Bluegrass haiku for me and for you

Chris JonesI’ve recently had a few requests to revisit the bluegrass haiku, or at least to write a few more of them. The people making these requests have asked not to be identified; apparently there’s some shame connected with the bluegrass haiku, which I’m only now beginning to understand, and which I’ll elaborate on shortly.

It may be useful to quickly review the history of the genre: the haiku originated in Japan, and is a short form of poetry written in three lines. The more traditional form of haiku was written in 17 syllables, broken down into lines of five, seven, and five, and it started more as an introduction to a longer poem. The first stand-alone haiku dates back to the 17th century and is often credited to a Japanese poet named Brendan O’Toole (a stage name, apparently).

The haiku characteristically uses no punctuation, and it contains themes of nature, or at the very least, a salad is mentioned in it somewhere.

Originally, these concise poems were called “hokku,” but in the 19th century, Masaoka Shiki (of Galway, Ireland) changed the name to “haiku,” just because he could. A later New Orleans form of the poem was called “haiku haiku un-day.”

The bluegrass haiku was first introduced in the early 1950s, and the sense of shame that surrounds these pioneering first efforts can be blamed on the fact that they were  written by a banjo player nobody liked much named Chester “Tub” Taylor. Taylor lasted less than six hours as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1951, somewhere between Rudy Lyle and James Bowers. Bill fired him, not only for his bad attitude, but also because he never could quite get his part on the Muleskinner Blues.

This was his first recorded haiku:

Muleskinner again?
I thought we played that last night
I’m not Earl Scruggs, so?

By 1954, Taylor had written over 200 of these. They were later published in a collection called, Bitter Haiku By An Unknown Banjo Player. It sold approximately 16 copies.

The popularity of haiku in the west today (mainly Nevada and a small part of Arizona) is largely credited to the fact that people are so busy these days; they crave shorter poetry. In the era of the text message and the tweet, who has time for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? We’re lucky if our attention span can handle the first three verses of Little Bessie. Most people start checking their phones now about the time it gets to “just before the lamps were lighted.”

Think of the time we’d save if we could have all of these songs summarized in haiku form?

Naturally, long and complicated ballads can be conveniently condensed, as in this haiku version of The Hills of Roane County:

Amanda loves me
her knife-wielding brother no
adios Kingston

But even shorter and simpler bluegrass standards could really do with a haiku treatment. Take Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, for example:

boy do I hate work
I’m more the lay around type
oh there’s the mail train

The Salty Dog Blues:

what’s a salty dog?
I guess it doesn’t matter
would you fix my shoe?

We can look beyond ultra-condensed songs, though, to ways that haiku can replace some of the more cumbersome prose in the bluegrass industry we no longer have time to read. A full band bio, for example, can be poetically boiled down like this:

drive and notes flying
vocals drawing in the crowd
cheapness doesn’t hurt

A band personnel-change press release (like the one that led to the recent Bluegrass Today story, “Corey Landon to Blue Tarpaulin”) could look something like this:

we welcome Corey
replacing our mando guy
we never liked him

Some critics will use up an awful lot of words and space reviewing a CD they didn’t like. This might serve everyone better:

hmm a new release
I listened to every track

Next week: writing all promotional material in sonnet form.