Music for the soul

Jam sessions meet creative needs of amateur musicians

Jam sessions meet creative needs of amateur musicians

March 29, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

"Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
- Berthold Auerbach

People who enjoy playing or listening to music know that it makes them feel good. Music is important to them.

Mark McCoy, composer, musician, teacher and chairman of Shepherd College's Department of Music and Theater, also believes music is important, and he has an explanation why.

"The invention of fire, the wheel and penicillin were good ideas, he said. "We needed them." They changed life on earth. They made it better.

McCoy said the same is true of music: "I think we all need it."

People who are not likely to ever have a chart-topping CD need music. Music is important to people who may never bring a concert hall audience to its feet. It's important to people who play just for fun - just for the love of it.


On a recent Thursday evening, a couple of dozen musicians braved a driving rain and a mile-long gravel lane for a musical cleansing at the weekly bluegrass jam at the Woodmen of the World lodge near Fairplay.

The dress was casual - jeans, flannel shirts, a few ball caps and one railroader's cap.

They arrived with guitars and banjos. Martinsburg, W.Va., resident Bob Ryman has been hauling his upright bass for five or six years. He played electric bass in a country-rock band for 17 years, but only acoustic instruments are welcome at a bluegrass "pick." Bud Hall brought his mandolin. He's been attending the gatherings for eight to 10 years. For six or seven years before that, pickers gathered at Sam Jones' garage in Boonsboro.

Without a playlist or program, people just played songs. Some sang.

"I come for the love of singing," said Margaret Saylor of Shepherdstown, W.Va., who has attended about four times. From time to time, a couple of women at the back of the room got up out of their folding chairs for a few old-time country dance steps.

Some people were there just to listen. A lot of feet were tapping.

Mack Woolard - his name imprinted on his leather guitar strap - has been coming to the jam for about five years. Retired from a career with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Woolard played in a bluegrass band for nearly 27 years.

He makes the trip more than an hour from his home in Urbana, Md., mostly for the fellowship and friendship he finds. He also travels to

Waynesboro, Pa., many Friday evenings for jams at the 105-year-old Beck & Benedict Hardware Store. Those gatherings have been happening since 1989, said owner Dick Boschert. Boschert, who plays his dad's 1920 banjo, gathers as many as 200 people at the weekly jams. They come for the relaxation. They come for the music.

"It's in your blood," Boschert said.

Some have been playing for years. Some are beginners and initially are shy about trying to keep up, but they tend to learn.

Peter Wright has played in Fairplay and sometimes attends the

Waynesboro sessions. The owner of Tri-State Printing in Hagerstown has been playing harmonica since he was a kid. He said he didn't get "serious" about it until about 15 years ago.

But serious doesn't mean that Wright is planning a professional music career. He's happy to call himself an amateur, a word often used to describe someone who's "not quite there" in skill or talent, he said.

Wright said he recently learned the true meaning of the word's French origin. "Amateur" derives from the Latin amator, which means lover, and he's proud to wear that label. He plays music for the love of it - very much for his own pleasure, he said.

Wright's portable instrument works in several genres - bluegrass, jazz, church music. He's joined Thursday night "pickin' and grinnin'" sessions at O'Hurley's General Store in Shepherdstown. He's sat in with a jazz ensemble in a Manhattan club and admitted that takes a lot of nerve. "It's always on the edge," he said. "When it works, it's wonderful."

It was working at the Woodmen lodge.

Although a few of the players have performed professionally - fiddler Joe Shewbridge of Shepherdstown has backed the likes of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and George Jones - the jams are about playing together.

"It's just a lot of camaraderie," said Ralph Clark, who frequents the Fairplay and Waynesboro jams. He also hosts small gatherings at his Myersville, Md., home Monday nights. "We play for the joy of it. Just the joy of it," he said.

Charles Town, W.Va., resident "Sam" Sammons, a native of eastern Kentucky, has been jammin' at the Fairplay lodge for six or seven years. He plays and sings "just for fun" and said a big part of music is people expressing themselves.

A few miles and a musical world away, three guys gather Sunday evenings to express themselves. A basement in Hagerstown's North End is the place where the 40-something friends play and sing - mostly songs they write together. Their sound is mellow with an occasional funky edge.

"No sad songs," said Chuck Idol, the host, who added a Spanish flourish and intricate detail to a new song.

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