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Considering the range of stars that have claimed Bill Monroe as an influence—Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia are just a few—it can be said that no single artist has had as broad an impact on American popular music as he did. For sixty years, Monroe was a star at the Grand Ole Opry, and when he died in 1996, he was universally hailed as "the Father of Bluegrass." But the personal life of this taciturn figure remained largely unknown. Delving into everything from Monroe's professional successes to his ...
Considering the range of stars that have claimed Bill Monroe as an influence—Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia are just a few—it can be said that no single artist has had as broad an impact on American popular music as he did. For sixty years, Monroe was a star at the Grand Ole Opry, and when he died in 1996, he was universally hailed as "the Father of Bluegrass." But the personal life of this taciturn figure remained largely unknown. Delving into everything from Monroe's professional successes to his bitter rivalries, from his isolated childhood to his reckless womanizing, veteran bluegrass journalist Richard D. Smith has created a three-dimensional portrait of this brilliant, complex, and contradictory man. Featuring over 120 interviews, this scrupulously researched work—a Chicago Tribune Choice Selection, New York Times Notable Book, and Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2000—stands as the authoritative biography of a true giant of American music.
Blue Moon of Kentucky Rising
(The Beginnings to 1929)
The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you'll become lovely, and very strong.
— Jelaluddin Rumi
A wagon road led south from the railroad depot in Rosine, Kentucky. It ran through a hollow, then turned west through the woods of Ohio County. It climbed and topped an elongated geological feature known locally as Jerusalem Ridge, proceeding parallel to the railway tracks below. Then it descended by curves into the little community of Horton and continued on to the larger town of Beaver Dam.
The road bore traffic and commerce. Along it were carried corn and tobacco from the region's gently sloping fields, coal from its rolling hills, and — in particular — hardwood timber from its old-growth forests. And this road carried pain to a little boy living on a large farm on the ridge, midway between Rosine and Horton.
The child, the youngest of the eight children of James Buchanan Monroe and Malissa Vandiver Monroe, was born with a left eye that turned inward. The medical term for the condition is esotropia. In this time and place, the brutal slang expression was "hug-eyed."
His overall vision was very poor. In compensation, his auditory sense developed keenly. He learned to recognize from miles away the hoofbeats of horses and mules and the roll of wooden wheels. Experience taught that passersby were coming who would laugh and joke about this cross-eyed boy if they saw him. So he would run andhide in the barn until they passed.
As the youngest of a large family, he was often left alone by his busy parents and impatient siblings. He grew thoughtful, his feelings sensitive, his emotions powerful but unexpressed, yearning for human contact but too proud to admit pain.
He once looked back on his childhood and said:
For many years, I had nobody to play with or nobody to work under. You just had to kindly grow up. Just like a little dog outside, tryin' to make his own way, trying to make out the best way he can.
Thus began the life of William Smith Monroe.
By the time Bill Monroe had become a living legend and his style of American country-folk music was termed "bluegrass," in honor of his band the Blue Grass Boys, all this was known. And other stories became well established.
Bill, it was said, was a direct descendant of President James Monroe; he grew up in the mountains; he rose from hardscrabble poverty in a backward, backwoods culture; bluegrass music sprang from ancient Scots-Irish culture transplanted to the Appalachians, where it blossomed as a traditional folk art.
Compelling as these other tales were, none were true. Bill Monroe was a plainspoken and typically honest man. These misconceptions did not arise from him, yet he did little to correct them. As it turns out, the truth is even more compelling than the myths now interwoven through the history of this larger-than-life character.
Some sources on Scottish clan names state that "Monroe" means "Man of Roe," a river in Northern Ireland near which many Scots settled; hence the claims of Scots-Irish ancestry for Bill. But Clan Monroe has its roots firmly in the Scottish Highlands, specifically in Easter Ross, north of Moray Firth and the Great Glen. The name, first recorded around the twelfth century, may be from the Norman-influenced "Mon Rosse" ("hillmen of Ross"). It is almost always spelled "Munro" in Scotland, and it was pronounced exactly that way by Bill's family, right into the twentieth century — MUN-ro, with emphasis on the first syllable.
