Jammy Beef

The French expression faire un bœuf (“doing a beef/ox”) means to jam or have a jam session. A jam (session) can happen at any time when musicians get together and jam, or play and/or sing in an informal or improvised way.

Why do they say faire un bœuf though? What does improvising music have to do with oxen or beef?

Well, it comes from Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), a celebrated Parisian cabaret-bar founded in 1921 by Louis Moysés. In the 1920s and 30s especially, it was popular with musicians and singers, and improvised jam sessions often broke out there. Such activities have been known as bœufs ever since. The bar still exists, but is now a fancy restaurant and apparently no longer has the glamour, social cachet and bohemian atmosphere that it once had [source].

It is not known why we call such activities jam sessions in English. Apparently jam was first used in this way in the 1920s among jazz musicians. Possibly because it involves muscians getting together in one place, e.g. jamming themselves into a room. Or jam might refer to something sweet or a nice treat, which was one meaning of the word that emerged in the 19th century [source].

I’ve played instruments and/or sung in jam sessions in pubs, boats, trains, churches, vineyards, gardens, community centres, castles, fields, airports, mountains and other places. There are always great fun and I miss them.

Here’s a video from a folk music session that used to happen in Tafarn Y Glob, a pub in Bangor, and will start again one of these days, hopefully:

The Welsh session in the Glôb

Are there interesting ways to refer to jam sessions in other languages?

7 thoughts on “Jammy Beef

  1. In this Wiki article, it seems like there were at least two possible origins for “jam”. One refers to “jamming the beat”, which implies using a kind of syncopated rhythm, and the other refers to a song with the words “Jelly Roll” in it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jam_session

  2. Following on from Robert’s comment, the phrase ‘jelly roll’ itself has an interesting history. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jelly_Roll_Morton – Morton (whose real name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) began his musical career as a piano-player in a brothel; the lyrics of many of his songs were regarded as risqué and his nickname arose from this. See the Wiki page for more detail.

  3. In Boston we have a lot of Irish influence, so you might see a pub with a regular “Wednesday night cèilidh”, although the spelling can be all over the place.

  4. Robert : A ceilidh is “A social event with Scottish or Irish folk music and singing, traditional dancing, and storytelling” (Lexico online dictionary, https://www.lexico.com ). The word comes from Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic).

  5. In Scotland a cèilidh is traditionally an informal gathering at someone’s house where there may be some dancing, singing and storytelling, and quite a bit of drinking and maybe some eating as well. More formal cèilidhs mainly involve dancing.

    In Wales the equivalent of a cèilidh is a twmpath. The ones we used to have here involved dancing folk dances to music played by a cèilidh band, with a caller teaching the steps and guiding you through the dances. There was sometimes a bit of singing as well.

  6. For any French language nerds out there, “boeuf” and “boeufs” are interesting in their pronunciation. The singular “boeuf” pronounces the final “f”, but the plural “boeufs” does not so is pronounced like “buh”. The same distinction applies to “Oeuf” and “oeufs”. It’s a tricky language.

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