Gender in Jamming

Casey Henry

In preparation for our Women's Banjo Camp in a couple weeks I dug out this old paper I wrote for a class in college. It explores the different ways men and women act in jam sessions. It is lengthy, and a bit academic, but holds up pretty well even after all these years. I post it here for those of you who are interested in the subject.


The Relationship of Musical Experience and the Experience of Gender in Bluegrass Jam Sessions

By Casey Henry

October 28, 1999

Written for a Women in Music course at the University of Virginia

(MUSI 419, Prof Suzanne Cusick)


Bluegrass music is, and always has been, played mostly by men. Throughout the history of bluegrass this has always been the case, although more women are entering the music now. As a woman who plays this predominantly male music, I am frequently made aware of my gender, especially in jam session situations where I am playing with and for men who I do not know. Gender is relevant to the entire jam session setting both in the character of the music itself and in the interactions between the players. One particular

jam session at a festival in North Carolina two years ago provides a nice setting for exploring how gender interacts with and affects the playing of bluegrass. But first, a little background on gender and bluegrass in general.


The band that most people consider the quintessential bluegrass band, Bill Monroe's 1946 Blue Grass Boys, was composed of five men: Monroe on mandolin, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on upright bass. That band, and the other bands around that time—Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley—defined, and still define, what bluegrass sounds like. So the bluegrass sound itself is a male sound; it was played, sung, and written by men. Up until the mid-1970s all the major players and singers were men. Since I play banjo I'll use the banjo as an example. Earl Scruggs is the founder of bluegrass banjo. Following in his  footsteps are Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Sonny Osborne, J.D. Crowe, and many others. No widely known women appear on the list until the late '60s and early '70s with Roni Stoneman, Alison Brown, Murphy Henry and Lynn Morris. Still today when the average bluegrass picker or fan thinks of "great" banjo players, no woman will come to mind. So, as a woman banjo player, I, and all the other women, are following in the footsteps of men; we are trying to play like men.


Along with the male legacy that women players have to contend with is the character of bluegrass itself. The music is often fast, intense, aggressive, and competitive, characteristics which are associated with masculinity in our culture. People expect "good" bluegrass to have these features. People also expect women to possess the opposite of all these qualities (demureness, deference, politeness) and that those qualities will come out in their playing. Thus the term playing "like a girl" to describe wimpy picking. Women playing in jam sessions both have to prove that they can perform on their instruments, defying bluegrass's male legacy, and have to field comments about how they play good "for a girl" simply because they play competently and are not too shy to prove it. In order to be judged a decent picker by the other players a woman has to overcome cultural stereotypes of femininity and project male characteristics in her playing, a sort of musical gender bending.


To bring all these generalizations down to the specific, one jam session in September 1997, at the Bass Mountain Bluegrass Festival near Burlington, NC, demonstrates many of these stereotypes and difficulties which women face. I drove to the festival Friday morning by myself because I wanted to see some of the bands who were playing and did not have anyone to take with me. That night I found myself a decent picking session in the dark campground near a roaring bonfire. I approached the session, banjo in hand and stood, as etiquette demands, waiting to be asked to join. All the pickers in the circle were men, and I did not know any of them. Most of the women present in the surrounding listening audience were, no doubt, the significant others of the jammers. I approach these types of sessions assuming that they expect me to play inadequately, or that they will ask me to play more out of curiosity—to see whether I really can pick—than because of anything they hope I will bring to the session. I know that they are judging me on the basis of my gender and, as a woman who plays banjo, I have a particularly (stereotypically) masculine role to fill on the loudest instrument.


Before long someone asked me to get out my banjo, so I did and joined the circle. They already had one banjo player, and generally jam sessions do not need more than one. They would not have asked me to play if I had looked like I was going to take over the session from the other banjo player, which many male pickers (the rude ones) tend to do. Their quick invitation in this case leads me to believe that, just because I am a young, fairly good looking female, they were either testing me out, or wanted the pleasure of my company. They were all older men, and I've rarely met a man who didn't prefer a young attractive woman player who is competent, or not, for that matter, to just another man. I may have gotten invited to join because of my looks, but I had to earn my place to stay by my picking.


