Stacy Phillips was in the full swing of Goodbye Liza Jane. He leaned into his fiddle, plucking out a spray of notes. To his right, Ross Powell shook his head from side to side, sinking into song. Kate Poole rocked her shoulders as she added Anglo concertina into the mix.
“Oh how I loved her, ain't that a shame,” Phillips sang out, smiling across the circle at Allison Hadley and Eli Greenhoe as they jammed away. “Oh how I loved her, goodbye Liza Jane.”
So unfolded a relatively new Old Time Jam at Counter Weight Brewing Co., a monthly gathering of bluegrass, folk, and old timey musicians at the Hamden-based brewery and pub. Amidst rose-colored sour beer, hoppy Imperial Pale Ales, and tall glasses of bright, fizzy lager bloomed three hours of folksy, homespun music, with a rotating cast of six to ten musicians at any given time.
Crowder; “These events are about getting together with a bunch of people and hanging out, playing tunes, pulling things out of your brain, and getting to learn tunes that you don’t know.” Lucy Gellman Photos.
The jam was organized a few months ago, when brewer, bartender and visual artist Mike Miglietta asked Hadley if she’d be willing to play an afternoon banjo set at the brewery. Since Owner and Brewmaster Matt Westfall opened the brewery two years ago, Counter Weight has held regular art exhibitions and installations supporting artists who work at the brewery and in the region. This seemed like a natural extension.
But Hadley demurred. A doctoral student, pub manager, and longtime banjo player learning “mostly by ear,” she said she didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to play by herself. She countered with a different proposal: What if she could organize a bluegrass jam with banjo, guitar, and fiddle players from the area, to soak the brewery in the annals of folk for a few hours.
Miglietta jumped at the opportunity. After a dry run a few months ago, the two have tried to turn it into an informal monthly event, with a three-hour jam closing out the final Sunday afternoon of the month.
Anyone who plays is welcome, Hadley said—which is one of her favorite parts. As players roll in and cycle out, she and others end up learning new tunes. Like The Hog Ran Through The Fence, Yoke and All, for which she bowed her neck reverently over her banjo, tapping a boot in four-four time on the ground. Or Walk Chalk Chicken with a Necktie On, a folk tune that fiddle player Christina Crowder proposed early in the set, sending the first few shrill, almost brassy notes into the hoppy air before others in the circle joined in.
“Old time jams are really beautiful because it brings together people from a lot of different traditions of old time,” said Hadley, running downstairs to fill her growler with the Headway IPA. “I learn mostly by ear off of the Harry Smith folk anthology albums more than anything else, but other people had actually teachers. So it’s always fun to see that. Old time for me is really important, because it’s all about the community in a way that it’s not in many, many other jam contexts.”
“You get a profound sense of the tradition that you’re taking part of, and taking a very active part in shaping,” she added.
Back upstairs, musicians were cycling in and out. As Poole switched from concertina to fiddle and back again, sending a breathy sound into the circle, guitarists David Heiser and Steve Curtis joined in for a few pieces, swinging with the music as they stood on the outskirts of the circle.
“I only had an hour—I had to squeeze this between events—but I had to get my jam fix in,” said Heiser, grinning. Not even a meter away, both Phillips and Hadley had closed their eyes as they played. Crowder bowed her head and brandished her string, as if about to conjure up something magical.
“These events are about getting together with a bunch of people and hanging out, playing tunes, pulling things out of your brain, and getting to learn tunes that you don’t know,” she later said as she packed up to head out. “I have my tunes that I know and I play, but after a while they get really boring. So if I have a jam, I can play somebody else’s tunes and learn them on the fly. Eventually, you take over that tune, and it becomes a tune you know how to start. It becomes a living, actual folkloric process. But in real life. It’s today.”
“It’s great to be able to do it in Hamden!” she added. “You know, you can go to festivals in Massachusetts, and New York, and West Virginia, but you don’t have to.”