Session differences between traditions

Session differences between traditions

So a friend of mine was breathing fire recently about a (Irish) player who came to their (bluegrass) session and trampled all over people’s breaks, played during songs when not invited, etc.

This led to a discussion of how different kinds of sessions are run, even though on the face of it, they look remarkably the same.

And I realized how little I know about bluegrass and old time and such and am wondering about the differences between the traditional musics and how they run their sessions.

We all know the wide spectrum available in Irish sessions in terms of how they’re run. I’d love to hear how bluegrass and old time and other such traditions run their sessions in order to keep from trampling all over someone else’s session, and how wide the spectrum is in terms of etiquette there.

How ‘bout it, you bluegrass and old time types? Would you mind giving me a list of the different etiquette points?

I know bluegrass players take turns playing sort of solos (breaks) and other players aren’t supposed to play during those breaks, for instance.

What else do I need to know if I find myself in a bluegrass or old time session?

Re: Session differences between traditions

"What else do I need to know" - Where’s the door?

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Hey Donough, live & let live eh! After all Bluegrass & Old Time came out of Trad Scots & Irish music, didn’t it? They just farted around with it a little!

I must admit, I can only listen to Bluegrass in very small dozes, but I do love Old Time - I guess, ‘cause it’s closer to our music.

Then again, my son plays Jazz & when it’s Trad Jazz I enjoy it & when it’s Funky Jazz I enjoy it, but when it’s that Jazz Fusion stuff, I’m afraid I don’t enjoy it that much, but that’s not because it’s bad music, it’s simply that I don’t understand it!

At the end of the day, just remember & be thankful for the fact that the Bluegrass players have their own sessions, ‘cause if they didn’t, they’d all be over at your session - now there’s a thought!

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Ptar, I actually have great respect for the guys in Nickle Creek. But I don’t think you would catch me in a Bluegrass session. When bluegrass players come into Irish sessions do they usually get the etiquette right? this is a question, not a rhetorical comment.

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You askin’ me Donough? Sorry, fraid I’ve never been any further west than Mayo! Can’t help you there! Never yet seen a Bluegrass player in an Irish Session!

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I know bluegrass players who have come into Irish sessions with nary a hitch, and bluegrass players who have p*ssed off all and sundry, so I’d guess it’s the same the other way round… :)

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Zina, how come you’re into bluegrass all of a sudden? That mp3 you sent me the other day too, that was bluegrass. You’re not a secret bluegrass muso are you?

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I wonder how many other closet bluegrassers are hiding away here.

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Scary isn’t it? If they had a strong leader like Zina they could take over the session world and that’s a worry.

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the main thing to know about an old time session is that you don’t have to worry about not knowing the tunes. *anyone* can figure out a tune by the 10th time playing it through.

none of this playing a tune only three times nonsense for those old-time folks, nosirreeee!

sarah in portland.

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Sessions are going to be different. I play at both an Irish session and a bluegrass session. The Irish one is led by whoever gets in there first…Only the strong survive ! ;-) The blue grass is very orderly with each person invited to lead a tune/song as it goes around the circle. I’m sure that there are places where it operates the other way around. There is no set etiquette, only the etiquette that gets established at an individual session… And yes, sorry, I am a secret old time mountain music fan, and French to add insult to injury !

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So i take it there won’t be too many here going to johnny keenan’s celebratory festival?

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Zina, firstly let me say that my participation in any bluegrass or old time session was at least thirty years ago so I am basing my comments upon memory. Of course playing with a gent that also plays old time and bluegrass mandolin I play some old time and bluegrass tunes but not in a dedicated session environment. The differences in the way a session was run whether bluegrass or old time over an Irish session is basically rooted in the musical differences. I suppose as with a traditional Irish music session the “rules” if you will vary from session to session. From what I remember courtesy, respect for the other players, and general good manners are the mainstay of bluegrass and old time sessions as well.

The tunes are presented in a different way and one needs be attentive to this. Again not unlike an Irish session. I can’t recall ever asking someone not to play whilst I sang a song unless of course they were playing something other than what I was singing (sometimes that hollow stump whiskey had that effect). I remember it being typical of a melody player to accompany a singer whilst singing. Perhaps not the entire melody line but certainly with harmonic highlights and a break. When playing a tune it is customary for each instrument to take a break. When one player was involved in their solo the other players would vamp along rhythmically. This would continue around the players until all had their chance and then all would finish the tune together with perhaps one or two melody players adding a tag (most often “shave and a haircut”) at the end, sometimes all the players would nail the “cut” and either damp or let their instruments resonate.

