Puzzles and All

kbsitepicscene056Ah friend, just in case I’ve given you the idea that the Fergus sessions are perfect in all ways, I should maybe modify that impression a bit.  Of course folks are very kind to let me thump along most of the night, and kinder still to put up with what falls out of my mouth from time to time.  I think by and large they’ve begun to get some of what makes me tick, which helps them to understand what’s behind some of my comments.  So when someone starts whacking at themselves for minor errors after a lovely run through a song, they get that I’m bringing several decades of perspective when I say, ‘A couple of things to fix, yeah, but gosh what was there was really beautiful!’  Seems to help them focus on what was good.  Way more useful than fixating on what’s bad.

On the other hand there are also moments when they really don’t get me at all.  Which is also fine, just different.  For example?  Well, the other night I played a song which I guess is one I’ve worked around a fair bit so now it’s got my fingerprints all over it.  From years of comments I’ve come to understand that people will often assume a song with such a personal interpretation must be my own composition.  So It didn’t surprise me when I finished singing and one of our younger regulars asked me if that was my own piece.  Instead of answering the question directly I smiled and said that I really envied her because she was in for a serious treat, that at some point she was going to get to hear the Beatles’ album Revolver for the first time, and I bet she’d really dig it.  Now she and the rest of the room seemed to think that I was finding an amusing way of saying she was young and didn’t know anything.  Everyone laughed, she blushed and made like I’d been teasing her.  I had to stop everybody, ‘No, really.  You have some things still ahead of you that are old hat for someone like me.  And I think that’s so very cool.  I envy you that’.  I’m reasonably sure she didn’t believe me.  And I’m fairly certain a lot of the rest of the room still thought I was making funny.  So I let it go, no big deal.  All you can do is drop the seed, whether it grows is in someone else’s hands.

So there are definitely times when I assert my ‘not from around here’ heritage, make like the martian that I am and puzzle the entire room.  However folks continue to be gracious in putting up with me.  And it is still one of the finest sessions I’ve ever had the pleasure of being part of.  Puzzles and all.

Also Good

kbsitepicsession022Still looking for the definitive picture of the Fergus sessions, but this seems to capture something.  We don’t spend the whole time in stitches, but now and then somebody twinkles and the room roars.  We’re there for the tunes, but this is also good.


kbsitegraphicexc01One of those astonishing conversations I would have with folkies, back when I was working that side of the street, was when one of them would tell me that the casual bigotry that is behind some humour is essential for those jokes to work.  Oh they would do backflips and handsprings in order to get that little piece of nonsense to be true.  I specifically remember the banjo-god telling me that racially bigoted humour could only work without being offensive if you took out the specific people insulted and put in an imaginary race.  I didn’t have the heart to suggest to him that the very idea of race is considered an imaginary concept in science, but such was my time wandering around the peoples of social significance.

One odd little backwater of humour is musician jokes.  Which is only really funny to my ear when it’s a musician telling a joke about players of their own instrument.  And of course, because viola players will have heard every viola joke there is, the one they remember will be scathingly funny.  I’ve probably told you about being in a shuttle van full of musicians who each told their favourite joke about their own kind.  Shortest bus ride I’ve ever taken, laughing hard the whole way.

But there’s a better, kinder class of musician joke.  Somehow telling it at our own expense, and yet riffing off both our experience and our pre-conceived notions around that instrument.  An example?  Well, okay.  So I walk into a session the other day, typical assortment of lots of guitars and one or two mando-things, I haul my upright bass around the corner to see what’s up, and there at the other end of the room is another upright bassist, already in progress.  Most excellent, although it’s a little like showing up to a party wearing the same outfit.  Only louder.  The other player sees me, I see them, our eyes meet, and without thinking, surrounded as we are by umpteen guitars, I say, “Oh good, there’s two of us, now we have them outnumbered.”

No vulgar slams, no rehearsing bigotry in gentler guise.  Just a touch of self-deprecation, and a slightly skewed world-view.  And I am no expert on these things.  So how hard can it be?

