!” Stoney wasn’t one to forgive and forget but fortunately for me, Wilma Lee was!
I told the Kid that I would take him with me to the festival but he had to have his mother call me personally and tell me it was OK. He called her right then on my phone and she said, “Yes… Yes, please take him with you – I’ll be glad to have some piece and quiet for a change.” I told her we would be gone for two nights and she quipped, “Only two nights – can’t you take him and that banjo someplace for a month or so – it’s driving me crazy!” Like I’ve written before, Nancy wasn’t exactly an ardent fan of the five-string banjo.
“Show me how to play the up the neck part of The Foggy Mountain Breakdown again – I can’t seem to get it right.” The Kid was attempting to play it, but it just wasn’t there. This was an opportunity to get him to learn the “old-fashioned,” accepted music notation method, so I said in a patronizing voice, “What about that revolutionary new music notation system you invented; didn’t you tell me you had it all written down about three or four weeks ago? How come you can’t play it yet?” He dragged out his notebook, stared at it, turned it this way and that, squinched his eyes at it, and then announced that maybe he’d better iron out a few more “wrinkles” in his new system. He agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to look in to the Mel Bay music notation book I gave him because, right at the present time, he couldn’t make heads or tails out of his own system. Now that he had finally admitted his self-invented system was useless, maybe he’d learn how to read music using the universal accepted way and become a real musician someday.
“Show me where those argumented chords go – why do they call them argumented chords?” He was right; he really couldn’t make heads or tails out of his new system! I decided I would pull one on him. I told him they call those chords argumented chords because musicians always wanted to argue with each other over what name to call them. “Take a look at this D-Major chord on the 12th fret. Now if I sharp the 5th, I’m playing D on the 4th string, F# on the 3rd, A# or B-flat on the 2nd, and D on the 1st string. I call that a D-argumented because I’m playing in the key of G, I’m playing the 5-chord –D, and going to the 1-chord which is G-Major. Now if I was playing in the key of E-flat Major, the 5 chord is A-flat or G#. If I want to go from the 5-chord (A-flat) to the 1-chord (E-flat,) I sharp the 5th or C# of the 5-chord which will give me, on the 4th string at the 12th, fret starting from the 4th string to the first, D, F# on the 11th fret, B-flat or A# on the 11th fret, and D on the 12th fret which is now called an A# or B-flat argumented because I’m playing in the key of E-flat Major. Those are the same notes and the same chord I just showed you in the key of G. Now, Kid, some musicians will argue about what to call the chord with the exact same notes in the so that’s why they call it an argumented chord!”
The Kid said it wasn’t quite clear to him how you could call the exact same chord by a different name just because you are playing in a different key. I told him to go home and study the music notation book I had given him and all would be made clear at the chosen time.
I spent about two hours running over The Foggy Mountain Breakdown with him before he was satisfied enough with his progress to take a break. We discussed the arrangements for the festival trip and then he proclaimed that he was going home and practice The Foggy Mountain Breakdown until he had every note down perfect.
As he went down my front steps I called, “Come back, I forgot to give you something important!” He ran back up the steps and asked me what I had for him. I handed him a business card with the phone number of our local rescue squad on it. He said, “What’s this rescue squad phone number for?” I answered in a serious tone, “Tape that card by your phone at home. If you’re gonna practice on that gourd of yours until you can play The Foggy Mountain Breakdown perfect, you’re gonna need it to call the rescue squad when you finally give your poor mother a heart attack or a stroke. Who knows – maybe you’ll just drive her insane and they’ll take her down to the funny farm at the state hospital!” He started down the steps before I could finish my sooth-saying, tore up the card as he went, threw the pieces back at me, and went down the sidewalk venting obscenities under his breath. Teachin’ the Kid was turning out to be a real experience!
The bluegrass festival was coming up and the Kid would soon find out what the difference between the key of 1 sharp and the key of 1 flat is; he would also find out what an “augmented” chord is. He would even discover that I’m not as dumb as he looks...
Text Copyright ©1987 by Bill Gokey. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. Reproduction in any form prohibited.
Edited 05 Jul 2007 by WF