Advice for Musicians Who Have to Play in Bars
by Harvey Reid
This is a reply to a letter from a musician asking for advice on how
to deal with the relentless requests for worn-out songs in bars. Those of
you you have played in bars will understand, and those of you who don't,
maybe should not read this... It has little bearing on my current musical
life, does not relate to requests people make of me, and only really applies to
"anonymous" gigs where a musician is playing for an audience who
knows nothing of their music background and art. This is stuff that musicians
talk about among themselves a lot, and they are more sensitive to this stuff
than you would think.
It's an age-old question. Why do people make trite requests from the band?
Why do musicians want to kill people who request the same songs over and
over again? Why do they ask every banjo player to play "Dueling Banjos"
or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown?" Are they trying to torment the
band? Are they dumb or does it just look that way? Why do many bars in New
Orleans have a brass plaque on the wall that says "REQUESTS: $1 SAINTS:
$5" (Referring to "When the Saints Go Marching In...)
The answers (if there are any) are other than simple. I have played thousands
of gigs in all sorts of situations, and there is no doubt that people are
very predictable, and that certain songs always get a certain reaction from
an audience (especially when they have been drinking) There are people who
just rudely demand inappropriate things from the band, but I think there
are a couple other types of people who make unwanted requests unknowingly.
I do not know any songs I really dislike-- I always learn them for a reason.
Sometimes a song is good in one environment and not another. Puff the Magic
Dragon is still a song I would sing for some small kids, but not at a concert
at a hip nightclub. Christmas songs you sing at Christmas. Problems arise
when part of the audience is there to hear you do your "art" and
the rest of the people are there to eat or drink or play darts. But some
of them are just ignorant, and you must forgive them-- for they know not
what they do. Sometimes people just don't know any better, and they really
only know of 2 or 3 songs that are played on the banjo, and by requesting
them they are doing the best they can to show that they are interested and
that they like the banjo. I recently asked a jazz singer to do "Send
in the Clowns" and I was suddenly struck with the awareness that I
did not know if it was a worn-out request that would be unwelcome. I honestly
wanted to hear it, and wondered if I offended her unknowingly. Foggy Mt
Breakdown (a famous banjo instrumental) is an exciting tune. Maybe when
people request it, they just want to hear an exciting banjo instrumental,
and any number of other tunes will do.
I am reminded of a statement made to me in 1974 by a fabulous blues musician
named Johnny Long. He said that he would rather hear somebody play a worn-out
standard, since that is the only way he can tell if they are good musicians.
"Anybody can play their own music" he said, "but a good musician
can play the stale and trite songs and make them exciting again." It's
an interesting viewpoint.
Some people like to make requests to exercise control and power over
you, and to impress whomever they are sitting with to show how they can
tip the band or get them to do what they want. They would make a request
of the band no matter what it was. They are just attention-craving people.
Sometimes you can give them the attention they want in other ways-- by pointing
them out or chatting with them from the stage. This is a variation on what
I call the "They Think You Are In Their Movie" syndrome. I remember
once my friend Rick Watson and me went to Cadillac Mountain in Bar Harbor,
Maine and actually hiked up a hillside on a beautiful day with our instruments
for quite a distance, and we were nowhere near any people or roads, essentially
out in the wilderness. We jammed for an hour or so, and then in the distance
we saw a person. It came closer and closer as it hiked up the boulders,
and when it came very close we stopped playing and sat in the sun while
a middle-aged woman walked up. We said and did nothing and just sat there
with our instruments silently. She looked around for a while and then said,
and I quote "Why don't you play something we can all sing?" She
really thought that her movie had some music in its soundtrack. When people
walk into a bar and see a band, they egotistically feel like you are in
their movie, and they want to enjoy it. It is not fair to blame them, nor
is it fair to give them what they want automatically.
The situation may be aggravated because modern people are used to controlling
their entertainment. They want to change the channel and change the station
or the CD, and they want to change your channel if you are the musician.