The first thing they asked me to do was pick a banjo tune. This is the polite thing to do and it signals that the other players had accepted me into the circle. The first tune is also a convenient way to judge the new participant. What you pick and how you pick it are very important. It is your one chance to prove that you can cut it, or not. I feel that the first tune is especially important for me as a woman because I am fighting against the expectation that I cannot really play. I feel, whether this is really true or not, that I have to play twice as well as the average man to be accepted on the same level. Fortunately, at the average campground jam, I am pretty obviously better than most of the pickers there, so they have little choice but to accept me. But I still had to prove myself to them on the first tune so I chose a fast, hard-driving, canonical tune, "Shuckin' the Corn," by Earl Scruggs.


Choice of tune is important in a situation like this. I knew that this was a traditional bunch of players, so an instrumental from one of the three bluegrass banjo founders would be appropriate: Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, or Ralph Stanley. Stanley's best known tune, "Clinch Mountain Backstep," is getting to be fairly common, so if you really want to be impressive this is not the best choice of tune. Many of Don Reno's tunes are complicated and impressive, but they are not generally as well known as Scruggs's and it is best, at first, to choose something everyone knows. "Shuckin the Corn," is standard three-chord bluegrass, but it is very fast and not easy to play, if you play it right. It can be impressive or it can be a real disaster. When I kicked it off, hard and fast, I got the usual reaction: surprised, impressed looks. I always feel like saying, "Yes, I really can play, so get over it and let's pick."


I think my choice of instrument, not only my level of talent, has a lot to do with the reactions I get in jam sessions. If I had wanted to join the session on bass or rhythm guitar, or even rhythm mandolin, they may or may not have let me in, but it probably would not have elicited much comment either way. Since I played a lead instrument and insisted on becoming an active, contributing participant, taking breaks and singing, I was taking a role not expected of a woman. To determine why bass and guitar are more common and less surprising for women to play involves looking at the roles that the instruments themselves take in playing the music.


In bluegrass, each instrument has a specific role to play, and these roles do not vary much at all, especially in jam sessions. The upright bass and guitar are mainly rhythm instruments. The bass lays down the one and the five of the chord while the guitar adds the fullness of a boom-strum (bass string, then strum the higher strings) rhythm pattern. Recently the guitar has taken more of a lead role, but lead is not its main purpose. The mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and sometimes dobro (resonator guitar) play solo breaks, kick off songs, and play back-up or rhythm while the singer is singing or another instrument is soloing. These lead instruments get to take the flashiest roles, have the chance for variation and improvisation, and get the most attention from the audience in a performance situation and from the other players in a jam. Since bass and guitar play the rhythm, they function to support the lead players and rarely get to step out and gain attention by taking a lead break.


These roles that the instruments play correspond rather well to the stereotypical social roles of men and women in American society. The people playing the lead instruments get the attention, get to make the decisions about what songs to play, and get to direct the jam by designating who is to take the next solo (with a look). The bass and (non-lead) guitar players get to support the lead players from the background and they generally get ignored, but the music needs them there or it couldn't exist. The lead players have the stereotypically male social role, and the rhythm players have the stereotypically female social role. And, not coincidentally I think, the great majority of the women who have played bluegrass in the past, and who play it now, play the rhythm instruments.


The few women professional musicians who were around in the early days of bluegrass played bass. If you wander through campgrounds or watch the stage at festivals today, of the few women performers you see, most will be bass players. This phenomenon would seem incongruous if you tried to explain it from a physical standpoint. Most people would expect pickers to play instruments suited to their size and strength. Men, who generally have more upper body strength than women, should be playing bass, which is the biggest, heaviest instrument and takes the most strength and endurance to play. Women, who are generally smaller, should predominantly play fiddle and mandolin, the smallest and lightest instruments, which require the most manual dexterity. But this arrangement is not the case at all. More women play bass because its role in the music most closely replicates women's social role; likewise men play lead instruments because their roles correspond to men's role in society. From a social standpoint the arrangement makes perfect sense, unfortunately.


