Tip Jar Jam: Crossing The Rubicon

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Last night as I popped another cough drop and surveyed the students tuning up for the jam, I realized we had a solid intermediate bunch. Except for Tammi, on rhythm guitar, everyone had considerable jamming experience: Ben, Kasey, Kathy H, Bobby, Bob A, Dan, and Bob Mc. As we warmed up with Lonesome Road Blues I thought, "We could set this up like a 'real' jam."

So we did. We went around the circle and had each person call a tune they wanted to play. (That also kept me from having to talk so much, since I still had a nasty cough and was slugging Robitussin while chastising Bobby for not bringing me some Jack Daniels! He said mildly, "All you have to do is ask. I'm not a mind reader." Wow! That was different!) With four banjos, two lead guitars, one rhythm guitar, Ben on bass, and me on Bob A's new mandolin (breaking it in) we had a nice-sized group for a real jam. Before we started I reiterated three basic jam rules: If you kick off an instrumental, then you are the one who ends it. And if you suggest a singing song, you have to be able to sing it or have to know someone in the group who can sing it. And, most important, always have a song ready to suggest! Keep one in mind at all times!

Bob A was first up and he suggested Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which he sings. He thought he did it in A, so everyone capoed up. He kicked it off on the guitar but when he started to sing he discovered that A was not the right key. He stopped, of course, then hemmed and hawed a bit about another key. That gave me the opportunity to state the obvious: if you're going to sing a song, you have to know what key you sing it in. Being a quick study, Bob realized he probably should choose another song, so he chose John Henry, which he also sings in A. For real. We had some timing issues and only Kasey and Bob A could take breaks but we survived.

At this point, in walks Bob Mc wearing his Pick Like A Girl t-shirt! He had moved to Florida in January, so, naturally, we were delighted to see him and "made over" him and told him we'd missed him and then told him to go get his capo because we were in A. "He left the room briefly, dancing a jig, and when he came back he was wearing a wig!" [Sorry, couldn't resist. Too much Mother Goose--Old Mother Hubbard just popped into my mind!] The jig part wasn't true, but the wig part was, as you can see!

Bob Mc in his wig.

Bob Mc wearing his lovely blonde wig.

Kasey was next and she chose Old Joe Clark, a nice choice since we were already capoed up two frets. Then it was Bob Mc's turn. Since he was late--and more concerned with his wardrobe than with his picking!--he'd missed the rules part. So when he suggested Mountain Dew, I told him that since I knew he didn't sing, he'd have to ask if someone else could sing it. No takers. I told him his other alternative was to play the song as an instrumental. He jumped at the suggestion and off we went.

My choice, since I was playing mandolin, was Daybreak in Dixie, another A tune. I also knew that most everybody could take breaks.

Then it was Bobby's turn. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby! He knew that choosing a number in A would be a good idea, so we wouldn't have to fool with the capos. Unfortunately, his idea of a "good number" was a Larry Sparks' song, Face In The Crowd, which no one knew. It was also in 6/8 time, which made it impossible for the banjo players to improvise to. I managed to carve out a messy mandolin break but, on the whole, the song was not a success, as Bobby realized after it was over. But, that too, is part of the process. You try a song and if it doesn't fly, learn from your mistakes. Don't try it again with that particular group of players. I certainly have floated plenty of unfortunate choices in my day.

Tammi, being new to the jam, passed on her turn, so I called on Dan, totally forgetting about Ben who was technically next in line. (Yes, bass players get to choose a tune, too!) Dan suggested Two Dollar Bill and asked if anyone could sing it. Ben said he could but he'd like to do it in G. Off came the capos. Then followed a long discussion about who was going to take breaks, when they were going to take them, and who was going to be the "boss" of the song, Dan or Ben. We decided it made more sense for Ben to call the breaks since he was singing. But the discussion got WAY TOO LONG and I could feel jam energy being sucked away, so I less-than-tactfully said, "Get on with it," and Ben did. When he got to the end of the song, however, he found he couldn't stick his foot out to signal the ending and play bass and sing all at the same time! So the song just sorta petered out, which is never good. I told Ben the best way to deal with that is just to repeat the last line of the chorus. That way you don't have to bother with raising your foot.

