Sunday, February 13, 2011

my banjo mentor

I found a banjo mentor and her name is Julie Duggan. She plays old-time banjo better than crows fly, and it was an honor to have her sitting in my living room. Today my house was bursting with old songs out of Julie's 200-year-old banjo. It was the kind of clawhammer I had only seen on videos or concerts, never in person, never in a way where I could ask questions and stare at hands. I was in awe.

Julie and I have been in touch on-and-off since I moved to Cambridge, but we never really got together like we planned. She knew I was interested in becoming a better banjo player, and that I had a fiddle here too. But finally after a week of banjo posts on this blog she and I couldn't put off hanging out any longer. So we made banjo-brunch plans.

She lives just 6 miles away from my farm, on her own 30 acres of gardens and music. There, her and her husband Dennis collect antiques, garden, build log cabins and acquire and restore old banjos. She also teaches art in Cambridge High School, paints, does pottery, and plays a bevy of other folk instruments to boot. She used to travel and teach at camps and festivals all over America, but now lives a quieter life (if a banjo player can have a quiet life) here in Washington County. That video posted above is Julie playing Cluck Ol' Hen. It's a favorite fiddle tune of mine, but you can really see her fly on that 1800's pot. She's certainly got the gift. You can listen to plenty of free recordings and videos on her website

As soon as she walked in the door there was an instant sense of familiarity. After all, this was a woman who knew about that sweet music, played fiddle tunes, loved dogs and horses and appreciated small farms. We got along so well we didn't actually get a chance to play anything till the last 45 minutes or so of her visit, but she explained things perfectly. She's a natural teacher, and she showed me techniques, tricks, and hints to help me get started. After years of books and videos I finally had someone really explain, in person, the way to frail the strings. How my hand should feel, how my thumb should work. It will take weeks before I am used to the clawhammer motion, but at least now I know exactly what I am working towards. My homework: one simple lick she called Alligator, which is more or less a lesson in motor functions.

We'll barter for lessons. I'll be providing her with eggs, honey, knit goods, and help with some projects (no meat, she's a proud vegetarian but supportive of small-scale meat farming). I'm beginning to barter more and more, it's swiftly becoming my favorite economy.

She was frank as hell, too. She basically explained I'll be as good of a banjo player as I'm willing to work for. If I play 15 minutes a day, I won't progress as well as if I was playing 2 hours. I nodded in understanding, and when she finished a particularly beautiful version of waterbound, I asked her how long it would take for me to get to something like that? Her answer: about 2-3 weeks with real practice. This blew my mind. I told her I just wanted to get there by summer. She laughed, shook her head, and said "Stick with me, Kid."

As if she could get rid of me now...


Blogger ~ Janis said...


February 13, 2011 at 9:19 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Fan-frickin-tastic! She is a rockstar.

February 13, 2011 at 9:20 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Well, Jenna, I do believe in bartering and take part in it but our friendly IRS hates it. So far there isn't much they can do. Just keep your books clean and barter on.

February 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Mim said...

I showed TrapperDude and he thought she was great! He plays mandolin and fiddle...when we first met in high school, he played the banjo.
I'm thankful he plays mostly mandolin now...he tended to play alot of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" style the end of the day...trying to unwind...seriously, there were times I wondered if we were going to make it as a couple ;)
Practice does make perfect and as long as you are enjoying it, you'll do great!

February 13, 2011 at 9:47 PM  
Blogger ta2mee said...

That is great! When is banjo equinox? I think I know what part of my tax return is going towards =)

February 13, 2011 at 10:31 PM  
Blogger Amy McPherson Sirk said...

Great news, thanks for sharing it with us. After the winter you've had you're due for having some things fall into place for you. Enjoy!

February 13, 2011 at 10:43 PM  
Blogger Lynda Halliger Otvos (Lynda M O) said...

Listening to you wax about the adventures you love warms my heart, Jenna. Have you heard from Finn since he rehomed? He crosses my mind occasionally when my cat gets egregious !~!~

February 13, 2011 at 11:52 PM  
Blogger SouthernHeart said...

Wow! What joy that must be to feel your fingers flying over those strings and frets and hear that wonderful music...

February 14, 2011 at 12:02 AM  
Blogger Em said...

Between these recent banjo posts and the time of year, I'm experiencing some serious nostalgia. And what are the odds that you'd post Cluck Old Hen! I spent 4 months as a work/study at the John C. Campbell Folk School in 2007 and I knew I was at home when I was unpacking my things that first February afternoon and heard the soft strains of clawhammer banjo drifting through the circa-1925 wooden walls of Keith House. The senior host at the time played, and I always asked her for this song. I remember singing it with the other work/studies in between gasping for breath as we hauled boxes of old records down 3 flights of stairs one day. The only thing better was when the musicians would bring out Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman in the middle of a long set during the contra dances--the whooping and hollering that always resulted was the best! Thanks for the video, and good luck with your banjo!

