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I use a lyric book when playing and see no problem . I have seen people performing (myself included once upon a time) where they are basically reading the lines as they sing them . This tends to interfere with a performance in my opinion . If the lyrics are there as a safety net with an occasional glance when the start of a verse just isn't coming to mind , can seem unnoticeable and I feel it's better that happening than a hiccup in the middle of a song .

many of my choices are embedded well enough and 9 times out of 10 I can get through 'don't think twice' for example , but I'll have a quick shifty if I forget if it's turning out your lights or calling out my name etc.

its usually the first couple of words of a verse is enough to jog the memory into getting the remainder .

We all know that movies are scripted and actors learn them , but imagine if they all had pages in their hands throughout a film. They have to appear to be coming up with their speech at that moment.however it's not unheard of to have prompted from the wings to not interrupt the flow of the performance , which is intrinsic. songs I feel are no different ie. They should be performed as if the singer is relaying his feelings 'at that moment' , visibly reading them kills that illusion somewhat .

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This is a topic that I find interesting, and I guess I would like to share a few observations from our (my wife and I) music experience. We started out in the 60s as folk revival musicians and evolved in the 70s and 80s to playing mostly bluegrass. We still do both and we do it in (a few) different parts of the world. Also, for at least the past 40 years whenever I traveled (often on business), I would try to find a local bluegrass jam. So in that sense I have played in a lot of places with a lot of "local" musicians.


The "lyrics in a book" issues seems to be both location and genre based. Here is an old picture of me in the 60s playing folk music.




Notice that the people in that gathering all have lyric sheets. That was the nature of the folk revival -- singing along.


When we got into bluegrass -- first in the Southeaster Bluegrass Music Association in Atlanta and a bit later in the Georgia mountains -- there were (are) essentially no lyric books in sight. The people we play with in bluegrass are generally pretty serious practitioners of music, and essentially you never see a lyrics sheet at all. There is actually a rational reason for this. I described the structure of a traditional bluegrass jam (session) in a Bluegrass Unlimited article in 1999 (I think) -- an article that has been translated into 10 different languages and republished all over the world. This was a description of how bluegrass jams are structured in the home base of bluegrass -- the southern mountains. In these sessions, musicians mostly play WITH each other in a very structured way. It is generally loud and it only works well if the sessions are small (3-6 people) and the players are physically close together. Lyric books would interfere with this structure and thus they are not popular at all.


In my mind there is another kind of jam session that grew out of the folk revival -- lets call it a circle jam. In these sessions, the groups are often large and music go around the circle and the participants play mostly TO each other. These were Pete Seeger's Hootenannies, and according to music historian Robert Cantwell, they grew out of the traditional sing-along structures used in the summer camps of upstate New York and New England. Even though this was done "in the country," it was actually done by and for urban people -- unlike traditional bluegrass.


In my experience, you find the circle jam structure everywhere. I such sessions, lyric books are relatively common. In the South, these two structure are pretty separate -- but as you move physically away from the South, the lines get blurred. One property that distiguises the sessions is that when they get too big, a traditional bluegras jam will break into multiple jams while circle jams get bigger. Bluegrass jammers don't like circle jams because less music is played -- circle jammers don't like multiple jams because they are "unfair" to some participants. Part of this has to do with cultural ethics -- the traditional bluegrass jams use the Scots-Irish ideas of inclusions while the circle jams use a more Puritan (New England/New York) view.


As you travel away from the bluegrass home base, the jam structures become mixed -- "bluegrass" players in places away from the South often structure sessions in a circle. And you also find quite a high correlation with lyric books -- many more of them appear in circles in cities and away from the highland South.


Now the other place we hang out quite a lot now (all summer) is the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Like the highland South, this area has a incredible music tradition and a really active local music scene. Bluegrass is there, but it is more mixed with Maritime folk music, Down East, Acadian, and traditional Country. Here I would say the use of lyric books actually is quite common -- the rule rather than the exception. We have a good friend who heads the most popular (and award winning) traditional country band in the area, and he basically knows no lyrics. Even in jams, he always uses a book. And even on a bluegrass festival stage, you will find a music stand -- something I have never seen in Georgia. And jams at the bluegrass clubs in south NS are circle jams -- so the cultural standards trump the genre.


None of this is bad or good -- it just is.


Let's pick,



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Well, I'll stick to 3 or 4 verses in a blues after reading these:




Ha Ha! I forgot what it was called by the time I got to the bottom....





Send "Highlands" Ringtone to your Mobile



Well, my heart's in the highlands, gentle and fair

Honey suckle bloomin' in the wildwood air

Bluebells blazin' where the Aberdeen waters flow

Well, my heart's in the highlands, I'm gonna go there when

I feel good enough to go.


Windows were shakin' all night in my dreams

Everything was exactly the way that it seems

Woke up this mornin' and I looked at the same old page

Same old rat race, life in the same old cage.


I don't want nothin' from anyone, ain't that much to take

Wouldn't know the difference between a real blonde and a fake

Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery

I wish someone would come and push back the clock for me.


Well, my heart's in the highlands, wherever I roam

That's where I'll be when I get called home

The wind it whispers to the buck-eyed trees of rhyme

Well, my heart's in the highlands, I can only get there one step at a time.


I'm listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound

Someone's always yellin', "Turn him down"

Feel like I'm driftin', driftin' from scene to scene

I'm wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean.


Insanity is smashin' up against my soul

You could say I was on anything but a roll

If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top

What would I do with it anyway, maybe take it to the pawn shop.


My heart's in the highlands at the break of dawn

By the beautiful lake of the black swan

Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low

Well, my heart's in the highlands, only place left to go.


I'm in Boston town, in some restaurant

I got no idea what I want

Or maybe I do but, I'm just really not sure

Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her.


