By Pete Wernick – September 2009 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

Banjo In The Media alert:
I along with my Hot Rize compadres will be co-hosting the IBMA Awards Show October 1 at the Ryman Auditorium. If I’m not mistaken, this means that for the first time in 20 years, a banjo player will be a host of the IBMA Awards Show. I am honored and excited to represent our music in one of the bigger bluegrass media events of the year.

Steve Martin will also be appearing in the show, playing a song from “The Crow” and doing a bit of m.c. work. Should be interesting! One of the songs from the album has the poignant line, “Wonder if some kid is listening to me.” Undoubtedly, many kids and their parents and grandparents will be taking in the sounds of some of our favorites. This is another chance to hook some new bluegrass and banjo-heads. Remember when you got hooked? Wasn’t that fun? I look forward to every new chance. If you can’t be in Nashville for the event, tune us in on one of the many radio stations who’ll carry it (look for the listing on ibma.org).

Possibly the World’s Largest Music Lesson
July 28 our local Denver folk organization, Swallow Hill Music Association, made a bid for the Guinness Book at a major outdoor venue, Red Rocks Amphitheater. Coupled with an Indiana Jones movie on a weekly film night, the event drew over 6600 folks, with 815 registering as having brought their instruments—a motley assortment of guitars, banjos, mandolins, and more easily-transported shakers, harmonicas, and percussion instruments. And a sitar, a trumpet, some saxes, a harp, and many more.

I was one of the three teachers and had the opportunity to try out my teaching and song leading on one of the largest groups I’ve ever faced outside of Telluride. I led off the lesson, aimed at teaching two songs with a few educational forays into the number system, matching finger picking with a boom/chick rhythm, mastering a simple chord progression from memory, and showing a lick usable for lead or as a bass run.

The gigantic crowd was reasonably attentive and sang This Land Is Your Land with gusto. Not using written materials, I lined out the chorus as they sang (“California!”, “New York”, “Redwood forest!”, “Gulfstream”) and it got stronger as it went along. Another teacher showed the D/C/G lick to Sweet Home Alabama, and then a jam on easy songs by over 20 of the Swallow Hill faculty, with the crowd invited to sing and play along. We had big fun on Jambalaya (D/A), Big River (G/A/ D/C) Heartbreak Hotel (E/A/B with quick F) and Twist and Shout/La Bamba (C/F/ G).

What’s the point, you may ask? Hmm, let’s see. The point, the point.

Well, take your pick:

1. Summer fun

2. Spectacle, crowd situation

3. “Set a record” for something (“make history”?)

4. Swallow Hill publicizing itself

5. Folk music and music teachers publicizing themselves (ahem)

6. Getting to hang out with a bunch of the area’s best musician/teachers

7. Teaching a lot of people a good song and some basics of music making

Any one or more of the above may justify folks’ participation. No one got hurt anyway, and Woody Guthrie’s estate will pull in a few more performing rights royalties.

I have led a fair number of giant “All- Festival” or “All-Camp” bluegrass bands doing something like the above, but not with such whopping numbers. Here’s my typical scenario, time-tested:

1. Let’s check tuning! Everyone try your D string… now your G string. If you haven’t tuned up to a clip-on tuner do it now. Borrow one from someone nearby and they’ll help you use it. Now A strings, now B strings, now E strings…

2. Let’s all make a G chord. Nonchording instruments, play a G or a note from a G chord, which would be a G, or B, or D. Look at a guitar player making the G chord, and remember what that looks like, so you can follow them on songs.

3. Now make a D chord. Check out what that looks like on a guitar.

4. OK, let’s get a boom-chick going. See, I’m playing just one low G note (the root note of a G chord), then hitting the chord all at once. Boom/chick, boom/ chick. Be sure to hit that low root note hard. Basses play on the boom, also known as the beat, and anyone can strum or chop a chord or a note on the chick, also known as the off-beat.

5. Don’t let the beat slow down. In a big crowd, it wants to, so everybody keep pushing that boom/chick so it doesn’t drag.

6. Finger pickers, play the pattern thumb/index/thumb/middle. Sounds like this, along with the boom/chick (play it and say “T I T M, T I T M” right along with it). Let everyone get the groove for 20 or so seconds.

7. OK everyone, keep the right hand going and get ready to change chords. We’re going to D, and if you have a low D string to play, play it when it’s time for the BOOM. Here we go…change to D! (stay on D for a bit) We’ll be going back to G… Now… (back and forth a bit and then stop).

8. Now, everyone sing: do re mi (they sing do re mi) Everyone sing 1 2 3 (they sing same notes) Everyone sing G A B (they sing same notes) All ways of saying the same thing. Now sing 1 2 3 again. Now make it 1 2 3 4 5. That’s G A B C D, walking up the G scale. The first four notes are: (sing a la This Land Is Your Land)

9. Now let’s sing just the last two of those notes, the C on “your land.” That’s the 4th scale note. Hold that C note. Sing C and play a C chord. That’s called the 4 chord in G, because C is the 4th note of the G scale. Now let’s sing and play a D note and a D chord. That’s the five. Now G, that’s the one, the root note and the root chord.

10. Let’s do a song with those 3 chords. We’ll go C G D G over and over. Since C is 4 and D is 5, another way to say this is 4 1 5 1. That pattern can be plugged into the scale notes of any other key, and it works the same.

11. OK, let’s practice the chord progression, with our rhythm lick. Get going on a G, boom/chick boom/chick… 4 boom/chicks for each chord. (Singing to the melody of This Land Is Your Land🙂 Start on a C chord, back to the G chord, and to the D chord, and to the G chord, and back to the C chord, and like before … D! This land was made for you and me.

12. Now keep playing and let’s sing it… This Land Is Your Land

Here is a video link for the lesson: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5actZTn2xP8

Pete Seeger is rumored to be playing Red Rocks later this summer. If he does, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he sings This Land Is Your Land. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the audience knows it and sings it really well.

Here’s a nice one from the mailbag. Potential Banjo Ambassadors, take heed!

Hi Pete,

I just read your busking article in BNL and enjoyed it. Now that I’m getting acclimated to northwest Arkansas, I’ve learned there’s another variation of playing in public (but without the spare change in the instrument case): the public jam session.

Around here from May to October on Friday nights there’s a bluegrass jam on the town square in Bentonville. Some Fridays have more players and spectators than others but usually between the two groups about a hundred. They have two things in common with the points in your article: First, the players have an audience, usually for 2-3 hours and if the weather’s nice, even longer. Second, there’s appreciation. The audience sings along and/or claps after each song. And since they’re there specifically for the music they know what they’re listening to.

The following night the same thing is duplicated a few miles east in Rogers at a public park. Even though they’re only 10 or so miles apart, they draw different jammers and spectators. And on the second Sunday of the month there’s a Gospel jam in Springdale. Same thing, but with a different, but appreciative audience.

Your advice to get out there and play is excellent, and I know it’s helped me with timing, speed and being relaxed around other people, not to mention the fun of being around like-minded people.

—Don Wiseman