When only women are in the circle

by Claire Levine

Years ago, I would occasionally go to a small jam at a local pub. I was a pretty solid rhythm guitar player, could sing ok (at least as well as any of the guys), could nail the tenor parts and knew jam etiquette. I was usually the only woman in the group.

After a while, I stopped going. I told a friend who regularly attended that jam that I felt invisible. Whether it was because I didn’t take leads or because I was a woman or maybe I just wasn’t good enough, I felt like I never got acknowledged.

My friend said, “No, it’s not any of that. We (men) never acknowledge each other, either.”

That was a big learning for me. It played into some other things I was learning about gender differences. (Around that time, I friend told me how much he enjoyed the previous night’s poker game. I asked what was so great about it, and he said, “Nobody talked. We just played poker.” Ugh. Sounded awful to me.)

I’ve been reading that one of the things that discourages women from pursuing physics and engineering careers is a lack of feedback and acknowledgement. Their male colleagues, bosses and professors don’t expect to receive these things from each other, so they don’t bother providing this soft stuff to women. And too often, highly skilled, intelligent women assume that because they’re not getting positive encouragement and support, they must be inadequate.

Back to jamming: All these years after I stopped attending that jam, I have more confidence, some more instrumental skills, and a wonderful musical partner (male) who is super supportive. I find myself in lots of mixed jams. But sometimes, I just want to play with other women. 

What draws many people to bluegrass is the opportunity to sit down with other people – anywhere on the globe – and share a Bill Monroe song. While for Monroe, bluegrass was for making money, most of us amateurs see music as a social activity, hearkening back to when people used to play with their families on the front porch.

But unlike other social activities, playing music with other people means you’re often ripping open your chest and exposing your heart, your nervous system and every neurosis you have to the people in the circle. Jamming is not for the faint of heart.

In general, I find that women are more conscious of these social – and vaguely frightening – aspects of jamming than are men.  When we jam together, we’re more likely to compliment each other, to ask questions about the source of the music, to suggest going over a song a second time or working out the harmonies. 

In short, it’s often much more interactive, much more collaborative – and for me, often more fun. There’s usually more giggling, sometimes some crying, and frequent hugging upon arrival and departure.

Over the years, I have come to know many male musicians who made it a point to encourage women. The late Chick Rose, who started one of the early Portland jam classes, used to prepare individualized tapes of songs by female vocalists that he thought his women students might like to learn. Since Chick passed, I have met a number of men who set about to help women become full participants in bluegrass.

And the nature of jamming has changed. Male-only jams are a lot less common, and there are lots more opportunities for musicians of different levels to jam.

But still, sometimes nothing will sooth my soul like singing with other women.

This is far from bluegrass, but I want to share this clip with you.  I love it not only because of the song and the quality of the musicianship, but for the joy on these women’s faces.  They are loving the music – and to me it seems they are loving singing with each other.

I hope you enjoy it – and are having as much fun with Handsome Ladies jams as I am.