Ira Gitlin

The Parking-Lot Vernacular

[paper delivered at the Bluegrass Music Symposium, Western Kentucky University, September 10, 2005]

The discussion that follows is based chiefly on my own observations and speculations. I have been involved with bluegrass music since 1973, when I began to teach myself to play the banjo. I have worked as a professional or semi-professional musician since 1984, the year I first attended a bluegrass festival, and since 1994 I have earned my living solely from performing, teaching, and writing about music. Although I make no pretense of adhering to the canons of scholarship, I have tried throughout this paper to identify sources I have used. Any assertion of fact that is not accompanied by a reference to a written or recorded source may be understood to come from my own experience, personal communications, or something that I may have read somewhere that I can’t quite recall. (Perhaps if I had known, years ago, that I would someday write this paper, I might have taken better notes.)

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me, notably Sharon Watts and the staff of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, the staff of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Neil V. Rosenberg, Dana Ward, and George Welling. Special thanks must go to Lee Michael Demsey of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for invaluable last-minute discographical assistance.

In this paper I am introducing the term “parking-lot vernacular” (PLV) to denote the complex of repertoire, arrangements, and procedures that a bluegrass musician can expect to encounter in a jam session. This body of expectations, which exercises a normative influence on amateur and professional musicians alike, has its origins in the classic recordings of bluegrass’ so-called “golden era,” but it has evolved over the years, and has come to encompass regional variations as well. I intend to outline some of the parameters that shape the ever-changing PLV; explore some of the musical, social, historical, and technological factors that have caused it to vary with time and place; and speculate on how, once established, the PLV can influence subsequent recordings. A look at several specific instances in which PLV song-versions deviate from the original or classic recorded versions will shed light on the forces that cause it to evolve.

The musicians who flocked to bluegrass in its early years were drawn to it in part because it was fascinatingly different from what they had heard their families, friends, and neighbors playing while they were growing up. Despite bluegrass’ clear links to the old-time music with which they were familiar, they knew that it had been deliberately created by professionals who were seeking to establish their own identities in the musical marketplace.

Today’s fledgling musicians have a different relationship to the music. We know that devotees were holding casual jam sessions within a few years of bluegrass’ 1945 big bang. (Neil V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History, p. 102) In the decades since then—and especially since the advent of bluegrass festivals in the mid-1960s—bluegrass has developed a participatory culture that envelops performers and fans alike, and often elicits admiring comments from outside observers. Young pickers now are as likely to learn the rudiments of their craft from family, friends, and neighbors as they are from recordings and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. So it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that bluegrass has become the old-time music of a large part of its audience.

With two generations or more of professional musicians having emerged from the ranks of recreational jammers, it seems only natural that some of the commercial recordings of the past few decades would reflect these amateur roots. And since—as I shall discuss presently—newer commercial recordings continue to shape the PLV, we may envision an endless cycle in which the PLV informs the playing of a cohort of young musicians, whose subsequent recordings then enrich the ever-evolving PLV, influencing successive cohorts of jammers, and so on…

The foundation, and indeed much of the superstructure, of the PLV consists of songs and instrumental pieces from the early recordings (roughly 1946 to 1965) of the most prominent first-generation bluegrass acts, especially Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, but also Don Reno and Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Bobby and Sonny Osborne, and a few others. The exact mix of songs and sources will vary with the tastes and experiences of the participants at any particular jam session, but it is safe to say that any pickers seeking common ground can find it somewhere within this body of material, even when they can find it nowhere else.

Newer songs are continually added to the parking-lot repertoire, as year after year fans imitate the latest work of their musical heroes. It is not unusual to hear jammers play songs that were introduced to bluegrass by the Country Gentlemen, the New Grass Revival, the Seldom Scene, the Bluegrass Cardinals, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Hot Rize, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Laurie Lewis, Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent—indeed, by any prominent artist. Neil Rosenberg offers us a snapshot of this process in his description (Bluegrass: A History, p.291) of Bill Monroe’s 1971 festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana: “All the parking-lot pickers were doing their [the Bluegrass Alliance’s] arrangement of ‘One Tin Soldier.’” Now, in three decades of jamming from Maine to Georgia and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains, I have never encountered that song in a jam session, so I feel confident in saying that however popular it may have been in its day, it failed to gain a permanent foothold in the PLV repertoire. Other songs have fared better, though, such as Alan Mills’ “Love of the Mountains,” first released by the Lost and Found in 1975 and covered by Larry Sparks in 1980, or Pete Wernick’s “Just Like You,” which Hot Rize released in 1987; both songs are still heard in jam sessions today.

