BanjoJudy's Story - by Judy Muldawer
In March, 2009, I will complete my fourth year of banjo playing. It has been a wonderful journey and I hope it will continue for as long as my hands are able to play the instrument. The people I’ve met and the tunes I’ve learned have enriched my life in a way I could never have imagined.
The first year:
For almost forty years, I had not touched a musical instrument. Although, I had played a little guitar in the early sixties, during the folk boom, once I began to raise a family, there was no time or personal desire for guitar playing. Other interests prevailed, and the guitar gathered dust, along with my husband’s turn of the century open-back Vega five string banjo and a stack of banjo instruction books.
When my husband’s physical limitations dictated that he give up competitive sports, he decided to take out his old guitar from its dusty case. As he spent much of his time re-learning what was forgotten from his early foray into the folk experience, he discovered that he really enjoyed learning all types of music and began to play with other musicians, all of whom were interested in playing in a group setting. Each Sunday afternoon, off he would go for several hours to play music, and upon his return, he would relate his experiences with marked enthusiasm.
A few months after my fifty-ninth birthday, I decided perhaps that I might also play a musical instrument and join the fun. For a variety of reasons, I had no desire to play anything that required a pick, and nobody really wanted to hear me play the kazoo, the “other” of the two instruments in our home that did not require such a device. That left that old, dusty banjo as my only choice, and so, out of the closet it came along with the instruction manuals and some vinyl records that accompanied them.
When most people begin an instrument, I doubt they have access to a stack of materials over a foot high. I had not only these wonderful old books, but the ability to access pretty much anything I needed via the Internet. My main dilemma was deciding what type of music I wanted to play, and I already knew I preferred the clawhammer style.
I opened Pete Seeger’s How To Play the 5-String Banjo and looked for familiar songs. Next I opened John Burke’s Book of Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Banjo, but there were only a few I knew, such as John Henry, Polly Put the Kettle On, and Golden Slippers. I had not a clue about the different tunings, and so I moved onto yet another book. There was a $ 2.95 issue of Melodic Clawhammer Banjo, two Art Rosebaum books, at $ 3.95 each, several Ken Perlman books, and a variety of information I stumbled upon on the internet.
It seemed reasonable to simply learn tunes in open G and not bother with re-tuning. In a jam situation, especially in a bluegrass oriented one, most banjo folks I met appeared content to stay in that tuning, and so I proceeded to learn what I could in that key.
One day my husband surprised me with a new book from Ken Perlman, Clawhammer Banjo from Basic Frailing to Melodic Style. This book came not only with an abundance of instruction and banjo tablature, but there were six cds with musical recordings and audio instruction that matched the tunes tabbed out in the book. No longer did I need to look for familiar melodies, as I could listen to the cds and learn the tunes in my head, prior to tackling them on the banjo. I put all the tunes on my little mp3 player, and whenever I went, so did the tunes along with all the explanations and instructions that I could listen to carefully.
Year # 2 begins
The big 60 birthday passed, and although I had become a better banjo player, I believed my banjo playing was unfocused, and not going in any particular direction. I was enjoying playing many of the tunes in Perlman’s book , and began accompanying my husband to his weekly Sunday jams, but most of my repertoire was not well-known to those in a beginning/intermediate jam setting. The majority of the players were unfamiliar with Rickett’s Hornpipe, Harvest Home Hornpipe, Drowsy Maggie and Kesh Jig. Indeed, a few weeks earlier I had not heard of them either! It became apparent that most of the other players did not understand why a banjo player needed to re-tune to double D or A modal tuning. I had all this great material at my fingertips, but when I played in the Sunday jam, I found it easier to stick with open G tuning and play Grandfather’s clock or Golden Slippers.
I’ve always have been one to learn best on my own, although at this point in the learning process, I did take a few private lessons that were worthwhile from my friend Wayne Shrubsall. Wayne has a room full of different types of banjos, and it was at his house that I learned about many different types of banjos. However, I could not understand why anyone would want or need more than one 5 string open back clawhammer model.
As my work and personal schedule dictated that regularly scheduled lessons were not to be, I stopped taking official lessons, and continued to learn and flounder a bit on my own.
At the end of my second year of playing, two interesting things happened that began my personal banjo turning point, if there is such a thing.
1. A banjo friend introduced me to Dan Levenson’s CDS. I listened to Barenaked Banjos one day and thought, “This is exactly what I want to sound like.” A few weeks later, Dan Levenson came to town, gave a banjo workshop and a concert, and I began to play in Double D tuning with drop thumbing, while developing great karma with Spotted Pony!