When I played this music thirty some years ago we didn’t necessarily differentiate between the two genres as is done today. Some of what we called bluegrass in the seventies is now called old time and some of what we called “newgrass” or “progressive bluegrass” back then is now called bluegrass. I have a difficult time understanding the differences most times unless of course the David Grisman type of running up and down the scales chromatically is involved. Sitting on porches in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky we would play jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs, and “dance” tunes. Of course we would also sing mountain ballads, love songs, gospel songs, and even some “popular” songs. The later was purely for fun but as they were done in the style and typical instrument configuration they would have been considered a “bluegrass” arrangement of the popular song.

I suspect that some old time and bluegrass sessions today are run by those that are intolerant of deviation from “the tradition” as they define it but again I don’t see this as any different from some Irish sessions as is evidenced by some of the discussions that take place here.

Peace,
Ed

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Hey matilda, don’t be bashful about your love of French Music! I’m right behind you there - it’s FAB & no mistake. Great tunes & wonderful instruments!

Up the ‘Entente Cordiale’!!!

Oh & while I’m on, ‘eleyne’, what’s wrong with playing a good tune over & over & over? If it really is a good tune you can vary it slightly each time & have great fun repeating it!

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there’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing a good tune over & over again. old time jams are great. and for someone like me whose main interest *isn’t* old time tunes, the repetititon is a great way of learning.

sarah in portland

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I started a Klezmer Session at a local bagel shop.I have tried to base the structure on the open Irish session but musician skill and temperment effect the outcome. So we play "read the accordionist mind" and try to follow the singer as he slows down for dramatic effect. But I expect we will work out the kinks and it is a lot of fun.

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My mandolin was not brought up to know its proper station. It’s an anarchist. Bluegrass ordains that it must submit to the fingering of closed chords and to blows from an upside down plectrum and docilely go ker-chunk ker-chunk all evening except when ordered to "break".

I took it to a bluegrass workshop and it just wouldn’t do it. "You are", I said to it, "a useless piece of Japanese plywood!" It sulked for a month. Wouldn’t play anything except "The Red Flag" and "The Freedom Come All Ye"! I had to apologise and promise I’d never do it again. Otherwise, of course, I’d be out there playing bluegrass with the best of them.

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Most of the session’s I go to are old time music sessions. Typically they’re really relaxed, but that could just be cause I’m in Texas and most of us are relaxed. I’ve done the go around in a circle and have everyone call a tune, and I’ve also done the have a leader who calls tunes bit. I like both methods. You tend to get more variety with the go around the circle bit.

Yeah, we do tend to repeat the songs a lot, but it’s how I learned 80% of the music that I play today. I would never take my instrument to an Irish session after coming here. At most of the old-time jams that I go to, people are expected to try and pick up the song. If you don’t know it, you learn it, and then everyone has more fun. So I’d be afraid to go to an Irish session because instinct would kick in and I’d start picking up the tune by ear. And ya’ll have already said that isn’t allowed. So I’ll stick to my old-time jams…

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Zina, I play with an old time string band in the USA. We run our sessions very laid back; when we finish a tune, we’ll chat a few moments about it, what was good that time, what we want to try differently next time, then somebody will call "Hey, how about…" and off we go.

I’ve only played in one bluegrass circle, and that was nearly an examination style session! If you did ANYTHING unexpected, or not the way they’d done it 1,000 times before, you were glared at, and if you didn’t stop playing, they would finish the tune, and then simply ask you to sit the next few out. Geez! I mean, they sounded about as good as bluegrass can, but that was… well, just their way, and it wasn’t for me! <laugh>

If anybody wants, go take a look at www.anonymousstringband.com for a gander at my "regular" band. :)

-P

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Bonjour Ptarmigan,
Yes I love French music (and of course Breton), but I am also French and so the music is in the blood ! But only went to my first ITM session in Paris recently, and it was strange to be on the outside somewhere new again, having to learn all new etiquette.
Meanwhile I am a rebel in my own session bringing in the occasional French medieval and Breton tune…which the others are beginning to pick up and enjoy too ! But don’t tell anybody !
m

