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Those Crazy, Tragic, Sometimes Magic, Awful, Beautiful Jam Sessions By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, April 7, 2015

like this

(title borrowed from the Harley Allen/Darryl Worley song)

This past weekend Casey and I herded 22 banjo students through our 5th Murphy Method Intermediate Banjo Camp. There were many wonderful aspects to this particular camp but one thing I am proud of is that six women attended. (We usually only have one or two.) And of course we love all you "hairy-legged souls lost out in sin" to quote Tom T. Hall, but it's nice to see some shaved-leg types mixed in. 

Seeing these women reminded me of an article I wrote for Bluegrass Canada magazine. (It's reprinted in my first book, And There You Have It,) If you read between the lines, you can feel my frustration at not being able to participate fully in many of the jam sessions I was attending. That's one of the reasons I try to make it easier for other women coming down that same path by insisting that even beginning banjo players learn to play using a capo! 

If you want to skip to the conclusion of this article without reading the whole thing, the point is this: Women's Bluegrass Jam Camp, July 10-12 in Winchester, VA.

Women And Jam Sessions

(lightly edited for length and ranting!)

Jam sessions are the training ground for future bluegrass musicians. They are our minor leagues, our farm teams. This is where a person learns to play bluegrass. You can’t learn to play bluegrass in your bedroom, you have to get out and play with other people. Jam sessions are where those other people are. 

Now, think about jam sessions you have seen. Most of them contain very few women. Why is this? There are many reasons but right now I want to talk about an unrecognized barrier: the fact that women can’t sing in the same keys as men. Since most bluegrass standards are pitched in G or A where men can sing them this means that women who are learning to play literally cannot have a voice in a jam session. 

To understand a woman’s place, or “un-place” at a jam session, you have to realize that many jam sessions are made up of singing. When a jam session is really flowing, the group moves effortlessly from one singing song to the next, pausing to play the occasional instrumental. The songs are usually selected by the person who can sing them. If you suggest a song, you are expected to sing it. And while women often sing tenor, it’s rare for a woman to suggest a song and sing lead because, with our higher voices, we have to sing in unconventional bluegrass keys. And when you sing in an unconventional key, all sorts of bad things start to happen depending on the level of the jam session. 

At a beginning level jam session, nothing will happen because nobody will be able to play along. If everybody knows their breaks to Will The Circle Be Unbroken  in the Key of G and you say you sing it in the Key of C, then that will be the end of that. And it's tedious to teach a group how to use the capo to play in C. Then you don’t have a jam session, you have a workshop. And I love workshops, just not at jam sessions. So, somebody else (male) will sing Circle in the Key of G and you will sing tenor. So, at the very earliest stages of bluegrass musical development, men have the advantage simply because they can sing where beginners can play. Women are excluded from singing the lead (and therefore suggesting the songs) because nobody can play in the keys where they sing. So, already their growth has been limited. Will the women hang in long enough to move to the next level? 

If the jam session is a notch above the beginner level, where the players can use capos then you can probably sing Circle here in the Key of C. The Keys of B-flat and B are not good choices because the mandolin and fiddle players most likely cannot transpose their breaks to these keys. And the Keys of D and E would just be too bizarre for words and the banjo player would undoubtedly go for a beer. But, at this jam session, unless there is another woman present, there will be no harmony singing because the men are not used to singing harmony with a woman. So, you get to sing solo, but it’s not very satisfying because one of the fun parts of jamming is good harmony singing. 

Now, let’s kick the level of the jam session up to some pretty good players who can play in all the keys, are good singers in a conventional bluegrass trio (tenor higher than the lead, baritone below the lead) but who don’t have much experience singing with women. You’re going to sing a song in the key of C and the male tenor singer, who sees no difference in singing tenor to you in C and singing tenor to someone else in G, is going to try to sing tenor above you. He will give up after the first chorus and, since the baritone singer couldn’t find his part at all, once again you have to go it alone. Only this time you are left with the uncomfortable feeling that the collapse of the trio is somehow your fault. You are beginning to feel discouraged about jam sessions. 

Finally there is the Ethereal Jam Session. This is the jam session with women and men who understand all keys and all parts and know all the Stanley Brothers songs. So, while you might be called on to sing tenor in a conventional arrangement of Rank Stranger, you will also be able to suggest, and sing, Memory of Your Smile, in C,  Will You Miss Me? in D (quartet style), and  Please, Papa, Don’t Whip Little Benny, in B and have all the harmony parts filled. An Ethereal Jam Session is not going to happen very often but, believe me, it is worth its wait in gold. 

End of original article. 

I understand now that I was particularly frustrated because I love to sing lead and I knew the words to literally hundreds of bluegrass songs. It's downright depressing to want to sing "Salty Dog" or even "Rocky Top" in the key of C only to realize that the jam will literally fall apart if I push for that. Or, as I said, there will be no harmony. It was even more heartbreaking to hear other women say to me that they couldn't sing bluegrass, because they didn't know anything about moving songs to different keys. (And, yes, the same thing can be true for men. It's all about finding your key.) 

