Author: Williams, Dave

What the heck am I doing here?

As I have elaborated in the recent past, part of my off-season bass playing program is play in any jam I can. One of the opportunities I have is to fill in a couple of old time jams in Palo Alto. Barbara the regular bass player for these jams is very diligent in making sure the bass is covered if she is unavailable (which usually means she is playing somewhere else) and I get her first call. This was the case this past Monday and sure enough (just so we can keep the story going) I accepted and found my self in the bass spot in the jam.

As they say, “this wasn’t my first rodeo” and I knew many of the jammers from other circumstances but these old time jams prove to be somewhat of a challenge for me. Old time tunes tend to be modal. So simple yet so complex. Hearing chord changes beyond I, IV, V is not one of my strong suits.

So what do I do, first of all I spend the entire jam staring at, in this order, guitar player hands and banjo player hands. This helps a lot. Not so much with fiddles or mandos.

The other thing I do is some research on the songs frequently called. Research means going to Pete Showman’s website at Pete, who along with Richard Brooks is a driving force of the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association, maintains an extensive list of old time songs on his site in fiddle notation but………very importantly chord changes. I know, I know you’re supposed to learn by hearing but I use any help I can. I have printed Pete’s songbook and carry it to the jam but little good it does me as half the time nobody calls the song title they just begin playing.

There I go rambling again. What I’m getting to is the question, do basses belong in old time music. I gave this question to my research assistant, you remember her, Oolga or something that. This is what Goolga came up with

A Celtic band never has a bass, while a Bluegrass band always has a bass. An old, Old Time band doesn’t have a bass, but new time Old Time bands seem to need one for reasons that are unclear. A Bluegrass bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An Old Time bass, if present, starts sometime after the rest of the band has run through the tune once depending on the player’s blood alcohol content. A Bluegrass bass is polished and shiny. An Old Time bass is often used as yard furniture. Bluegrass Nation April 2013

I guess the South Bay area is new time old time because there seems to be a bass player in the jams. I’m not complaining though because I get to play. It is whispered in bass player circles that the Berkeley and East Bay Old Time groups are old old time and don’t have bass players. Dang!!

It is already a tough for bass players in the jamming world. The never two of them in any jam rule is always in play. Look around at your jam. How many guitars do you see? How many banjos, mandos, fiddles? Even if there is not more than one of these instruments in the jam, more are usually welcome. Not us though. We like to say “it’s lonely at the bottom”.

Back to the question at hand, does a bass belong in old time? Who knows, there is probably a raging debate somewhere on the subject on some message board or forum page, probably a sort of a red state / blue state thing or treble clef / bass clef thing, I don’t know but I guess it doesn’t really matter, I got a call to come play bass at an old time jam and I went and had a great time playing and if the folks liked my playing well enough they might ask me back.

I got to run. I’m going to do some shedding on some “A” dorian tunes for the next old time opportunity. Tunes like “Cold Frosty Morning”, “Ducks on the Pond” and “Santa Anna’s Retreat”. Maybe I’ll get them next time.

I wish everyone a very a happy and prosperous new year. Don’t forget the SCVFA jam this Sunday at the Hoover Middle School in San Jose from 1:00 to 5:00. There will be some old time jamming there (just so you know, probably with a bass) along with some bluegrass and maybe some swing. Hope to see you there.
Posted:  1/2/2014

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