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Philem, that made me laugh. I’ve never been so ‘stared at’ as at a blue-grass session with my flute. Served me right really, but some of them had definitely had a sense of humour bypass somewhere along the way …

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I don’t know how it is at Irish sessions, but at old time sessions we end up talking alot.
We sometimes go around in a circle offering up tunes to be sacrificed unless it’s a really big session with twelve or thirteen people in it in which case it hops.
Also, Banjo Ettiquette! That’s another big difference in oldtime sessions. No switching keys at every tune! :)

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Emily,
I’d forgotten about that. Changing keys for each song is a big no-no. The banjo’s can’t keep up and neither can the mountain dulcimers. Of course, if you’re playing with md’s then almost everything is in D. Some G, some A, mostly D. And plenty of jokes about tuning the banjo when you do change key.

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Here in Indiana there is quite a bit of cross-over attendance among old time and Irish sessioneers, much less crossover among bluegrassers to Irish, tho many play oldtime, too, it seems.

The oldtime sessioneers say that we don’t play the tunes though enough times… that quick change to another tune doesn’t give them enough time to get into the tune. And, yes, when I have been to oldtime sessions, they will play a tune for … years, it seems… <GGG> Oh, yeah, there’s the thing of not changing keys, too…

When I go to bluegrass jams (which I admit is rare), I don’t take an instrument. There is an … um… ego thing in the passing of the solos that I don’t understand, and I’m not comfortable with it. In the smallest towns and with the oldest folks, that seems to be worked out, but with folks in the 20-45 y.o. range, it appears to be the reason to be there. I don’t mean to criticize it, it’s just foreign to me.

One time in Doolin we were in a pub in a session and a couple from Leeds was there, instruments in cases, hanging back. It seems that their session model was what I’d call a ‘song circle’, and they were mystified by the Irish session form. After talking with them, we asked the session leaders if they could do a song or two, and that was fine, so after every few sets of tunes there would be a pause for a couple of songs and life was grand.

We talk a lot in our Irish sessions, too… It’s not -only- about music… <GG>

stv

http://www.cdbaby.com/Culchies

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I like to play the old-time tunes with two or three instruments, which is how they were played for most of their lives, but I generally avoid the sessions. There are usually at least six fiddlers at various stages of development, so the total sound is a smear that averages out to a generic tune. Also, it gets a little monotonous playing all the A tunes, then all the G tunes, then all the D tunes. On the other hand, if I really wanted to work on my old-time fiddling (I usually play banjo for old-time), I’d be there in the middle of the smear, sawing away.

Back in the 70’s, I played guitar in lots of old-time sessions. I would often put a little movement and counterpoint in the accompaniment and occasionally drew glares and more than once was gently, but firmly, reprimanded by a fiddler. It’s hard to tell when it’s okay to experiment a bit.

The bluegrass sessions I occasionally visit lean toward the old-time side of the barn and are generally welcoming and supportive. They operate like a song circle and everybody is given a chance to play a break, if they want to. I’ve also ventured into (and quickly out of) bluegrass sessions where the whole point seemed to be showing off your hot licks, preferably at Mach III.

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Hey Matilda, go on, sing it from the roof tops!

I’m not French myself, but I did spend a summer in Britany & since then, just love the music from there. I think once you see & hear a music in it’s natural setting it all makes perfect sense!

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My experience, in summary:

ITM: The tune is the thing, the song is a nice break.
American old-time: The tune is the thing, the song is a nice break.
Casual bluegrass: The song is the thing, the tune is a nice break.
Serious bluegrass: The player is the thing, stand back while I play a hot break!

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Bob, that’s great and a fairly apt description.
I play a lot of old-time and a little bit of Irish, and a lot of Irish-y old-time (translation: I’ve been introduced through jams to different tunes of questionably Irish origin) ;-)

I don’t like playing with a bunch of other fiddlers as I’ve said in other posts. It isn’t my thing. I like to play with Hammer Dulcimers as they can be more versatile. One group that I play regularly with, features a hammer dulcimer, and the banjo player has two banjos so we can switch keys as much as we want.

