Bluegrass Corner

Bluegrass Jokes and Bluegrass Culture

In this month’s column I will take a look at the culture of jokes that pervades the bluegrass music scene. Partly to understand the humor aspect of the bluegrass culture, but partly just to share some of my favorites.

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys are considered the founding fathers of bluegrass music, and while this great group occasionally dabbled in humor, it was generally not Bill Monroe’s way to be a jokester. He tended toward the serious, dressed his band in suits and ties, and went out of his way to get away from the hillbilly “straw in the teeth” humorous stereotype. As far as I can tell, the infusion of joking in bluegrass performances was, if not started, at least solidified by Flatt and Scruggs in the 1950s and ’60s.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had been part of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys during the band’s golden years in the 1940s, before leaving (traumatically) in 1948 to form their own band: Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs took to including humor in nearly all of their performances, often featuring band members Hilo Brown and “Uncle” Josh Graves telling stories or bantering back and forth. The Kentucky Colonels, prominent followers of Flatt and Scruggs, continued the tradition in the 1960s and into the 1970s with storytelling and banter type humor.

As these two groups were very popular and high profile for many years, they undoubtedly influenced others to take up humor, and they gave humor the imprimatur of being part of the bluegrass genre. From these beginnings featuring scripted stage humor, individual musicians began to develop the jokes that are now so common. Many of the bluegrass jokes in circulation feature banjo players, likely (at least in my opinion) because the banjo is the signature bluegrass instrument defining the genre, and because it is loud and when not well played can be annoying. Here are some my favorites:

• Why are a banjo and a missile the same? Answer: By the time you hear either one it’s too late

• What’s the definition of “perfect pitch”? Answer: Someone who can throw the banjo in the dumpster and hit the accordion.

There are also at least a few classic jokes about other instruments:

• Did you hear about the bass player who played so far behind the beat his band fired him? He was so depressed he threw himself behind a train.

• Do you know what “mandolin” means in Italian? Answer: Out of tune.

• What’s the difference between a bluegrass band and a large pizza? Answer: The pizza can feed a family of four.

At a modern bluegrass festival or concert the audience is almost certain to hear a bluegrass joke or two. Blue Highway does a great job at this, including Tim Stafford’s imitation of the voices of Ralph Stanley and others to great effect. Other bands make humor the main stock of their presentations. Here are a couple of classics I have heard on stage that I like and use:

• Two guys are sentenced to death by firing squad. The Warden says, “Well boys, you get one final wish.” The first guy says “Warden, I’d like to hear Rocky Top one more time.” The second guy jumps in with “Shoot me first!”

• If I drop my guitar down a mine shaft and hit a miner on the head knocking him down, what note rings out my guitar? Answer: A flat minor.

• What does one musician say to another when crossing the street? Answer: C sharp or B flat.
On the nerdy end for the intellectuals:

• What is a musician’s definition of relativity? Answer E=F flat.

Humor, for whatever reason, has become an accepted part of the bluegrass music scene, especially on stage. Ironically, one is much more likely to hear a joke on stage than in a jam session. That may be because jammers have already heard most jokes, or because on stage a joke can loosen up player and audience alike to make for a better concert experience. Here, locally in San Diego is no exception. Many local bluegrass bands pepper their performances with jokes and humor to good effect. While this kind of humor happens in other music genres, it seems particularly a part of bluegrass music. I guess we can be thankful for that—music is to be enjoyed and if humor helps, go for it.

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