The Monroes had a warrior heritage. President Monroe's first ancestor in America is believed to have been a Royalist Highlander who fought Cromwell's Puritans in 1648; Sir Robert Munro was the first colonel of the famed Black Watch, leading them in 1745 against Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion. John Monroe, patriarch of the Ohio County Monroes, was a soldier of the Virginia Line during the Revolutionary War and one of many veterans rewarded for his service with land grants in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
John Monroe was born November 10, 1749, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, where James Monroe also resided. (It is quite possible that they were distant cousins, making Bill Monroe at least a collateral descendant of the fifth American president.) John moved to Kentucky in January 1801, bringing his family with him. By April 1832, he had made a permanent home in Ohio County, where he died in 1837.
His descendants settled down to prosperous lives as landowners. John had three children, including a son, Andrew B. Monroe. The 1850 Ohio County census found Andrew to be a fifty-five-year-old, Virginia-born farmer with property valued at $2,700. Andrew and his wife Alysie had eight children. Their eldest son, John J., had eight children by his first wife, Lydia Charlotte Stevens. John and Lydia's eldest, James Buchanan, born October 28, 1857, was known as "J.B." or "Buck."
No wonder J.B.'s son Bill Monroe would grow up feeling deeply connected to the past, revering things that, as he put it, "go a way on back in time." Bill's father would have remembered the Civil War, and his great-great-grandfather actually fought in the American Revolution.
Ohio County lies in western Kentucky, far from the Appalachian Mountains with which bluegrass music is now associated. It is even quite distinct from the famed "bluegrass" region of central Kentucky, which helped give the music its name. Nevertheless, the Monroes could hardly have found a better place to call home. The region was lovely, fertile and rich in the natural resources needed by a vigorously expanding America. As far back as 1840, the first edition of Lewis Collins's History of Kentucky noted that Ohio County produced "excellent crops of corn, tobacco, potatoes, clover and other grasses," adding that "timber is heavy and of a superior quality . . . and the coal is inexhaustible."
And soon a town conceived as a major metropolis was founded just down the wagon road from the Monroe farms.
Shrewdly calculating the region's potential, Henry D. McHenry, a banker, businessman, and Kentucky state legislator, used his influence in 1870 to get the Elizabethtown & Paducah Railroad (later the Illinois Central) to establish an east-west main line through a settlement known as Pigeon Roost. McHenry and some business partners then bought up land in the area and formally incorporated a town there in 1873. McHenry named it "Rosine" after the pen name of his wife, poet Jenny Taylor McHenry.
Rosine was laid out on a grid pattern, with streets sixty feet in width to allow for the heavy commercial traffic the investors expected. Front Street, the town's main commercial district, ran along the north side of the railroad tracks facing the passenger depot and freight yard. From here, the train carried passengers and goods east to Louisville, where connections were made to the rest of America, or west to Beaver Dam. With the railway to bring in people and transport out timber, coal, and crops, McHenry believed, Rosine would be the next Pittsburgh or Chicago.
Although Rosine never became a city, for nearly half a century it was a boom town. There were nine stores along Front Street, plus a barbershop and doctors' offices. There was a flour and gristmill, a creamery, and warehouses for drying tobacco and sumac, a shingle mill and a barrel stave mill. Rosine's downtown even had paved streets, made with local sandstone and maintained by inmates from the jail. It had hotels, bars, and poolrooms. (McHenry knew full well that a wet town in an otherwise dry region would have considerable advantages.) The Earp family of western lore had roots in Ohio County, and just as Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan worked as both lawmen and purveyors of base pleasures, so did their Rosine cousins: Walter C. Earp was sworn in as a town judge in 1907 and Russell Earp owned a local pool hall.
And like most American communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rosine loved its baseball. Just west of town was a baseball park, home to the Rosine Red Legs.
In fact, Rosine played a vital role in the national pastime: Until well into the 1970s, the hardwoods used by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company for their world-famous "Louisville Slugger" bats came from here. Many a major league home run has been hit off Rosine wood.
Such was bustling Rosine in the days when the Monroes would come to town on Saturday afternoons to trade or on Sunday mornings to attend the Methodist church (later celebrated by Bill in song as "The Little Community Church"). It was hardly the backwoods community of folk and old-time music mythology.
