A "blues jam" usually takes place in a blues bar, of which there are about half a dozen within 30 minutes of where I live. Surprisingly, Quincy, Massachusetts has had a vibrant, active "blues scene" for the last half century. At a blues jam, a host band will play a couple of sets of blues standards. This may take an hour or so. Once the band is finished with its own set, it opens up the stage for jammers, people who come to perform with the band. The band gets paid, but jammers do it for nothing.
The jammers might be guitarists or saxaphone players or singers (like me): I've even seen the occasional jammer with a fiddle or a washboard. The jammers sign up on a list and then get up on stage and perform with the host band, who play whatever 3 blues songs the jammer wants. Trust me when I say that the repertoire of blues music is fairly standardized. Bands and jammers know the songs, the rules, and try to work together to make everyone sound good. With me, that was a challenge at first.
Some musicians jam for practice or because they like to perform with bands. Some are greenhorns (like me). I decided to sing at these jams because I happen to love blues and roots music, and because learning something new is good practice for life. Getting outside your comfort zone from time-to-time can teach you lessons in how to adapt and be flexible and resilient, important tools for life.
I started singing blues music because it put me in the position of absolute beginner who needed to move my way up the learning curve. The process was humbling, to say the least.
To answer your first obvious question -- did I become a great singer, a recording artist? Not exactly, but that lofty goal was never mine. I loved the blues, hearing them and singing them (I speak for myself, not the audiences hearing me). I learned the basics, made more mistakes than I can count, grew in confidence as a performer, learned to work (and enjoy working) with bands, and even gained a few fans who sometimes offered kind words in various states of sobriety.
The low point came my first time out, at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, a legendary blues establishment know for its grime and grit. The host was an amazing blues guitarist named Bruce, who'd done things like recorded records and toured the country. I showed up early and signed up second on the jammers list. I told Bruce I wanted to sing "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and a Bob Dylan blues song called "Meet Me in the Morning," one of my favorite songs. Bruce said he knew both songs and would be happy to accompany me on guitar. I'd listened to these songs over and over and memorized the words. Sadly, I thought this was all I needed to do as a singer.
When I got on stage, Bruce asked me what key I wanted to sing the songs in. I didn't know what he meant. Not only that, the stage lights were glaring in my face, forcing me to squint out at the audience of about 30 people, half of them jammers. I sang "Meet Me in the Morning," all the while excruciatingly aware that I was doing so out of key while squinting at the audience. Bruce was playing the song faster than I'd remembered it, maybe another rendition. I also didn't know how to manage the microphone, which was sitting on a stand next to the chair I was sitting on. I wanted to grab it and hold it, so I could move around, but was afraid of looking stupid as I fumbled to take it off the stand.
I finished my two songs and practically ran off stage, then sat in the back corner where (I hoped) nobody could see me. The next jammer was a guitar player who sang 3 Muddy Waters' songs. As I listened and tried to mentally disappear, Bruce came over and said I'd done a good job for my first time out. I was amazed he was able to keep a straight face while uttering these generous words. "It helps if you know what key you want to sing the song in," he said, "and it helps to keep doing it to get more comfortable up on stage." After I thanked him, he encouraged me to come back again next week.
Fast forward five months, after I'd had a lot of discussions with great and generous musicians like Bruce. Mostly, I listened to music and people talking about music -- and asked simple questions: whose job was it to bring the instrumentalists back to the vocals after the bridge? The singer's. What happens if a member of the jam band doesn't know a song? You do another song or bring the sheet music and hand it to him/her. When do I get paid for performing? Never. You should be paying us to listen to you.
In time, I'd learned how to sing in key; I'd learned how to work with a microphone to get the sound I wanted; I'd learned how to work well with other musicians and communicate with them during a performance.
I'd even learned a few things about the blues community: musicians and audiences were very tolerant of mistakes, as long as you had a genuine love of the music. If you didn't "feel" the blues, everyone would notice. And by the way, the blues is largely about feel -- in that way, I was lucky to work in this genre as opposed to jazz, where musicians are generally quite technical and can discuss technique for hours (I've heard them, despite my urge to run away).