Given that gender is so closely associated with choice of instrument, people are surprised when I can play banjo better than the average campground picker. But after they get over their surprise, usually they accept me as an equal and get down to the business of jamming. This was the case at Bass Mountain where our jam lasted almost four hours. It was a good session and there was a good singer who knew a lot of songs, which is the key to keeping a jam going. Throughout, I was the only woman playing or singing, so the gender differences in the way that men and women tend to act in jams were not too apparent (and, to tell the truth, I had not yet started studying them, so I did not notice at the time). But I will draw on my experience at numerous other jams to demonstrate how men and women's behavior in jam sessions often replicates their behavior in society at large.


In my experience and from my observations, men and women tend to reproduce their culturally-assigned social roles in the context of jam sessions. Men often approach jam sessions as a contest. The general point of jamming in their eyes is to make themselves look good and to prove that they have the most bluegrass knowledge. They would never admit that this is the point, saying instead that the point is to make good music and to have fun, but it is evident from their actions that there is a contest happening. One of the most obvious signs of competition is men's tenency to just start into a tune without announcing what it is or what key it is in. One man starts and expects everyone else to join in. It is partly a test to see if the other pickers can figure out what the song is, and partly an assumption that they are the leader of the jam, at least for the time being, whom everyone will join.


Men also have a tendency to want to play everything just like the record. Since bluegrass is learned mostly from recordings and by imitation—transmitted aurally instead of by written music—the original recording of a song is the authority, the assumed template to which all the other versions of a song are compared. The act of jamming is like a game for which the original recordings are the rules. The ones who can play a song closest to the record win. If you do not know the songs, the repertoire, you lose, and if you know the songs but don't play them anything like the record you also lose. The goal is to sound like the record. This standard puts women at a disadvantage to begin with. Although women may be able to sound like the records when they play, if they are good enough, they will never be able to sound like them when they sing, because all of the singers were male. It is not that women lose the game from the beginning, but that they are excluded entirely. This makes it hard for women to compete and be accepted, in this particular situation, because they would need to redefine the rules if they wanted to beat men at their own game. Some women like me, though, happen not to want another game, so they tag along with the men, hoping that they will make exceptions to the rules.


Sometimes women do succeed in redefining the rules within the context of the bluegrass jam session. This happens most often with the jam is composed of all or mostly all women. In these cases women use the jam session as a way to build a little community. Instead of competition the point is to have everybody participate. When suggesting songs women ask if everybody knows the song and then wait for confirmation from everybody before proceeding. If there are one or two people who do not know it then, more likely than not, whoever suggested the song will choose a different one until she hits upon one that everyone knows. It is more important for everyone to be able to join in than for any particular song to be played. A common pattern in mostly female jam sessions is for everyone to go around the circle and each choose and "lead" a song (by kicking it off, singing it, and designating who is to take the breaks). That way everyone gets an equal chance to participate and the jam has no one leader. This pattern rarely occurs in mostly male sessions where there tends to be one leader who will choose the songs, or designate who is to decide on the next one. The male way is more hierarchical than the democratic female way.


Since both the male and female behavior at jam sessions was developed around having a male canon, it would be interesting to speculate if men and women would act the same way if there was a female canon. With more women emerging as major bluegrass artists—Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris, Rhonda Vincent—will women start to want to play their tunes just like the record, or, rather, the CD? Or will women develop a different jamming etiquette? I know from that experience that women have made Krauss's tune "Steel Rails" into a jam session song. I do not know if they were trying to play it like the record or not, but they played it nonetheless. If women start to try and replicate the sounds on women's recordings, men will then be pushed out of the game, just like women are now, because men cannot sound like women just as much as women cannot sound like men.


Another question that arises when considering the new female artists producing popular music is: will playing "like a girl" come to change meaning? All the above-mentioned women are masters (for lack of a better word) on their instruments. If playing "like a girl" means playing like Lynn Morris, I don't mind being told that at all. The term "girl," though, needs to be changed to "woman." If she is under the age of twelve "girl" is okay. Otherwise the bluegrass world needs to recognize that we are really adults. I look forward to the day when somebody asks me to describe my playing and I can answer with,  “Strong, aggressive, and supportive. I play like a woman."

PS - Congratulations if you made it all the way to the end. This is the longest blog post EVER!!

2 thoughts on “Gender in Jamming

  1. Valerie

    Oh, I needed to read this. Thank you for posting and serving as a strong female role model for this picker.

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