And the Monroes were anything but backward hillbillies. They were proud, hardworking, honest, and law-abiding. They were a bit aloof, shy actually. (Neighbors recall that they would often stand off by themselves after church.) They were considered quite wealthy by local standards, and they were highly educated for the times.
A profile of J.B.'s brother John H. Monroe in an 1885 history of Kentucky recorded that at age twenty-one, Jack had "traveled for pleasure for one year, visiting many important and interesting points in the South and West. . . . Mr. Monroe has had fair advantages in education, and his mind is well stored with the learning of books, as well as with that of practical life." Where a fifth-grade education was considered quite sufficient, Bill's father J.B. had finished the eighth grade. He read The Shorthorn in America, the publication of the American Shorthorn Breeders' Association. He was skilled in basic arithmetic. He recorded every penny of income and expenditure in a series of notebooks and ledgers.
Ambitious young men, J.B. and Jack soon made a career move from the timber and stave-cutting business they had been running: In 1883, with brother Andrew and two backers, they formed the firm of J. B. Monroe & Co. and opened a general store in Horton, selling clothing, shoes, canned goods, and household items.
The enterprise failed quickly. The Monroes became overextended and were sued by suppliers because of overdue accounts. They tried valiantly to keep up payments but were forced to liquidate their holdings and sell other assets to satisfy their debts. It would not be the last time that a Monroe would venture into a major business commitment and, despite bright expectations, watch it inexorably become a money hole. This sad aspect of family history was destined to repeat itself.
J.B. returned to the soil. At first he was a tenant farmer, but soon he prospered enough to purchase land on a long wooded hill almost halfway between Rosine and Horton. In a time when most hills and hollows were given place names, Buck's farm was situated on Pigeon Ridge. But adjacent to Pigeon Ridge was a larger geological feature, and the Monroes preferred to identify their home with that more nobly named comb — Jerusalem Ridge.
J.B. began assembling property there as early as September 30, 1903, when he purchased 320 acres from brother Jack and his wife, who remained neighboring landholders. Over the next decade, he acquired adjoining land until his central holdings were about 655 acres.
Buck's farm was not especially cash-generating, but it was busy, successful, and above all diversified. Timber, coal, tobacco, corn, and molasses were sold, hay was grown, livestock pastured.
Buck's land contained large coal reserves, and he had a little mine complete with tracks and handcar. His surviving ledgers record brisk sales to companies, individuals, the Rosine school, and the nearby Horse Branch church (rendered as "kirk," the old Scottish term, in J.B.'s account books).
But for Buck Monroe and many other landowners, the important cash crop was timber, much of it valuable old-growth hardwood from their heavily forested lands. J.B. sold trees for "telefon" poles and "tall timber," long, straight wood commanding high prices. He sold tons of cross ties to the railroad. The Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company of Louisville was also a customer.
Even if the twentieth century had begun, the Monroes were living in a nineteenth-century world.
J.B. soon took a bride. And it was through her that music came into the Monroe family.
The object of his affections was Malissa A. Vandiver of neighboring Butler County. Born July 12, 1870, she was the youngest of ten children of Joseph M. Vandiver, a farmer born in Tennessee, and his wife, Manerva J. Farris, born in Kentucky.
Malissa's parents had foreign roots, and these roots were close to the surface. Vandivers from the Netherlands had settled in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware in the 1600s, then migrated west. Joseph's nickname, in fact, was "Dutch." Malissa's maternal grandmother was of recent Irish descent and spoke in a brogue.
Malissa's family initially settled in Banock near the Ohio County border (although by the time of her marriage they had moved to Horton). Manerva passed away in 1897. Joseph died in 1905, nine days after being hit by a train near White Run, five miles east of Rosine. His estate sued the Illinois Central Railroad for $2,000. It settled out of court for $100.
Most of the Vandivers were musically gifted, playing instruments and singing. Malissa's next oldest sibling was her brother Pendleton M. Vandiver, a.k.a. Pen. Born in 1869, Pen was a sometime farmworker, sometime trader, and oft-time fiddler whose infectious rhythm shuffle with the bow caused him to be in great demand at local square dances. And "Uncle Pen" was destined to become the great early musical influence on one of his nephews.
