I was recently at a Sunday evening jam session in Martinsburg, W. Va., that is being put on by the newly-formed Eastern Panhandle Bluegrass Association. I wanted to check it out and to take my guitar student (and square dancing buddy) Janet so she could get a taste of jamming. I knew she would do fine because she knows all her chords and has a good ear and a solid strum. I also knew I would be right beside her to help with things like telling her where to put the capo to play in B.
The jam is being held through the end of March at the Train Station 226 East Martin Street. And while I encourage you to check it out, I will point out that this jam is, as the title says, not for the faint of heart! Nor for the timid. And not really for beginners. It’s not that they are doing really hard songs, either. The selections were mostly three-chord bluegrass, familiar songs to people who have been playing a long time! (I’m sure you knew them all, Bobby!)
Here’s a song list I came up with after the fact:
I Wonder Where You Are Tonight
Darling Think Of What You’ve Done
Lonesome Road Blues
Dear Old Dixie
Old Joe Clark
Red Rocking Chair
John Hardy (done as a vocal!)
Little Georgia Rose
Sweet Blue Eyed Darling
Traveling the Highway Home
Where The Soul of Man Never Dies
Will The Circle Be Unbroken (sung by me)
As soon as I kicked off the first song I was reminded, once again, how difficult it can be for students to jam. We talk about it like it’s a piece of cake, like there’s nothing to it, like you can just take whatever you’ve learned and step right up to the plate and play. Or at least vamp or chord. But I don’t think so!
For instance, the first song we did, I Wonder Where You Are Tonight, was in the key of F! And the guy who sang it was not trying to be hard to get along with. He’s an older gentleman and his voice has gotten lower over the years, and he can’t sing in G anymore. As someone who has been playing bluegrass a long time, he just expects everyone in a jam to be able to play in F! (I quickly said to Janet, “Capo at the third fret and play in D. Use D, G, and A.” She understood!)
[Small diversion: I just have to tell you that this guy was playing a left-handed guitar. And I didn’t think anything about it till he said, conversationally, “Know anybody who has any left-handed guitars? I’ve got a bunch of right-handed Martins I’d like to trade.” Then he raised his left hand and I saw that he’d lost three of his fingers down to the second knuckle. He said, “I used to play right-handed.” Till he got tangled up in a saw a couple of years ago. But he wanted to continue playing so much that he taught himself to make the chords with his right hand, and do the strum by using a thumb pick on his injured left hand. Can you imagine retraining yourself like this? And this man was probably in his 70s. Sweet guy. He did a lot of the lead singing and at one point called for “Half-Eaten Calf.” “Kick it off,” he said to me. “I don’t know that one,” I said. He just grinned at me and sang softly, “There’s a half-eaten calf on that old mountain side....” “OH,” I said. “Blue Ridge Cabin Home. That one I can kick off!” And I did. Too funny!]
Okay. Back to my story. The second thing that I noticed was that it was very hard to hear. There were a lot of jammers—maybe as many as 20—and we were standing in a very large room with a high ceiling and brick walls. At the start, the “inner” circle consisted of three banjos, one mandolin, one bass, and at least four guitars. The outer circle (people playing but not taking designated breaks) included a fourth banjo player, a couple of fiddle players, a harmonica player, and some other guitarists. A strong fiddler joined the “chosen few” a little later, as did a young twenty-something guitar player who also sang lead. I could play because I knew the songs to begin with and I knew how to listen to the bass for the beat. But if you didn’t know the songs....wow! It would have been almost impossible to join in.
Everyone was very welcoming, some of the people knew me, which is always nice and I got the nod for a break on almost every tune. Of course, I didn’t waste any time establishing my credentials as a player, and kicked off that first song in F like it wasn’t any problem. (It wasn’t....just a slight rethinking of how to get the melody....) As it turned out, the core players in the jam were all members of the Back Creek Valley Boys and the mandolin player was the de facto leader of the jam which made things flow more smoothly. One of the banjo players was a young teenage boy who seemed very shy. He could play very well, but didn’t put himself forward at all. Consequently, he didn’t get breaks on all the tunes. After I had gained a toehold myself (!) I tried to make sure he got to play by tapping the lead singer on the shoulder and saying, “Give him a break.” (I’m sure the boy would done fine without my interference in this matter, but it made me feel helpful! And—must I say it?—in control!) Toward the end of the jam, I walked over to him and asked him to suggest a banjo tune. He didn’t come up with anything but someone near him suggested Dear Old Dixie so we played that and he did an excellent job. Hard tune, that one.
I finally left the jam when yet another banjo player arrived on the scene. That was just one too many banjos for me, so, as Snagglepuss said, I made an “Exit. Stage left!” (Remember him? The cartoon tiger?)
Will I go back? Absolutely! Do I recommend your checking it out? Ditto. But if you want to play, arm yourself with lots of courage, put on your thickest skin, and be ready to get whatever you can out of the jam. You will at the very least hear a bunch of new songs, and meet some really nice folks.