Photos by Rosario Serna.
Photos by Rosario Serna.

In Ocean View Park on a Sunday afternoon, the high lilting tones of fiddle, banjo, guitar and singing voices can be heard floating on the breeze. Four circles of musicians face each other furiously plucking, strumming, and sawing the strings of their instruments. Some of the children playing in the park stop what they are doing and come to dance. It is a bluegrass and old-time jam session, and everyone who has a thing for folk music is welcome to join in.

Santa Cruz has a thriving bluegrass community made up of those who have assembled this Sunday. They are an eclectic and welcoming bunch, having come together simply through the love of playing with others. They talk about their favorite bands and songs, make good-natured banjo jokes, and adjust their circles to let others in and make sure no one gets a fiddle bow in the eye.

Jessica Evans, who helps organize the jam, is impatient to start playing. She suggests a song to a banjo player, who knows the tune but can’t remember exactly how to play it.

Evans smiles and says jokingly, “Suck it up, this is bluegrass!”

The Roots

Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, once described his brand of music saying, “It has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters.”

Some of these songs are as old as the hills and hollers where the music made its home. The tunes may have been passed down through the generations or rediscovered from an old Alan Lomax collection. Bluegrass encompasses a great body of music — from “Soldier’s Joy,” a toe-tapping fiddle tune, to “Little Sadie,” a haunting murder ballad. The names of the original authors of these songs have been lost to time.

Jeff Place, musical archivist for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, explained that bluegrass finds its roots in old-time music as well as the folk traditions of many different groups of people.

“With old-time music you have to go back to the beginnings of the country. People had to make their own music, and oftentimes people would even make their own instruments,” Place said. “There was a combination between the African instrument, the banjar, which became the banjo in the United States, and the European violin, which of course, is the fiddle.”

Bill Monroe took inspiration from folk songs, old-time string bands and baptist hymnals to create his entirely new genre. The name “bluegrass” comes from the name of his band, the Blue Grass Boys, which he founded in 1939.

Place explained the tremendous impact Monroe had on American folk music.

“Bluegrass is interesting because you have an entire genre of music basically coming out of one person, who is Bill Monroe,” Place said. “He had been playing old-time string band music with his brothers, which is a whole different tradition … and kind of made this string band music that went into hyperdrive.”

Currently, bluegrass comes in many different forms, as musicians perform the songs with their own style and bring them to new audiences. Nirvana’s “In the Pines,” Feist’s “Sea-Lion Woman,” and Dolly Parton’s “Silver Dagger” are all examples of how diverse artists find inspiration in old folk songs and reinvent them to keep the music relevant.

Place explained that despite having firm roots in the past, bluegrass is constantly evolving.

“[With] a lot of these old-time jams and even bluegrass, you have the song, but everyone puts their own stamp on it,” Place said. “Bluegrass nowadays has gone off in all different directions to create sort of hybrid forms. … A lot of this stuff comes from jam sessions and people playing together. It definitely has its audience, and that is as big as it has ever been.”

Play It By Ear

In the third and final class of the Mountain Music Workshop, 10 students file into Harvey West Club Room and begin tuning their banjos, fiddles and guitars. This is no average music class — the students have learned all that they know not by rote, but by simply listening and playing together.

“Some of them are brand new to their instruments!” Leslie Abbott said excitedly.

The Mountain Music Workshop is taught twice a year by the Abbott family, and tonight Leslie Abbott and her son Luke lead the lesson. Luke is confident that his protegés are ready to lead the jam while he sits back and facilitates.

“Who wants to lead the first song?” Luke asks.

Some of the students are clearly uneasy at this prospect, and his question is met by nervous laughter and glances around the room.

“The worst thing that will happen is that it will all fall apart, and that will be fun,” Luke assures them. “Don’t be shy, play nice and loud!”

One brave woman with her guitar steps up and suggests playing “Handsome Molly” in the key of G. In bluegrass, breaks between the singing give the instrumentalists a chance to showcase their talent and style. The first break in “Handsome Molly” is quiet and timid, but by the second round, the melody shines through. The voices get louder as the musicians gain confidence, and after a few more verses and breaks, the leader kicks out her foot to signal the end of the song.

