For Rev. Bill Moremen
“Remember—just let it slide.” This was some of the best advice I got all month, though I already excel in letting things slide and probably need advice leaning in the opposite direction. But it came from my banjo teacher, Mike Wiley in Visalia, and it cinched what he’d tried to show me the day before: a technique for the left hand called “the slide,” one of those things that makes fretted stringed instruments sound so different from all others. It’s a technique where the instrumentalist takes over the instrument, making it do something beyond its basic note-playing capability, going a little wild.
I’ve always been riveted by banjo music and not known why. I hadn’t imagined learning how to play it until I inherited my dad’s banjo four years ago. He didn’t pick up that instrument until he was in his 80s, but learning to play a few songs gave him great pleasure. Another relative, my mother’s cousin’s husband, Bill Moremen, also picked up the banjo late in life and played in a group called the Pilgrim Pickers at their retirement community in Claremont. Bill was a Congregational minister all his life, a faithful anchor in my otherwise unchurched family and someone who helped me discover my leading here. I will be grateful for the rest of my life just for knowing him.
About a year ago, as the pandemic eased, I thought it might be time to learn how to play Dad’s banjo while I still knew someone who could teach me. I contacted Mike and he was willing, but life intervened and we let it slide. Then about a month ago, listening to a Pete Seeger album I love, I heard the simplest little banjo introduction to a song I desperately want to sing in church, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” And I thought “I can do that.” So I called Mike again, he said yes again, and now for five weeks I’ve been trying to learn where to put fingers, how to use picks, and how to play from tablature, which is upside down from every other form of music I’ve learned to read. It’s all good.
And it’s good because it’s all a little wild. It’s wild within a terrifically disciplined framework, which I had forgotten from learning the flute 65 years ago. The scales must be learned, the fingerings, the chords, the conventions. Until I ran into difficulty learning the slide, I had forgotten my propensity for exactness, for precision, which made it possible for me to learn that disciplined framework on the flute but kept me from becoming innovative. The slide, however, is a form of bending the rules, and it’s the banjo’s mix of precision and rule-bending that makes its music so powerful. When Mike demonstrated on his banjo where the slide was going to take us—to “Cripple Creek”—I was hooked. It may be a year before y’all hear it, but that’s where we’re going, folks.
What about that simple little Pete Seeger introduction? It’s falling into place as my competence increases with each practice, something I’m learning to have faith in once again. Learning a new instrument at this age is a wildly resurrecting experience. I hope I’ll be singing while playing Pete’s song in no time.
The evening before my banjo lesson last week I got news that Cousin Bill is coming to his journey’s end. I have to admit that I had not imagined life on the planet without him; I thought he would always be here. But two days before I got the news, I’d read a prayer from the Iona Community in Scotland that somehow makes all these threads come together.
“Journeying with you, Holy Spirit, / is to journey with the wind. / To move to your wild music, / then try to sing your song / so others may hear.”
Perhaps my dad heard the wild music, and that’s what made him pick up the banjo late in life. Perhaps Bill Moremen picked it up as a joyful finale to a lifelong journey with the wind. I have no doubt now that moving to the wild music is what made me pick up mine.
Mike Wiley is the drummer in the band “B-Sides,” which will play at the Dead Rat Saloon in Woodlake Oct. 9 (2-6 pm) and at Three Rivers’ Riverview Restaurant Oct. 14 (evening.) Check out “B-Sides Exeter” on Facebook.
Trudy Wischemann is a former flute player who never learned to bend the rules on that instrument. You can send her your wild music experiences c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.