A Circle of Folks
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
January 1995

The pluck and twang of tuning strings gradually rises above the buzz of voices. Among the cacophony, the clear notes of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" stand out as one elderly man idly picks at his guitar with thick fingers.

The noise dies down as another man puts bearded chin to fiddle and starts to play a simple folk melody. Within a few measures, those who know the tune have joined in. The others pluck or bow a few cautious notes as they listen, then play with more confidence as their fingers find the proper path.

Moments after the first tune ends, a man seated beside the bearded fiddler begins strumming guitar chords as he sings a mournful traveling song. Then a young woman sets her guitar aside and launches into a sprightly dance tune on her hammered dulcimer. There is no formal program, no scheduled playlist, no conductor. Casual disorder is the rule of the day whenever the Lancaster County Folk Music and Fiddlers' Society holds a jam.

The Lancaster group, like similar organizations in communities around the country, holds an informal jam session each month. For them, it's a time for good society and music. For the folks who come out to hear them, it's a regular free concert. Unlike most concerts, however, spectators are allowed, even encouraged, to bring an instrument and play along.

Musicians typically sit in a loose circle, taking turns selecting songs to play or sing for the rest of the group. Occasionally someone plays a solo or a couple pairs off for a duet, but usually anyone who wants to play is welcome.

Some folks pick the familiar old favorites that everyone knows by heart, while others choose less known tunes that force members to resort to fakebooks and scattered copies of sheet music. More often, they forego printed music and just listen, seeking the right notes with light fingers until the tune becomes clear. "The more experienced musicians can pick up the harmonies just like that," society president Harry Haddon says later. "They can play along with almost anything."

The spontaneous nature of the jams creates some unusual, often beautifully intricate harmonies and other embellishments never written down for the tune. Sometimes, too, musicians fumble through a new tune they are still trying to learn. But no one seems to mind when someone stumbles during an unfamiliar piece. If need be, the circle slows a number down until everyone gets it right.

As the group's name suggests, the circle is usually dominated by fiddles, as well as guitars and hammered dulcimers. Other instruments such as banjos, pennywhistles and recorders, lap dulcimers, harmonicas, spoons and accordians are common. Some people arrive at a session toting armloads of instruments and music. Some carry a single instrument case. Others come empty-handed, intending only to watch and listen. Every tune, no matter how polished or halting, earns a round of applause from the enthusiastic group.

One woman confides that she was a beginning dulcimist who wanted to check out the group before bringing her own instrument out for a jam. A man who recently moved to Brownstown from West Virginia sits in the background for the first round of tunes, then solos on his banjo as his initiation into the group.

Performers range in age from their teens into their 70s.

"There are a lot of reasons why people come to the jam, but it really is for the music," Haddon says. "We love to play."

[ by Tom Knapp ]