Tip Jar Jam #23: We Are Singing!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The regular crowd met again last night, May 15, for our 23rd Tip Jar Jam. Amazing! Pickers present were: Bob Van, Janet, Kathy, Barbara, Kasey (resplendent in pink shorts with matching pink scarf), Ben, Kenney and Bob A. We sorely missed Scott and Bob Mc who were obviously letting less important things like work interfere with their picking!


As you may have noticed from earlier blogs, more students are stepping up to the plate and singing now! Which I think is wonderful. Here's an easy-to-read list of who sang what:


Kasey and Ben: I Saw the Light

Ben: Old Home Place

Kathy: I'll Fly Away

Bob A: Beulah Land (a Do Lord clone) and New River Train

Barbara: Somebody Robbed the Glendale Train

Bob Van: Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms


If you are a wannabe bluegrass singer, the most important thing is finding the right key to sing in! You will not sing all songs in the same key, but there is usually one key where you will sing most of the songs. Generally speaking, most women sing most bluegrass songs in the key of C or D; most men sing in G or A. Since the "default" key for beginner bluegrass jams is G (no capoing!), way too many women think they can't sing bluegrass! NOT TRUE! They just need to sing in higher keys. (Our Harmony Singing DVD explains all this in more detail.)


Oftentimes, when you are singing at home by yourself (and not using your full voice), you may think you sing in a lower key than you actually do. But in a jam session, you have to sing above the instruments which create a lot of noise even when they are playing quietly. Here's an example. Kathy and I both thought she sang I'll Fly Away in A. So she sang it in the jam last week in A but that was too low. So she worked on it at home this week and thought maybe she sang it in B-flat or B. We tried it in those keys at the lesson, but as it turned out, she really sang it best in C. She has all kinds of power there. She did a great job of singing it in the jam last night. And she realized--as we all do--that this bluegrass singing is not as easy as it looks! "Does everyone's mind go blank when they have to sing solo?" she asked, after we finished the song. "Yes!" was the resounding reply. Especially if you are new to singing solo. Or if you are doing a new song for the first time. I pride myself on being a real "words" person, but even I sometimes go blank if I am singing a brand new song for the first time.


Barbara, who has turned the bass playing duties over to Kenney and is now playing guitar, sang a song that was new to the group, Glendale Train. I had kinda forgotten about Glendale Train--which I love--but it was one of my stage songs when I was first getting into bluegrass. (And I borrowed liberally from its melody for my own song, Just Remember Where You Could Be. I'm not sure I realized that at the time I was writing it!) It's basically a three-chord song with one off chord, A, in the verse and chorus. It's different from most of the songs we play at the jam in that chorus and verses are quite long--about twice as long as the verses and chorus of our other songs. So, I used it to demonstrate the concept of the "split break"--where one person plays the first part of the break and then hands it off to the second person who plays the last half of the break.


Bob Van was my guinea pig for this demonstration, even though I had just sprung the song on him during his lesson right before the jam. He came up with an excellent guitar break on the spot after hearing me sing the song through one time. I was proud of him for that! We then worked out splitting the break which he and I had done on a few songs previously. The thing about splitting a break in a jam is that pickers rarely, if ever, announce that they are going to split the break. So you have to be aware of the concept of the split break and realize that, hey, this is a pretty long break I wonder if the person who is playing right in front of me is going to hand me the second half. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But you have to be ready! (Note: this is an intermediate-level skill so don't get all hot and bothered about this if you are a beginning player!) But in the Tip Jar Jam, which is a teaching jam, we will work out the split breaks beforehand. (I can hear your sighs of "Whew!")
Glendale Train also enabled us to talk about a "turn-around."


Actually, Bob Van had opened that can of worms earlier by asking if he could kick off Blue Ridge Cabin Home with a "turn-around." I told him in no uncertain terms that he could not. (He knew that, he was just baiting me!) When Kathy asked why not, I gave her the answer that has no room for quibbling: "That's not the way Lester and Earl did it!" Then Bob A asked, "What's a turn-around?" So I said to Bob Van, "That's your question. You can answer that!" And he did, after a fashion. Upon which I turned back to Bob A and said, "Aren't you glad he's not your teacher?" Bada bing!


Actually Bobby gave a good answer. A turn-around is a short kick-off or a short break. Usually it's the last line or last two lines of the verse or the chorus. And, again, in a "regular" jam, folks often don't announce that they are going to do a turn-around. They expect you to know it, or, at least, to be able to follow it off the cuff. If they are feeling charitable they might say, "I'm gonna turn it around" and then, boom! Off they go.


Anyhow, Glendale Train has such long verses and choruses that using a turn-around for the kickoff makes good sense. So I kicked it off with a turn-around, Barbara did a good job of singing it, and Bobby and I split the one break. We'll keep that one in the repertoire!


We also did Old Home Place, which we had worked on last week. Since Ben is singing it in C, the song, with its two "off chords," provided its usual amount of confusion what with some folks being capoed (the ones who were going to play the breaks they had learned in G) and some not (the one who were just chording). This is one area  of teaching that still frustrates me--having to call out or go through two completely different sets of chords. No wonder Casey called this one a "jam buster"! But we survived and Ben did a good job singing. And I know it will get better and easier. And maybe, just maybe, I'll learn something about how to teach the chords in a better fashion. I hope so!


Being able to introduce harder songs like Old Home Place and Glendale Train into the Tip Jar Jam is a good indicator of how much the students have grown as players--and singers! No way would I have tried these last year. I'm looking forward to seeing what these next few months will bring.


If you are traveling through the Winchester area this summer, come by and jam with us. We'd love to have you. We jam every Wednesday night from 7-9. Call or email for the location.