Guest post from current Woodfordia Inc. president, Rose Broe, reproduced with the kind permission of Rose and Lore Society. Thanks Rose and Woodford!
An accordion player walks into a bar. Okay it’s me, walking into the Coopers Bar, hoping I don’t regret choosing the “Accordions Don’t Play Lady Of Spain, People Do” T-shirt. I look around for a chair, preferably one without arms. Okay, with arms. Okay, any chair. It feels good. The Coopers Bar is going off!
At the Woodford Folk Festival, the once engaging and invigorating sessions from the old Guinness Bar days have had a renaissance with a facelift and a few tweaks of the Coopers Bar. There’s a great space to play, instrument storage, cheery baskets of plants hanging overhead, and the odd bicycle wheel nailed to the ceiling. Just enough reference to the ‘Irishy’ pubs we remember, with paraphernalia festooning every wall & ledge (and which were embarrassingly similar to what my home looked like on a good day).
The bar is heaving with music and punters, drawn in for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps just to have a beer, or to shelter from the cyclone of choice outside.
But the scene they behold is the organised chaos of the session in full swing: a collection of humanity, instruments and instrumental styles (natural enemies in the wild) that come together in peace. There’s Scottish, Bluegrass, Old-Time, Ukuleles, Irish, Aussie tunes, Slow Aussie tunes, Slow Irish, Slo-vakia, Italian tunes, Song sessions, Honk sessions (don’t ask), and all-in hybrid jams.
What could possibly go wrong?
What’s really going on here?
What is “The SESSION”?
As long as humans have gathered around a campfire, kitchen table, parlour or pub, singing songs and playing instruments, there have been sessions. There’s no culture that doesn’t have some variation on the theme. Common elements see an aurally passed-on tradition, from all vocal sing-alongs to all instrumental, and everything in-between.
It’s informal, instructive, inclusive, intoxicating.
BUT, you can’t just plonk a bunch of musos in a room and create a session. There are secret magic ingredients. Try giving a male satin bower bird a bucket full of red things, and expect him to build a bower – that’s just never going to work. The space has to be ‘right’, and the circle able to expand and contract. A nearby bar helps a lot, a table to sit around (low is best so you can hear those opposite you), minimal sound spill, and somewhere to keep your case so it doesn’t get stepped in – or slept in.
The session is not a performance, but there’s a delicate dance of inclusion, at the same time keeping the momentum going with a strong core of experienced players/singers. There’s a few ‘rules’, mostly about good manners. It’s not okay for you or your partner to take up a chair if you’re not playing. Don’t be the one starting everything off (that’s a ‘session-hog’). For bluegrass, there’s lots of lead breaks/solos, but for Irish you generally all play together (as long as it’s the same tune). If it’s a song session, you don’t do a ‘better’ version of the previous offering. Stick to the genre. Don’t play in weird keys.
Know when it’s okay to tell a banjo joke (or come and see me).
And then there’s Dazza, the over-friendly punter who crouches beside you and demands a detailed explanation of what’s going on.
“Can’t talk. Playing”
He presses on, undeterred.
“Hey can you play Riverdance (Dueling Banjos, Man of Constant Sorrow)? What are they playing? How do you know one tune from the other?”
“Easy, they all have different names.”
“Have you heard the one about the unlocked car with the banjo in it?”
“Yes, lots of times.”
“What’s that instrument?”
“It’s an accordion.” (I don’t share the joke about it being an instrument played by depressing the buttons and anybody within earshot).
But next year Dazza is back. Playing softly at the back with a shiny new mandolin and a grin from ear to ear. You exchange nods and smiles.
Ultimately successful sessions are all about participation; the people making the music. It’s helpful to have a common swag of tunes and songs already learnt, but also new material to exchange. Even festival performers love to creep down to a session to get their fix of the camaraderie and fun that playing with other musos provides. Though normally busier than a one-armed-cab-driver with crabs, they enjoy its counterbalance to the stress of being on-stage.
The sessions have been described as the beating heart of the festival. They are a vital way of passing down the traditions and culture of acoustic music and song. It’s our folk music, in its many forms. There’s something for everyone, and if you’ve never been – do yourself a favour. It’s never too late to learn an instrument or a song. Of course you can just sit back and listen with a nice coldie, close your eyes and drink it all in.