The personal website of Chris Coyier

No Spoons

I remember the first couple of bluegrass festivals I went to. I didn’t miss a note from the bands on stage. I love bluegrass. I love these bands! This is why I’m here I don’t want to miss anything.

I kept going to festivals because it was heaps of fun, but I became less glued to the stage. It’s not because I liked the music or the bands any less. If anything I became more attached to them. But I’ve seen it all before and there are loads of reasons to be at a festival. There are mountain streams to jump in, people to meet, little places to explore, and most importantly laughing with friends, particularly those who you don’t see very often. Maybe just at festivals.

As an amateur musician, there is an even bigger factor. These festivals are loaded with jams! Little informal groups gathered under a shade tent or around a campfire playing tunes. The nature of bluegrass (and really any folk music genre) is that there is a shared language around it all. Standard keys that are used. Reused licks and verses. Specific instruments. And most importantly, a whole bunch of songs that you either know, are familiar with, or can learn in a minute or two. As an intermediate player, you can participate in just about any campfire jam there is. That makes it incredibly fun to wander around playing with different people or invite others to come play at your jam.

This jamming culture at festivals is amazing. It’s the #1 reason most musicians go to festivals, and an extremely fun thing for non-musicians to enjoy as well. Not as high quality as those stage shows, but much more intimate.

You might be amazed at how welcoming the average jam is. Beginners grabbed by their ears and dragged closer so they can be part of it just not standing on the edges.

But at the same time, there is quite a bit of etiquette and nuance to a jam. For example, cues like someone nodding at you for your turn to take a solo if you are playing that sort of song. Or the kick of a leg to indicate the song is coming to a close. Instrument choice gets weird too. Probably don’t bring your bongos to a bluegrass jam – as welcoming as they generally are, you’ll probably be asked to put them away. I remember one group of campers I saw every year that hosted big jams and had a large wooden sign out front that read “NO SPOONS” (my take on which has evolved over the years). Percussion instruments are often a bit annoying at jams, as people with no interest in musicianship use them as an opportunity to be involved, but end up drowning out the sound people are going for.

I’ve been primarily interested in old-time music lately. Easily confused with bluegrass by a casual listener, it’s distinctly different by those of us who love it. It’s led by fiddle melodies, backed up by clawhammer banjo accentuating that melody. At its most raw, that’s all it is. A guitar chording a playing a few bassy transitional notes is nice. A double bass can make it all sound bigger. Not that other instruments can’t also play and sound good, but it’s far less common.

There is a sound we’re all shooting for. It sounds old but fun. Dance-y and trance-y. There are no solos in old time it’s just all melody melting together played repetitively with variation. Simple lyrics, sometimes, dashed in for flavor.

John Brown’s dream, John Brown’s dream,
John Brown’s dream, the devil is dead.

I find that old time players… like to play old time. Go to a music festival with lots of different types of music at it and you’ll probably find jams of all sorts. But old time is so niche anyway that if you find a nice little jam of people who can all play it, it’s not particularly welcome for someone to show up and start playing The Weight by The Band on their guitar. Not that those people don’t like that kind of music or that song, but that person might be kind of ruining a unique opportunity to play music in this niche old style.

I’ve been to a couple of old-time festivals where there isn’t even any bands. The whole point is to get old time players together and let them jam.

I say all of this just to complain a bit.

I was just at an old-time festival where there were a handful of dunderheads that were clueless to any sort of jam etiquette that it was just a bummer. Dunderhead one would show up at a banjo workshop, interupt every two minutes, and then wander away seemingly having learned nothing. Dunderhead two would show up at a jam with a guitar and try to take over with a little song he’s been working on and just shout random chord changes and play in a rock’n’roll rhythm, which us old-time players can’t do a whole lot with. Dunderhead three would show up at a jam with a leather strap of little jinglebells and ring them for a whole song.

One woman, god bless her, told him that the bells made it hard for her to hear the other instruments, which she needs in order to play well with them and would appreciate it if she would stop. He wandered away and I was sure he’d learned his lesson, only to hear the stupid bells at another jam nearby. Still I admire her approach. That’s the kind of person I wish I was. One who deals with a problem with grace rather than silently stewing like I do.

The moral of the story here is to have a little gosh danged self-awareness and tact. Sure, life awards moxy a lot of times, but long-term these dinguses are gonna make a lot more enemies than friends and not learn nearly as much as they would by watching, listening, and asking.