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The Holmesburg Jam: The Accidental Bluegrass Tradition.

June 14, 2012

Text by Lauren Gordon. Images by Scott Thomas McClennen.

There is barely a crowd at the Hop Angel in Northeast Philly, save for a few German food enthusiasts  and a small Thirsty Thursday group. But that’s OK. When it comes to an old-fashioned bluegrass session band like the Holmesburg Jam, things like crowds, practices and ticket sales never matter.

“It is not a show, “ clarifies Fred Moore, one of the longest jammers, who started a few short years after the Holmesburg Jam began in 1972. “A show requires rehearsing. We just get together and have fun. If you come, you come. If you don’t, that’s fine too!”

On the second floor every Thursday night, the Holmesburg Jam members gather to play some of the most fiery and passionate bluegrass music you’ll ever hear, just like they’ve been doing for four decades.

On this particular jam night, 12 people make an elongated circle in the restaurant’s limited space and the room fills with the sounds of guitars, fiddles, basses and mandolins being plunked, picked and otherwise getting tuned.

Suddenly the tinkering stops and with a final swig of his beer, Moore begins strumming his guitar. The chaotic sounds of tinkering turns into an unbelievably melodic flow and an explosion of talent fills the room as each player seamlessly follows the other’s lead.

On Holy Thursday, March 30, 1972, in George Steck’s parent’s basement on Marple Street in Holmesburg, the first jam occurred. It was just Steck and friends Dave Purtle and Mike Coonan, and Steck’s cousin Bill Sullivan.

“It wasn’t a bluegrass band, ” says Steck. “It was just four guys with guitars teaching each other how to play. It was basically an acoustic jam, mostly pop tunes, and didn’t evolve too much from there until Fred came around.”

Sullivan rented an apartment in a big ramshackle house on Frankford Avenue where his sister Fran and her husband, Fred Moore, lived.  The jam began to take place on Thursday nights in Sullivan’s kitchen and occasionally in the yard.

We had some amazing parties,” Moore says with a smirk. “Sometimes we’d go until 2 or 3 a.m. My wife was not happy. But she always left the bedroom window open, and every Thursday night I’d climb through it.”

Outside, the jam would light fires (more like pyres) and gather around for a night of drinking, dancing and playing.

“We didn’t get in any trouble with the fire department,” Steck reminisces.  “They came around the first couple times. If they got calls, they knew what it was and sometimes they would come by and listen to music. People would show up but you never really knew who was going to. Junkies would just come up, listen to music and fall asleep. It wasn’t the best neighborhood in the world but it was always peaceful.”

Their summer escapades attracted talented musicians in the late 80s, including the late Fran Hoffman and Ed Pollak, a retired psychologist and professor who jams five nights per week with different groups, from Fox Chase to Wilmington.

“Some people don’t like playing with new people,” scoffs Pollak. “I never got that. The best feeling is learning new players.”

Pollak has become an expert on jamming etiquette. For instance, eye contact is key, since the band leader for that song will give whomever they want the right to a solo during the jam. In strict jams, it is a cardinal sin to have more than one bass player and in some others, newcomers have to patiently wait to fill in when a more experienced player is missing.

“I once heard us called a third tier jam,” confesses Steck. “It is not very advanced. Those big ones are exclusive. The thing I am proudest of with this jam is that it is open to everyone. We’ve had people who come in here and barely know how to play a chord or two but they enjoy playing. We may never see them again but they came here and they learned how to play.”

When Terita Reeve and her husband joined a new church and heard a guitar player during services, they discovered a rekindled passion for the instrument. They had both always loved music, bluegrass being among her favorites. They picked up their axes after years of neglect and then found the jam through some online research.

“Everybody was very welcoming,” Reeve claims. “Everything I really learned about bluegrass I learned from here. They are all phenomenal teachers, like Ed. They’ll critique you, but you are a better player for it.”

Now, Reeve and her husband are weekly regulars.

Over the past 40 years, the jam has migrated from riversides, to bars to bowling alleys (their outside jams were put to an end when an outsider fell into the fire). But while the location has often changed, the passion and the spirit of the jam has never faltered.

“A couple beers, a couple tunes, that’s all it is,” says Steck. “It was never meant to be a big tradition. It was just four guys, hanging out and playing music. Nothing lucrative. Bluegrass and lucrative are oxymoronic. It is basically the camaraderie, something we all love to do and will do for as long as possible.”

One Comment
  1. Steve permalink
    December 24, 2013 1:33 pm

    Wonder if spoons would be frowned upon…

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