Then Ben got to chose his own song and he called for Cripple Creek, another nice choice since it gave the banjo players a chance to play something they didn't have to think about too much. Kathy was next and she had us capoing up to C so she could sing I'll Fly Away. I wish I could have helped you with the harmony, Kathy!

At this point, we'd been around the circle once and I checked in with the group to see if they wanted to keep doing it this way. The consensus of opinion seemed to be, "Well, we got off to a rocky start but then things settled down, so let's keep going." So we did. I'll share a few more highlights.

Bobby, who is in fact a good jam leader and always makes sure everyone gets a break, wasn't having much luck choosing songs last night. His second selection, Little Cabin Home On The Hill, in G, should have flowed smoothly, like warm red wine (which he mentioned in his lesson!) Easy chords, easy melody, easy for banjo improv, and good for harmony singing. HOWEVER, he kicked it off with a turnaround. [A short I, V, I phrase, in this case the last line of the chorus.) But the whole idea of a "turnaround" presupposes that the jammers know the song. I've gone around with Bobby about this many times, but apparently I should have used a 2 x 4. My bad! So what happened was this: after his short kickoff, he sang the verse and chorus and nodded at Dan for the first break. Now, Dan is a very good beginning improviser. But, in this case, since Dan didn't know the song and since Bobby hadn't kicked the song off with a full break, Dan didn't know what to play. He looked at me and said, "Verse or chorus" and I said, "Verse" but by that time, the break was halfway over and Dan was lost. Again, a golden teaching opportunity. I told Bobby that was the reason for not using a turnaround. If players don't hear a full kickoff, they don't know what to do for the break. To his credit, Bobby said he could see my point. I was so startled I choked on my Robitussin. I wonder if he is mellowing out?

One of the biggest revelations of last night was how important the bass is in keeping the jam together. Dan has a tendency to speed up and get ahead of the beat. He knows it and is working hard to keep better time. Still, sometimes the notes get away from him as they did on occasion last night. When I'm leading the jam I can usually keep things from falling apart when someone speeds up by pounding loudly on the guitar. But last night I was on the mandolin whose off-beat chop is not as useful. So a couple of times we faltered, tried to recover, and then fell apart. After that I impressed on Ben that, as bass player, it was his job to keep the beat steady so we could listen to him if the timing got shaky. We needed someone to lean on and he was it! The next time Dan got ahead of the beat, I could see him listening to Ben and I could feel the rhythm come together and get steady. Then, in the very next phrase Dan lost it somehow, and Ben missed a bass note and everything went to hell in a hand basket. But for that one brief shining moment, Ben pulled us back together. It was awesome. As he told us after the song, "I was praying hard!" To which I responded, in true Baptist fashion, "Then Satan snuck in and down we went!"

I think everyone learned a lot last night, including me. You learn so much being forced to call the tune. "Crossing the Rubicon," which came into my mind as a title for some unknown reason, is actually pretty appropriate. It means, "To do something that inevitably commits one to following a certain course of action." [Yeah, I Googled it!] I imagine we'll be doing more "real" jams in the future. Not always, but when the student mix is right. It seems to be the next logical step in preparing students to enter the real jam world. And strange as it may seem, I actually enjoyed giving up Complete Control! Ha! Maybe Bobby and I are both mellowing out.....Nah, probably just the cold!

3 thoughts on “Tip Jar Jam: Crossing The Rubicon

  1. Ben

    It was very fun to do. It made you think about your part and role in the jam. Also it made you make EYE CONTACT which I think all of us struggle with. Definitely hope we do that again. Murphy was soooooo quiet. Hard to believe! I guess you had to be there.

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