It is hard to know if people were different a hundred years ago when the
musicians did not have knobs and remote controls. They honestly cannot help
Comedy often works. So does playing 15 seconds of the song and then apologizing
because you don't know it all. Sometimes all they want is acknowledgement
of their interest to show that they like you. If they want to hear On the
Road Again, mention that it is a Willie Nelson tune and talk about Willie
and how much you like him, and then play something else by Willie. Or else
play one of your own songs and lie and say it is a Willie Nelson song. Learning
or writing a parody of the song they want to hear is a good way to straddle
the fence. They get to hear it and you get to make fun of it, and you acknowledge
their interest without being their servant.
Also remember that if you become famous you will have to play your own
songs every night-- the same ones, and you will grow weary of requests for
them. There may come a time when you get so tired of baring your soul and
playing your own music that you will look forward to a chance to play Rocky
Top or a James Taylor song. It has happened to me to some extent, though
I would not consider myself famous.
I recall dedicating one of my CD's to the jerks who talked though my
gigs, because I have always been one to go practice more and try to get
better so they might listen. This line of defense has been interesting also.
I have always thought that if you were good enough, that people would listen,
and to some degree this is true. However, a lot of it involves expectations.
I still play some fill-in gigs in a local tavern, and it amazes me how I
can play something perfectly that perhaps a handful of people on earth could
do, and people can completely ignore it. It's like selling Picasso's door
to door. You might be able to get $50 for one, if it had a good frame. If
people wait in line for 2 days to buy tickets to a show, they are going
to love it almost certainly. Very few people can tell quality if they stumble
on it. I distinctly remember coming back home from Winfield, Kansas where
I had just won the National guitar contest, and thousands of people were
clapping like crazy when I played The Dirty Dish Rag. I played a far better
version a week later at a bar at home, and there were people sitting right
in front of me that never even looked up once. I think I am amazed most
by that. I play autoharp, and I have it amplified so it is very loud and
rich-sounding, and I know that there is no one on earth who gets the kind
of sound of out it that I do, and it is a good sound and a loud sound, and
an unusual sound, and I can play it in a bar, and I can play something that
would be extremely well-received in a concert environment, and I have watched
carefully in numerous occasions where people were sitting in front of the
speaker talking, and they even had to lean foward to be able to talk to
each other better because I was so loud, and one might think that one of
them might look up once during the song and have a look on their face that
says "Wow. What is that instrument? Never heard anything like it. Do
you know what that is dear? Do you think that interest rates will continue
to fall?" Nope. No recognition. Complete inability to perceive anything.
Total blank. Some people can tell that something excellent is going on even
if they had not been previously informed, but it is unfortunately a small
About the only thing you can count on the average person to get is something
less tangible. After a lot of street music, I learned that sometimes people
will stop and listen and sometimes they won't, and it has to do with your
spiritual level. If you are truly soaring in a trance-like state, they will
usually appreciate that, and pick up on it somehow. People do it in sports
when Michael Jordan goes into a trance in the final minutes of a playoff
game. When people are paying no attention to me, I pay no attention to them.
It is so simple. If I can get deep into a trance-like jam state, it almost
always results in a round of applause and appreciation from even an unresponsive
audience. And by ignoring them completely and jamming your butt off you
will often eventually communicate better than when you try to do it consciously.
I now look at the musician's job in most entertainment situations is
also something quite simple. To stay in a good mood. If you can do that,
you win. People will like you more. If you project a good attitude and be
friendly and humble, your music will come across better. If you cop an attitude
and get hostile because they requested a song you dislike, no matter how
good you are you will most likely be less successful at entertaining them
than if you were a lesser musician in a good mood. I have a book somewhere
that has a letter from Mozart describing a gig he did for some jerks. It
starts out "I was compelled to play upon a wretched and miserable pianoforte..."
and he goes on to describe how rude the people were and how they talked
through his gig, etc. If the greatest musical genius of modern times had
the same kinds of problems we have, there is a reason to take comfort and
to shrug it off and be glad to be playing music instead of all the other
things one might be doing.
© 1998 by Harvey Reid