How J.B. and Malissa met is now forgotten, but it was probably at a dance, the major social nexus for young people in those days. Malissa loved to do the Kentucky backstep, J.B. could buck-and-wing dance, and both certainly danced "quadrilles" (square dances).
The Monroes were by now an old family in that part of Kentucky, relatively prosperous and well educated. The Vandivers were recent arrivals, farmworkers, not landowners. Some, including Malissa and Pen, were illiterate. The elder Monroes disapproved at first of Buck's marriage, feeling that a Vandiver was socially beneath him.
Buck was undeterred. He was entranced. Malissa was tall and attractive, with blue eyes, red hair, and freckles. She grew white roses and wore them in her hair from the first buds of spring to the last flowers of fall. She was high-spirited. She loved to dance and loved to horserace against friends.
And she sang old ballads in a high, clear voice, and played fiddle, accordion, and harmonica, and probably other instruments as well during her free moments. Like all farm women, these free moments were precious few: Malissa raised chickens and turkeys for the home table and sold the eggs and meat in town. She canned the summer's produce. She cooked for the household and for hired hands, who, in keeping with the custom of the day, were given their midday meals where they worked. She did unending chores.
When Buck and Malissa were courting, the journey between Ohio and Butler counties took so long by bridge or ferry across the Green River that Buck couldn't wait. He would simply swim straight across the flow to visit his beloved.
J.B. and Malissa were married on August 2, 1892. He was thirty-four, she was twenty-two. It would be the first and last marriage for both.
A large family followed: Harry C. (born in 1893); Speed V., his surname from the Vandiver family (1894); John J., named after his grandfather (1896); Maude Bell (1898); Birch, named after one of Buck's brothers (1901); Charles Pendleton, his middle name of course honoring Malissa's brother (1903); and Bertha, who later married a German railroad engineer named Bernard Kurth (1908).
The Vandivers were as gregarious as the Monroes were reserved, and a mix of these contrasting personality traits were inherited by the children. Although the daughters were somewhat diminutive, the sons were robust young men, some tall or wiry like the Dutch Vandivers, some big and solid like the Scottish Monroes. The youngsters were taught to stand up straight and not slouch. "Get them shoulders back" was a frequent parental admonition in the Monroe household. The boys were remarkable for their strong, balanced postures, even when standing in casual conversation.
J.B. became a significant local employer, paying good wages, as much as a dollar a day, with as many as ten people working for him full or part time. One longtime employee was Hubert Stringfield. Hubert had a hobby that was later of special interest to one of Buck's children — he played the mandolin.
By the autumn of 1911, J.B. Monroe had a home farm of more than 360 acres plus four additional lots in the town of Rosine. He owned three horses, five mules, various head of cattle, a breeding bull, hogs, and two prize foxhounds, plus various plows, wagons and mowers. He estimated the value of his land and movables at $2661.00.
Soon Buck Monroe would have another addition to his homestead. Earlier that year, Malissa had again found herself pregnant.
This last child was surely an accident, unplanned at a time when there was not much in the way of family planning. Malissa was forty-one years old, J.B. nearly fifty-four; their previous child, Bertha, had been born three years earlier, and Charlie five years before her. Who would have expected Malissa to conceive an eighth time?
Perhaps the family's attitude to this final arrival was unintentionally expressed by Buck, who quipped after its birth, "Malissa, I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for all of the children, but I wouldn't give a dime for another one!"
A neighbor came to visit Malissa late in her pregnancy on a miserably hot and humid day. Her ankles were swollen and she was sitting outside her house, vigorously picking away on an instrument, trying to distract herself. The child within her, very soon to be born, must have felt the vibrations.
September 13, 1911, was an uncharacteristically quiet day at the Monroe farm. J.B. sold 31 pounds of coal for $1.44, and he paid brothers Riley and Mose Hunt $1 each for a full day's work hauling railroad cross ties. ("Haled ties," Buck wrote in one of his ever-present ledger books.)
Perhaps little had gotten done because J.B. was otherwise occupied. On this day, his and Malissa's eighth child was born, a boy. He was named in honor of two of J.B.'s brothers: William Smith Monroe.