New material poised to enter the PLV repertoire must compete for jammers’ attention with the older, more established tunes, and also with all the other likely new tunes. That competition gets fiercer each year as the number of new bluegrass releases continues to increase. It seems unlikely, therefore, that newer material will ever completely eclipse the old classics.

Several factors must be present if a new song is to gain widespread and permanent acceptance into the PLV. First, the song must be known to large numbers of pickers; that is, it must come from the repertoire of a band that travels and performs nationally, and enjoys frequent and widespread radio play. (The material of lower-profile and regional bands may show up in jam sessions, but will not be as widely recognized or frequently heard as the work of the top national acts.) Simply put, jammers will not play a song if they do not get the opportunity to hear it in the first place.

In addition, the song must be easily learned and played by amateur musicians of average ability. Well over half of all bluegrass songs—some estimates run as high as 80 percent—can be accompanied using nothing more than the I, IV, and V chords (tonic, subdominant, and dominant). This enables a large number of musicians of modest harmonic sophistication to participate competently in jam sessions. In fact, bluegrass players often refer to any chords other than the I, IV, and V as “off-chords.” The most commonly encountered off-chords are the vi (minor), the bVII (major, sometimes called the “drop chord”), and the II (major or dominant seventh, usually as a secondary dominant to the V). Much less frequently encountered are the ii (minor), iii (minor), bIII (major), III (major or dominant seventh), iv (minor), v (minor; very rare), VI (major or dominant seventh, often in a VI-II-V-I progression, as in “Salty Dog Blues”), and VII (major; very rare). Many experienced jammers, and even some professionals, cannot reliably and accurately recognize the less common chords, so pieces that use these harmonies are less likely to be learned, and therefore less likely to be played in jam sessions.

I witnessed this myself on several occasions in the early 1990s. At that time, Alison Brown’s banjo tune “Leaving Cottondale” was enjoying considerable radio play (in August 1991 it reached number five on Bluegrass Unlimited‘s top-thirty chart, a remarkable feat for an instrumental selection), and Brown often performed the piece in her live shows with Alison Krauss and Union Station, then as now one of the most admired and talked-about bands in bluegrass. With its distinctive and appealing melody and its nationwide exposure, “Leaving Cottondale” was bound to be attempted in jam sessions. But in every instance that I observed, most of the participants were unable to negotiate the chord changes in the first section of the tune: I-VI-ii-V-VII-iii-V. This tune was, as we say, a “jam buster.” (For a concise yet nuanced discussion of this topic, see “‘Jam-Busters’—How to Avoid Them” by guitarist and singer Yvonne Walbroehl, originally published in the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society’s newsletter Bluegrass by the Bay.) Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan,” which Tony Rice recorded in 1979, is another much-admired song that is doomed by its chord progression to skulk around the fringes of the PLV. Its verse uses a vi and a iii chord, and its chorus includes a bVII and a ii in a very unusual sequence.

First-generation recordings endow the PLV not only with its core content, but also with its formal structures. Like the grammar of a spoken or written language, or automobile drivers’ rules of the road, a shared set of formal conventions allows jammers to proceed directly to playing their music, without the need to negotiate explicitly all the details of each song’s arrangement. Many of these conventions mirror the standard arrangement practices heard on early bluegrass recordings. (These practices are not unique to bluegrass; they are shared with other country music of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and have counterparts in jazz and pop music of the same period.) For example, there is usually a regular alternation of verses, choruses, and instrumental solos (“breaks”) that generally follow the chords of the verse; after an instrumental solo, the instrumentalists may vamp indefinitely on the tonic chord while the singer prepares to begin the next verse; and if a chorus follows immediately after a break, it is understood that there are no more verses and the song is about to end. Musician and teacher Pete Wernick has listed many of these “traditional unspoken ground rules” on his web site, (Click on “Instructional,” then on “Jamming tips.”)

