Friday, April 27, 2012

Productivity Lacking

Why haven't I said anything new in such a long time?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What Makes A Good Jam Session

A good jam session is one of the more rewarding musical experiences. You participate in creating a unique performance, rarely recorded or preserved, usually for the personal enjoyment of each musician. Hopefully, everyone concurrently learns and teaches.

But a bad jam session can be an exercise in frustration, boredom, and irritation.

In theory, I suppose, a jam could be good for some, bad for others, but, in practice, I think this seldom happens. Most participants seem in tacit agreement as to whether things are going great, going badly, or just muddling along.

So, what makes a jam good? And what makes a jam bad?

Let's consider the latter first, since it's easier to wreck a decent jam than to rescue a bad one.

In my book, players of disparate abilities, where the less skilled are oblivious to the difference, puts the jam in immediate jeopardy. If you're located on the back slope of the skill curve, you can still participate, usually, if you're willing to flit around the edges, follow the more experienced players' lead, etc. But, the strong players don't hang around long when the less accomplished push to the forefront: "Hey, does anybody know this tune called 'Soldier's Joy'" or "Nobody knows that tune? OK, I'll teach it to you (on a banjo) only I don't know it very well myself". Arrgggggh.

Trying overly complicated stuff is a jam-killer. What's overly complicated will vary with skill and background of the players, naturally, but, when it's your turn to lead, don't expect to trot out something with 15 different strange chords over, which you've spent beau coupe hours of practice, and expect it to go well. Remember, you're trying to create an ensemble sound, not audition for a slot with the Hot Band.

Paper is a jam-killer. People with music stands and sheet-music, eyes glued to the print instead of the other musicians, tend to create a stilted atmosphere. And they have a tendency, probably fostered by faith in the paper, to introduce material they don't know well enough to lead.

OK. Let's list some things that you should do to make the jam go well when it's your turn to lead.

First, play something that some others in the jam are likely to know or be able to pick up on rather quickly. A few players decently in sync will build critical mass and enable others to find their place. If it's likely that you're the only one able to play this number, you've picked the wrong tune. This is somewhat tied to the overall skill level of the group, but also relates to the style preferences of the jammers. If you're jamming with a bunch of Kingston Trio wannabies, for example, and you introduce a fiddle tune, the group may have some trouble identifying the A and B parts. No, they probably shouldn't have trouble, but, yes, they probably will. You'd better be able to count on at least one pretty competent backup guitar player to help keep the rest of the group in line.

Second, pick something that's easy for decent players who don't necessarily know the tune to contribute. This usually means songs with choruses, or repetitive and predictable lines. For example, the Crawdad song:

You get a line I'll get a pole, honey
You get a line I'll get a pole, babe
You get a line, I'll get a pole,
We'll go down to the crawdad hole
Honey, babe of mine.

Doesn't take much to figure out what's coming, does it?

On the other hand, unless you're hanging out with a bunch of Iroids for whom the song Arthur McBride is a known item, you're unlikely to get a lot of participation, since the song pretty much procedes from start to finish in narrative ballad form.

Third, when it's your turn, know your tune pick backward and forward. In many ways, jamming is more difficult than public performance, since you have to contend with people fumbling their way, with instruments, as the song gets rolling. So, you have to know your choice well enough, and play it strongly enough, to ignore other people's mistakes and to make a decent recovery when things get out of whack. Your buddies will be trying to get it right, but they won't always succeed. If this will throw you, you've picked the wrong tune.

And don’t be afraid to pass, if you can’t think of an appropriate selection. In most song-circle jams, it’s OK to request a specific song from another participant.

The best jams in which I’ve had the pleasure of participating were at the old Coffee Cantina in Suquamish, Washington. The musicians were grouped in a circle at one end of the room, with the audience in traditional rows of chairs filling the rest of the room. The style was totally eclectic: traditional folk, singer-songwriter, light rock, fiddle tunes, you name it, we probably did it. The players, for the most part a very competent bunch, were respectful of each other. One regular played at electric bass with a small amp. This could have been a problem, but he kept the volume low and he was extremely quick at picking up a tune (with the sense to sit out the ones he didn’t quite get). The place had a mildly out-of-tune piano which we just sort of worked around when someone did a piano lead.

The Coffee Cantina Friday nite jams persisted for almost a decade. Over that time, most of the players got fairly familiar with the repertoires of the others, and some of the more oft-played numbers acquired a raucus polish, with the audience joining in. Trying to follow the chords and keys of the pop and rock tunes that many participants chose, taught me more about back-up banjo than most of the formal workshops I've attended over the years.

