Author: Daniel, Bert

Wednesday Nights

Wednesday nights are important. The work week is half over and you need a way to recharge your battery and make it through the rest of the week. I’m usually pretty tired on Wednesday because I have to get up at six, make breakfast, drive for an hour to get to work, put in a full eight hours, and then drive back home. I usually get home about six in the evening and after dinner what I really feel like doing is just relaxing in the living room and picking a few tunes.

Unfortunately, the other members of our family don’t really appreciate my “music”. Although I think I’ve come a long way in the five years I’ve been at it, I’m still pretty much a novice player. My eight year old son once put it a bit more bluntly: “You suck, Dad." Oh, I do have my moments of glory, when I feel like my musical biorhythms are soaring, but I don’t kid myself that those moments are fully appreciated by anyone other than me. My wife Joyce can’t stand my music. The only tune I know which she actually likes is 4’33”. For those of you who don’t know, 4’33” is a modern composition by John Cage which consists of four minutes and thirty three seconds of complete silence. No kidding, the whole score is rest measures. If you don’t believe me, check out Nigel Gatherer’s web site and you can see the music for yourself. I can usually play 4’33” pretty well but if I happen to mess up and touch a stray string I have to start all over again.

Well, what’s a guy to do? I’ve worked all day. I deserve a little down time and at least as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. Fortunately, there is a solution to my Wednesday night conundrum now. The solution is Bob. Bob is a musical saint, because, in addition to being a pretty good fiddle player, his generosity makes it possible for lots of other people to experience the joy of playing music together.

I met Bob about a year ago at a Celtic music class sponsored by the local junior college. Every Thursday night for a month , I got together with my classmates, mostly fiddle players, and worked on learning new tunes by listening carefully and playing by ear. At the end of the four weeks, Bob had the teacher pass around invitations to his “every Wednesday night jam” with directions to his house and a tune list. The tune list was full of tunes I either knew already or wanted to know, so I sent Bob an e mail asking for more details. Was this literally EVERY Wednesday night? Yep, except for the occasional day preceding a Thanksgiving or Christmas. I decided I had to at least check out this phenomenon. More than a few weeks went by before I finally took Bob up on his offer. After an hour drive each way on a workday, it wasn’t exactly easy to summon the energy to get back in the car after dinner and drive another thirty five minutes to Bob’s house.

One fine June day I did summon the energy, figuring the extra long daylight would be a good opportunity to find Bob’s house without the cover of darkness to confuse me. I arrived to a room half filled with amiable musicians seated around in a circle. Bob welcomed me as soon as the tune in progress was finished and introduced my to his wife Judith and all of the other musicians. He found me a seat and I joined in as best I could to each tune called, some of them familiar and some not. They went around the circle, giving each person a turn to call for whatever tune they wanted to play, so when it came my turn to call a tune, I selected June Apple, since it was June in Sebastopol and the tune was on Bob‘s tune list. That went over pretty well and as the evening went on I felt more and more like part of the group. I noticed fairly early on that the Bob’s list of tunes was just a starting point and virtually any tune is fair game, so I called for the Wednesday Night Waltz in honor of this every Wednesday night tradition that I was by now feeling really good about discovering.

Between tunes, there was good natured banter and small talk. A few other players had driven a fair distance to get there also and we commiserated with each other. But each of us agreed it was worth it. Rather than feeling more drained, I actually felt like I had more energy at the end of the long day as a result of my extra effort. I thanked Bob and Judith for welcoming me into their home and vowed that I’d try to make it at least “once a month or so” if I could. The very next Wednesday when I crossed the threshold of Bob’s door, he reminded me of my “once a month” comment and kidded me about it. A few weeks later, since it was still summer, I took my 8 year old fiddle playing son to Bob‘s jam. Ethan had very little experience playing with others, and I wanted him to start getting a little exposure to what a jam is like. I figured he could play a few tunes from his music book and then take a nap or play his Nintendo while the adults jammed for the rest of the evening. This particular night Bob’s group included fiddlers ranging pretty far up the age scale and they took an instant liking to Ethan, making him feel just as welcome as I had felt my first time a couple of months before. Somehow, these adult members coaxed a lot more than a just few tunes out of my sometimes reluctant son. When the next senior fiddler’s turn to pick a tune would come, they’d consult Ethan about which tunes were in his fiddle tune book and call that one so that he could continue to play along with the group. My first jam session with my son was an experience I’ll never forget, and I have Bob and his group of friends to thank for it.

In the nine months or so since Bob changed my Wednesday nights, I’ve become somewhat of a regular. I don’t go every week by any means. The great thing is you don’t have to wonder whether or not they’re playing. There’s no guesswork. If it’s not a major holiday, they’re playing. When Bob and Judith go out of town, they even ask one of the regulars to run the jam for them. Same time same place, easy. It’s nice to wander in on an occasional basis and just play with whoever happens to show up. You meet new people often. If they are old familiar faces who haven’t shown up for a while, Bob may greet them with “Look what the cat dragged in” Some of the players are really good and some are novices. All are welcome and the group adjusts to prevailing individual styles with ease. Sometimes the group organizes a concert where they’ll play for free food at a retirement home or something. The concert group bills themselves as the Loose Association String Band, which is a good name because the group changes from week to week. There’s a wonderful cross fertilization that happens as Bluegrass players adapt to Scottish tunes or Celtic session players play old time. Sometimes a fiddler will teach the group one of their own compositions. You’ll often see a player call for a tune they just learned last week because another member called it and they happened to like it. Newly introduced tunes to the group may be preceded by comments about the history of the tune. It’s a very diverse and congenial group. The one commonality is that everyone shares a love of traditional music in all its forms.

It’s hard to describe what a Wednesday night jam is like unless you’ve been there (or even if you have) because it changes so much from week to week. You see all sorts of instruments there too. I’ve seen everything from autoharps to harmonicas, Appalachian dulcimers to jew’s harps, all blending it and filling their own musical spaces. Sometimes a fiddler will put down his fiddle and pick up a guitar for a while to add just the right accompaniment. Many of the tunes played are based on the transcriptions found in the Portland Collection of contra dance music, but you hear all kinds of stuff there. At first I was a bit miffed that there were so many tunes I didn’t know at all, yet everyone else seemed to know them. I’d either try to chord or maybe pick up some of the simpler tunes by the last time through, but it was a bit annoying and
Posted:  2/8/2009

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