But jam-session song arrangements often exhibit features not commonly heard in classic bluegrass recordings. Such features can usually be interpreted as responses to the special requirements of impromptu performance. For example, in recordings, a single break after each chorus (except the last chorus) is the norm, but in jam sessions extra breaks are often inserted in an effort to allow every willing instrumentalist an opportunity to play a solo. Walbroehl describes this practice: “Give all of the pickers a chance to take a break, if possible. Sometimes in larger jams this is not practical, but I recall a jam where at least 12 pickers took breaks between the two verses of the song! It may have been the longest version of that song ever.” (“Jam Etiquette,” originally published in Bluegrass by the Bay)

In a similar vein, when jammers play an instrumental piece, it is not uncommon for every soloist to take a turn—typically proceeding in order around the circle in which they stand—before the first soloist gets a second turn. This contrasts with the approach heard on old recordings, in which the starting soloist usually alternates with the other soloists—for example, banjo-fiddle-banjo-dobro-banjo on several Flatt & Scruggs recordings from the 1950s—to create a rondo-like or a club-sandwich effect. But professional and semiprofessional musicians performing in ad hoc “pick-up” bands often resort to the familiar PLV default habit to flesh out their tunes. (Veteran Baltimore dobroist Dave Giegerich has seconded my opinion that this has its roots in jam-session conventions.) It has shown up in commercial bluegrass recordings, too. For example, in “Slipstream,” the second piece on Béla Fleck’s 1988 album Drive, the solos are taken, in order, by the banjo, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, guitar, and banjo, followed by a final statement of the theme by the banjo, fiddle, and dobro playing in harmony, in an arrangement that could have come straight out of a jam session. In fact, seven of the eleven tunes on Drive follow similar arrangements. (In a recent e-mail exchange, Fleck explained to me that the musicians on Drive “used the jam session as a starting point and altered it from there to make it interesting.”)

The instrumentalist who plays the initial solo of a song usually starts it with a pickup-note phrase, or “lead-in.” In classic bluegrass recordings lead-ins may be of various lengths; a band that rehearses together regularly has the luxury of crafting distinctive and individualized arrangements for its songs. PLV lead-ins, however, for pieces in duple meter—by far the most common bluegrass meter—almost invariably fill the last beat and a half (sometimes the last beat and three-quarters) of a measure, using a variety of standard rhythmic patterns. Such standardized lead-ins give the other jammers enough time to recognize the tempo of a song, enabling them to enter on the downbeat. Anything shorter is likely to result in rhythmic confusion. Musicians sometimes call these lead-ins by jocular names that mimic their rhythms, such as “nick-nick-nick new“ or “son-of-a-bitch I’m tired.”

There is evidence to suggest that fans and musicians recognize regional variants within bluegrass, like dialects of a language. For example, I have heard the term “Carolina slam” used to denote the focused, hard-hitting rhythm style favored by followers of contemporary mainstream bands like the Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out. Some of the older fans in Baltimore have been known to refer to melodic, or Keith-style, banjo playing as “Yankee double-picking,” reflecting a general belief that northern players often favor less traditional styles of bluegrass, and a Baltimore traditionalist once told me, when the topic of California bands came up, “You know, they don’t play our kind of bluegrass out there.” Some regional differences lie more in the subtleties of timing and emphasis, as New York State banjoist Tony Trischka described in a 1984 interview: “[D]own at the Berryville festival in 1967 or ’68…I was jamming with some guys from the South, and…[t]here was a different feel in my right hand that I never had before. Then it faded because the guys I was playing with [in New York] didn’t have it and I didn’t either….I think you really do have to play with the people that have it, and that’s…the southern bands where the music came out of.” (Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick, Masters Of The 5-String Banjo In Their Own Words And Music, p.345)

The material of locally and regionally active figures may be frequently heard in the PLV repertoire in one area of the country and seldom if ever heard elsewhere. The songs of Vern Williams and Ray Park, for example, are best known in northern California, while those of Bob Paisley (“Vern East,” as I once heard him described) are more likely to show up in mid-Atlantic jam sessions. Even nationally known artists like the Seldom Scene or Country Gazette are often more influential on their home turf.

