The Blues Is a Haiku

The blues is a haiku and a haiku is the blues. One is American and one is Japanese, but both are built on simple three line structures that invite everyone to try their hand at it. The technical threshold is pretty low. The challenge is being able to understand life well enough to tell the truth, or be brave enough to deal with the facts -- both lyrically and instrumentally. These are democratic forms. That said, there are infinite variations and levels of sophistication available within the forms, and also when you stretch them.

The core blues structure is the twelve bar blues, with the first line repeated twice, creating the atmosphere and setting up the payoff line, where the insight comes in. Each line is four bars. Here's an Elmore James classic.
The bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone 
The bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone
It's all my fault, I must have done somebody wrong.
Another stone cold blues classic is T Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday."
The eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
The eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church, and I get down on my knees and pray.
As Willie Dixon has explained, all blues are the facts, and it's mistaken to describe the blues as sad. That's because when you tell the truth you trigger recognition in yourself and others, thus creating the connections that give life meaning. In live performance the payoff lines often trigger laughter, especially when the pain being communicated is greatest (or playfully exaggerated). I like how the Elmore James payoff line captures that vague feeling of foreboding you get when you know you're not living right, and bad things are happening, even if the connections aren't clear. Call it bad karma.

The facts the blues are dealing with might be categorized as emotional facts, emotion being the heart of the human condition. The facts being communicated in haiku are also facts of the human condition, but they are portrayed indirectly and feelings are evoked, most often, through concrete observations of the natural world, expressed in haiku's compact three line structure.
Sticking on the mushroom
The leaf
Of some unknown tree.
(All haiku from The World of Zen, an anthology edited by Nancy Wilson Ross.)

Alan Watts describes haiku in a way that might apply to the blues. Haiku, he said, "is a poetry where the reader is almost as important as the poet, where deep calls unto deep and the poem is successful to the degree that the reader shares the same poetic experience which, however, is never explicitly stated."
The tree frog
Riding the banana leaf
sways and quivers.
The long night.
The sound of the water
says what I think.
I must have done somebody wrong, right?

Watch two of the greatest blues men ever, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King, perform the greatest blues song of them all, "Stormy Monday."


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