Betty Gammel is a magnet dressed in a mint-green suit, as her white boots make clack-tap sounds across the wooden floor of the Carolina Community Center in rural Itawamba County, Miss. She bounces around the room from person to person, only sitting for as long as she can go unrecognized.
Every Monday night, anywhere between 50 and 100 people come from as close as down the road in Carolina or from hours away in Northwest Alabama to pay $5 so they can play or listen to live music in the auditorium of the white-shingled community center. The building used to house a school, which closed in 1958.
Some guests bring their guitars, trumpets or keyboards and take a seat in a circle at the center of the room. For nearly three-and-a-half hours, each person takes a turn playing or singing a song of choice, ranging from old gospel hymns to modern country songs. Others fill in the chairs spread about the room to listen until the music brings them to the floor to dance in a rhythmic fever to a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” or to waltz with their partners to a cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over.”
The Monday Night Jam can be traced back to around 2009 when the Rural Community Development Committee of Carolina invited Gammel to teach a class on the dulcimer, a wooden string instrument shaped like a flattened hourglass.
“Anyone can play the dulcimer,” Gammel said. “I had around 25 students from grandmothers to grandchildren.”
After a few classes, spouses and family members began attending the class to listen. Listening turned into playing when Tommy Todd, whose wife was in the class, brought his guitar to strum along with the group. The class moved from a smaller room in the building into the auditorium due to the increasing attendance, and the jam in its current form was born, with a mixture of young and old playing dulcimers, guitars, keyboards and horns.
Gammel discontinued the dulcimer classes, however, when her breast cancer returned in 2014 after she initially entered remission in 2008. “It redirects your entire life,” Gammel said. “You’re not the same anymore.”
While the dulcimer slowly disappeared from the group, Todd continued to organize and steer the weekly jams, which grew in size and popularity.
“The dulcimer is a quiet instrument compared to the guitar,” Gammel said. “You could play it in a hospital waiting room if you strummed it quietly. You need a lot of them to keep up.”
Gammel rejoined the weekly jam sessions once her cancer reentered remission, though the dulcimers no longer play as significant a role in impromptu schoolhouse orchestra. Every Monday afternoon, she spends around 30 minutes carefully picking an outfit and preparing her hair, which she cuts, combs and maintains, before making the hour-long drive to Carolina from her home in New Albany.
“Cancer has taken a toil on my body,” Gammel said. “But it hasn’t taken my pride.”
The musician said that another source of pride for her are the people scattered around the circle and in the listening chairs on Monday nights. Many of them had attended Gammel’s classes or later came along and learned to play various other instruments during the weekly event.
“I am blessed with knowing that my little effort has helped people learn how to play,” Gammel said.
Carolina, named after the original settlers from the Carolinas who arrived in 1833, has no official population. But Linda Dozier, who works the kitchen at the back of the auditorium on Monday nights, guesses it must be getting bigger.
“When I was little, a lot of the roads were dirt,” Dozier said. “Now, they are all paved!”
While she spends most of her time in the kitchen during the weekly jam sessions, Dozier said she knows the building intimately, as she graduated from the eighth grade in the building nearly 70 years ago when it was actively a school.
Born in Carolina, Dozier carries on her family’s long history within the community. She can trace her Carolina roots back to her great-grandparents in the late 1800s or early 1900s on both her mother’s and father’s sides. Her parents met in the Carolina school, and when her father returned from World War II, he bought and cleared land to raise a family. Dozier still lives on the land, and several of her children raise their families on adjoining lots.
“I never wanted to leave,” Dozier said of Carolina. “It’s a place where if you have a difficulty, people will always be there to help.”
When Dozier’s husband, Roger, passed away last month, the Carolina community came together to provide her with food. The entrance fee for the weekly jams often doubles as a charity fund, whether it is to help with the medical bills of a lifelong community member or a grandchild’s boyfriend who finds himself in need.
“Everyone is welcome at Jam,” Dozier said. “It’s one big family.”
Although the audience and the group of performers are aging, Gammel and Dozier both show pride and appreciation for the consistency of attendance. The jams continued during the pandemic, albeit with masks and limited singing. Organizers feared that if the jams stopped, they might never start back up again.
That fear never materialized. As pandemic restrictions have relaxed and case numbers declined, more and more people have begun attending the jams. What was once two hours of music has turned into three hours due to the number of people who take turns playing instruments and singing songs.
After the concerts come to a close around 10 p.m. most Monday nights, everyone packs into their vehicles and slowly rolls out onto the unlit, country Carolina backroad, sure that they see one another the following week.
“It’s so wonderful to know that unless something bad happens, we will be back loving each other on the next Monday night,” Gammel said. “I just hope it will never die. Your heart is in it, and you don’t want it to go away because it is a piece of you.”