February 14, 2011 at 12:07 AM  
Blogger T said...

I have no desire to play the banjo but boy I LOVE taht ole' timey music. Amen!

February 14, 2011 at 12:42 AM  
Blogger Jenny Glen said...

Speaking of banjos, in case you missed it...
check out the first band on this clip at tonight's Grammys. They play again at the end with Bob Dylan. I'd never seen them before but I love them now!

February 14, 2011 at 12:56 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

That was pretty cool! There was a time when I really wanted to learn how to play banjo; now, not so much. I still love listening to it, though!

I'm glad you found a mentor- good luck with your lessons!

February 14, 2011 at 1:59 AM  
Blogger Bovey Belle said...

This really had my toe tapping and I hope that you will soon be playing like it's 2nd nature!

You were certainly lucky to find such mentor, who fits on all levels of interest.

February 14, 2011 at 2:59 AM  
Blogger daisy g said...

Brilliant playing! I love the way you're bartering now, Jenna. What a gift to yourself! Happy Valentine's Day!

February 14, 2011 at 5:49 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This was wonderful Jenna and actually being able to hear her play was a treat. I can't wait to see a video of you playing. Happy Valentines Day.

February 14, 2011 at 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a good time. I'm glad to hear of other proud vegetarians who support healthy and sustainable meat farming practices. I don't run into them much. Around here it's usually hardcore meat or hardcore vegan.

Good luck with the banjo!

February 14, 2011 at 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for turning me onto this amazing banjoist....I am in love with traditional clawhammer style banjo playing. Makes me even wanna take up the banjo!

February 14, 2011 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger treehuggers kitchen said...

I enjoyed this so much that after I listened to it, left the cold antler website, and was reading another daily blog, I HAD to come back and listen to it again! :) I would love to learn to play an instrument, unfortunately money doesn't allow for luxuries at this point in time. Maybe someday. Thanks for sharing this with us, Jenna and Julie!

February 14, 2011 at 8:45 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Fantastic! You are lucky to have such a mentor :) I'm a mandolin girl, but that was really really great!

February 14, 2011 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger katiegirl said...

Julie seems like such a cool person. We need more cool people like her in this world.

My dad has a banjo he doesn't use. He's had it forever...maybe I can "borrow" it from him and learn a few things.

February 14, 2011 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger Janet said...

Jenna: I need your mailing address - although I kept the envelope with your address on it, I can't find it now - probably used it to encourage my fire!!
Anyway I want to post your funky hat off to you before it's too warm to wear it.
And looks like you had a very fun day making a new friend and playing the banjo - I love Bluegrass!!

February 14, 2011 at 10:24 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

Jenna this is unrelated - I'm reading The Witch of Hebron thanks to an earlier suggestion of yours, and loving it!

PS this music is awesome

February 14, 2011 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger Stargazer 2 said...


February 14, 2011 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Love it! Went to her site for some lunchtime music for my baby Lucy and I. Lucy loved the music - bopping up and down while munching on her quiche! Great for a cold February day!

February 14, 2011 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Love it! WEnt to her site for a little lunchtime, quiche-eating music for my baby Lucy and I and Lucy loved it! Bopped along in her high chair. Perfect for a cold February day.

February 14, 2011 at 12:30 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Love it! My baby and I enjoyed it over quiche at lunch! Perfect for a cold February day!

February 14, 2011 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

I really enjoyed it and sounds like a fantastic arrangement. Can't wait to hear you play!

February 14, 2011 at 2:08 PM  
Blogger mdoe37 said...

Oh my. . .that was
won. . der. . .ful!!

Here's my thinking. . .since my rural town does not allow me to have chickens and my fingers are relatively dexterous (80 wpm) -- I can have a banjo.

Ebay. . . here I come!!

February 14, 2011 at 3:18 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

Practicing is no big deal when you love what you're doing.

February 14, 2011 at 6:24 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 16, 2011 at 7:22 AM  
Blogger Coley said...

I picked up my husbands 5 string a few months ago. I can play "Wildwood flower" & Big Rock Candy Mountain Clawhammer style.

I've been watching the forum boards over at
I've been having so much fun practicing every night.

February 16, 2011 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

my FAVORITE song!!!! lovely rendition.

February 25, 2011 at 3:39 PM  

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