I hated folk and bluegrass as a kid. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s with older siblings who were really into the whole folk revival thing, but I found old folk ballads to be corny and boring. The Beatles were cool and I appreciated Dylan, but the first album I ever forked over my own money for was The Jackson Five’s ABC. From a very early age, I loved soul, funk, blues and jazz, which is kind of weird because I grew up in the very white suburbs of Portland. My appreciation for Bluegrass and Americana music only came late in life, and it came as the direct result of my desire to play in jam circles.
When I started working on building a repertoire for jamming, however, I naturally gravitated to the songs I loved. One late night while plunking away on my banjo, I started toying around with trying to adapt the chords for Sly And The Family Stone’s Family affair to the banjo. I discovered that if I tweaked the tuning, I could get this cool, sort of Slyish tone. It really wasn’t anything like Sly’s version, but somehow it worked. The banjo gave it this old-time twist that fit the mood of that fantastic original version. I started experimenting with other songs I loved: Marvin Gaye’s Grapevine, The Temptations, Just My Imagination – some songs worked some songs did not. Songs that “worked” were the ones that could be reduced to more of a “boom chuck” rhythm. Why? Because the determining factor for what “works” and what doesn’t is whether other people can easily follow along and jam on it. When I’m working up a song, I don’t think so much about performance, I think about jamability: will this song be something that the circle can really sink its collective teeth into? If a song has too many fancy chords or is just too rhythmically complex, its a “jam buster”. I don’t spend a lot or time working on songs that will be jam busters because what’s the point if nobody can play it with you? While I do love to bring my funky tunes into the mix, I also spend a lot of time working on the traditional songs because that is really the language of acoustic jam circles. If you know a few Bill Monroe tunes or some Bluegrass standards like Old Home Place, Nine Pound Hammer or I’ll Fly Away, you can show up to any jam, anywhere and have songs ready go that people will know. Plus, you can be confident that you will know a lot of the songs, or at least the chord structures of songs, that other people might call.
In certain Bluegrass or Old-time circles, be aware that it might not be cool to bring contemporary pop music into mix. The purists don’t like that. Before you jump into a circle, you want get a feel for the vibe and sensibilities of the players. That said, when it comes to leading a song and really getting others on-board, it really helps to love that song. For me, the songs that really work are the ones that singers feel into with their heart and soul. This might be a beautiful traditional song like I’ll Fly Away, but it could also be a tune by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Grateful Dead or Beyonce. The music we grow up with carries powerful resonance and meaning. This is true for every generation. It would be crazy not to include songs that inspire us just because they are not part of the traditional repertoire. When you are packing your song bag, go with the tunes you love. Songs that are just plain fun to sing and play aren’t bad either.