But first, the job is to believe it is possible.


Another nice session in Fergus tonight.  Good tunes, a few laughs, some new faces and one or two folks back after some time away.  At one point I counted twenty players.  Sometimes we all played along, sometimes most of us listened, a great balance.  I managed to pass along another verse of a traditional song that someone’s been doing a great job of, heard another version of a Dylan tune I’m sneaking up on learning, oh yeah and I did another new piece so I’m on a bit of a roll.  And folks don’t mind me thumping along for much of the night, so I’m having a good time.

Ah, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything is perfect all night at these sessions.  A few new faces means that some folks are learning as we go, and sessions like these are deceptive in many ways.  Volume, for instance.  A good rule of thumb when you’re playing without a sound system, especially in a social setting, is don’t play your instrument louder than you can sing.  And of course the same goes for someone else’s singing, right?  If you can’t hear ‘em singing don’t play louder, play quieter.  It’s a mark of a really good session when we can play groovy and quiet at the same time.  But no, not everyone gets that in any given moment.

As a matter of fact that was a bit of a thing a few times tonight.  At one point I counted no less than three different grooves and tempos (okay, technically ‘tempii’, but who says that any more?) being played at the same time.  None of which were what the person who was leading the song was playing, which I only knew because I could see their strumming hand was moving up and down in a way that had nothing to do with any sounds I could hear.  So I’m busy trying to figure out the groove from the way they’re singing, an imperfect science at best.  In the meantime I’m hearing three other grooves being played around me.  But I’m pretty sure no one playing any one of those grooves can hear the others.  So apparently it’s my job to find some kind of average so we can keep this thing moving along.  Most of the time it’s okay, but every once in a while I get conflicting musical signals, the hypothalamus creaks and it’s all over for me at least for a bar or two while I regroup and look for fresh clues (I believe this is referred to as the breakdown of the bi-cameral mind, or hemiola, I forget which, you can look it up).  Meantime everyone happily playing their own groove wonders what’s up with the bass player.

And so it goes to the end of the tune, and then smiles, laughter, and yes applause.  You see, one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that while I might be searching for the perfect groove, the average listener and most of my fellow musicians are getting their joy from other things we’re laying down.  Maybe it’s the meaning of the words, or the beauty of the melody, or the emotional content of that cool hook that buddy’s figured out, or maybe their memory of when they first fell in love with the song.  In any case, what I’m after might just be my own trip and nobody else’s.

Which is why I came up with house rule #1.  If it’s your performance, let the first thing you say about it be a positive thing.  No really.  Look at it this way–if someone’s really enjoying what you’re playing, and then the first thing you say when it’s over is how much you thought it sucked, you are in fact explaining to them that they have no musical taste.  (I got a belly full of that kind of attitude in my time wandering through the professional folk scene–’what, you like that??  Obviously you’re an idiot.’  This from people who hadn’t had an original musical thought their entire lives and yet somehow managed to set themselves up as professional tastemakers.  Little ponds, big fish, and ignorance becomes its own reward, you know how it is…)  So while I don’t lean on the rule too heavily, I will gently chide from time to time.  You see it turns out that my own internal experience of the song has very little to do with anyone else’s experience of the same performance.  And I must not dishonour their experience.

So, no, not perfect.  But still a really good time, and working on getting better.  And that friend, is about as good as it gets.

Yay team.

A Typical Session

kbsitepicsession021The Tuesday Fergus sessions have been going on for ten years now.  I’ve spoken about them already, haven’t I?  A good healthy mix of people and music.  And when things were at their hardest these folks made me feel welcome (something my old town never bothered with even when I was out on the street, too busy singing songs about how they were making their world a better place and publicly preening over being such a cool place to be–behold the comfortably middle-class folkie of the deep left, who wouldn’t recognize kindness if it bit them, nor a genuine poor person if they tripped over one, I honestly wish it weren’t so, but there it is).  So, yeah, I continue to go a little out of my way to support these Fergus sessions, and I usually tag along for the monthly field trip to one of the local retirement villages.  Nice people doing nice things, no big deal.  Kind of what healthy looks like.  (Oh, okay, sorry, you’re right.  That’d be at Delaney’s on Highway 6, on the left as you’re coming into town from the south, starts about 8 and runs to 11.  Now you know.)

