April Diary 6: freedom, haiku, and Roscoe Holcomb

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
This entry is part 6 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April to read Japanese haiku is to become enmeshed in a centuries-old matrix of allusions and traditions

as a modern free-verse poet i find the reliance on stereotyped images from the natural world somewhat stifling, and am glad we don’t have any equivalent tradition

it leaves us free to invent our own traditions, though who knows how stifling that might prove for future generations, should there be any kind of poetry in the far grimmer times that lie ahead

or so at least i wrote at 4:00 in the morning after reading Ozawa Minoru for a while, his Well-Versed: Exploring Modern Japanese Haiku which does present a very broad cross-section of styles and approaches

it’s an invaluable addition to the literature on haiku in English. i like the author’s down-to-earth style of literary analysis. I’ll share a couple of examples in a moment. i have two major frustrations with the book. one is that they included a literal translation and a Romanization of the Japanese but not the original. and this would’ve been a big help because my second frustration is that the main translations while workmanlike are sprawling messes. i usually end up attempting my own which is why i’m only halfway through despite having started it months ago.

i wrote down a couple of my efforts to share here. but first the translator Janine Beichman’s versions

after pondering this for a while i came up with

bindweed flower —
surely there must be
some electric current?

how about:

‘Stand up, bow,
take a seat!’ Green leaves
stirred by the wind

or even if we follow Beichman otherwise, surely “wind blowing” would’ve been a better second line

i don’t think it sounds stilted or excessively telegraphic to imitate in English the subject and verb tense indeterminacy, even if we can’t also for example leave it open whether we mean singular or plural nearly as easily. but this is all of a piece with the brevity: leaving as much to the reader’s imagination as possible after first drawing them into a particular time, place and mood

a haiku is an engine for reverie

from this perspective books like Ozawa’s might seem superfluous but of course in many cases the brevity can only work because of a shared cultural understanding which we lack, not to mention contextualizing with relevant natural history or literary information for a contemporary urban Japanese audience

(my photos don’t include the bio of each poet at the bottom of the page which collectively paint a scene of incredible richness and complexity)

Fay Aoyagi’s blog Blue Willow Haiku World is a much better way into modern Japanese haiku though. she’s an excellent bilingual haiku poet in her own right and I almost never have any thought of improving her translations. also she always shares the original text. here’s today’s haiku

listening to Roscoe Holcomb on the way home from my big biweekly shopping trip. that high lonesome sound. i love how on tracks like “Little Birdie” he sings at dirge speed against a fast banjo with an effect familiar from black metal, slow high-pitched vocals over blast beats. it’s the hillbilly way

o bookmark traveling from book to book — with most of my collection bought second hand what pages have you lain between and with whom

in today’s mail two books i’m really excited about but i’ll tell you about them tomorrow

DaveBonta.com tagline possibilities

  • mildly experimental poet
  • crow-botherer
  • poetry wallah
  • cock-eyed pessimist
  • game changer
  • troll farmer
  • non-fungible poet

Roots of the banjo on YouTube

What better place to start than with Bela Fleck, arguably the greatest banjo virtuoso of all time?

Notice the shorter drone string — just like the fifth string on a banjo — and the drop-thumbing clawhammer style. Even the singing — nasal, high-pitched — is reminisicent of what we think of as old-time Appalachian style; the singer’s speaking voice is an octave lower, as heard in the talking-blues-style spoken interludes.

Another Sana Ndiaye piece. Ndiaye is from the Jolo people of southern Senegal. There’s more of his music at his MySpace page, where his bio stresses a peace- and justice-oriented approach to music in general and the ekonting in particular.

An ancient and extremely rare three-stringed gourd instrument, the ekonting (which looks like a large banjo) is virtually extinct in Senegal. Played using a technique similar to plucking a guitar, its sound is so soothing that historically it was used to bring peace to the villagers in times of unrest.

This clip is from Mark Burda’s 1992 MA Thesis for Governor’s State University. It was shot at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s “Making of the 5-String Banjo” exhibit in 1989.

The great musicologist (and very good musician) Mike Seeger on the gourd banjo.

When they started making banjo heads out of snare drums instead of gourds in the early 19th century, the louder, janglier sound was much better at drawing a crowd. What once might’ve been prized for instilling peacefulness was now used to draw a crowd and whip up American consumer appetites instead. A banjo player had to be a showman, a comic, and a pitchman as well as a musician.

On the white side, Uncle Dave Macon was the last famous banjo player in the minstrel/medicine show tradition, and played a founding role in the development of what we now call country and western — surely the most crassly commercial genre of popular music.

A tune called “Ethiopian Cracovienne,” from oldcremona.

Briggs Banjo Instructor, published in 1855, is the earliest example of the style of banjo playing popular in the antebellum era. As such, it forms the basis of what we know about exactly how people were playing the instrument at that time.

A Cracovienne is a dance, and “Ethiopian” refers to the blackface style of performance that banjo players used. This song probably would have accompanied a dance number in an early minstrel show.

For more from the Briggs Banjo Instructor, check out this page of audio and video.

Uncle John Scruggs acts out the usual racist stereotype engraved in the American imagination by more than a century of minstrel shows with black and blackface performers. Painful to watch. Is it any wonder that African Americans turned their backs on the banjo when guitar blues and barrelhouse became popular?

Dock Boggs learned directly from an African American teacher around the turn of the century. I couldn’t find a video of Boggs’ playing, but this animated short was fun.

Roscoe Holcomb had a unique style, and seemed to have been as influenced by blues records as by string band music — his recorded repertoire includes covers of blues standards.

Another giant of mountain music, Clarence Ashley, reminisces about medicine shows and the early recording industry.

Taj Mahal is usually classed as a blues musician, but his repertoire includes styles and instruments from across the African diaspora, including the five-stringed banjo played frailing/clawhammer style.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are almost single-handedly trying to revive the once-flourishing black string band tradition, but as the last video shows, they’re not confining themselves to the traditional repertoire.

(A cover of this song.)