It’s Saturday night. Instead of relaxing safe at home plopped comfortably in front of your big screen TV, you’ve got your hind quarters parked squarely on a hard folding chair. If that’s the case, chances are you’re either at a festival watching your favorite bluegrass band, or perhaps you’re huddled under a tarp in the pouring rain jamming with friends or total strangers at a fiddlers convention. Either way, you often witness secret or not-so-secret signals or cues from one musician to the rest of the group to alert them that a song or tune is about to end. This article will help you decode many of the secret signals that are commonly used at bluegrass and old-time jams and performances.
If you’re watching a bluegrass band that’s used to playing together, you might not see any signals at all. Just last night was I was chatting with Bobby Hicks, a long time Bluegrass Boy and fiddler. I asked him how Monroe signaled to the band when a song was supposed to stop. He said Bill never used any kind of signal. He explained that after you played night after night on the road with Bill, you knew exactly where and when a song was going to end. He did point out that after the song was over, Monroe often raised his white hat in the air while the audience wildly applauded.
The most likely place you’ll see signals or cues is at large jams. Sometimes, the size of the jam will help determine which signal is used.
The bluegrass jam leader: In a bluegrass jam, it’s normally the lead singer who becomes the “jam boss.” He or she make it their business to send signals to the rest of the group. If a bluegrass instrumental is being played, whoever kicks off the song usually helps guide it to a smooth ending by sending a clear signal to the other musicians.
The old-time jam leader: Typically it’s a fiddler who rules the roost in an old time jam. Nearly always it’s the fiddler who selects the tune, sets the tempo, decides how long it will last, and when it will end. If there’s more than one fiddler, whoever starts the tune will take ownership of that tune and will signal the ending to the other jammers.
The shout: You often hear the jam boss speak or shout commands like “one more,” “one more time,” “last time,” “take it home,” or “take it to the barn.” Many people find it difficult or impossible to speak while they’re playing, so they rely on non-verbal signals. I remember one young lady was leading a jam and I could tell she wasn’t comfortable speaking and fiddling at the same time. Instead of using one of the more wordy shouts, through clinched teeth she managed to grunt the word “end,” and then the tune suddenly stopped!
The nod: This is a common method of communicating either that it’s someone’s turn to take the next break, or that the song is about to end. Confusion about the meaning of the nod can sometimes result in a train wreck.
The eye: Making eye contact when the end is in sight is one of the approved signals that are used both in bluegrass and old-time jams.
The eyebrow: Be alert to the “eyebrow shrug,” a sure sign that something is about to happen.
The look: If the jam boss gives you “the look,” either the song is going to end, or your zipper is unzipped.
The leg: The most common secret signal is now so common that it’s no longer a secret. If you see the jam leader lift one leg, you can count on the song ending very soon. Sometimes called “the dogleg” (for good reason), this method does have its risks, particularly for old-time musicians who commonly sit close to each other in a tight circle. More than once I’ve witnessed someone suddenly raise their leg and accidentally kick the person sitting across from them. Ouch!
The foot: Instead of raising their leg, some people simply raise their foot. Depending on the size of the session, this is a signal that could easily get overlooked.
The pause or gap: This is my personal favorite. When I’m playing a tune, I will leave a quick pause or gap in the music right before I play the final tag or ending. For me, this never fails to bring the session to a comfortable stop.
The instrument: Occasionally someone will raise the neck of their instrument to communicate that the tune is ending. Watch out for those whirling ceiling fans!
The tag: Near the end of a tune many musicians will play a series of notes that are sometimes called a “tag.” These notes can very, depending on the instrument and the style being played. The tag is usually followed by an ending tag, which sometimes resembles the old phrase, “shave and a haircut, two bits.”
The accent: The accent means that you play a strong or loud note or chord just before the end.
The finger: When the end of the tune is fast approaching, sometimes the jam boss will wave their right index finger in a circle, like a flag. The problem with this method is that it’s often confused with a “turnaround.”
The turnaround: On slower, country-type songs, musicians often play a turn around. This simply means playing the last line of the chorus instrumentally at the end of the regular chorus. Many times the leader will signal a turn around by waving their index finger in the air. When you hear the turn around, apply your brakes.
The middle finger: If you see the leader extend the middle finger of their right hand in your direction, it means “that ain’t no part of nothin’,” as Bill Monroe once said.
The Birch Monroe: Speaking about Bill Monroe, the most sudden stop I’ve ever witnessed took place at the front of the old barn at Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival in 1971. Best I remember, I was in the thick of a huge jam with six or seven of us wailing away at ninety miles an hour on “Little Girl in Tennessee.” I was singing lead and playing guitar with a crowd of thirty or forty people gathered around our little circle, five deep. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Birch Monroe, who was the no-nonsense brother of Bill Monroe, and the manager of the park. I detected a fierce determination in his eyes as he marched headlong into crowd while the song was going full blast. Since I was playing guitar and singing lead, Birch marched directly up to me. Without saying a word, he suddenly wrapped both his hands firmly around the fingerboard and neck of my guitar. The song stopped so suddenly that we practically got whiplash! In all my days of jamming, I’ve never seen anything stop so quickly.
Not known for the secrecy of his signals, Birch then ordered us to move our jam to the stage, which was empty at that time. Since we didn’t want to tangle with Birch anymore than we already had, we obediently followed his orders, and we continued the jam from the stage of the old barn.
So now that you know the secret signals, get out there and jam your guts out.
Wayne Erbsen is a musician, author, publisher and bluegrass radio host. He has written over thirty bluegrass song and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and ukelele.