Bill had been born on a Friday the 13th. In later years, he would turn this inauspicious date into a good omen, jauntily declaring that he was "lucky from Kentucky." In fact, Bill was unlucky at the very start, thanks to his poor vision and the inwardly crossed eye that soon made him a target for teasing.
His eyes were more than a cosmetic problem. If not corrected by age six or seven by operating on the eye and straightening it, esotropia inevitably leads to amblyopia, in which the central neural connections of the eye to the brain fail to develop. After age eight, although the eye can still be physically straightened, the atrophied nerve pathways will cause lifelong vision dimness, blurring, even pattern confusion. A child's ability to see and interact with people, succeed at school, play and enjoy sports are all disrupted. As best as can be determined, Bill Monroe's eye was not straightened until he was well into his teens.
Strangers were not the only ones to tease him about his eyes. At times, his siblings did too. His mother would shush the others if she caught them at it. But Willie, as he was called in the family, came in for some maternal disciplining as well. He adored his father and became frustrated when his dad wouldn't take him along during a busy day's work. If he complained, Malissa quickly put an end to it. Bill tried to understand.
The Monroe children attended school in Horton, slightly closer to their home than Rosine. They walked to school, of course. Their mother knew right to the second when they should be walking back in the afternoon.
Sometimes the children played on the handcar in J.B.'s coal mine. Once they overloaded it with playmates, sending it off its tracks and rolling down into the woods. Charlie was nominated to confess to J.B. Buck was a tough disciplinarian but he also knew when a whupping was not necessary. ("He could look at you harder than any man you ever seen in your life," Charlie recalled years later.) On this occasion, Buck simply hauled the cart back into the mine, reset it on the tracks, and made the kids promise never to pull that stunt again.
And where was Bill during these fine youthful misadventures? He was left out. In large farming families, older siblings were expected to raise the youngest. But the older Monroe children often couldn't be bothered with little Willie. They didn't hate him, but he was a social liability, a cross-eyed embarrassment. They treated him more like a stepchild than a full family member, often ignoring him, even when he followed them devotedly.
Left to himself, Bill wandered the woods and fields of the sprawling property, thinking: Lonesome is walking around by yourself, wondering where your brothers are.
Because of his eyes and his lowly status, Bill's social development was stunted. He became guarded and thoughtful. He grew desperately to need love and affirmation. And his auditory senses grew keen: Many of his childhood memories remained not in the form of visual images but the recollections of sounds. The child would truly become the father to the man.
The circumstances of Bill's birth had other implications. Current research into family birth order strongly suggests that the youngest children of large families, in an effort to find a niche for themselves, tend to become innovators, even rebels. As adults, they not only free themselves from old rules and stereotypes, they create entirely new paradigms. If so, the youngest child of J.B. and Malissa Monroe was going to be a textbook example.
One night when Bill was about four, a neighbor woman came to the Monroe home. Bill had no way of knowing she was a midwife, the same one who had delivered him. There was a 30-by-12-foot corn crib near the house, and the children still living there — Birch, Charlie, Bertha, and Bill — were sent out to sleep in it. The adults didn't want them around for what was about to happen: the wife of one of Bill's oldest brothers had come home to have a baby.
The birth of this niece was one of the most painful milestones in Bill's childhood, as he admitted years later to some close friends:
The next morning, my father came and told us kids a new baby had been born. That was the first I ever heard of a new baby coming around, me being the youngest. So they bought us into the house so we could see the new baby.
Back in those days, a kid was babied and petted more than they are today. So when she came into the picture, you know, that kind of shoved me out. My mother would hold her, and I'd have to stand down beside her and wish I was in her lap. So from that time on, [Mother] acted like that. It made it a sad life, a lonesome life.
Not surprisingly, the little boy who lost his mother's lap would exhibit a lifelong pattern of competitiveness and jealousies.
Malissa and J.B. were not neglectful parents. They were simply middle-aged people in a labor-intensive world who were nearly overwhelmed with work. Bill idolized his father. In the mornings he would stand next to him at the table (the family was so large there was no room for him to sit), eating his breakfast out of a little blue and white bowl. He followed his dad around, watching what Buck did. Bill learned silently, just by watching.