When I play with mountain dulcimers, we pretty much stick to D, though it again depends on who I play with. Don Pedi, out of the North Carolina area, likes to play in bunches of keys without retuning and he plays by ear incredibly well. So, you never know what key or style you’ll end up in when playing with him, but it will be very fast.

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I’m finding this all VERY fascinating — no, Mark, I haven’t taken up bluegrass or old time, but I’ve lots of friends who play either or both, and I’m sure to end up at one of their sessions at some point. So I want to know what I’m doing beforehand. Also, musicfan, you wrote:

"So I’d be afraid to go to an Irish session because instinct would kick in and I’d start picking up the tune by ear. And ya’ll have already said that isn’t allowed."

Most Irish sessions don’t have a problem with that, so long as you don’t do this loudly enough to throw off the folks who DO know the tune. I’ve even done it at Jack’s sessions, and he’s not thrown me out yet. :)

Also, I have been to lots of Irish sessions where they’ll play a tune 8 or 9 times through before switching to the next. The nice thing about Irish sessions is that nothing’s really set in stone. :)

Anyway, I’m really appreciating all this — I hope people will keep chipping in. Where’s Geoff Politt? C’mon Geoff, I’ve heard you play perfectly lovely other stuff.

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Haha you noodled at Jack’s session. Well done Zeens I owe you a pint when I eventually meet you.

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:)

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Well cool, if I can noodle then I’ll go, I always noodle quietly, typically I just finger it until I have it down in my head. Then I start playing. Mostly because people at the sessions I go too like to call a fiddle break once they see that I’m playing.

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That’s why I like Irish sessions and will probably never feel comfy with bluegrass — I’ve no trouble understanding that no one will want to listen to ME play solo! :)

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"I’ve even done it at Jack’s sessions, and he’s not thrown me out yet."

Not that I haven’t noticed. ;-)

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Yes! Make that 2 pints Zeens.

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*smirk*

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The sessions I attend here in sunny Manchester are very eclectic with a base of Irish tunes mixed with Scottish, English, Welsh, Manx, Old-time, Cajun, French Canadian, Swedish, French, Breton, Early, Ukrainian, and even Klesma.
Some of you might find this hard to believe but it reflects the divers involvement of the Musicians in many different "Trad" bands over the 20 years or so they’ve been playing at sessions.

PP

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Some of the stereotyping, especially of the bluegrass jams, is a little unfair but I can see why they are made. Sessions of all kinds tend to vary from total nazification to anarchy depending a lot on who is there and who is leading them. One of the difficulties of going to a bluegrass jam is the overwhelming number of frank beginners and sometimes just the overwhelming number of participants.
Bob’s characterization of "serious" bluegrassers as "stand back" probably represents a bad experience he had with a selfish group of moderately good players who are not very experienced at playing at the highest levels. You see the same thing at a lot of other jams: players with chops but not conversant with the social and historical aspects of the music. (In other words all they do is play, they don’t talk, they don’t sing, they don’t listen to others.) I’ve been in those types of situations and my take is that if you can’t get a musical word in edgewise, it is not a lot of fun.
At the highest levels, BG players tend to blend and compliment one another. They also realize that after the 7th person enters the mix, it becomes a blur so they will either start another group or watch or sing along. The reason for serial solos is that the music is played that way in performance and throughout the history of the music it has been played that way. But if you listen to a good group (be it a band or a jam) they tend to play around the solo either with chords or added notes in a tasteful way. Most players are not at this level so they tend to pile on the chords and some get nippy if they are thwarted in any way. Not a lot of fun.
It is easier in groups that play in unison. In those cases if you don’t know the tune you don’t play or you are censored in some way if you do. The rules are a little more obvious, even to a bluegrasser after a while.
Mainly you should use common sense and common courtesy. If you are not wanted, it may hurt for a while, but you will get over it. I have been in my share of standoffish groups in all genera (I play all three) and usually I just don’t go back. I have been accused of being snobbish (in bluegrass circles) because I won’t play with some jams that are too large and not much fun (and frankly are not very much in the spirit of the music) so I guess I am guilty at times of excluding by leaving.
My regular music session is now Irish and I still get together with BG and OT players but usually on a private basis. The reason for this is the dearth of players in the latter two categories. But as we all know, kitchen sessions are usually the best anyway.

