JAM Songbook for young learners on the way

How much progress are you making in jam sessions? Have you got all the development aids that you need? Well, will a songbook – the words to the tunes that you are trying to conquer – be helpful? 

Published songbooks aren’t as common as they used to be and those that are still available aren’t easy to find. 

Recently we learned of a new songbook, the result of a collaboration between Pete Wernick, who has been leading a national and international network of jam teachers, the Wernick Method, since 2010, and JAM – the Junior Appalachian Musicians, Inc. of Independence, Virginia. 

JAM is an after-school traditional music education program serving more than 1,600 children each year in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 

We spoke to the three people in the vanguard of this project, quintuple-threat Liam Purcell of Cane Mill Road, Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo, and Brett Martin, Executive Director of JAM.

Purcell remembers clearly when he became involved in the project …  

“I began work on it in January 2018, directly after I returned from recording a new album with Cane Mill Road.”

For a long time there had been talk of collaboration between the Wernick Method and JAM. 

Wernick takes up the story ……  

“I got in touch with Brett in April of 2017 and invited her to visit my Bluegrass Camp in Boomer, near Wilkesboro, right before MerleFest. This is my original ‘jam camp’ and I was hoping to make a connection with her and show her a direction in music education that JAM might try.

That direction was to start teaching the kids more songs, and jam skills, and shift away from showing mostly instrumental tunes. Because songs are easier to learn to play, as only rhythm is needed, people succeed more quickly. If people can’t play melodies, they can at least play chords, and participate and have fun. This is the assumption made by the Wernick Method… if students start by learning to follow simple songs and chord changes, they can enjoy more material sooner, than by trying to execute note-for-note melodies at a proper speed. A student can practice a song with a songbook, and then be able to lead it in a jam.”

Brett understood and agreed with using more songs, and that led to the songbook idea. She was ‘on-board’ instantly, seeing great value in Wernick’s ideas … 

“In JAM’s model of traditional music education, we want to inspire kids to be interested in and proud of old time and bluegrass music. However, we have seen a breakdown in the culture of passing along the traditions, even in the most isolated places of southern Appalachia. Children come to our JAM programs without any understanding of what old time and bluegrass music is, and it is easy to imagine that all of the tunes sound very similar to the ears of beginners. While some children have had very effective instructors who can teach them a tune, they often still are not learning the context and history around the music. As the Wernick Method suggests, songs with words help young learners to tap into the music by singing along, learning a bit of cultural history with the lyrics, and finding success early on, which inspires them to keep learning and immersing themselves into a rich cultural tradition that they will respect for life.”

Wernick provides a bit of context ….. 

“There’s never been a book of strictly easy, strictly public domain, and strictly good popular bluegrass and old-time songs. I called on Liam because I knew that as a home-schooled high school student, he needed ‘projects.’ So, he and I worked on a survey of all the JAM teachers, and then got to work on the songbook.”

Purcell grasped the nettle, seeing two-fold value in the assignment  ….. 

“Before creating a book of songs, we surveyed JAM teachers from almost every program to give us some insight into their teaching methods. We also tapped their experience and asked them to recommend songs for the book that were easy to teach!

As someone who was a student and eventually a teacher in both programs, I was automatically interested. I knew with Pete’s busy schedule touring and teaching, and with Brett Martin working with 40 different JAM programs, they would need someone to take on the footwork for whatever projects stemmed from the collaboration.

I had the chance to be helpful when Pete proposed the idea of a songbook, to be made for the use of JAM kids and Wernick Method students. He gave me some instructions and set the goal of having a test run printed in time for his pre-Merlefest Jam Camp. 

It was a success in that it helped some new jammers, who might otherwise have been on shaky ground, actually leading their jamming groups through some classic bluegrass songs!”

Purcell is delighted with the outcome ….

“For my part, I’m already very happy to see it being put to good use!”

Pete Wernick stresses that the songbook is of value for learners of any age …… 

“Though JAM focuses on kids, the songbook is just as usable by people of any age. We’ve been using a pint-sized version of this songbook in Wernick Method classes for years, and this book will now take its place. We’re hoping to end up with about 40 pages and over 30 songs. The latest draft I just used at my camp in New York had 17 songs.”

The JAM Songbook will be available for purchase this Fall (2018). You may pre-order your copy today by visiting the JAM website. Click on the Buy Now button near the bottom of the page and purchase for just $12; that includes shipping and handling costs. 

If you are a teacher or student of a JAM affiliated program, a copy of the songbook is supplied at no cost as a perk of affiliation with the Junior Appalachian Musicians, Inc. 

If you would like to be notified when the book is ready, please contact Brett Martin, JAM Executive Director, for questions via their contact form, telephone – (276) 773-0573 – or by email. 

Liam Purcell

Liam Purcell, now 16 years of age, first met Wernick when the youngster was just 10 at Wernick’s jam camp in Boomer, North Carolina, a pre-MerleFest event, and Purcell’s been back every year since. For the past two years he has coached at that camp and at Wernick’s classes in Raleigh during IBMA week. He’s also been on staff at other Wernick Method classes including ones in Mount Airy, North Carolina, and at Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

Recently, Wernick certified Purcell as a Wernick Method teacher, making him the youngest Wernick Method certified teacher ever. Purcell is now getting ready to teach his first solo Wernick Method class on August 25th, in Clifton Forge, Virginia. 

Brett Martin

Brett Martin has been Executive Director and President of the Junior Appalachian Musicians®, Inc. since July 2012. 

She is a traditional musician who began her involvement with JAM in the spring of 2012 by utilizing her knowledge of local music traditions to create an educational video as part of the Appalachian Music Module curriculum. 

 She lives in Elk Creek, Grayson County, Virginia.  

Pete Wernick

 Pete Wernick is a pioneer in bluegrass music instruction; since 1980 his banjo camps, bluegrass jam camps, instruction books, videos and his DrBanjo,com website have inspired players nationwide and overseas.   

At the 1993 IBMA Awards Show he introduced the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars’ – presenting future stars Michael Cleveland, Cody Kilby, Brady Stogdill, Chris Thile and Josh Williams. In 2010 he launched the Wernick Method of teaching bluegrass jamming which has certified teachers offering classes in over 40 states and 11 different countries.

His long musical adventure began in his native New York City where as a teenager he began playing the banjo. 

While completing B.A. and Ph.D. sociology degrees at Columbia University, Wernick played in local bands and hosted the New York metropolitan area’s only bluegrass radio show in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, while a sociologist by day at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he formed Country Cooking whose innovative recordings helped usher in a new wave of contemporary bluegrass. 

In 1976 he moved to Colorado where he recorded his first solo album, Dr. Banjo Steps Out, and two years later he started Hot Rize with Tim O’Brien, the late Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster. For 40 years Hot Rize has been a major festival and concert attraction and a creative force in bluegrass music, famous for its dynamic stage shows and many finely-crafted recordings. 

In 2010 the IBMA presented Wernick with its Distinguished Achievement Award.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.