The individual tastes and repertoires of locally prominent amateur or semiprofessional players—especially singers, since it is they who often choose the songs to be played—can impart a distinctive flavor to jam sessions in a particular geographic area. The songs of Peter Rowan, for example, are heard more often around Washington and Baltimore than they might be in many other areas, simply because of the presence of several local singer-guitarists who like his material (aided, at times, by the presence of several sidemen in the area who have performed with Rowan and are familiar with his work).

Reverence for, and reference to, the past is fundamental to the culture of bluegrass. Bill Monroe used to describe his choices of repertoire, style, and instrumentation by citing the music he had heard in his youth, and it is still often possible to settle arguments with an authoritative “that’s the way Bill”—or Earl, or Ralph, or whoever—“did it.” (A succinct statement of this ethos can be found in a letter from Red Henry, a very knowledgeable musician, to the editor of Banjo NewsLetter, published in the September 1997 issue. After correcting a small error in a previously published tablature of Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” Henry comments, “Why is all this important? It’s Earl, that’s why.”) Bill Monroe himself once said, “[T]he man that wrote the number wrote it right and he wanted it kept that way. Put the notes in there right. Then you say that you’ve played the number right and you have done a good job for the man that’s wrote the number.” (Masters Of The 5-String Banjo, p.12)

In light of this widespread spirit of musical conservatism and respect for precedent, it is worth noting that jam-session performances of songs often deviate in significant ways—melodically, harmonically, lyrically, or in details of their arrangements—from the original recorded sources. I believe that an examination of several examples can shed light on the forces that shape the PLV, forces that often operate below the level of conscious decision.

(It is important to bear in mind that in the examples that follow, I am discussing how variant song-versions might enter the PLV in the first place. I am not, of course, suggesting that every jammer who performs those versions has learned them directly from recordings, or generated them inadvertently through the processes about which I speculate below. But once a song-version is introduced into jam sessions, other jammers will learn it from their friends, often without knowing or caring where it came from, or what its original form may have been. Furthermore, even when the first attested example of a song-version is a commercial recording, it is still possible that the artist may have learned it through the folk processes of the PLV.)

First of all, professional musicians do not merely introduce listeners to new material, as discussed above; they also introduce their own versions of older material. If a performer is especially influential, his or her version of a song may partially supplant the original version, and may introduce the song to pickers who have never heard it before. Knowledgeable fans may recognize that “Another Night” is an old Stanley Brothers tune, but there can be no doubt that its popularity in recent years is attributable the 1992 recording by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Some songs may even become familiar from non-bluegrass sources. Many people first learned “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” from Buck Owens’ 1971 recording, which may explain why so many singers start the melody of the chorus on the first degree of the scale, as Owens did. (Flatt and Scruggs, in their 1950 version, started it on the third.) The Grateful Dead have introduced many of their listeners to songs that we think of as bluegrass material, such as “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Shady Grove,” and “Dark Hollow.”

A well-informed listener can sometimes identify the ultimate source from which a PLV version of a song is derived, if the arrangement is especially distinctive. For example, if—as was common in the mid-1990s—a jam-session arrangement of “I’ll Take The Blame” is slow but hard-driving, with an unusual stop in the middle of a banjo solo, it must have been patterned after the Lonesome River Band’s 1994 recording, not Flatt and Scruggs’ 1957 original. Versions of “Wild Bill Jones” that have been derived from the 1989 recording by Alison Krauss and Union Station can be identified by the use of vocal harmony in the second verse (“He said, ‘My age is twenty-one…’”) and a yodel in the last verse, as well as by some lyrical peculiarities.

From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s Tony Rice was one of the most copied artists in bluegrass. His recordings, especially Rounder Records’ Bluegrass Album series, introduced or reintroduced many songs to the PLV repertoire. On his 1984 album Cold On The Shoulder, he recorded a version of “John Hardy.” Although this old ballad is a traditional song with no single classic bluegrass version, it has long been a jam-session favorite—but always as an instrumental. Rice, recording it with vocals, acknowledged this departure from standard bluegrass practice in his liner notes to the album: “I didn’t even know that there were lyrics to this tune until I heard Jerry Reed do it on an album about ten years ago. This is one I previously recorded as an instrumental.” So influential was he, that soon vocal renditions of “John Hardy” were being performed regularly by jammers, and also by professional and semiprofessional musicians. (Dobroist Fred Travers recently told me that his 1992 recording of the song was directly influenced by Rice’s version.)

