Early twentieth century pop music has not been the only musical context in which ring shout tropes are featured. American “jam bands” such as Phish have employed ring shout tropes to great success over the course of their careers, and in doing so have created a different type of cultural context in which these tropes exist. 

I will use the band Phish to examine tropes in a jam band’s live music. Phish songs often encourage audience interaction. The introduction to the song “Wilson” features guitarist Trey Anastasio playing two notes, then pausing so that the audience can chant back “Wil-son.” This example of a call-and-response device can be viewed in the first 18 seconds of the video here:

Phish – Wilson

Phish returns to the call-and-response trope midway through the song, at the 1:54 mark.

Another type of trope featured in Phish shows is vocal interjections and other types of rhythmic-vocal declamations. The end of “Wilson” features a final chorus, then a build-up of tension that a first time listener would expect to end the song. However, the Phish fan knows what to expect: excited gibberish from Trey before the band goes into the final instrumental section. This can be viewed at the 3:15 mark.

Jam bands in general are indebted to jazz music for they rely on improvisation to be successful. They develop a widespread, almost cultish following because fans are guaranteed a completely different experience at each concert. At the same time, fans are loyal to their favorite bands because there will always be the appeal of familiarity, and this familiarity comes in the form of tropes. Only two were listed above, but Phish concerts regularly feature everything from call-and-response to off-beat melodic phrasings, timbral distortion, and, often most importantly, game rivalry. Fans often enjoy listening to an extended jam in which you can hear the musicians building off one another, distinguishing themselves from each other while contributing to the song as a whole. In this “Ghost” jam (scroll to 5:30), the focus is the guitar solo (which features timbral distortion), but Trey’s expert playing would not be the same without the support of Paige McConnell’s improvisation on the keyboards.

Phish – Ghost

Phish is successful due to the workings of the folk discourse. Jam bands are all about the experience; they represent the coming together of a group of people (“hippies” more often than not) to share in the type of music they all enjoy. The pre-concert parking lots are filled with people looking to buy and sell tickets, homemade merchandise, and often times grilled cheese. These fans discuss past shows at which they may have met each other as well as what songs they expect to be included on the set list that night. Message boards are flooded with discussions of shows, and tropes are frequently a part of these discussions—fans will always discuss which jams they thought were great and why. I will leave you with a video of a typical parking lot before a Phish show; it should provide insight into the communal aspect of Phish. (At 3:58 a fan compares Phish to jazz)

Phish Parking Lot on Trio

Derek Fischer