What’s a session?

For the purposes of this blog, an acoustic music session is one kind of occasion when people play acoustic instruments together. A session is different from a performance, but it’s a little difficult to describe why, and publicans are often confused by the distinction. Imagine a band onstage, playing for an audience. They’ll probably have microphones, and amplification for their instruments. There’ll be a very clear separation between who’s in the band (people on stage), who’s in the audience (people sitting or standing in front of the stage, listening), and who may be invited on stage to play with the band (they’re probably in the wings). The band will most likely have a set-list, and they’ll have rehearsed their songs ahead of time. Hopefully they’re being paid for the performance, or at least having their expenses reimbursed. The band will have a name, a line-up, a repertoire, maybe a business plan – this is a reasonably formalised way for people to play and enjoy music.

Folk clubs can take many forms, some closer to the band performance described above, and others closer to sessions as described below. Some folk clubs begin with a blackboard or open mike, where you can put your name down to perform one or more songs in front of the audience, before the scheduled acts begin. Other folk clubs have people sitting in a circle, and each person gets to sing a song in turn. Again there’s a formality to the folk club structure that I see as different from a session.

Sessions, for me, are characterised by the emphasis on inclusion and participation, and the element of spontaneity or improvisation occurring moment to moment. One-off sessions may spring up at parties, in the green rooms of festivals, around camp-fires. Regular sessions often occur at a specific venue and involve whoever happens to turn up. Much of this blog will focus on the latter kind, because I’m pathologically proud to be a custodian of the Brisbane Saturday session that’s continued in an unbroken line since the late 1970s, despite numerous changes of venue, format and participants. But do feel free to leave comments – or request a guest blog spot – about other kinds of sessions.

‘Tune session’ is the usual Australian descriptor for a session where people play tunes, without any singing, poetry, interpretive dance or other intrusions. Since my tune-playing expertise is limited to the A part of the Kesh jig on a mandolin slowly, I’m not going to attempt to comment on tune sessions. Guest bloggers welcome!

‘Singing session’ is a title often given to sessions where people sing without accompanying instruments. This provides a lot of scope for harmony singing, body percussion, ‘mouth music’ and other creative ways of using the voice and body. People whose voice is their instrument often feel more valued in this kind of session, and it enables a range of dynamics and acoustic possibilities that’s different from an accompanied session. Not better or worse – just different. For the record, memorable singing sessions are often held in stairwells and toilet blocks at folk festivals. Just sayin’.

This blog will tend to focus on what might be called a ‘mixed’ session, in which accompanied songs, unaccompanied songs, tune sets, poems, jokes, banter, learned discussions of folklore and philosophy, Morris dancing, knitting and other folk-friendly activities are all welcome in a nice balance.

I’d love to hear about your local session. What’s in, what’s out, what gets shaken all about?


3 thoughts on “What’s a session?

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  1. Good Blog, Andrea!
    Only recently discovered it (missed Shez’s FolkNews notice, until I cleaned out my Inbox, LOL!)

    My tuppence worth re “sessions“ :
    I don’t play an instrument, so I tend to sit on the periphery of a Festival or Pub Session, waiting for a communal song that I can maybe join in on!

    Interesting that what constitutes a Session in Oz, has morphed somewhat over the last 50 or so years. I recall parties and pubs in Perth in the early 70s being predominately Singing; same in Darwin and NT, in the 80s. Even the Folk Clubs would generally finish off the night with an all-in “UGLY” after the general performers were done, coz the audience wanted their turn too!
    My late Partner, Paul Lawler, used to say the same of Sydney in the 70s : you could either drop acid or smoke pot in the living room, but most Folkies would crowd into the kitchen [ you know, “that’s why you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties”! ] and raise the roof. It was where you learnt the good songs and honed your harmony-singing skills!
    Most of these coves could play a guitar at least, but that wasn’t what was deemed important or necessary in this situation (after all, it wasn’t a Yankee Hootenanny! 🙂

    I guess that “everything must change” (apparently!). Sad though, that so many of the powerful voices, who knew The Old Songs, have now joined The Angel Band – my Beloved included 😦 But it was those Sessions that helped teach, promote, enliven, propagate, circulate etc The Old Songs – and yes, The New Songs too!! (not to mention the “Folk Harmonies” passed on, which were not always in your predictable standard textbook form 🙂

    BtW, it’s not meant to be a criticism of current trends; the river flows where it will….. and I do like your description above of a “Mixed Session” Andrea – perfect balance, hey!
    Now where’s my crochet hook …..

    Richenda (Maleny)

    PS re “memorable sessions” : yes, singing in the concrete toilet block at Darwin’s Gun Turret folk club was a favourite pastime – and the only way to drown out the extraordinary cacophony from the Chorus of Green Tree Frogs, in the toilet bowls!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks very much for these thoughts, Richenda. I’d love a list of some songs you think of as ‘the old songs’ – we probably still do some of them at the Saturday session, and if we don’t, the younger generation are very hungry for trad songs and will probably resurrect them! And yes, I love unaccompanied sessions, as well as enjoying the energy of an ‘accompanied’ one. The mix we achieve at the Saturday session – songs with instruments, songs without instruments, tunes, the occasional poem, and a smattering of dancing – delights my heart 🙂 Bring on the crochet…


  3. Ahhh, “The Old Songs” – it’s such a subjective thing, eh!
    I guess my first thought, Andrea, was material like that included in the well-known, pre-internet, SEQld songbooks “Paddy Lay Back” c. 1991 and “Take in Your Slack” 1994. Now did you know they were meant to be followed by Volume 3 : “Take a Turn Around the Capstan” and Vol. 4 : “Heave a Pawl”??!! But it seems we all got busy, tired, old, sick, or left the planet, and some – now here’s an idea – some even preferred to MAKE MUSIC instead! 🙂

    Rian Anderson also produced a trad songbook, complete with her yummy recipes – but no Knitting patterns 😦 for Shez Wright’s Singing Shed venue at Woodford, 2001. And of course John Stafford is trying to encourage more participation with his Neurum Creek free on-line Trad Songs booklet of 2017.

    Re those early Sessions, I rem’ber that songs from the reps of The Copper Family, Watersons, Ewan MacColl, and other Brits, were popular and of course Shanties, some Gospel, Paxton and other Americans, the odd Aussie number, plus Clancy Bros/Dubliners – and Irish rebel songs (now, maybe not so much!)
    Just as with Pop Music in the 60s-70s, the huge influx of migrants from The British Isles/Ireland, contributed mightily to the make up of the Aussie Folk Scene and its music choices, as reflected in the aforementioned singers and styles. (However, I dunno much about current influences!)

    “The Newer Songs”, like new blood, are great – and necessary too – (the first 2 volumes above, for example, have plenty). They just maybe need a “folky feel” and a good chune that’s singable by a mob, perhaps (who’d have thought “You’ll Never Walk Alone” could work so well, hahaha!)

    I do recall that the Singing Mob of yore, quickly expressed its concerns about a difficult key, or if the singing style or song version was too, er, how shall I say? ….“singular” 🙂 …. After all, it was important that most could join in and hopefully, find a decent harmony somewhere within, before the song ended, LOL!

    Probably the most important thing though, is that folks are in community and making music – and that is certainly happening – and long may it continue (with or without the Knitting and Crochet! 🙂



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