Learning Frailing Banjo – Week 5 – Sam Hall

Into week 5 of learning the craft of 5 string banjo – and my first recorded attempt at a song!

Sam Hall as recorded by Johnny Cash on American IV.

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Woman Without Dog

 

It was just a story, we were out walking the dog around the Croft in Stoke-on-Trent when I saw the woman, out walking her dog, except there wasn’t one. Actually, there was one, but it was small and obscured by the long grass but by then it was too late, Woman Without Dog had already grown legs and starting running off by itself. Who was she? What’s her story? The last verse came later, there might be a chorus added at some point in the future.

Dedicated to Pip, we’re all Woman Without Dog at some point.

D                                               F
She’s up at the park every day
C
Walking her dog, at least
G
That’s what she says

D                                                                           F
There’s never been a dog with her all this time
C                                              G
They all say she’s lost her mind

She lost her husband seven years ago
Walking their dog along the flooded rivers flow
Somethings can never be explained
They all say he flew away to Spain

Now she walks around all alone
Every night up there in the dark
Talking to a dog that’s not there
Another voice lost in the wild autumn air

I watch her slowly fade away
And I think I’ve got it made
She’ll be forever on my mind
I just hope I got it right this time

https://youtu.be/SUD3GeE7tpQ

 

I Remember

Music has always been with me and I have always been with music, I remember my first ‘personal stereo’ cassette player back when Walkmans were really Walkmans and the Grundigs and Thorns did the same for less money. I don’t really remember my dad being interested in music at all, maybe sometimes humming a big band tune now or then. My mum had a few records, Roy Orbison, the Carpenters and the like. She would always sing along to the radio in the car which was always tuned to BBC Radio 1 back then when we were lucky if the radio had an 8 Track player let alone a cassette tape player. My oldest brother recorded his Bowie records for me and I spent many hours digesting Space Oddity, the Laughing Gnome, the Little Bombardier, Life on Mars and all the others, not really understanding, aged just 9, what was unfolding through my headphones. New music came my way – Beatles tapes from my Mum’s friend Maggie, Queen and Dire Straits, 6th Form influences of Goth with the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim and the explosion of the Los Angeles sleaze metal scene headed by the unknown but soon to be very well known Guns n’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and the German metal bands Helloween and Accept and many others in between.

In all of this though, one thing I knew was that no matter how much music I listened to or how many concerts or gigs I saw there was never the slightest possibility that I would ever be able to make music. Of this one thing I was sure, I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t sing and like the other talents in life I didn’t have like being sporty or artistic or out-going I just accepted my place in life because at least I was kind of smart and if I got good grades and a good job everything would be ok.

In my later teenage years I picked up a guitar and learned some rudimentary chords, I learned that although I could remember the chord shapes I could never remember the order to play them in to play a song, let alone remember the words. I saw other friends grow in talent in leaps and bounds and I was left strumming quietly in my bedroom with a couple of song books and a borrowed guitar.

Suddenly it was the mid-nineties and the internet had been invented, I had no hope of tabbing songs for myself of hearing a chord or key being played and knowing what it was. The internet opened a new world of others tabbing songs and uploading them to ftp servers back when the internet was more than just world wide web, it was ftp, it was gopher, it was irc and a whole lot more in between.

I began to download song sheets with chords and found that I could now passably play and sing along to the Dog’s D’Amour and Counting Crows although I knew how bad it must sound and that’s how I remained, occasionally playing on borrowed guitars for the next twenty or so years.

Unlearning the programming, the Shadows of the past is a journey. It started with the gnawing sensation that there must be something more to this, with a two day corporate ‘Effective Communications’ workshop that taught me that I was not my thoughts and opened the door to this journey of discovery.

I wrote a lot of poetry at this time, performed a lot of it until the well ran dry. I’m happy I had it for a time and look forward to its return. Another chance remark from someone asking if I wrote songs as well percolated in my brain for a year or two until last spring half a dozen songs fell out. But what was I to do with them – they don’t read like poems and I can’t sing or play them, other than the in the safety of my own living room. So I picked up the guitar with earnest, learnt to finger pick over the summer and actually, finally, bought my own guitar.

How many hurdles had I crossed to have the stuttering confidence to walk into a guitar shop – a guitar shop! With real musicians playing real music! What the hell did I think I was doing? One corner of the store was a sea of acoustic guitars and we must have played every single one of them. Of course the guitar I fell in love with didn’t tick any of my pre-conceived boxes – it’s fully acoustic, doesn’t have a cut-away so I can’t reach anything below the twelfth fret and it was £150 or so below budget.