My best moment as a singer came at a large blues club during a Saturday afternoon blues jam. The host was a legendary blues singer on the New England blues scene. She'd recorded albums and played with other big performers in R & B. Even nearing 70, she remained a powerful and soulful singer. After her last set, she opened the jam and I soon found myself playing with a jam band. I sang two songs by Muddy Waters and "Five Long Years" by Buddy Guy. The Buddy Guy song is about a hard-working man who works in a steel mill for five years, bringing home his pay for his wife to spend. In the last verse, she leaves him.
Like so many blues songs, "Five Long Years" is about bad things happening and how you deal with them. In the blues, your baby is always leaving you and your boss is always firing you. Blues music is redemptive because it knows that life is a series of such bad events, but you need to endure. The blues is also filled with wry humor, it's music that often turns lemons into lemonade, and "Five Long Years" does exactly that.
There's a moment in the song when the singer needs to express disbelief that he's worked so hard at the steel mill to bring home the bacon, only to have his wife leave him. The line in the song goes "I worked five long years, and she had the nerve to leave me." But the humor can come from how the singer communicates that moment. I talked to the drummer and the band beforehand and we decided that I'd sing that line four times in a row -- and each time I'd be more disbelieving of the slight, would turn my head to the drummer and throw up my arms, would get on my knees and shake my head dramatically while facing the audience. "She had the NERVE . . ." Basically, ham it up and have fun with the song, as Buddy Guy himself did so many times.
The audience loved it, and so did the band. People were laughing and clapping and shouting. I even added a fifth "and she had the NERVE to leave me." I'd connected with the story of the song, connected to its deeper feelings of regret and dark humor, and connected my performance with the band and the audience. Songs are stories. Techniques in music or writing are merely ways to reveal human emotion in a form that engages others. I walked off the stage floating on air, and walked past the host who was sitting in a chair next to the stage. She grabbed my hand and shook it, then smiled. "That was very entertaining, young man, and I think you understood what the song was about." That moment remains the highlight of my short-lived career as a blues singer.
What else did singing the blues teach me about writing?
1. It's all story, and nothing more. Preparing to sing a blues song isn't about the notes or the chords or the words, but about the story the songwriter and the singer are trying to tell. Once I learned this, about four months into my singing career, I immediately became a better singer because my goal changed from "singing the notes correctly" to "communicating the emotions of the song." Great singers are storytellers.
2. You need to be good technically. If you want to write well, you should know the rules of grammar, know about sentence structure, and the parts of speech. Music is no different, it takes a strong understanding of musical structures to sing well, and this takes time. You need to study and learn.
3. Sing like you. Write like you. The blues legend Muddy Waters is a hero of mine, and I loved singing the songs he wrote, but I'll never sing like Muddy Waters. You can only sing and write like you, even if you listen to Muddy Waters or read Ernest Hemingway all day and night. You have different experiences and different bodies and different personalities. Once I stopped trying to sing a Muddy Waters song "like Muddy Waters," I became a much better singer, one who leveraged my own strengths and experiences, one who better connected with audiences. Be you, always, but be the best you can.
4. Passion means everything, and it will take you to where you want to go. No matter what you do in life, it's better to do things you care deeply about. Why? Because you will make a million mistakes, and you will make yourself look bad in front of groups of people over and over again. I did this weekly during my blues singing. If you don't care enough, if you're not hungry enough to learn from mistakes, then you focus too much on what's wrong. You don't grow when you only see what's wrong. I felt genuine passion for blues music and wanted to perform it well. If I didn't love the music and know how powerful a pull it had over me, I would never have been able to overcome all the mistakes and bad performances. I kept coming back and making more mistakes, better mistakes.
You get help when you have passion because others recognize your passion, even at your lowest points. I learned from some great musicians, and they made a place for me in the local blues community, not because I was a good blues singer but because of the deep respect I had for them and what they were doing. Even when I was terrible, I watched others, asked basic questions, and, no matter what, I kept going until I got where I wanted to be.