Misfit Jam: A Big Chess Game

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

We had some new faces at the jam tonight. Joining Bob Van, Bob Mc, and Susan were Josh, on mandolin, and Bill on bass. So with Bobby on bass, we actually had “stereo” basses.

With this combo we did:

A five song medley to start with: BITH, CC, Cabbage, FMB, and John Hardy. (This of course was hardly fair to a nascent bass player so for the next song we did....

Blue Ridge Cabin Home



When the Roll is Called Up Yonder


I’ll Fly Away

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

And we ended with “Lonesome Road Blues” since Ellen wasn’t here to lead us in “Wagon Wheel.”

The phrase “Big Chess Game” came up, compliments of Josh, when we were talking about “Willow.” Bobby asked if he should start with the chorus. I said, “You’re the singer. Start wherever you like. We’ll follow you.”

Then I explained (not for the first time) that in a jam you have to pay attention to what the singer is doing. If Bobby started with the chorus would he:

(a)        expect someone to take a break after that or would he

(b) sing the first verse and then another chorus and expect someone to take a break after that?

At which point Susan said, “You have to be a mind reader!”

I said, “No, but you have to be alert to possibilities.”

To which Josh replied, “It’s like a big chess game.”

So after Susan’s kickoff, Bobby sang “Willow,” starting with chorus/verse/chorus, gave a break to Bob, sang another verse, gave a break to Josh, sang a third verse and ended the song. I told Susan if I had been playing the banjo, I would have been hoping that Bobby would sing another verse or another chorus so I could get TWO breaks. Susan said she was glad to only get the one. Bobby said, “Just catch my eye anytime you want another break. I’ll keep singing as long as anybody is picking!” I said, “I’d be catching your eye and pointing at myself going ‘Me! Me!’” (But of course that was all hooey. When I was starting on banjo, I did want all the breaks I could get, but was way too Southern to put myself forward like that.)

After we played “Circle” we examined some of the thinking that was going on. There were only two lead players here: Susan and Josh. And “Circle” can have as many as four verses. So, when Bobby finished the third verse (I will follow close behind her...), I’m thinking, “Will he end the song here, since Susan, who kicked off the song, has already taken two breaks, and Josh has had one, or will he leave a space for a break and then sing a fourth verse?”

As it turned out, he wanted to sing the fourth verse. (Bobby: “I’ve worked hard to learn those words so I want to sing it every chance I get so I won’t forget them!”) So I gave the nod to Josh, who jumped right in on a second break. (Josh  plays enough on his own to be familiar with the jamming ropes, even if mandolin isn’t his primary instrument.) He took the break. Afterwards, I asked him what he was thinking. He said he, too, was wondering how many verses Bobby would sing, and knew he might get the nod to take a break. See? You’ve got to stay on your toes all the time!

Before I close, I have to brag on Susan who improvised a break to “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” I was so proud of her! “How did you feel about it?” I asked, which drew a laugh. She said, “I felt good! The Method works!” I said, “Well, it helps that you have practiced so much and of course the jam sessions really help.” (I’m thinking now of Field of Dreams—maybe since I saw it again on TV recently—and the phrase, “If you build it, he will come.” The ol’ leap of faith....) Sometimes you’ve just got to believe.

One thought on “Misfit Jam: A Big Chess Game

  1. Steve (in Japan)

    I enjoyed reading about Wednesday night’s Misfit Jam session and wish that I could’ve been there. Great entry with great details.

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