When considering song-versions that have long been standard within the PLV, it is important to remember a few historical facts about the bluegrass industry. Bluegrass experienced a growth spurt in the late 1960s and 1970s. New fans flocked to the music—and its jamming culture—as bluegrass festivals proliferated and attracted mainstream publicity. (Bluegrass: A History, pp. 272-304) The sound tracks of the movies Bonnie And Clyde (1967) and Deliverance (1972) yielded hit recordings of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Dueling Banjos,” respectively. (Bluegrass: A History, pp. 263-269) In addition, some folk- and country-rock artists proudly celebrated their bluegrass roots, most notably Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia, whose 1975 side-project Old And In The Way presented bluegrass material with a countercultural sensibility, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose 1972 triple album Will The Circle Be Unbroken introduced many listeners to the music of Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson.

The neophytes who swelled the ranks of jammers in the ’60s and ’70s—a sort of musical baby boom—would naturally have learned whatever song-versions were prevalent in the PLV at that time. These newcomers’ great numbers would have ensured that those versions continued to be widely heard in the years since then, as successive cohorts of jammers learned from them, and so on. But that rise in bluegrass’ popularity was occurring at a time when many of the original, classic recordings were out of print or difficult to obtain, making then-recent recorded versions all the more influential. (This was, of course, decades before or Bear Family box sets.) I believe, therefore, that recordings from the ’60s and ’70s may prove to constitute an especially significant influence within the PLV even today, perhaps nearly as significant as those from bluegrass’ earlier period.

Another likely source for song-versions that deviate from classic recorded sources is simple error. Singers often misunderstand the lyrics on recordings. In popular music this phenomenon has been commemorated in humorous books like ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy by Gavin Edwards; bluegrass can also boast a few such comic misunderstandings, like “two meatballs in the sand” for “to me, boys, it was sad,” from “Goodbye Old Pal,” and “with feta cheese and hair” for “with faded cheeks and hair,” from “Out In The Cold World.” (See the text accompanying the tablature to Janne Viksten’s banjo tune “Feta Cheese and Meatballs,” published in the August 1997 issue of Banjo NewsLetter.)

Most lyrical misunderstandings, though, result in entirely plausible variants which, once established, may be perpetuated through oral transmission, in published songbooks (usually unauthorized), and on the Internet. For example, the last line of the chorus of Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way To The Old Home” is “that shined long ago where I lived,” but a recent Google search for the lyrics showed nearly as many sites that gave that line as “that shines [or “shined”] on the road where I lived,” a variant which I have often heard in jam sessions, and which, in fact, was sung by Tony Rice and Doyle Lawson on The Bluegrass Album in 1981. In Emma Smith’s 1984 recording of Merle Travis’ “Dark As A Dungeon,” the singer (or her source) appears to have learned the lyric from a written text. In the second verse, Smith sings “Like a friend with his dope” instead of “Like a fiend with his dope,” a mistake unlikely to have resulted from a mishearing but easy to understand as a misreading. Although I have not heard this variant in jam sessions, it does illustrate how printed sources might give rise to distinctive song-versions.

As I have discussed above, songs that use “off-chords”—especially the less common ones—are less likely to take root in the PLV repertoire. When such songs are played, the off-chords may sometimes be changed to chords with which the players are more familiar. (Earl Scruggs himself did this in his adaptation of the jazz instrumental “Farewell Blues.” Where the original version has the chords VI-ii-#II dim., Scruggs plays VI-II-#II.) For example, a iii chord may be changed to a vi (as I have heard done in the chorus of Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages,” best known to bluegrass fans from the 1975 version by J.D. Crowe and the New South); a ii may be changed to a IV or a II, as the melody permits. In the Seldom Scene’s recordings of “Rider,” one of their signature songs, the last line follows the chords bIII-bVII-bIII-bVII-I. More than once, however, I have heard jammers render it as bVII-IV-bVII-IV-I, which is a more commonly heard progression in general, though it entails a change in the song’s melody.

