Sunday, November 23, 2008

the best laid plans

Last night I was rescued from failed-date plans by my friend Dave. Dave's a carpenter in Cambridge and somehow knows every single person who owns a chromatic tuner in our collective zip codes. He's a birddog mandolin player (a really good mandolin player) and when I get an invite to hang out with him there's a good chance music will happen. Actually, a 100% chance since he knows every house or apartment with a musician in it from his work as a builder or volunteering at the co-op. So Dave's got a lot of friends. He's a hip cat to know.

We ended up in North Bennington at Joe and Alisa's house, local artists who work in metal and moved up here from Jersey. Inside their warm woodstove-heated home about twenty random musicians, kids, food lovers, and a black dog named Scruffy were enjoying a potluck meal and carrying cases into the music room. When stomachs were full, we all got together to play some tunes. From Cash to Dylan, to songs so old Cash and Dylan never heard them*, we were holding our own.

By the height of the jam there were four guitars, a banjo, two mandolins, two fiddles, drums, an electric bass, and a harmonica. It was a lot of people. I tend to like smaller groups where everyone gets their chance to show off a little, try a new thing, really get put on the spot. Mostly because if you pull it off (I pull it off one in five times or so) and get that smile and nod from the other pickers - you know you've really done something right. It feels good. But in a large group it's hard to even hear a soloist, much less get a chance for that humble nod.

But there was this point when just myself, Dave, and Justin (a Bennington College grad-student banjo player) got together for a few chords, and I must say that was a fine time. In smaller groups you can focus on the little parts of old-time songs that have preserved them. The parts where the mandolin rings out and the fiddle cries and the banjo grabs a slide and we all sink into this place with an address like DAG, CGC, or EBD. It also helped that Justin sounded like he was born in the wrong century and wanted us all to know about it. And he did, and I loved him for it.

I'm glad I went out, as a homebody (a very unfashionable thing for a younger person to be today) I rarely just venture out like this on whim. But the farm was already bedded down for the night. Animals were penned, cooped and fed, and firewood was stocked by the firepace for when I came home to it. And I was already dressed for a night on the town, so I felt like I had some stolen freedom, and it came out in some tunes like Wagon Wheel and Old Joe Clark.

Anyway, I'm telling you all this because at this random session there was a guy in his mid-forties with a brand new gorgeous Guild guitar who had never played with people before. He was a grown man but as nervous as a freshman frat guy during rush week. To his credit, he was there. He knew a few chords and really held his own. I love, LOVE, going to jams with new people. I feel like I'm an old Mason or Elk shaking the new pledge's hand and welcoming him into this secret society of old songs and coffee and music festivals and firesides. To see someone brave a jam like that, and go home standing a little taller is truly rewarding for me. To witness this subtle transformation of a new musician holding his case like it's the reins of a trusted horse and not a ticking time bomb, is a little whimsical snack the world throws up in the air for this sheepdog. And I will leap in the air to catch it, and chomp down on it with all I've got.

Music like this knows no class or priveledge. It doesn't matter if you're a plumber, a prostitute, or a doctor when you're in that circle. What matters is how hard you practice and what you earned on your own time. This equality rarely seems to thrive in the modern world, and I long for it after a week in a desk chair where I am constantly reminded of my place in the world. But when you leave a good jam, bonefide from it, you sleep better at night.

As I get older, and become more and more of a citizen in this world of 401k plans and dinner parties, I am noticing all those little rights of passage fading from adult life. There are no more ceremonies, caps and gowns, or anything remotely like that. But playing music like this, brings some of those old rights back. It gives us a place in the world where you need to work hard and earn those nods, and each one is a little black cap and gown. "Conratulations Jenna, you just graduated from Dorian University -you may turn your tassle to the other side". Maybe I just see this because I want too. But I doubt that matters.

So, point is, pick up that guitar you always wanted to play son, even if you're sixty-five and never took a lesson. Get some beginner books and CDs, give yourself 15 minutes a night, and if you want to play, you will. This isn't like watching the Olympics and wanting to be a speed skater in six months. This is possible, practical really, because for such a small intial investment you have this tool that is your social network, best friend, and boredom remover all in one. Maybe in few months you'll be at your own first jam? But even if you're not, being able to pick up a fiddle and play Blackest Crow just for yourself beats most scenes. Or so I say, but I can't get a date, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

*they probably heard them


Blogger Mama Pea said...

Seems to me that one of our society's greatest failings is the loss of personal creativity. The ability of an individual to create music is one place where it still shines through.

I'm betting you had a better time last night than you would have had on your "failed-date!"

November 23, 2008 at 10:26 AM  
Blogger Mare said...

I totally agree with Mama Pea... :)

November 23, 2008 at 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dates may diappoint but it would appear that music never will and for you, that is a lifetime of passion to behold.

In a cold, perhaps (sometimes) lonely cabin a fire burns and I do believe your true kindred spirit will hear you and find you, I suspect by that music if nothing else.

The appreciation you have for so many of the little things in life will keep life and love beautiful for you.

November 24, 2008 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Bisbonian said...

Absolutely right! Never too late to start.

June 27, 2011 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Harpy 101 said...

I had to go back and leave a retroactive comment here because I recently picked up guitar again. I'm 50, and I put it down, I thought for good, when I was seventeen. I got toxified a few times and gave up. At that time, even with Heart songs fresh on the radio, I was sneered at continually in my circle because "Girls don;t play guitar, and anyway, you suck,". My parents, one of whom was forced with abuse to be part of a vaudeville act back in the Depression, hated music and were absolutely horrified that I would go near it, given all the astonishing opportunities they saw in a world of burgeoning SCIENCE. So I put it down. I missed it the way you'd miss a big toe, I limped around to compensate. And I really needed this entry of yours. I needed somebody to SAY that to me. Even though I read the entry over a year ago, it finally sank in. I can play "Thanks A Lot" by Hank, and several others now. It's like getting a limb back. When I say this, it is NOT tongue-in-cheek: Thank you, Jenna. Thank you a LOT.

August 15, 2011 at 8:41 AM  

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