Old Time Jam

When the Irish, Scottish, and English moved to the American south, their respective musical traditions blended and evolved in isolated mountain communities. The folk music that was born in the Appalachians, known as Old Time, is both gritty and quirkily rhythmic. Its creators were not playing Stradivarius instruments, to say the least, and probably had little or no formal music training. In some cases, the fiddler playing tunes out on the porch was the only entertainment in a community and square dances relied upon the one available musician to provide both melody and a driving rhythm to the dancers. As a result, complex and sometimes baffling bowing patterns and unexpected rhythms became incorporated into the Old Time tradition—a challenge to any skilled fiddler or classically trained violinist.

Several amateur Salem musicians are charmed by Old Time music and regularly carpool into Boston to play in open jams. One summer evening, after loading three fiddles, a guitar, and a ukelele into a friend’s car, along with three Salemites and a Beverly fiddler, I wondered why it was that North Shore folks had to battle with route 128 just to play traditional folk music in good company. We had all the raw ingredients needed for a jam before the car even rolled out of the McIntyre District.

A few days later, I sent out an email to the other Old Time carpoolers, and a plan was hatched to meet next to the Friendship for a little jam. We brought folding chairs and played tunes until the sun began to set and we watched the moon appear over Salem Harbor. Children danced in passing and a few adults in zombie costume stationed themselves at a safe distance to listen. We continued to meet on Mondays and the Salem Old Time Jam grew steadily. As winter approached, we searched for an indoor home for the jam and landed at Salem’s Café Polonia.

Today, the second and fourth Mondays of each month have become a ritual of Old Time music at this cozy Polish restaurant. Teachers, writers, air force personnel and retirees, aged 20 to 90, gather together at the wooden benches around the corner table for an open jam. Striped pillows lie beckoning across the bench and the table has been turned to just the right angle to accommodate our numbers by Dawn, the cheerful waitress, who anticipates our arrival each session.

Banjos, fiddles, and guitars emerge from cases as greetings are exchanged and wine and pirogis ordered. The ping of lone strings is heard as each instrument is tuned, and fiddlers methodically apply rosin to the length of their bows. Sometimes dives into the first tune and others join, in no particular order, until all are playing together; many know the tune by heart and leap in with their own personal flavor; others may be hearing the tune for the first time and only pick up some of the notes here and there. We play this tune over and over, until all of us have emerged from our separateness—our own busy days, our existence in different towns and different generations—and have landed together in one beat and one melody, which starts in our fingers and comes to permeate the entire restaurant. When it feels like the tune has reached a conclusion, a player raises a foot in the air to signal to the group, and we stop as one body moments later. Anyone is welcome to join and everyone plays together as the spirit of this music emphasizes community rather than individual solos.

In the year that has passed since our first jam at the Friendship, the North Shore has become a mecca of traditional folk music—Old Time and Celtic alike—inspiring many Boston musicians to load up their cars regularly to head north for jams, which have spring up at Salem’s O’Neill’s and Atomic Café and Kitty O’Shea’s in Beverly. Recently at the Polonia jam, a fiddler who commutes from Bedford remarked, “The sessions are drying up around Boston. It’s all up on the North Shore now.”

Perhaps the statement was an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that Salem is fertile ground for new music rituals and any local could understand why a tradition based on the blending of different cultures, and built upon a raw gritty tone and a rhythm all of its own, would resonate deeply within the City of Salem.

Laura Quayle grew up in the Adirondacks and is a middle school teacher at Cape Ann Waldorf School. When she is not teaching, she is either playing fiddle, dancing, running, or biking.

*Article Photos by Mary Shea

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