SUSQUEHANNA FOLK FESTIVAL NEWS - Thu, Jul 4, 2019
By David Misal
Defining success is never easy, especially in the context of something as flexible as a musical jam. In the world of bluegrass, though, we have some help from a local veteran musician, Tom Cook. A good bluegrass jam brings musicians of varying skills, ages, backgrounds, and even localities, together into a working group that helps to transmit and teach new skills, preserve the traditions of the genre, and build a strong sense of community among the players.
Speaking with Tom, a long-time mandolin player and jam-enthusiast, shed some light on this process. Bluegrass, for Tom and many other bluegrass musicians, is a family affair. Tom learned to play from family members, and his love of the genre grew in the soil of family jam sessions, where his uncle and father helped him to learn both the technical and cultural aspects of bluegrass.
While learning to comp chords and perform melodic runs on his mandolin, he also learned what he calls the "moxie" of old-time bluegrass music, a power particularly found in its vocals and lyrics that he feels should not be lost. Because of the need for this kind of preservation, the jam is important as a tool of cultural transmission, so that bluegrass does not simply become another repertory music, but instead keeps its living, breathing, pulsating soul.
This generational sharing is part of what builds a sense of community and fellowship among bluegrass musicians. Tom pointed to an early experience he had, playing “Walking in Jerusalem,” and experiencing firsthand how the traditional bluegrass harmonies merged with newer innovations in gospel and country musicianship, creating something that brought the players together, regardless of age and experience. By bringing the powerful traditions and distinctive style of the past into the present, with its youthful energy and forward-looking stance, bluegrass jams help to maintain and preserve the life and energy of the genre.
Another important aspect of the jam, according to Tom, is the opportunity for growth in the players and in the music itself. The jam brings together players of different skill levels, so that experts and newcomers are striving side by side to create something beautiful, and often something new. Typically, jams will involve a significant level of improvisational playing. This freestyle musicianship lends itself to new technical, thematic, and cultural incorporations into the bluegrass style, and helps a newer generation of players make its own mark on the music it is creating. This opportunity to learn at the feet of the masters is crucial in the development of new players, and there is nothing stopping a long-time expert from picking up a new lick or two from an enthusiastic but talented beginner.
So what makes a good and successful bluegrass jam? Lots of things, certainly. First and foremost, though, is the sense of family and fellowship that permeates the atmosphere. The sharing and caring of a diverse group of players and singers, all with different backgrounds and experiences, bringing those unique facets of themselves to bear on a musical project – this is what takes the bluegrass jam from simply being a bunch of rowdy musicians playing (mostly) together to being the splendid blending of past and present, tradition and innovation, and beautiful cultural fusion that it is.