So, now to the Promotional Part of this blog! In an effort to encourage more women to come to banjo camps, Casey and I started a Women's Banjo Camp in 2013. It has been a roaring success, so much so that the camp for 2015 is already sold out. (You can still get on the waiting list. It's July 24-26.) However this year we are holding our first-ever Women's Bluegrass Jam Camp, July 10-12, 2015. It is open to women of all ages who play the standard bluegrass instruments at all levels. (You do have to be able to play a little bit, but beginners are welcome.) One of the things we will focus on is bluegrass harmony singing! What key do I sing in? How do I sing tenor? How do I sing baritone? What IS baritone? And in addition to the sing, sing, singing, there will be jam, jam, jamming! If you men have been wanting to get your partner or spouse interested in bluegrass, this is one way you can do it! Check out the links above for all the details.

8 comments on “Those Crazy, Tragic, Sometimes Magic, Awful, Beautiful Jam Sessions By Murphy Henry”

Roger Frost Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @2:45:09 PM

A telling story Murphy! So we also need women's jams for men so that we can have more opportunities to learn harmonies and breaks in the required keys?

kejaeck Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @3:51:40 PM

Looking forward to singing lots of harmony and jamming a lot with other women at your Jam Camp.

Lucy Allen Says:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 @4:28:44 PM

I will respond from what I believe is a unique perspective. I was a classically trained flautist, but had to give it up when I had a tracheostomy in 1981 at age 30. Since that time I cannot play a wind instrument. I missed music terribly so about 7 years ago I took up fiddle and have happily played with the local "guys" in a bluegrass jam. Occasionally I sing a solitary song, which is very difficult for me as I need to raise a hand to my stoma in order to have a voice and my voice has changed. I cannot play an instrument at the same time. Two years ago I took up banjo, three-finger style, but a few months ago I had to try to teach myself clawhammer because a genetic defect in my right thumb prevented me from "picking." I love my fellow jammers. They are very accommodating. I would love to sing, which I used to do in my youth, and at times can still do on the right day. I must say that I entered bluegrass under the consideration that I would never sing. I am fortunate that I met the right group of folks--all strangers, and mostly men--to support me.

Gerladius Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @12:57:13 AM

I am so relieved this was only about basic physiological truths and not some feminist mumbo jumbo.

Strumbody Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @8:06:31 AM

Murphy, well said. I'm not a banjo player, really - I'm a singer-songwriter who sometimes accompanies himself on banjo or guitar. Plus I learned banjo BEFORE Bluegrass hit the mainstream, so I am quite comfortable in other keys besides G. I never fail to be surprised when fellows who can blow the brackets off their banjos in G can't even ACCOMPANY a simple song in C or D.

Also, there are hundreds of traditional songs that even men have to sing in other keys that G. The way these guys get around them is to pretend those songs don't exist.

Maybe if there was less emphasis on sounding exactly like Earl on a certain limited repertoire and more emphasis on learning MUSIC?

Kudos on what you're trying to accomplish, but to my way of thinking it wouldn't hurt if somehow these guys could be encouraged to learn their own instruments?

Best of luck - Paul

Canuck Picker Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @8:37:15 AM

I took up banjo 9 yrs ago at 60; I was a beginner in every way.(I'm a male)..From the start there were women at the 3 different jams I frequented and they and I et all played/sang in every key. As a new banjo, now guitar player it took no time at all to use a capo and to play in different keys. As for all this harmony/tenor stuff, that's not something I've ever seen at our local jams.
My wife learned to play fiddle as an older person and she has noticed that the jams have very few women, but that's a social issue not a musical one.
At one jam I attended regularly 2 older ladies showed up one night and they just sang without playing any instruments at all and everyone there gladly accompanied them.
Finally, a little good will and general sense of inclusion is all that is really required to have a good jam!

sackerman Says:
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 @12:27:12 PM

Dear Murphy, Thank you so much for writing this! I am a fairly new banjo player. I took up banjo when I retired from teaching five years ago. I knew nothing about bluegrass. I quickly got involved with a jamming group, and now play with another group at churches and local events. I have learned a bunch and am so grateful for the people who have been willing to be patient with me. I also love to sing which caused a lot of problems for me as you mentioned. I wondered why everyone groaned when I wanted to sing something in C. I guess they had never jammed with a woman before, especially one who wanted to sing her own songs. Bluegrass was certainly not created for the female sex, but I am determined to find a way to make it happen! Thanks again for your encouraging post.
Still jammin and lovin it! Sue

Mountain Tenor Says:
Thursday, April 9, 2015 @1:58:16 PM

As a woman with a contralto voice, G and A suit me just fine (Mountain Tenor regers to my tenor banjo and picking style). I have found that altering the melody line in a song can help you fit into keys not normally comfortable for your vocal range. This is best practiced at home when you encounter a popular song that is just outside your range. "No Depression in Heaven" is my example. Our banjo player loves it in G, and I play lead guitar on it in G, but the second line has a high note I could not reach. I just altered that line to a baritone harmony, and it works. If I want to sing the song in its original melody line, it has to go to Eb. I have the opposite problem from the stereotyped female tenors. In fact, I typically end up singing baritone below the men! And yep, they frown and roll their eyes when I want a good bluesy number out of E. But a jam is to allow everyone to strut their stuff, and push the complacent to get outside their comfort zones and learn something new. Personally, I get silently frustrated with the wallflowers who will sit in a jam and never lead a song. Challenge me! With a capo and an imagination, we frequently surprise ourselves. Go for it!

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