Student Jams: Finding Common Ground With Singing Songs

I've taught at many bluegrass camps down through the years, and one thing I noticed early on is that the various instruments have little common ground when it comes to tunes. Tunes that are easy for the fiddle or mandolin, like Liberty or Soldier's Joy, are not easy for the banjo. Many lead guitar players start with tunes like Red-Haired Boy or Salt Creek, which are ADVANCED-level banjo tunes. (And even the chords are beastly.) Guitar players cannot usually take breaks to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Fiddle, mandolin, and banjo players can sometimes find common ground with Cripple Creek or Boil Them Cabbage, although capoing to A for these can be a struggle for beginning banjo players. But these aren't great tunes for lead guitar players.

This disconnect is frustrating. How can you get a jam off the ground if no one knows the same tunes?

For years I dealt with this by having fiddle and mandolin players play their tunes, banjo players play their tunes, and guitar players play their tunes while everyone else scrambled to find the chords or just sat and watched. THAT, friends, is not a jam session. That is an organized practice session. A jam session is where everyone gets a shot at participating in the tune.

It took me a long time to realize that the common ground for student jams has to be singing songs.

ASIDE: I just remembered that this idea initially came to me forty years ago when I was discovering bluegrass at the University of Georgia where I was in the Pre-Med program. (That would last only a few more shaky semesters until "the lure of the honky tonk" wrecked my young life!) When I would come home on weekends I wanted someone to play bluegrass with, and who were better candidates than my four musically talented younger sisters. Argen, our middle sister, was particularly keen on it and she played guitar. But, really, what's the fun of playing only banjo tunes when neither you nor the guitar player is very good or very fast? So, early on, we all started singing bluegrass songs together. That way everybody could participate and I still got to take all the banjo breaks!! Win-win! Our early bluegrass repertoire was eclectic, since we were newbies and had barely heard of Flatt and Scruggs: Delta Dawn, Bugler, Let The Church Roll On, Brush Arbor Meeting, How Mountain Boys Can Love (gender flipping even then!), I'll Fly Away, Farther Along, They Baptized Jesse Taylor, Brethren We Have Met To Worship, and lots of other hymns. I started songwriting early so we also sang Grandmother's Song, There's A Frog In the Pond, and The Florida Song. The point was everyone participated.

BACK TO THE BLOG: Is this focus on singing songs a perfect arrangement? No, it is not. But even if you can't play a break, the chords themselves are not hard to follow and even bashful singers can "pour out their hearts in song" and make a joyful noise! And, with some basic improv skills, three-chord bluegrass songs are flexible enough to accommodate very very very simple breaks. Some of my lead guitar students can pick out the melody to songs like Do Lord and I Saw The Light and Worried Gal on the spur of the moment. It's pretty amazing. My one fiddle student can play about anything as long as she knows the song in her head. Banjo players are learning to do "roly polys" to easy songs. Mandolin players? I'm working on something for you!

The point is, with singing songs you don't have to know a preconceived break to be able to make a stab at playing something! As my friend Marty Bacon points out, "Bluegrass may not be easy, but it is accessible."

Of course, making a stab at playing something requires a great deal of courage. You have to take that leap of faith and accept the fact that you're gonna screw up. Just like learning to walk, you're gonna fall down, you're gonna scrape your knee, you're gonna bump your head. But does this embarrass a kid? No way! It may piss her off and bring on some tears, but she gets right back up and tries it again. And pretty soon: WALKING! RUNNING! Skip, hop, and wobbling!

So, especially to all you wonderful womyn coming to our Jam Camp in July: bring your courage, your singing songs, and your big girl panties, and get ready to jam!

2 thoughts on “Student Jams: Finding Common Ground With Singing Songs

  1. Vicki chung

    Been enjoying the blog entries and how the keys we can sing in an be challenging for others in jams and this blog abt the disconnect w/ instruments … Help describe the environment of BG jams … It’s been a long time since I was jamming very regularly mainly vamping backup and solos were not something I was brave enuf to try or knew enuf to attempt … Everything you write has been very illuminating … As I am getting back into occasional jamming these blogs are great advice becz it’s not just that it’s not just about me but there are other real factors contributing … challenging jam times! Thank you …

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