Then they went back, and found Thorin with his feet on the fender smoking a pipe. He was blowing the most enormous smoke-rings, and wherever he told one to go, it went…but wherever it went it was not quick enough to escape Gandalf. Pop! he sent a smaller smoke-ring from his short clay-pipe straight through each one of Thorin’s…He had a cloud of them about him already, and in the dim light it made him look strange and sorcerous…
“Now for some music!” said Thorin. “Bring out the instruments!”
Kili and Fili rushed for their bags and brought back little fiddles; Dori, Nori, and Ori brought out flutes from somewhere inside their coats; Bombur produced a drum from the hall; Bifur and Bofur went out too, and came back with clarinets that they had left among the walking-sticks. Dwalin and Balin said; “Excuse me, I left mine in the porch!” “Just bring mine in with you!” said Thorin. They came back with viols as big as themselves, and with Thorin’s harp wrapped in a green cloth. It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill.
The dark came into the room from the little window that opened in the side of The Hill; the firelight flickered – it was April – and still they played on, while the shadow of Gandalf’s beard wagged against the wall. The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. – (The Hobbit, Tolkien)
Jamming with friends after a feast, some drinks and perhaps a few puffs has been a popular pastime since and even before dwarfs visited hobbits in Middle Earth. Perhaps what has changed is the importance of the jam (and the percentage of the party as participants, but no time to get into that). The dwarfs did not question the order of things: food, ale, jam then discussion of dark, important matters like retrieving treasure from under a the belly of a monstrous dragon.
The functions of the jam are many: culture sharing, creating (vs. consuming), shifting the spirit to alternative dimensions, and making a space for people to share who perhaps don’t excel at spontaneous social banter.
The culture sharing is fascinating – one person starts a song, sees who can follow along, who knows the words. At times, the pattern of just a few chords ignites a wave of energy, what I like to call the “OMG I LOVE THIS SONG OUT OF MY WAY I’M GONNA SCREAM IT!!!” wave. I’ve always wondered how the canon of commonly-known songs spreads and develops. The culture and generation you belong to definitely play roles – but still there are those songs that EVERYBODY KNOWS, and is it the song itself that makes it so? Or the time and place it spread? Does it mean it’s a good song? Or just that the powers-that-be have crammed it into your eardrums enough times? Both!?
Then there’s the creating aspect. Most of our modern social activities revolve around consuming. Movies, sporting events, eating out, concerts. We’re expected to be passive spectators, and of course to pay for the experience. Jamming is creating…exploring the space between rules and freedom…and it’s free, baby! It’s a chance to participate and take action, when we’re used to spectating. And you can feel the difference in your body.
Bilbo definitely experiences the shifting of spirit brought on by music. He even forgets who he is, a comfortable hobbit whose main concern is what’s for breakfast, and desires to explore forests and mountains way out beyond the unknown. This is quite normal for an appreciator of music, to inhabit a mind-space outside oneself, to imagine what one could be or do, or just to forget the self and float for a bit in the undefinable cosmic wonder. And to do this in the company of friends is remarkable, indeed.
It makes me think of the time I was camping with Argentine friends in Patagonia, and ran across a family of 5 or 6 kids, all teenagers or older. The father was a music teacher. The mother would grill entire pigs split open on a stake, with a cigarette in one hand, of course. They spent the days swimming, boating, fishing and eating. But at night, after our fire died down and we lay in their tents, we’d hear the jamming begin. Guitars, drums, singing…it went on for hours. And I thought, that’s the way to raise a family. Everyone should grow up learning an instrument, it should be as compulsory as reading or math. Everyone should have the power to slip into that transcendental place, and we should all do it more often.
Erica Bisbey is a rock entrepreneur, jam enthusiast, musical provocateur, and founding member of Denver’s original jam/pop band, Skadi.