Back to the ‘how to live a good life’ theme. I spent the weekend at Alcester folk festival, which was lovely. My preference at such festivals is to find people to play with – which I duly did. It’s one of the best cures for stress and melancholy (for me) and I got to thinking about why. So, while the ‘sessions’ element may not be applicable to everyone, there might be some theory here that works in other contexts.
A good session involves a bunch of capable musicians who do not usually play together and are not wholly familiar with each other’s repertoires. You need a good mix of singers (ideally with guitars or other solid, underpinning instruments) and a selection of other things to wrap around that – perhaps a double bass, a squeezebox or a fiddle, an extra guitar perhaps or some percussionists. For best effect, small is good – half a dozen or so participants so that everyone can hear each other and one person singing won’t be drowned out.
People take it in turns to lead a song, and everyone else piles in. It’s absolutely in the moment and frequently not everyone will know the song, which is part of what make it exciting. Everyone has to pay close attention to everyone else, improvise, respond. And when it works it is the most incredible rush. I had the pleasure of doing ‘Lady Eleanor’ on Saturday – a lovely couple leading it and doing vocals, Gerry McNiece jamming in with a guitar, Katrina (who plays with him) on mandolin and me (I do not habitually play with any of them) on fiddle. And we sounded like we’d rehearsed that one. It was a real lift the hairs on your arms kind of experience. Music, when it’s like that, is pure magic.
So here are the things I think underpin something like that. It’s undertaken passionately and wholeheartedly by those involved. That creates intensity and a certain kind of energy. Not everyone know what they’re going to do, or what others might do, so it’s always fresh and surprising, even with a familiar song, always new. It takes serious focus on all the other plays and total immersion in the music. Out of that profound sharing, comes something beautiful and unpredictable. Picking up the druid hat for a moment, I can see some definite parallels with unscripted ritual.
Creating something beautiful is always going to lift spirits. That is, I think, very much the nature both of creativity and beauty. Sharing in an intense and open way with other people is another thing that is good for the soul. The incredible degree of concentration involved is also important. In a session, co-operating with other musicians on material that isn’t familiar to everyone, takes every last drop of attention. There is no room to think about anything else. No space to worry, mope or nurse melancholy thoughts. There is only now, this note, this chord, and the shape of the next one already forming, and trying to follow what half a dozen other people might be posted to do. It is total escape from self, and in hard times, that is a very special kind of freedom. Letting go for a while makes it easier to come back with some kind of perspective and the calmness from which to deal with things.
Any total immersion activity has the scope to offer that. Different people will lose themselves in different things. I think where the immersion is in something social, encouraging you to reach out to others, that has added advantages for people who are heart sick and weary. It’s a very healing experience. You don’t have to talk to anyone, or explain. All I need to be in a session, is a musical instrument. “Can I join you” is about all it takes, and just that little bit of nerve to step up and ask. It’s both deeply personal in all the good ways, and entirely impersonal in some very productive ways.