Dan brought a new banjo into my home, and I was reminded of a quote from Mary Z. Cox, “If you suspect you need a new banjo--you do. Trust your musical instincts. If a banjo calls to you to buy it, don''t fight destiny. It was meant to be. :)” I bought my first Chuck Lee banjo that day. Now I was the proud owner of two banjos! I was beginning to understand BAS (Banjo Acquisition Syndrome) on a personal level
2. An opportunity to take a class at our local university in “Appalachian Old Time Music” was presented to me. This class was taught by a local group, The Virginia Creepers, comprised of two fiddles, two mandolins, one guitar and one banjo. Paper music was not allowed. Tablature was not allowed. This was strictly a course for learning to play by ear while watching good instrumentalists tackle the tunes. Each week, I would go to class, record what was played, and listen to and play with the music until the next week, when more tunes were introduced. I marvel now at how little I knew. The tunes we played are so common in old-time music, but to me, they were all very new.
Year # 3
Another birthday rolled around, and I continued to take the class in Appalachian Old Time Music, but also got involved with an online site, “The Banjo Hangout.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this site, I urge you to join the Banjo Hangout and get involved. It is a wonderful place to go for advice, tablature, mp3 files, and works as a great support group for banjo players. Everyone is very patient and helpful. There are so many topics on the Banjo Hangout, that to list them would defeat the purpose of this article. If you are any kind of banjo player, clawhammer, three finger Scruggs, two finger, whatever, this is the place for you to go. (http://www.banjohangout.org). I am “banjojudy” there and have become friendly with many good folks around the world.
Many of the people from the Appalachian Old Time Music class attend a monthly dance where they play the music for the dancers. This group, the Albuquerque Megaband has been featured in the Old Time Herald, and I joined the band shortly after starting my third year of playing. There is one monthly practice session which, coupled with the actual dance performance, presents a twice a month opportunity for all to play and learn from others involved in old-time music.
As I became more familiar with the music, I became friendly with many local players and learned who was interested in getting together to play, learn and jam. An additional scheduled old-time jam was put on the calendar, and impromptu jam sessions became more frequent. Weekly small gatherings occurred, and I was encouraged to join those small groups. It is in these small groups that I find I learn the most about myself as a player and the type of music I wish to play. The interaction and patience of fellow players is, in my opinion, the best path to an informal musical education.
A friend introduced me to Celtic music on the banjo, and although I am not very accomplished or up to speed for this type of music, I love the sound and find it relaxing to simply play some Celtic tunes slowly and alone. Learning to play Celtic music, for me, would be the ultimate accomplishment in learning how to play the banjo really well.
During year number 3, banjo # 3 made its way into the house. She has a name, Rose, and is a lovely rose-inlaid all black walnut Chuck Lee. She sounds different from banjo #2. At this point, I had three banjos, and was beginning to understand how acquiring BAS definitely makes one a better person, if not a better banjo player.
Year # 4 – does that mean banjo # 4?
My 62nd birthday did not go unnoticed. I threw myself a birthday bash and invited many musicians who have been my friends since my banjo journey began. We had musicians in every room of our rather large house (I don’t think there were any in the bathrooms), and the music varied in genre from old-time to blues to vocals to bluegrass to ragtime. You name it, and there was a room that had it if it was acoustic!
Would year number 4 result in banjo #4? I had three banjos, but as I tried to play the songs of the 20’s and 30’s, it was frustrating for me. Clawhammer banjo and my lack of expertise did not make the right sounds. A little banjo ukulele from Kevin Enoch would allow me to strum along and sing some of the songs my husband likes to play, would it not?
Banjo # 4 (also known as baby banjo or banjo uke) appeared in the summer of my 4th year of banjo playing. It does not have the same tuning as the 5 string, but I am enjoying the few tunes I strum including Tiptoe Thru the Tulips and Ukulele Lady. It is a lot harder to sing and strum together than I would have thought, but it is a goal I think I can achieve.
Rather than wait for year # 5 to begin, I bought my 5th banjo as the fourth year came to a close. Why not buy a Gold Tone CEB-5 cello banjo? After all, it does have a 5 in its description! Although I had no intention of getting a cello banjo, Mary Z. Cox had to write about it on the Banjo Hangout. When she mentioned that the gold would look great with my hair, I couldn’t resist. Besides, Paul Roberts was traveling to Albuquerque and could easily cart it to my house, could he not? I also owned the perfect outfit to wear with it (see picture), and so now, there are 5 banjos at my house, with a 6th on its way, but I’ll leave that story for another segment.
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Judy Muldawer - BanjoJudy - View homepage on banjo hangout website
From Albuquerque, New Mexico
Vega White Laydie (1928?), Chuck Lee serial number 311. Chuck Lee Vintage Prairieville with gorgeous rose inlay. Little Banjo Uke -thanks to Kevin Enoch. Looks like my banjos had a baby! Gold Tone Cello Banjo.