Jamming for the Autoharp Novice

Jams and Jollies

Jams and jollies…fun social music-making with the autoharp.

by Cathy Britell

The word “jamming” implies a kind of loose, unstructured, careless getting together, and if it’s musical…making music.

There are, however a few conventions that need to be observed in order to be welcome at a jam.

  1. Make SURE your ‘harp is in tune. The major reason why fiddlers and banjo players and guitar players and singers look askance at you when you walk in with your autoharp is that they KNOW that AUTOHARPS ARE NEVER IN TUNE! Your mission, if you are to survive and be a welcome member of a “jamming” group, is to be IN TUNE AT ALL TIMES. If you’re not in tune, it’s better for everyone if you don’t take your ‘harp out of the case.
  2. Kind of feel your way in. Start out sitting at the periphery of the circle and chording along quietly. If the person who’s “leading” the jam figures you can and want to take a melody break he/she will let you know…in that case, go for it! If it’s your turn to pick a tune, you’re then the “leader” and it’s your job to start the tune, pass the melody around, and finish it up. Never suggest a song that you can’t play well!
  3. When it comes your turn, pick “mainstream” songs and tunes that others will know. If you’re unsure, ask. If you’re the only one who knows the tune, you’ll feel pretty lonely and people won’t like you
  4. Spend some time practicing and thinking about how the autoharp can really contribute to the jam. Become proficient at the “mandolin chop” and other ways that the ‘harp can be damped. Lots of ringing sounds are often deadly in an old-time or BG instrumental group.
  5. And speaking of knowing some songs and tunes, it’s good if you do. Most of the time, you just can’t pull out your music and your music-stand (or if you do, you’ll have trouble seeing in the campfire light) Old-time fiddle tunes are very popular at jams, because they are usually short, simple, and repeat. There are some songs that also are sometimes played as tunes that pretty much everyone knows. Here are just a dozen popular instrumental tunes (or songs that are often played instrumentally) that it’s nice to know: Just about anybody who plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, or autoharp that you meet at a festival, jam, airport, campground, or picnic will likely know these tunes. These (and a whole lot more like them) are called “CHESTNUTS”. (I don’t know why). There are probably about 150-200 of these tunes. They are the “language” of homemade instrumental music in America. If you like to be able to sit down with friends or strangers and just pick a tune, it’s a good idea to learn as many tunes like this as you can. (It gets easier as you learn more and more).

These are not everyone’s “first dozen”, but of you know these, you’ll have some common “jamming language” and the list shows the keys they’re most often played in (you might have to transpose some of these arrangements to traditional keys):

Angeline the Baker (D)
Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine (D)
Home Sweet Home (D)
Liberty (D)
Old Joe Clark (A mixolydian)
Old Spinning Wheel (G or any key)
Shady Grove (Em or Am) Southwind (D)
St. Anne’s Reel (D)
Westphalia Waltz (G or D)
Whiskey Before Breakfast (D)
Wildwood Flower- I’ll Twine mid the Ringlets (ANY KEY – singable in F or G)

Here is a PDF file with some autoharp-friendly printouts.