Public Jam Sessions, Human Jukebox, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and More

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Marc Bristol and other Washington State grassroots musicians wail away on a gutbucket, washboard, and jug (the axe is a gag).  INSET: The gutbucket's "notch and bevel" detail.
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If you have a spare refrigerator box handy, you could use it to make a human jukebox like this.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to
time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her
cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.

Share Some Down-Home Music

As you know, music is one of those activities that are a lot more fun when they’re shared with good friends … but it’s often difficult (especially for anyone who lives in a remote, rural area) to find people to get together and jam with. In fact, I receive quite a few letters from folks who want to know how to locate other homegrown musicians.

Maybe you’ve been faced with this same problem … or maybe you’re just yearning to meet someone who can teach you a few new tunes to work on. In either case, here are a few suggestions on how to deal with a musical “dry spell”… and bring a little culture to your community at the same time.

Public Jam Sessions

First of all, pick up your guitar (or mandolin, or fiddle, or whatever instrument you play) and head on down to a local club or tavern that sponsors jam sessions. Also called “open mike” nights, such get-togethers usually feature a mixture of professional and amateur talent so everyone that drops by can have a chance to join in the action. In most cases the band–or the solo performer–who’s hired by the club will sing a set of songs (to put everyone in the right mood) … and then the management will turn the stage over to anyone else who might want to play. Each player is normally allotted a fixed time slot … which should be at least 30 minutes long, since a picker needs time to get warmed up to his instrument and to the crowd.

In a looser variation of the standard arrangement, the band–following its own set–invites musicians in the audience to join in as it continues to play. This kind of jam may become a little confusing (and noisy!), but it’s also a lot of fun for the entire house. The open mike events I’ve participated in were most often a combination of the two types: Some people played with the band, while others took the stage alone.

Whichever way it’s organized, an open mike program seems to benefit everyone involved. The club’s management has an opportunity to audition new talent (and provide a lot of no cost entertainment in the process!) … the band usually is guaranteed a large, enthusiastic audience (even on traditionally slack week nights) … and local pickers have a chance to try out their licks, while meeting new friends and fellow musicians.

Do-It-Yourself Gatherings

Open mikes are great opportunities, but what can you do if there simply aren’t any taverns or coffeehouses in your area where such events are routinely held? Well, if that’s the case, it’s really not as difficult as you might think to organize your own gathering even if you don’t have access to sound amplification equipment.

All you really need is a place, such as a public library, a church social hall, or even your own living room. Plan weekly or monthly meetings for your “song circle” … and advertise the event by placing notices on bulletin boards at the post office, general store, laundromat, and so forth. In addition, you might like to submit a small written announcement of your plans to the local newspaper editor, who will probably be glad to print the item (as long as the event it describes is a non-profit venture). Be sure your announcement includes the jamboree’s date and location and a phone number that people can call for information.

A small “folklore society” such as the kind I’m suggesting here can be a great way for a few people to get together and share their music. But it is limited to a small group, simply by the lack of any sound reinforcement.

Of course, you don’t need to own a P.A. system to organize a public open mike. If a local club manager has a sound system (or has access to one), you might be able to arrange a jam in his or her establishment. In that case, the owner would sponsor the event, but you would have the responsibility for putting it together and (probably) for emceeing it … so you should even be paid a small organizer’s fee for your work!

One other thought on the subject: If your open mike is going to take place in a commercial establishment, I think it’s a good idea to offer more than just beer and wine at the bar. A lot of us musicians just aren’t fond of booze (we find we can get loose on the excitement of the jam alone!) and would be happier with good ol’ fruit juice or tea. For that reason, you may find that if your event is organized in an establishment, such as a coffeehouse, that has both alcohol and other beverages available, you’ll be able to please a wider range of customers.