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not gratitude that keeps me coming back.  Nor is it loyalty, although both of those things are certainly present in me as I walk in the door.  No, these sessions really are good fun for their own sake.  How so?  Well, let’s see, how can I explain?  Okay, try this.  The other night was a fairly typical mix.  After a few warm-ups we wandered through a bunch of oldies but goodies, then a couple of things from the ‘hey, that’s cool’ department, after that a bit of dealer’s choice, then we found ourselves in a bit of ‘here’s one I wrote’ territory.  Oh yeah, and one from the rare but treasured ‘this is a little something I rescued from my friend’s wastepaper basket’ category.  No kidding.  Was a good song, too.  We should all have friends like that–the rescuer, I mean.  So yeah we’ve been around the block and are having a good time.  And then it comes back around to the new kid.  For his first turn he’d suggested a song but he didn’t know all the words.  Turns out someone had them, passed them over and we all had a good time while the kid led.  Most excellent.  So, anyway, after all this it comes around again and he says, ‘Here’s something I did a while back.  I put some music to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.’  Cool enough.  But here’s the thing–no one snorted in derision, no one groaned, no one left the room, no one tittered in embarrassment, no one razzed him, no one complained ‘that’s not folk music’, no one took the opportunity to have loud conversation with their friends because it wasn’t their turn and this was gonna be awful anyway.  Nope, we listened, we played along, and we enjoyed it.

Repeat after me.  It was…

No.  Big.  Deal.

And that it was no big deal, my friend, is simply beautiful.  All welcome, all good.  A truly co-operative sport.  And that, I suppose is the biggest single reason why I keep coming back.

Well, that and the fact that the owner treats Tuesdays like a reason for celebration instead of something to be endured until a better idea comes along.

Okay, full disclosure.  Just after he told us what number the sonnet was I couldn’t help myself, just fell out of my mouth. ‘Oh yeah, B-flat, right?’

For a heartbeat I think he believed me.

Still, the moment was his.  And that too was a beautiful thing.

Yay team.

Out After All

I did manage to get out after all.  Instructed to have a good time.  Oh, okay.  Nice people, wonderful space, some lovely music.  Some of the time was spent having those of us sitting around contribute something.  There were songs and pieces of all shapes and sizes.  No, it wasn’t all musically perfect, but migosh top marks for creativity.  There were some chords I sure wouldn’t have thought to put together.  Worked fine, though.  I’m so at home at this kind of session, didn’t play myself, was nice to just listen.  I’ve noticed that’s unusual in some circles, those folks would always rather play than listen.  I get tired of my own cooking.  So I’m always up to hearing someone else.  And after all, this is ground zero.  This is where ‘how do I make sounds that express what I mean?’ first comes up against ‘how does this thing work anyway?’.  And when it gets exactly as far as ‘hey look what happens when I do this’, that’s when I think things get really interesting.  And right there it almost always has some aspect of original creativity in it, before well meaning friends or teachers or musical professionals have steered them into sounding more like this other thing over here that has already been successful like the professional knows, or sounds more trained like the teacher fancies, or just more like a friend’s favourite kind of music.  Before ‘I need to sound like…’ has set in.  When it’s still ‘I need to make sounds.’  This is where that happens.  And I think that is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And that maybe some small part of heaven sounds like that sometime.  My favourite kind of session combines that with things that other folks have worked into a different kind of beauty.  Not beautiful because it impersonates something cool, but because it has something to say, and look it works.  No ego, no ‘look at me’.  More like, ‘listen to this’.  And if someone has something to tell me, and it sounds like that, I want to hear it.

And yes there was some of that too.