Melodies, in fact, are malleable in the PLV. Vocal harmony parts above the lead part can make it difficult for many listeners to pick out the melody accurately; they may mistake a prominent harmony for the less prominent melody, or have to guess at the melody when it is overpowered by a tenor (and sometimes even a high baritone) part. I have, for example, seldom if ever heard the melody to the chorus of “The Lonesome River” sung in jam sessions as the Stanley Brothers recorded it in 1950, though the high baritone part is usually reproduced with tolerable accuracy. Singers often change melodies to fit their vocal ranges, or simply out of a desire for artistic expression. They may also unconsciously change an uncommon turn of melody so that it conforms to a more common pattern, as when the first line of “Rank Strangers To Me” is sung to the melody of “The Hills Of Roane County” or “The Precious Jewel.”

This last point is especially worth noting. I believe that in many instances where PLV song-versions deviate from the classic recordings, we may posit some analogy operating unconsciously or subliminally in the minds of the originators of those versions, whoever they may have been. In general, there is a drift away from the anomalous and exceptional, and toward the common, consistent, and typical.

In PLV renditions of Bill Monroe’s song “It’s Mighty Dark To Travel,” the verses and choruses are almost invariably sung to the same melody. In the 1947 original, however, the second lines of the verse and chorus differ slightly in both melody and chords, while the first, third, and fourth lines are identical. This is very unusual. Countless songs have musically identical verses and choruses; countless songs have choruses that differ from the verses in ways that are obvious from the very first line. But I can think of no other songs that share the subtle verse-chorus difference of “It’s Mighty Dark To Travel,” as originally composed. There is little wonder, then, that the song has been transformed to fit into a widely recognized category by changing the melody and chords of the verse to match those of the chorus.

This process of change by analogy is well known in the field of linguistics. The unusual sound combination at the end of the word “nuclear,” for example, is often unwittingly changed to the more common “-ular”; a tricky construction like the present subjunctive (“I wish I were in Dixie”) might slip into the superficially similar past indicative (“I wish I was in Dixie”). When discussing the PLV, we may invoke the drift from the exceptional toward the typical to explain melodic and chordal changes, as discussed above, as well as variations in lyrics and arrangements.

Lyrical drift can be observed in performances of the unusually complex chorus of “I’d Rather Be Alone.” As originally recorded by Flatt and Scruggs in 1953, it states, “I’d rather be alone and have you dream of me only, and to have you say you’re sorry that we are apart; I’d rather be alone and have you dream of me only, than to be in your arms, but never in your heart” (emphasis added). This elaborate parallelism, repetition, and delaying of the antithesis is so unlikely to occur in normal speech that many singers alter the chorus to, “I’d rather be alone and have you dream of me only, than to have you say you’re sorry that we are apart….” (emphasis added). Although this wording makes the chorus self-contradictory, its superficially more straightforward syntax has ensured its adoption not merely by anonymous jammers, but also by professional singers like Larry Sparks and Tony Rice.

To see how analogy can alter a tune’s arrangement, let us look at Earl Scruggs’ instrumental “Ground Speed.” In PLV performances of this tune, rhythm players will almost always stop in the middle of the tune’s second part (the “B-part”), allowing the lead instrumentalist to play unaccompanied for four beats. Indeed, the tune is so frequently done this way that several professional musicians I know were unaware that in the original 1959 recording the backup musicians played straight through without stopping. I would suggest that the PLV practice here arose by analogy with other, similar instrumentals, such as “Daybreak In Dixie” and “Beaumont Rag,” that regularly include such a stop. Both of these well-known tunes share “Ground Speed’s” ragtimey feel, and, like “Ground Speed,” have B-parts whose chords alternate between the V and the I. (The dramatic rhythm stop can also be heard in other tunes that have less-similar chord progressions, like Flatt and Scruggs’ “Dear Old Dixie” and Monroe’s “Rawhide.”)

In the mid-1990s I observed a jam session in which some professional musicians were playing “Ground Speed.” The first time the B-part came up, the banjo player, Kristin Scott Benson, glanced around apprehensively; then, when no one stopped, she broke into a big smile. Clearly, she preferred the tune to be played as originally recorded, but had not expected that to happen.

