Sessions keep traditional music alive

by Sharon Armstrong

It’s chilly outside the Red Oak Brew Pub despite the sun doing its feeble best to warm the cool air. People sit on the veranda with their faces turned upwards as if determined to wring the very last drop of warmth from the pale shimmering disc, and so a cool Sunday afternoon drifts into a cold Sunday night.

It’s a quiet evening and at first you think that you are imagining the sounds. Is that a fiddle is tuning up? A faint discordance from somewhere close by, just on the edge of hearing. A guitar too, by the sound of things. And then the bright trill of a whistle followed by the deeper, smoother resonance of a flute.

Faint laughter.

It’s getting cold anyway so people get up from the wrought-iron chairs and drift inside.

The bar smells like bars everywhere; the ghosts of beers gone by holding hands with the scent of French fries yet to come. The late afternoon light reflects mellow and golden against the brass beer taps. Plenty of stuff there to keep the cold at bay.

The sounds are coming from the room behind the bar. The laughter emanates from a group of people seated in a circle, facing each other across a no-man’s land of empty glasses and open instrument cases. They are discussing what to play next. A white-haired, bearded man puts his fiddle on his knee for a moment to take a sip of his beer and then with a grin he flicks his bow over the fiddle strings. The fiddle is well worn and a little beat up. If a violin could be said to have an attitude this one would be familiar and at ease. It’s a happy fiddle.

“Does anyone know this tune?” he asks as he kicks off into a fast, energetic reel. Or is it a jig?

The guitarist strums along, hesitantly to begin with and then with more confidence. An older blonde woman grins and leans into her fiddle, joining in with the tune. It’s a little ropy at first but a few beats in and the fiddles are sparking off each other instead of getting in each other’s way. Another woman on keyboards picks out the melody, playing quietly, letting the fiddles sing. The man on the goatskin drum picks up the beat, underpinning the tune with drum tones that you would never have thought could come out of a dead goat. Music fills the bar.

The Sunday night Irish music session at the Red Oak Brew Pub has begun.

Irish sessions traditionally took place in people’s homes but over the last few decades they have become synonymous with pubs, where the ready availability of beer has been known to help things along immensely.

Sessions can be open or closed depending on the locale. Those held in people’s homes tend to be invitation-only but most bar sessions are open and therein lies the charm. You never quite know what to expect in a session – anyone might show up.

North Carolina has a rich history of folk music, Irish, bluegrass and old-time. A number of its cities play host to well-known open sessions, notably Asheville and Raleigh, but people here in Greensboro are keen to keep the tradition alive as well.

Vance D Archer III, who lives in Greensboro, plays regularly at the various open sessions around the Triad area. He also hosts a regular session at his home and if you’re lucky enough to be invited you will have a good time.

Every Thursday night his home fills up with people. They come to play a mixture of bluegrass, Celtic and comtempary music, to talk, to learn new tunes and just enjoy each other’s company.

His house is a warm and welcoming place; everywhere you look there seems to be musical instruments just waiting for someone to pick them up and play a tune. They line the walls of his living room: guitars leaning lazily against glossy mandolins, fiddles lying with a vaguely expectant air on the tables. He smiles ruefully and confesses that he has “an entire room full of fiddles.

“People just keep giving them to me,” he laughs as he passes one on to a newcomer who expressed a desire to learn how to play. Vance is what his friends call a “blanket musician.”

“There is nothing he can’t play,” says David Gibson, a regular at the house session. “I love coming over here.”

They all have glasses of wine somewhere about their persons and the conversation is relaxed, the atmosphere easy. They take turns to start a tune or sing a song. People join in or just listen and it is obvious that everyone is digging it.

Thomas O’Shea, who works as a management consultant when he is not playing music, explains why he enjoys sessions so much.

“Playing music is definitely a creative outlet which is not filled in some other parts of my life,” he said. “I met Vance and everybody else here through playing music at sessions. It brought us all together. Playing is a release and it kind of exercises a part of the brain that doesn’t get used at my work. I find playing at sessions makes the work week easier.”

And that is never a bad thing.

Irish music has enjoyed a huge revival in the last few decades, both in America and across the pond, due to a great extent on the phenomenal success of such large-scale productions as Riverdance, which popularized traditional music on a global scale. It became very fashionable to be into traditional music. But some fear that this renaissance of not just Irish but all kinds of folk genres may be taking a downward turn.

Sonny Thomas is part of the Fiddle and Bow Society, a Triad-based non-profit organization, and he has been booking folk bands in the Triad area since the early ’80s.

“When the Fiddle and Bow Society started in the 1980s, when well-known musicians came to the area they came to us. We presented the Tannahill Weavers, Andy Irvine, Dolores Keane, the Poor Clares and Ossian. We used to do a show almost every Friday night, but now we do one twice a month if we are lucky. There is a lack of interest in the local media so people sometimes aren’t aware of how well known some of the musicians are. If, say, a big band like Dervish or Lunasa came through the area we wouldn’t be able to get the exposure for them and that is a huge thing. Media coverage of music can be crucial. Especially in less mainstream genres such as folk music. If Bruce Springsteen came to the Triad then everyone would know about it anyway; he wouldn’t really need the support of local media. If you are a relatively small group to begin with then every single thing that works against you hurts. Exposure to the music is crucial. The loss of radio shows that used to feature folk music has also hit us hard. People just don’t get to hear the music.”

Music sessions have always been one of the lynchpins that have kept the traditional music going down through the years. By enabling people to experience the music in a relaxed and fun setting and also to meet other people who are interested in the less mainstream genres such as Irish, bluegrass and old-time music, sessions have always had a significant effect in keeping folk music alive and current. The informality of music sessions makes it possible for everyone to be involved and the fact that there is very rarely any kind of cover charge makes them highly accessible to those who might not have the means to go to official concerts but are still interested in the music.

But that very informality can make sessions a little daunting for those who are might be new to them.

Where can you find them? What do you do? Are you allowed to join in? Who is buying the beer?

“Sessions are relatively new to the Triad area,” said Thomas. “People in other areas such as DC, Asheville, Boston or New York who might have had more exposure to sessions would know that it is not just a private party, that it is okay to join in. People who come across them here might be interested but they might not know the etiquette. They just have not been exposed to it.”

Relax. Sessions come in all shapes and sizes, just like the people who play in them. Remember that a session is not a concert (although they can be as good as any concert). Anyone can be involved. You never know who might turn up.

Some are tune driven and some lean more towards singing. Some are for advanced musicians and some are for beginners. The personality of each session ultimately depends on who shows up, as do the number of players and the types of instruments. There is, however, an unspoken etiquette whereby you as a newcomer can avoid unpleasant confrontations with established session players.

A certain level of competence is expected. A good session isn’t exclusionary but it is not the place to learn how to play an instrument. You get beginners sessions and you get advanced. Both require knowledge of the basics. Be aware of your level. In bar sessions, which don’t tend to classify themselves, overly enthusiastic beginners occasionally pose problems for those who are a little further along. No one is going to shoot you because you are still learning – the more advanced musicians know that everyone has to start somewhere. But be considerate. If you are new to the sessions, stand a round of drinks and play quietly until you have a better idea of where everyone else is and you shouldn’t have any problems with the larger and more physical musicians. And remember, it is fine to come along and just listen. Sessions are first and foremost social events.

Like they say, it’s all for the craic. The good kind.