Songs From Home

When I was a child everybody in my family sang. My mother sang lullabies and hymns. Her father, my maternal grandfather, would burst out in old nonsense songs and popular tunes from the twenties and thirties. My dad would sing Tom Lehrer songs like Pollution and The Vatican Rag. In first grade, I taught the kids in school a song my father taught me called Granny's In The Cellar that was an instant hit with my schoolmates because the lyrics included a prolonged gross-out snort.

Granny's in the cellar
Gee can't you smell her
cooking flapjacks on the dirty stove?
In her eye there is some matter
that's dripping in the batter
and she whistles while the (insert long snort here)
runs down her nose!

My first-grade teacher was a nun who seemed to loathe the way I kept strolling into class singing songs that she thought were revolting. When she found out that I was teaching my classmates Granny's in the Cellar I got slapped around a bit and then was forced to stand up in front of my class all through lunch period singing Granny's In The Cellar - which to me did not seem like punishment at all. I had a wonderful time because every time the song came to the snort one of the kids eating lunch would blow milk out of his or her nose.

When I got home that day and told my parents about the trouble I got into with Granny's In the Cellar they thought it was hilarious. My father taught me some even crazier songs like Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts and I'm Going to Go Eat Worms. Grandpop got into the game with some of his own songs. My father's best friend, my Uncle Tom, taught me how to do a trick with my middle fingers while singing a little song about how all the girls in France do a hoochie coochie dance.

I guess I don't need to tell you that Uncle Tom's routine did not go down well with the good sister.

Even if it got me into trouble sometimes, growing up around people who sang was a wonderful thing, and it proved useful when my mother gave me my first harmonica. Even though I knew nothing about music I was able to feel out the major scale and that allowed me to quickly play the silly songs of my family. When my grandfather heard me playing my harmonica he would take me to visit his friends in their homes and sometimes in nursing homes. Grandpop would sing songs like That Long Long Trail, The Old Oaken Bucket, Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet while I accompanied him on my harmonica and his friends sang along. Then we would climb into his Dodge Dart loaded down with electrical tools and roll through the streets of Philadelphia singing and laughing.

This week I have prepared introductory lessons for harmonica, five-string banjo and folk guitar. I even went so far as to split the guitar lesson into two different approaches giving you the choice between starting out in standard tuning or open G tuning. Open G tuning is a little easier for people who might have trouble forming chords.

For the harmonica, we start out getting comfortable holding the harp as well as finding a small major scale fragment by breathing into and out of the instrument.

For five-string banjo we explore the basics of frailing, a down-picking approach to making music.

For standard-tuned guitar we learn how to form a G major chord and play a simple rhythm pattern.

For open G guitar we learn a simple rhythm pattern as well as using a slide to play the G, C and D chords.

It may seem like these instruments and approaches are wildly different, but as we will learn they all work under the same set of rules. I am hoping that this will help clarify how the language of music works the same no matter what instrument you pick up.

In addition to the material provided in this week's video workshops you can find even more instruction on my YouTube channel:

I have also written several books on making music with the five-string banjo and guitar. You can find those on Amazon or order directly from us at

You are not required to pay for access to my books. I have made all my work available under Creative Commons licenses.

I will be back next week with more workshops focusing on playing and singing. It won't be long before we can begin exploring the songs I mentioned in this post - even uncle Tom's hoochie coohie tune.

If you have any questions or if you want to share songs your family loves to sing please post them in the comments.

Until then, be brave enough to sing for and with the people you love. My parents, grandparents and Uncle Tom were not trying to turn me into anyone or anything by singing to me and with me. They were simply having fun. The unintended consequence was that I grew up viewing music as something wonderful. Music became an expression of my joy in good times and music provided me solace through the bad. Music is my comfort food. Some of my happiest moments in recent years has been dancing with my wife anywhere the mood strikes us while I sing old love songs. It's not about being a great singer. It's all about joy.