I sat on my couch, willing my hands to remember just how to hit a note cleanly on my new banjo. Keeping my right hand curved as if holding a credit card between heel and first knuckle, I hammered down again and again, muting the strings with my other hand, trying to get the distinctive bum-diddy of clawhammer banjo. I internalized the movement while watching a sitcom.
A season of Parks and Recreation later, I had the basics down and was thirsting for more- I wanted to play with people. That was what folk music was all about, right? I texted a friend asking to play with them, and they gave me a date and time for the next get together to play music-- the local old time jam, playing music from the South and Appalachian regions of the US on traditional folks instruments like banjo and fiddle (but never violin!). Their only other instruction? “Bring a chair.”
Dragging my camp chair and unwieldy banjo case from my car, I walked out through the park where I saw a distant circle of claustrophobically close chairs. Folks saluted me with bows and a slight wave of larger instruments, and scooched to make room in the closed circle. Musicians were so close that we were almost on top of each other, leaning forward to listen as each melody seemed to sprout from a single fiddle and grow to cover the entire group, elaborating as we repeated the songs.
That was my first old time jam, over four years ago, and since then my banjo, my chair, and myself have traveled up and down the east coast finding old time jams. Nearly every region of the United States features a regular gathering to play old time fiddle tunes, and it takes a quick visit to Facebook or Old Time Central to find them. Certain venues, like the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, VA, are beacons of old-time music, with Floyd boasting a monthly radio show, frequent performances (especially pre-COVID), and weekly jams that bring dozens from around the rural area to play tunes together. The collective knowledge of tradition and transmission of songs from generation to generation lends a sense of family to every gathering. This is only cemented more when one sees parent-child duos seated next to each other, passing on the familial love of music.
Summer brings something even more special: festivals and fiddlers’ conventions. Some of my fondest memories include sitting in chairs around a campfire with my closest friends, harmonies rising with the smoke of the fire into the peaceful pine forest around us. Folk songs are best played with folks, and a gathering of hundreds of potential musical collaborators makes each gathering its own version of a song. The “Old Joe Clark” of one festival might have little in common with any other version. It’s amazing what the simple act of bringing a chair can do -- it can open up a whole world of music and camaraderie in the casual outdoors of America, keeping traditions alive and adding to the endless chorus of music made for and by the people.