A “Human Jukebox”

Many people also write me for ideas on how to reach those unfortunate elements of the population who haven’t yet been turned on to music. My answer is always that it’s really up to the musician–with his or her enthusiasm for the subject–to get the word out to such unenlightened souls. And there are several ways (besides the open mike gatherings) to introduce music into a community. The project I’m going to tell you about is especially attractive to the young’uns … so–who knows?–you may even provide the initial spark for a child’s lifelong interest in music.

One of my favorite gigs involves appearing as “the human jukebox” at school carnivals, parties, and other social events. My inspiration for this “act”came from a street musician I saw once in San Francisco. This fellow stationed himself–hidden in a colorfully decorated box–on a sidewalk, and played the musical requests of interested passersby on his horn.

Using that man’s “juke” as a model, I fashioned a large refrigerator carton into a “music box” by cutting the container open up the back and then slicing in both directions just under the lid and about halfway along the sides. Then I folded the side panels out a bit to expand the carton and to make room for both my guitar and me inside. Of course if you prefer you could remove the back of the carton entirely, and hang a curtain across the opening.

On the front of the homemade music machine, I carved out two square holes.The lower one was fitted with a sound amplifier for my microphone, and the upper window boasted a miniature light show … which I created using a pane of frosted plexiglass, plus a revolving four-color Christmas tree spotlight and some suspended geometric shapes cut from paper.

My musical offerings were then listed on a poster which was mounted on the face of the box. I included 25 songs in my repertoire … and half of those titles were illustrated by small pictures so that preschool tots could join in wherever I set the device up. The human jukebox is always a highly successful venture, but I’m not sure who is more entertained by it … my audience (as they hear my music) or me (as I watch the tots in the crowd react to the “singing box”)!

Pass the Word

Another kind of musical promotion that I enjoy is conducting homemade instrument workshops … in which schoolchildren, scout troops, or folk festival fans of all ages can learn how easy it is to play a homegrown musicmaker. I take along a variety of instruments (such as washtub basses, jugs, washboards,spoons, musical saws, and kazoos), and demonstrate each one before passing it around for everyone to try. Then I accompany (on the guitar or banjo) the participants’ first musical attempts. Should you decide to lead similar workshops in your area, you might be able to get funding from your county arts commission as I do if you schedule the meetings in public places.

So, there you have it, folks … a few ideas on how to get some local players together, have a good time, and “culturize” your community to boot! All it really takes is a little energy and enthusiasm to pass the word that music can be a lot of fun for everybody. If you decide to try any of the ideas I’ve mentioned in this column land I hope you will!), write and let me know how your efforts turn out … and happy musicmaking!

A Change of Pace

While I’m on the subject of bringing a greater awareness of music to your community (and to the nonmusical public in general), I’d like to take the opportunity to present the Homegrown Music column’s first–and probably last–review. (After all, it’s spring here in Duvall, Washington as I’m writing this … and the turn of the season is an appropriate time for a person to step beyond his or her regular boundaries a little.)

Not long ago, I traveled into town to see Coal Miner’sDaughter … a film which, as many of you probably know, is based upon the autobiography written by country music star Loretta Lynn. I’ve seen a good many movie portrayals of musicians over the years, but most such films seem to deal with artists who’ve died (usually in a dramatic, or melodramatic, manner) … and it was refreshing to watch the reenacted life of a performer who has had the inner strength required to live through the bad times.

The story seemed heart warmingly real to me especially when compared to the entertaining, but at times shallow, presentation of the country music world in Robert Altman’s Nashville, and I’d like to thank everyone involved with the film for making the experience available to the real of us. And most of all, I’d like to thank Loretta for sharing her life with the world.

And Finally …

A great many folks have written to me in response to the article on musical saws that ran In this column some time ago. One of the concerns expressed by many of those people was that we should be sure to publish the scheduled dates for this year’s Festival of the Saws well enough in advance so that folks can plan to attend.

Well, I’ve just received an updated schedule and am happy to announce that the upcoming sawyers’ fest will be held in Santa Cruz, California on September 6 and 7, 1980.