So fast forward to now, three weeks ago to be precise when I saw my friend Joey had a banjo. “I just play for myself”, he said, “I don’t care how I sound”. A few days later I heard him play and he could play. He showed me ‘clawhammer’ style – “strike, strum, thumb!” and a blue-grass finger picking roll. As I was leaving he lent me his banjo and urged me to search YouTube for Patrick Costello to learn how to play. I didn’t really understand why as I thought it was just a matter of learning some new chord shapes and getting some speedy finger picking practice in. How wrong could I be, the banjo is a craft all of it’s own, with percussion, chords and melody all in one. Patrick urges us to play, and better than to play is to share and show someone else how to play, to go out in the world and make music. He tells us that anyone can sing, anyone can play.

I made a couple of short videos of me playing the banjo after one week and after three weeks, just something to remember how it was when I started and hopefully see the improvement in the coming weeks and to spread the word and work and boundless enthusiasm of Patrick Costello. I didn’t make a video after week two – I was too self-conscious to record it with anyone else in the house. But then I made this, I’m not sure why. I can see all the flaws in it but in the words of Johnny Cash in his version of the Streets of Laredo I’ll “not mention his name and his name will pass on”.

Hand-Feeding Robins

Over the last couple of months, on our morning dog walk, we slowly became aware of the robin by the churchyard and patiently developed a two way relationship with him – we provide food and he sings for us.

Jon Young talks of the cords of connection between us and nature, if we notice nature we create a thread and the more we notice and pay attention to nature the thicker the thread. We watch the robin and the robin watches us and the thread becomes a cord and the cord becomes a rope and we are growing a strong nature connection. And the best part is coming home and sharing the story with you.

The Journey

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

Mary Oliver asks of us in her poem ‘The Summer Day’. In a little over a month I’ll be heading back to Embercombe to volunteer on their ‘Journey’ programme and this question will once again be forefront in my mind.

“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began”, again Mary Oliver guides us in her poem ‘The Journey’

A new circle will be drawn and thirty or so inquisitive, nervous, bemused and perhaps bewildered individuals will begin their Journey into themselves, and as in the ancient story of Iron John, they will serve their time in the forest, the ashes and the kitchens before finally coming triumphantly home to their own truths.

“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting”, Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese advises us. Of course, you can if you want to, we all seek redemption in our own ways but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The work has already started for me and for them, it started before I signed up, it continued as I made the space and time to participate in March and as I made the plans to leave my life here for a week, and it’s still happening now. A place and a time that had faded from my everyday thoughts was now back in them, the names, the places, the experiences. The breakdowns and breakthroughs I had taken part in, those I had witnessed and those that will take place in March.

The lake will be beckoning me, to sample its icy waters as it warms itself from its winter dreaming, the forest will call to me as it thrusts new green shoots into the coming spring, the stones will remember me, as they remember everybody. One day they may remember you as an old friend too.

And once again I will share a last goodbye before gathering up my experiences and memories of my week in the real world and taking them out there, out here, and finding my place in the world again.

“And when the sun rose

That, this morning

In your blue eyed sky

I knew my, our ending had come.

All that was left

Was to say goodbye.”

Aye

Aye

Aye

Aye

Aye, aye, aye

Bee

Bee, aye, aye

Sea, sea, bee, be

Dee, sea, sea

Dea, see, bee

Aye

Aye, bee, sea

Dee, E

Dee, E, eff

Eff, gee

Aitch, Haitch, aitch

Eye, Jay, Kay

Elle

Em

En

Oh pea queue

Pea queue

Argh estuary

Double you

You you

Ex

Why?

Zed.

It Must Have Been Ritual

That’s what the future archaeologists will say about my fireplace. 

Once, fire was the centre of the house and the centre of our lives. We tamed it, trained it and built chimneys take the smoke away. We celebrated our achievements and decorated the place of the fire, or fireplace, with a mantelpiece. Now the fire has gone and the mantelpiece becomes the place of the TV, rather like Roman temples replaced Neolithic sacred places and were later replaced themselves by Christian churches. TV is the centre of the household now. Praise be to TV.

And now, after the TV has gone, there just remains a bracket bolted to the wall. It is the clue but not the reason, the tantalising glimpse into what was. The archaeologists will say it was ‘ritual’, why else would we have suspended something above our very special fireplaces?