Mike Keyes
http://www.banjosessions.com/aug05/righthand.html

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I’ve been to many sessions of the bluegrass and Irish variety and I would agree with many of the comments already made about the differences in approach. The key is to recognize that
each tradition has every type of person/musician who have each arrived at their particular stage of musicianship in a countless variety of ways. The only way to really understand either culture is to immerse yourself in it for a considerable period of time. Just visiting one or two bluegrass sessions and then making sweeping generalizations about bluegrass music/players/sessions has the same impact as a bluegrasser who visits an Irish session once or twice and then makes similar generalizations.

One significant difference that hasn’t been mentioned is that in a bluegrass session there is always singing. When good singers with experience are involved there is always vocal harmonization or at least the attempt. Yes, the hot breaks are a
key element of the music, but the emphasis on hot breaks in the comments in this thread is probably more of a reflection of the bias of members of thesession.org who I believe may be more likely to be strictly instrumentalists than singers. (I’m making this judgement due to the relative lack of discussion threads on singing versus discussions on instruments and tunes.) In other words, I think that instrumentalists tend to notice what someone taking a "hot break" is trying to do. I have observed that some punters and players at a bluegrass session, and at bluegrass concerts for that matter, look forward to the solos by particular players because they appreciate hearing stylistic virtuosity on a single instrument. This is why the music is so accessible to Deadheads, for example, who love hearing and playing bluegrass solos in the same way that they love Jerry Garcia solos.

Antagonism between traditions

Where I come from, there are sessions and ‘picks’. And the two do not mix. I pick up an undercurrent of antagonism to Irish music in the local Old Timey movement. Playing of a tune from a different tradition doesn’t seem welcome. The Irish sessions I used to attend had a smattering of tunes from other traditions. Ragtime Anny and Old Joe Clark type standards appered now and then. I think it comes from a sense of the scene being dominated by Irish music. And there are stories of the insensitivity of certain Irish musicians breaking up OT picks at festivals. The story I am most often told by my OT friends was of a ‘pick’ at a major festival in Australia involving Bob Carlin and Bruce Molky being gatecrashed by a very famous Irish musician out of the Planxty-Bothy Band scene. The gate crashing was blatant and rude according to the story. If true, its sad. If not, it demonstrates there is a degree of angst anyway that the story circulates.
As to Bluegrass, well, the tradition of nazism was set by its founder Mr Munroe. The continuing tradition has created an amusing situation in Australia. Ther e is a live music venue devoted to OT and bluegrass. The owner has been known to ask musicians playing Irish music to leave. A local blue grass band comprised of a number of exceptional musicians has crafted a song or two about this. One is based on a Mark Knoffler riff and is provoctively titled ‘No Irish music here’. But the killer track is called Quando Monroe. It is based upon an Italian popular song and the lyrics are about a group of Italians asking Bill Monroe to teach them bluegrass. The song ends with a wonderful redition of Volare to the words ‘Bill Monroe…ohoh’ ad infinitum. Its amusing to hear good italian style music being played by a bluegrass band. Unfortunately, the album is only available bootleg as they couldn’t get permission for all the snippets of popular music played in bluegrass style. Its very very funny. And impressive.
Which just goes to show there are bluegrass musicians with a well developed sense of humour.

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Mike, you’re right in defending bluegrass. I’ve been in or around sessions with some thoroughly professional players and they were almost always gracious and generous in manner and very tasteful in their playing.

My attempt at caricature-ization was aimed at an attitude that’s not the rule, but an exception that occurs often enough to become a target. And while it rarely happens in the high-level jams, it’s an attitude that’s fed by some of the top-level players in their performances when they play at ridiculously fast tempos.

Part of the "problem" with bluegrass is that players at the top levels display extreme virtuosity, which may include impressive speed, and thousands of wannabes see that as the ideal to strive toward, not noticing that speed is really just an extra dab of icing on the cake, and so their cake can’t support the icing (sorry for battering that metaphor, so to speak).

"…the emphasis on hot breaks in the comments in this thread is probably more of a reflection of the bias of members of thesession.org who I believe may be more likely to be strictly instrumentalists than singers."

May well be true for some, but I’m far more likely to sing harmony than to play a break.

