“The Hell With Everyone Else, You Sound Great!”

After a nice afternoon on Staten Island with my brother and some of his high school friends (aren’t we all much more fun and much easier to get along with now than we were in high school?), I took the ferry back to Manhattan and rode the bike to the Saturday night bluegrass jam at the legendary Sunny’s in Red Hook.

Sunny’s is becoming a little too legendary, or at least the jam is. For the past year or so it has been attracting more and more onlookers, and with a lot of musicians out of town at Grey Fox this weekend, the ratio was about three spectators to every player. Three spectators all talking at the top of their lungs during the music, and applauding after every song as if we were performing and as if they’d been listening.

I enjoy an audience as much as the next attention-seeking showoff bluegrass musician, but if you can’t hear the music, it’s not any fun, it’s just frustrating. I played a few of my breaks watching the guitarist’s hands because I couldn’t hear him playing.

I was tired, and had an uphill bike-ride home, so I left fairly early. Outside, a few of the audience members were also leaving, and one woman said to me, “Wait, you’re the harmonica player. You’re leaving? How come? You should play more!” I said that I was leaving because I couldn’t really hear the other musicians. She said, “The hell with everyone else, you sounded great!”

Gee thanks. First of all, no I didn’t. As I said, I played most of my breaks by guesswork and didn’t play at all on songs I didn’t already know. Second of all, that’s not musical appreciation speaking, that’s inebriation.

But most importantly, that’s not why I play! Especially not at a jam. Music is all about “everyone else.” It’s about playing together as a community, learning new songs, sharing, and having fun. Not about being better than everyone else. Some musicians certainly approach it that way (they’re the ones who practice alone in their rooms rather than going out to jams with “lesser” players) but most of us don’t. There are some extraordinarily talented musicians at Sunny’s almost every week, and most of them are embarrassed by the applause and annoyed by the noise.

And the music really suffers. Edith, a very talented local singer who is learning to play guitar and lead songs, wanted to sing a beautiful old modal tune. I played guitar for her on it because I know the song and had in fact just spent a week in West Virginia with the woman Edith learned it from. It didn’t go well. Edith sang it beautifully, I managed to find the right harmony in that key, and (if I do say so myself) I did drive the rhythm well on the guitar. But she and I were the only people who knew it. The bass player, who really knows what he’s doing, couldn’t follow the song because he couldn’t hear it well enough.

(The song in question is called “My Warfare Will Soon Be Over,” a beautiful old modal mountain song. Old-time musicians use the term “modal” differently than jazz players, who actually know what modes are and build improvisations on the notes of a particular scale. Old-time players don’t know what modes are; I know what they are but I can’t play from them. “Modal” in old-time music refers to a song that is neither major nor minor. There are minor key tunes, often Irish airs and such, and there are lots of driving major key tunes. And then there are modal tunes, which aren’t either. Sometimes they combine a minor-key melody with more of a major-key chordal rhythm, or their melodies are so ambiguous that you could play any number of chords underneath them. A lot of modal tunes basically amount to playing A minor (or major) and putting in a G major chord every once in a while. Or not. Last year in West Virginia I played old-time guitar with Billy Cornette of the Reed Island Rounders, whose wife Betty just loves modal tunes, and when you asked him what chord to play at a particular point in a tune he’d usually say, “Either one works. You kinda have to feel it.”)

Anyway the point is that this song has a lot of tension in it, often because the melody wants a chord change, for instance, the happy “lift” to the IV chord (the one referred to in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). You most emphatically do not play that IV, especially not if Ginny is singing. (That’s her in the blue shirt in the photo; she has a great laugh but a killer look if you do something dumb when she’s singing.) You stay firmly on the I (which is major in this song) so that instead of a big happy chord change supporting a soaring melody, you have the melody trying to lift up against a resolute accompaniment that refuses to budge, and finally falling back down. And at the end, there is no resolving V chord to wrap things up, but a long-delayed VII chord.

It’s amazing when done right. Ginny sings it strong, playing with the shading of the notes and working that tension up to a fever pitch. (You can hear an excerpt of her version on amazon.com. You can also buy it or better yet buy the whole album which is spectacular.)

Some bluegrass players happy this song up by playing those chord changes and turning it into a bit of a rock&roll song. So as far as the bass player could tell, we were just missing lots of chord changes. (And, since Edith and I had never played the song together before, I was in fact missing the only damn change that actually does happen in the song, because its timing is so delayed). As a result, he didn’t really know what was going on, and all the tension that would have been created by Edith’s singing just turned into uncertainty.

So, did I “sound great” on this song? I think I did. I had the guitar rhythm down well especially after spending a week watching the right hands of people like John Lilly and Courtney Granger. Edith sang it wonderfully. I did find the harmony eventually. But so what? I was out of sync with the bass player most of the time. I screwed up one person’s break by missing the crucial chord change (and it is crucial — it’s the only release of that tension and when it finally shows up you should feel it in your bowels). No one really had fun on the song; we were too conscious of being out of step with each other. Edith apologized afterwards for god’s sake.

I don’t go to jams to “sound great.” I go to jams to enjoy the great moments that happen with other musicians and to enjoy being with them and playing with them. If you come to watch a jam, be aware that you are not watching a concert. You’re coming to a social gathering, and if you don’t like what’s going on there, go somewhere else. I’m not being mean. If you want to listen to music and sing along and suggest a song or even get up and lead one if you know the words, by all means please come to the back room at Sunny’s on Saturday night and we’ll be happy to see you. If you have a mandolin you haven’t played in a while, bring it. I guarantee you’ll find people who’ll help you out with the chords and give you a break if you want one.

But if you want to yell and scream and laugh with your friends, well, that’s what the front of the bar is for, where Francis plays old country and blues loud on the stereo and dogs roam free. The hell with sounding great. We’re there to play music with each other.

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