Jam cruelty: I've seen this happen a few times, mostly at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes up at Fort Warden. The neophyte trots out his hack tune at half speed and most of the other players don't do anything at all, they just sit there. The tune ties a fumbling premature death. I used to think this was disgusting behavior -- now, I'm a bit more conflicted. I still don't like it, but, in an open jam, how do you keep someone from degrading it to the point where it's not fun?

Well, this is a bigger topic than I intended when I started, so I'm coming back to it later.

Friday, December 10, 2004


The song writer's nightmare: you think you've written a song when all you've done is remember it. Plagiarism is usually inadvertent, but embarassing none the less.

I few weeks ago, Peggy Sullivan, the female lead in Smoke Creek, said she was working on a song about the Grim Reaper and challenged me to write a song on the same topic. In a couple of weeks, I came up with these lyrics and was working on a melody:

Door Number Three
copyright 2004 by Mike Murray

I dreamed a cosmic quiz show with loads of precious gear
On the stage behind the floodlights three doors, windows clear
The MC shouted "Choose one", I calmly took a look
Door One a pile of money, Door Two a stack of books


A choice of wealth or wisdom, well, I knew which way to go
I'd sung all the old songs about a fool and his dough
"Money can't buy happiness", Oh, that line's so true
I rushed up on the platform to Door Number Two


That's when I had this problem I didn't understand
The door wouldn't open, the knob twirled in my hand
At last I read the notice and it caused my heart to freeze
The sign said "Out of Order -- use Door Number Three".

CHORUS (twice)

I was feeling pretty good about these lyrics and the idea behind them, and I e-mailed a copy to my brother. He shot back,

“Looks good. You can use the melody from Jimmy Buffet's "Door Number Three".

Well, I wasn’t aware of Buffet’s hit song, of the same title, which was co-written by Buffet and Steve Goodman:



Oh I took a wrong turn, it was the right turn
My turn to have me a ball
Boys at the shop told me just where to stop
If I wanted to play for it all
I didn't know I'd find her on daytime TV
My whole world lies waiting behind door number three

I chose my apparel, wore a beer barrel
And they rolled me to the very first row
I held a big sign that said "Kiss me I'm a baker,
and Monty I sure need the dough!"
Then I grabbed that sucker by the throat
Until he called on me
Cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three

And I don't want what Jay's got on his table
Or the box Carol Merrill points to on the floor
No, I'll hold out just as long as I am able
Until I can unlock that lucky door
Well, she's no big deal to most folks
But she's everything to me
Cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three

Oh Monty, Monty, Monty, I am walking down your hall
God be, I lost my seat but I'm not a man to crawl
No I didn't get rich you son of a bitch
I'll be back just wait and see
Cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three

Yes my whole world lies waiting behind door number three


So, his song’s got the same lyrical hook, essentially the same plot (the protagonist is looking for love instead of wisdom, Door Number Three is what he's choosing rather than Two, but it’s close enough for discomfort).

Now, is there anything I can do to save my lyrics? I could call it “Door Three Revisited”, I could rewrite it as “Door Number Four”, but, no matter what, it will appear that I stole Buffet & Goodman’s idea.

Seems my only chance is to make my song a commentary on theirs.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Band Names

I've played with several bands over the years. My bands are fundamentally amateur, although we do play for money. It's nice when your hobby at least breaks even.

Band Names have always been an issue. You want something descriptive, catchy and unique. My main band is called "Smoke Creek". We picked that name because my brother (who plays guitar and sings in it) and I were raised on a farm/ranch in Eastern Montana where a creek of that name ran through our pasture.

We play what we call "Traditional Acoustic" music. It's somewhere in the space between old-time, folk, bluegrass, country-western and singer-songwriter. In other words, we do what we like, but our stuff is relatively simple.

We've been performing as "Smoke Creek" since 1992.

Over the years, a couple of other bands popped up using the same name as ours. One, located in North Carolina, seems to be defunct since the mid 1990s. Another, in Montana, seems to play out around Billings. I find this irritating, since a casual web search would have revealed to these folks that our band, in the same region of the country, was already using the name. But, there's not much one can do about it this sort of name poaching. Trying to trademark a name is too expensive to even consider.

You'd think they'd try for a unique name for their band, so if someone does a web search, it wouldn't come up with beau coupe references to us, but...

We've produced a CD, which we sell at Gigs and through CD Baby. It got good reviews, but there are a lot of CDs with good reviews out there. If any of the johnny-come-lately bands try to market a CD using our name, I guess we'll have to try to do something about it.

Why This Blog ?

I'm going to discuss my musical prejudices here, and talk about songs I have written. At least, that's my current plan. Mostly, I just want to get the Blog established.