The preceding example illustrates a deviation that stems from an analogy with other tunes. Jammers’ desire for internal consistency within a single tune is another likely cause of deviations. On the original 1947 recording of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Grass Breakdown,” the breaks run as follows: mandolin, AAB; banjo, AB; mandolin, AAB; fiddle, AA; mandolin, AB. In an alternate take from the same session that was not released until 1992, the breaks are mandolin, AABB; fiddle, AA; mandolin, AAB; banjo, AA; mandolin, AAB. Present-day impromptu performances, however, generally regularize the form to AAB for all soloists. Today’s jammers expect formal consistency, which enables a jam session to run more smoothly. It appears, however, not to have been one of Monroe’s major concerns.

This is abundantly clear in the original recordings of two other popular Monroe instrumentals. “Big Mon” and “Wheel Hoss” are both generally played today with an AABB structure for each break. But the breaks in the 1958 recording of “Big Mon” are as follows: fiddle, AABBA; banjo, ABB; fiddle BBAA; mandolin, BBAA; fiddle BBAA. “Wheel Hoss,” as originally recorded in 1954, is almost chaotic: fiddle, AABB; mandolin, A (1/2A)BB; fiddle, AABB; banjo, ABBA; fiddle BB. Furthermore, the B-parts range in length from 16 to 19 beats, and—most surprising to PLV-trained listeners—five of the ten B-parts omit the guitar “G-run” that is usually regarded as the signature lick of the tune.

Two factors may have operated to produce the PLV version of “Wheel Hoss.” First, the desire for formal consistency has regularized the structure to AABB for all breaks. (We might also interpret this as the result of an analogy with the countless other AABB fiddle tunes.) In addition, the distinctive G-run is so striking that musicians have chosen to insert it at the end of every B-part, forcing them to standardize the length of the B-part at 19 beats.

Any catchy element, like the G-run in “Wheel Hoss,” that musicians find appealing may proliferate throughout a song or tune until it comes to occupy every available ecological niche, so to speak. In the B-part of the final break of the original 1967 recording of Monroe’s “The Gold Rush,” the banjo (and possibly the mandolin) matches the fiddle’s rhythm by executing a little syncopated riff on each IV chord. This flourish can often be heard in PLV performances of the tune, but in every B-part, and performed by all the accompanying instruments. What began as a subtle, localized accent has come to be thought of an integral feature of the tune, to be played whenever possible. Similarly, in PLV performances of Don Reno’s banjo tune “Dixie Breakdown,” every B-part is accompanied in “stop time”: the rhythm instruments play a single staccato chord on the beat of each chord change. The original 1954 recording uses stop-time during only two of the five breaks, but in this matter jammers seem to agree with Homer Simpson: “Why eat hamburger when you can have steak?” (In this case, the PLV version may have been influenced by the Dillards’ 1964 version of “Dixie Breakdown” or an analogy may have been drawn between this tune and other instrumentals, like Scruggs’ “Randy Lynn Rag” and Bill Emerson’s “Theme Time,” that use stop time on every B-part.)

The discussion I have presented here is not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, I have tried to touch on the main aspects of my topic, in an effort to provide a starting point for any further scholarly work. Perhaps in the future some energetic musicologist could research these issues more thoroughly, with rigorous comparative methodology akin to that used in textual criticism, historical linguistics, or evolutionary biology. Such research might begin with fieldwork to document prevalent song-versions and their geographic spread, and to describe regional variations in repertoire and jam-session practices. Discographic research could establish the earliest dates when specific song-versions have appeared in recordings. Interviews with professional and amateur musicians could then be conducted in an effort to ascertain (if possible) whether particular variant song-versions arose from the deliberate innovation of professional musicians, or from the less self-conscious folk processes I have outlined above. Finally, I wish to point out that while specific repertoire, arrangements, and practices may vary, I believe that an analysis similar to the one I offer here will go a long way toward explaining the content of jam sessions and impromptu performances, not just within the bluegrass genre, but in any style of music—including jazz, blues, and rock—whose players take recorded repertoire as a point of departure, but rely at least in part on improvisation.

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