From the Library of the Kansas Prairie Pickers Association

Jam Etiquette

The author is Ernie Hill. This is from the newsletter of the Walnut Valley Festival: "Walnut Valley Occasional", Volume 24, Number 2. The annual festival is held in Winfield, Kansas (For more info visit Reproduced with permission of the author and the WVA.

A huge part of the Walnut Valley experience is the world famous jam sessions that continue around the clock throughout the entire festival. I have encountered campers who claim they have never seen a stage act because the only reason they attend is to jam. Indeed, with the Walnut Valley Festival being host to eight prestigious acoustic instrument contests, you can easily encounter campground pickers who are as proficient and entertaining as many of the booked performers. You'll even see some of the booked performers jamming deep into the dawn's early light. The Walnut Valley jams vary from contest conscious, intense pickers, seeking trophies and fame, to yearly reunions of old friends who will gladly welcome you into their camp to share whatever you have to offer in the way of a song, to beginners who are looking to hone their skills.

If you are a first time Winfield jammer, here's a few tips to help you find the right jam and have a really great time.

First of all, tune, tune, tune. Battery powered tuners are cheap and easily available. If you forgot to bring yours, check with one of the vendors at the craft area. Tune to pitch before you leave your campsite. If you find that you are not in tune with the particular jam where you feel most comfortable, step away far enough to hear the music, and make the necessary adjustments without interrupting. (I think "Earl's Breakdown" may have been written while some one was trying to tune.

Second, roam around and find the level of picking and singing that best suits your capability. Remember, everyone is here to make music and it should always be fun but... not every one wants to pick with everyone else. I have encountered over the years, perfectly friendly people who are very serious about picking with their friends whom they only see at Winfield and may have a limited time schedule to re-hash and re-live their best pickin' moments. I do not feel jilted. I usually just listen and enjoy and walk away having learned something. Most pickers will accommodate a beginner for a little while, but many beginners (including myself at one time) enter the jam arena thinking that they will absorb each and every technique and nuance by watching very closely, and even interrupting a song to ask a question... "What is your favorite kind of guitar? What kind of pick do you use? How many hours a day do you practice? How many guitars do you own? What kinda dang geetar ish' at' anywaysh"? Will you go slower so I can write down the chords? Gotta light? Would you like your fries super-sized? GRRRRR!"

Third, if you really want to be heard, avoid big circles. Circle jams pass the tune around. Remember the average song is about three minutes long and if the jam you choose has twenty or more pickers, well, go figure. If you are shy, try standing alone in your own camp, or in some other suitable shaded area and just start pickin' and singing. At the Walnut Valley Festival, it won't be very long until you are joined by wandering others and ... there you go!

Fourth, and most important, enjoy yourself and make sure other enjoy you. Don't be intrusive, wait your turn. Listen to every one else instead of worrying about what you're going to play. Practice individual camp etiquette. Are they non-smokers? Are they playing only gospel music, only bluegrass, is this a John Prine jam? Am I darn tootin' sure I can take a break at this speed or will I de-rail this train?

Plan to arrive early enough to scout out the jam situation. Get acquainted. Ask to join a circle. "Is this an open jam?" "Mind if I join?" and remember...later. "Later, would you mind showin' me how ya did that?"

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