I hope I’m not coming across as a bluegrass basher. Probably half of my closest friends are active BG players and I’ve played (and sung) in BG festivals. It’s just that, along with all the things I enjoy about it, the bluegrass train also has seats for competitive showoffs. They’re part of the tradition. But I won’t stop poking fun at them.

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Bob,

Some of my best friends are bluegrass players too<G>.

Comparing bluegrass tradition and Irish tradition in jam/session situations (which is think is close to the original Zina question) is interesting in that Irish tradition, while it may be derivative or reflective the farther you get from Ireland, is somewhat more universal and based on a broader base than bluegrass jams. The original BG jams can be traced to the early BG festivals of the ’60s when fans and musicians got together (as musicians tend to do) and played in the parking lots. In the original days the players were moderately accomplished to experts and there were not that many overall but you could count on almost anyone who could be there to be there. Thus a well known festival in Virginia would have players from all over the east coast for example. The overall level of competence was higher than it is now. In addition, there seemed to be more knowledge of the music (which was more monolithic then) while there were fewer models to draw from. Since then (as has been pointed out) the music has branched out a lot and more importantly a lot of new players have emerged who are not as conversant with the roots of the music.
BG music started out as a stage music, not to help the dancers the way Irish did. It was originally based on singing with expert musicians playing in the early bands (and the occasional breakdown to show off their abilities.) The singing aspect has gradually been supplanted by the instrumentals in many cases and I challenge you to find a typical jam in which the singers are as good as the players. This accounts for the ever increasing speed limits heard in jams. If you listen to Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs from the first three decades of BG music, the speed was not there (OK it was there on some tunes, but usually they worked better at that speed and warp10 was an exception.) Even now, the best bands are tasteful. The problem is the mass of players who listen to one band, learned a few good licks on the banjo, and take off declaring themselves with their speed. Just ask them to sing a gospel song that is not "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and watch the confused looks emerge.
Irish tradition is broader and deeper starting with dances and evolving onto the session. (There are better histories than this one I am sure.) In recorded form it has been around since the ’20s and in oral/aural form for much longer. BG has been around since the mid-40’s Bill Monroe/Earl Scruggs/Lester Flatt band, a lot less time. In that period it branched out, split, fused, and grew tremendously with partially chaotic results. (If you think defining ITM is an invitation to be burnt at the stake, try defining BG music.) It has developed in an atmosphere of testosterone and the jam "rules" reflect the competitive urges. But the biggest problem remains the players themselves who are often ignorant of the music and tend to play only the superficial aspects. In ITM that is not allowed as much because there tends to be more of a mentoring atmosphere (or at least someone telling you to not play until you learn the tune) and it is a group exercise.
ITM also tends to be more social and a little less competitive (although still very competitive just more sub rosa) in those groups. The BG crowd is friendly, they drink beer (although a lot of sites are alcohol free a reflection of the origins), and they are willing to share but the format of serial solos makes it less liekly that you will learn as much in the jams. ITM also insists on playing the tune while BG is an improvisational form that prizes variation. This means that you can play a series of hot licks in the chords of the tune and (almost) sound like you are playing the tune.
So BG jams and ITM sessions have very little in common (including the music) for a variety of historical and cultural reasons. So expect them to be different. If you are uncomfortable in either venue, sit and listen for a while, you may end up liking both.

Mike Keyes
http://www.banjosessions.com/aug05/righthand.html

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Well done, Mike. You and I are old enough to have witnessed the early years of bluegrass and the birth of the modern festival and session. When I was a kid, about the only place we could ever see a live bluegrass band would be at the opening of a new Piggly-Wiggly or gas station, or maybe in a small rural high-school auditorium. It’s interesting to reflect on the ways that a rural indigenous genre has been co-opted and redefined by the festival culture - for better and worse. Not entirely unlike what’s been happening to ITM.

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Marty Reid in Antrim Town, Mr Ptarmigan, an exceptional bluegrass player who goes to sessions.

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One big difference I noticed is the different dynamics between Irish and Old Timey sessions. Irish musicians will string two, three, four tunes together in sets. When done intelligently, the effect is a driving excitement - especially when moving from one tune form to another. Old Timey musicians will play the same tune over and over which, at first blush, might sound monotonous, but if you keep listening, you find yourself falling deeper and deeper into the tune. I find the effect to be haunting and hypnotic - not in a numbing or dulling way, but in a - well - dynamic way.