A little bitty lady with a great big guitar!
This week, we are house and pup sitting for dear friends Deb and Bert. They live in Sun City Center, a large 55+ Florida community with lots of activities and every Wed afternoon there is a community music jam that gathers about 30 musicians and singers of traditional music at the on-site theatre space. Since the events are only open to residents of Sun City Center, we decided to clip on our friends name badges, turn them upside down and pretend to be them. Our plan was to sneak into the jam and hope no one noticed that I don’t have short red hair and Arnie is not a woman. I’m not sure how to interpret this, but nobody noticed.
We snuck in like a couple of guilty teenagers at the afternoon matinée and settled into our seats while the musicians tuned up. We noticed right away that the average age of participants in this jam is likely around 70-80, representing years and years of playing music. Unlike some of the jams that we have frequented along The Crooked Road in Virgina, this one has the pickers sitting up on a stage instead of in a playing circle. It is held in the on-site Rollins Theatre that has comfortable seating for the enthusiastic audience in attendance this day. The jam session drew an nice crowd of about fifty people to enjoy the collective talents of their neighbors. It was Afternoon Delight for Arnie and I!
Here in this community space, pickers and listeners come together with warmth and humor to enjoy the beloved songs. There are a variety of levels of expertise in the group, but all share a common enthusiasm for gathering to play and sing. Some songs are better executed than others but it is genuine and heartfelt music performed amongst friends. One diminutive lady weighing all of 100 lbs approached the mic including the hefty acoustic guitar she played. She sang her own composition in an ethereal, wavering voice that made her seem frail. All of the other musicians respectfully slowed and quieted their volume so that her sweet voice could rise above the crowd. The emphasis is on the traditional picking instruments with banjos, mandolin, guitars, bass, harmonica, and fiddles represented. And we must not miss the guy slapping his sneaker who provided a smattering of percussion.
There’s no performance anxiety here. As in most such music jams, there is an aura of acceptance, tolerance and appreciation for each persons contribution without regard to anyone’s level of expertise. All are welcome to play and all contributions are valued. Everyone gets their turn in the spotlight as they step to the mic to feature their particular song or instrument. And the audience gets in on the fun too as they sing-along to “A Big Bowl of Chile (with a stack of crackers on the side).” That was an audience favorite this day! At the end of this rousing rendition, the lead singer challenged the audience to “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
As the musicians tuned up, they bantered back and forth with one another and members of the audience, two of whom came equipped with hand fans to wave that had a picture of Elvis taped on the backside. They waved their fans with the unrestrained abandon of a couple of teenage groupies and at the conclusion of an Elvis ballad, they blew red kazoos. It is friendly and fun and, for the less experienced pickers, the banter keeps the nerves at bay. “Jam banter” is one of the most engaging aspects of these events. In addition to corny jokes, we found out that Gary’s at the doctor today and he’ll play when he gets here. Caroline is out with a hip replacement and we will miss her. Sean dropped his fiddle and the funeral for this beloved instrument will be on Sat at the local Irish Pub. One of the ladies in the jam today could not get her mike to turn on, so she shrugged and said, “Oh well, on this song, all I do is OHH, OHH, OHH, anyway.” And then she added with a twinkle in her eye, “Wait for it!”
In honor of the season, today’s jam led off with Turkey in the Straw followed by Back to the Old Home. Our favorite genre is old-time mountain music, the unique blend of Americana, folk, bluegrass and a sprinkle of gospel that gets the toes tapping and the hands clapping. Wherever we travel throughout the South, we seek out the local pickers and the jammers who come together to play the traditional old songs. The jam at Sun City made for a delightful afternoon for these two gate-crashers with its sincerity and sense of community.
Towards the end of the two hours, a woman in a plaid shirt stood up to take her turn at the mike. Something looked different about her. Her arms hung loosely at her sides and she came down to the stage with a shuffle. Her husband slowly helped her down the steps to the microphone. As she stepped to the mic, her husband softly sang beside her, giving her gentle cues on the lyrics and melody. I imagine that these two folks have sung songs together for many years. Today, they sang, an old familiar country chorus, “ Today I started loving you again.” And my heart broke with the tenderness of it.