I guess it was a good night.


About a Good Session

kbsitepicsession020I don’t think it’s about having rules, my experience is as soon as we make ‘em someone will bend them to their advantage, although I have had people strongly disagree with me.  I figure it’s about learning how to behave well with one another, not about memorizing regulations.  No big deal, assuming we’re all actually interested in learning.  But I do know there are some things I like about a good session;

  • we’re all careful not to play louder than the person leading the song
  • maybe a few solo pieces, but mostly we do things that invite participation
  • everyone takes the time to tune so we’re all in the same place
  • when we’re not playing we’re listening, and not just for our friends
  • we all bring things we’ve just learned as well as old favourites
  • not everything is played at maximum volume
  • folks tend to talk shorter than the song they’re about to play
  • all eschew the epic, leaving more room for others
  • we try to mix it up, so not everything sounds the same
  • it’s about cheering on one another, not about outdoing everyone

It’s not hard, really.  Mostly it just takes being thoughtful.  Although every once in a while someone comes along who thinks they know better.  At which point you either let them run roughshod over everything, or you take them aside and explain what’s going on.  There’s often a decision point while they decide whether to be upset about being told how to behave.  But I think it’s maybe more useful to point out what the culture of the room is about, what folks are actually trying to do here.  If they’re just looking for a bash and thrash they’ll eventually get bored and leave.  I figure they can go be ignorant lots of other places.  A good session takes some doing.  Nothing hard, but it needs to be done.


Well, it’s Tuesday, so I need to decide whether I’m going to the session.  I think so… mind you I’m feeling like I don’t know any songs.  I mean apart from the 14 in the show.  But aside from that, I guess I need to make a bit of a decision some time soon.  If I’m going to continue playing the bass I really need to get in more conditioning time.  The upright takes a lot of muscle, and I’m just not built like a bass player, so it’s too easy for me to overplay and develop an injury.  In a past life I managed to spend time on the instrument every day, even when I wasn’t gigging on it, just to stay in shape.  And I had a couple of friends I could call on to come over and work a few tunes with me, kind of like a pair of runners putting in miles.  But being of no fixed address kind of put a stop to that.  And life’s taken over for a while now, as sometimes happens.  Fair enough.  But if it’s going to continue to be part of my life I need to make that room somehow.  And if not then maybe it’s time to put the instrument into someone else’s hands.  I’m not in any particular hurry to drop it.  But that conditioning is going to make a decision for me sooner rather than later.  In the meantime I think I’ll go play some tunes with some nice people.  See if I know any songs.


kbsitepicsession017Hard to get out sometimes just now, but folks in Cambridge were having a bit of morris dancing and such, and I know they have a good time playing some sunday afternoons, so I went out and watched the dance for a while and enjoyed listening to the tunes.  I’ve been to sessions like this for years, asked to host more than a few.  People still tell me they remember one I shared with one of the fellows in this session.  Was real nice to hear him again, he’s a delight.  Those sessions were a lot of years ago now, I’ve probably told you about them, but I still remember being quietly pleased that we were able to make it seem to just happen that everyone who was there to play got to do what they wanted, and that neither of us felt the need to lead everything, and there there were both things everybody played and things most of us were quiet and listened to.  Somehow we managed it without a plan or a format or anything as formal as taking turns going around a circle.  I’ve had conversations with people who don’t think it’s possible.  Ah well, it did happen, and they say it was a good thing for people.  Meantime, nice to hear the tunes and to get out for a few minutes.

Group Portrait

kbsitepicsession016I’ve been trying to get a picture of this session for a while.  These folks have been exceedingly kind to me over the last year or more, particularly in that they let me thump along on the bass most of the night.  They’ve encouraged me to even try some things that were just freshly written, so some of the pieces in the musical were first played for these folks.  No big deal, but it’s almost always a really good night, some things people can join in, a few quieter things…   Nice to feel welcome.  Anyway this is as close as I’ve come to a group portrait.  Thanks guys.