The Abbott family is clearly onto something. In only three two-hour sessions, the students — most of them brand-new to their instruments — are now able to play multiple songs while singing. It’s no easy feat for bluegrass veterans, let alone newcomers.

Luke Abbott is only in his 20s, and when asked how many instruments he plays, he shrugs and smiles.

“Oh, I don’t know. Guitar, banjo, piano, fiddle and mandolin regularly.”

Remarkably, Luke has never taken any formal lessons. Instead he is self-taught, learning by ear and intuition.

After attending the Good Old-Fashioned Bluegrass Festival in 1997, the Abbotts, a local Santa Cruz family, fell in love with mountain music and never went back. Over the years, they recognized the benefits of learning music by ear collectively, and developed a method to share their discovery and teach others to play. They call it the “Toneway Project.”

Luke explained the Toneway method.

“When a child learns to walk, when a child learns to talk, they don’t understand what they’re doing,” he said. “As adults, we think that we need to understand it before we can do it. … Our goal is to get it so that you can hear a song, and then you can play it. We are helping your brain to make the connections between the sound and what your fingers do.”

Luke added that those who are convinced they have no musical ability can still benefit using the Toneway method.

“It’s kind of crazy how many people think that they don’t have it,” he said. “Half of the people in the workshops think that they can’t sing, that they can’t carry a tune, that they don’t have a voice. Most people severely underestimate their abilities.”

The Mountain Music Workshop is proof that the Toneway method works. In the course of only three classes, the Abbotts have given their students the tools they need not only to play music, but to jam with others.

The Jam Session

Those playing in the park this Sunday were drawn to bluegrass for different reasons. Some felt a calling, others were raised around it, some learned by rote, others by ear. All of them know that in order to continue learning and growing as musicians, playing with others is essential.

In 2008, Jessica Evans, a local musician and board member of the Northern California Bluegrass Society, organized a monthly jam session in Ocean View Park that takes place on the fourth Sunday of every month. Along with a little help from her friend Shirley Tudor and the Abbott family, Evans coordinated the jam to include any Santa Cruz musicians who were interested in playing together.

“We decided to try to create a jam that would be really big and inclusive and try to get the entire Santa Cruz musical community together,” Evans said. “The park is so big, it really is a venue for anyone who wants to come and play music. People can kind of go from circle to circle and find what they are interested in doing.”

Mike Bell, with his wolf-shirt and custom guitar strap, is a regular on the jam session circuit. He attends jam sessions three days out of the week as well as on the first and fourth Sunday of each month. Bell talked excitedly about up-and-coming bands and artists, praising the talent present at jam sessions.

“My roots are in rock ‘n’ roll, but I found a lot of talent in country and bluegrass music,” Bell said. “I have had to step up from the level that I was to try and be as good as these people.”

Bell experiences a real joy from playing with others. To him, music is central to living a happy, well-rounded life.

“It fills you up,” Bell said. “The most important thing in your life is spirit and soul, and bringing it from the ground up. You feel it. It’s medication, music is.”

Chip Curry is the editor of The Fiddler’s Rag, a monthly magazine produced by the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers’ Association. He grew up in a musical family listening to bluegrass and old-time songs. It is his first time playing at the Santa Cruz jam session.

“My father used to play this kind of music, and he was born and raised in southwest Missouri in the Ozarks,” Curry said. “Someone came to the house [who was] dating my sister and left a banjo behind, I started playing the banjo and the rest is history. I had listened to it for so long that I knew how it had to sound.”

At the jam session, many of the artists play more than one instrument. They switch between them, depending on which one they are in the mood to play during each song.

Curry explained this trend.

“There is always another instrument to learn, there is always another chord to learn, [and] there is always a new level that you can improve,” he said. “So if you get on that train early, it will take you from now until forever.”

The shadows begin to grow longer at Ocean View Park, the day grows colder, and the sun begins to set. The musicians pack up their instruments, leaving with the promise to meet at the next jam.

Bell puts away his 12-string guitar and says, “It always ends too soon.”