Well, it must be a holiday, there's nobody around

She studies me closely as I sit down

She got a pretty face, with long white shiny legs

I said, "Tell me what I want," she say, "You probably want hard boiled eggs."


I say, "That's right, bring me some."

She says, "We ain't got any, you picked the wrong time to come."

Then she says, "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me."

I said, "I would if I could but I don't do sketches from memory."


Well, she then, she says, "I'm right here in front of you, or

haven't you looked?"

I say, "All right, I know but I don't have my drawing book."

She gives me a napkin, she say, "You can do it on that."

I say, "Yes I could but I don't know where my pencil is at."


She pulls one out from behind her ear

She says, "All right now go ahead, draw me, I'm stayin' right here."

I make a few lines and I show it for her to see

Well, she takes her napkin and throws it back and says, "That

don't look a thing like me."


I said, "Oh, kind Miss, it most certainly does."

She say, "You must be jokin'," I say, "I wish I was."

Then she says, "You don't read women authors do ya?" at least

that's what I think I hear her say

Well, I said, "How would you know and what would it matter anyway?"


Well she says, "You just don't seem like you do." I said,

"You're way wrong."

She says "Which ones have you read then?" I say, "I've read

Erica Jong."

She goes away for a minute and I slide out, out of my chair

I step outside back to the busy street but nobody is goin' anywhere.


Well, my heart's in the highlands with the horses and hounds

Way up in the border country far from the towns

With the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow

My heart's in the highlands, I can't see any other way to go.


Every day is the same thing, out the door

Feel further away than ever before

Some things in life it just gets too late to learn

Well, I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns.


I see people in the park forgettin' their troubles and woes

They're drinkin' and dancin', wearin' bright colored clothes

All the young men, with the young women lookin' so good

Well, I'd trade places with any of 'em in a minute, if I could.


I'm crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog

Talkin' to myself in a monologue

I think what I need might be a full length leather coat

Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote.


The sun is beginnin' to shine on me

But it's not like the sun that used to be

The party's over and there's less and less to say

I got new eyes, everything looks far away.


Well, my heart's in the highlands at the break of day

Over the hills and far away

There's a way to get there and I'll figure it out somehow

Well, I'm already there in my mind, and that's good enough for now.











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What tom says rings true over here in Ireland. 'open' sessions are a big thing and therefore we would all have similar songbooks. helps the new guys and helps with the requests from the audience at the bar who would usually request songs.
Grey (and Tom). Looks like we have apples and oranges situation emerging. Celis and song circles are about community entertainment, where being in sync is the main thing. In that context, cheat sheets make sense. A performer(s)-audience situation, oth, is where the business of 'inbabiting a song comes into play (at least for folk-blues-jazz).
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As much as pride, I think it's a matter of inhabiting the song. Kind of like the difference between an actor reading from a script and acting on stage. Every now and then I'll cop to using a cheat sheet, but ideally, Ill have played the song enough so its well in my head.


This. YMMV, but I can't read and sing well at the same time. The phrasing of the singing has to play off of the phrasing of the playing, and ideally, it is something that happens, subtly, in the moment and is not exactly the same every time. I can't do that if I'm thinking about what the next line is.



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The phrasing of the singing has to play off of the phrasing of the playing, and ideally, it is something that happens in the moment. I can't do that if I'm thinking about what the next line is.


Something that comes to mind--for performers--might be possible have too many songs? Is there a limit on how much material that can be internalized for that 'in-the-moment' interplay? I came across this quote recently (scroll waaaay down for it): "you should learn NO more than 6 tunes a year. Any more and you're goin' too fast." Might seem a little draconian (I do more myself), but Im finding with my own explorations that I can only absorb so much at a time. Being on the sheet might be a sign of being infatuated with songs as oppsoed to digging into songs. Just a thought...

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Grey (and Tom). Looks like we have apples and oranges situation emerging. Celis and song circles are about community entertainment, where being in sync is the main thing. In that context, cheat sheets make sense. A performer(s)-audience situation, oth, is where the business of 'inbabiting a song comes into play (at least for folk-blues-jazz).


apples and oranges would describe what my thoughts are. In a pub session scenario the cheat sheers are fine because it's all about the singalong , but if you're playing as 'the entertainment' for the night/afternoon ? then the songs need learnt . at LEAST to the point of only needing to glance occasionally at the lyrics.

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In traditional bluegrass, it is the whole band that must inhabit the the music -- a very challenging thing when done right. And the goal for bluegrass jam sessions is basically the same for the "temporary band" formed by a jam session. The lead singing must be attackd, but so must be the harmonies to get a true edgy high lonesome sound. Of course improvisation is often used in the right places, but instrument vocal backup is an additional art form in itself, and an implicate real-time negotiation between lead instruments is always present. Bluegrass is a genre where jamming and performing is often identical in form and structure.


Everyone participating does not have to know all required elements individually -- for example the banjo player may not have to know harmony parts if he is not singing -- but the in general the total knowledge within the jam/session must go well beyond simply knowing the lyrics. You have all the same requirements of a solo performance PLUS a lot more. If you fumble the words, you essentially lose before you even begin.


Let's pick,



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I said yes, but what I usually do is put cheat sheets on the floor with song progression (V, C, B Tag Etc)or key words for lyrics or chord progressions for passages I am having trouble remembering. I have been playing with the same guys for a while so when I miss, they usually hear it coming and follow me. Sometimes I don't even know till after the show.

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... in a blued grass jam...you have all the same requirements of a solo performance PLUS a lot more.
Maybe kinda of depends how exacting the resident BLuegrass Nazis are. No, seriously, a band jam or gig surely ups the ante. Everyboyd's got to be paying attention. One more reaoson not have one's nose in a book--it distracts form listening!
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