Little Willie was so acutely shy that during visits to town he would hide behind his dad like a little squirrel scurrying around a tree trunk. When Buck received change from a purchase, he sometimes gave Bill a nickel or a dime. For the rest of his days, Bill cherished the memory of receiving those shiny coins and the paternal affection they represented.
As a child, Bill literally had few conversations with anyone. (Bertha, closest to him in age, was the only sibling who really spent time playing with him.) Much later he began to wonder if — because he had been so withdrawn and looked so odd with his crossed eye — people around Rosine thought he was retarded.
Bill's father never gave him a whupping. But as an adult, Bill confided to a few people that he had suffered some physical abuse. One of his oldest brothers (whose name is now lost to history) would drink, get surly, and hit him. There is no indication that alcoholism was a problem in the family (indeed, Uncle Jack Monroe was a temperance man and most of Buck's children grew up to be teetotalers). But there was some drinking among the Monroes. Buck's ledger books record occasional purchases of whiskey, and he would occasionally have a pick-me-up dram of bourbon at the start of a hard day. When Bill became old enough to work, Buck shared this daily ritual with him. Bill realized that he liked the taste of bourbon too much, and he remembered the whiskey-fueled abuse he had suffered; so he stopped drinking hard liquor and never touched it again. For the rest of his life, he only imbibed a small glass of wine with dinner and this only on rare occasions.
For all the hardworking Monroes, including shy, lonely Willie, music was a diversion and a comfort. Malissa often placed her fiddle and bow carefully on a bed, and when she had a moment's rest would play a number like "Old Joe Clark." (Malissa once played fiddle for an entire evening's square dance when the regular fiddler took sick and couldn't attend.) Or she would pick up her little accordion and play "Heel and Toe Polka." Or sing an old ballad from the English Isles, like "The Butcher Boy." Malissa's music permeated the very atmosphere of the Monroe home. To Bill, the small boy with terribly limited vision, these sounds were among the most beautiful sensations to penetrate his consciousness.
And there was Malissa's brother Pen.
Pendleton Vandiver was tall and slender like his sister. In his older years, he was nearly bald but had a striking white handlebar mustache. With his bib overalls and a broadbrimmed black hat set back on his head, if anyone ever looked like a real country old-timer, it was Uncle Pen.
In 1901, at age thirty-two, Pen had married Anna Belle Johnson, age fifteen. Both were living in Sulphur Springs, Kentucky, at the time. Pen was farming, but may also have worked as an entertainer at the health spas in that town. The couple had two children but soon separated. The daughter, Leona, went with Anna Belle, who remarried. The son, Cecil Clarence (named in part for Pen's longtime friend Clarence Remus Wilson), went with Pen, who moved back to Rosine where he was an occasional employee of his brother-in-law Buck Monroe.
The sight of Pen riding up on his mule at sundown sent excitement through his nieces and nephews. He often brought them sticks of hard candy. And he brought an even greater treat — his music. He would stay to supper and fiddle such wonderful tunes: "Soldier's Joy," "Boston Boy," "Going Across the Ocean," "Methodist Preacher," "Pretty Betty Martin," "Going Up Caney" (which might have been inspired by the Caney River east of Rosine). Bill adored "Jenny Lynn" and thought it was the best one Pen played, the one he would rather hear than anything else. The youngsters begged for tune after tune until J.B. firmly packed them off to bed.
The fiddle — no different from a violin — was the instrument of choice throughout much of the South for listening and to accompany dancing. Uncle Pen kept a rattlesnake tail in his violin, a common practice among old-time fiddlers, said variously to improve the tone, prevent mice from attacking the instrument, or collect the dust that settled inside. Pen was a solid musician. Like many old-time style rural fiddlers, his noting and intonation were only adequate, but he possessed a superb sense of timing and bowing that made him a popular dance fiddler around Rosine.
As Bill became involved in music, he would not specifically ask Uncle Pen how to play numbers. He learned the way he learned farm chores from his father, by close attention and private practice. Pen showed him other things, how to make rabbit snares and how to dance the Kentucky backstep. He gave Bill quiet but firm advice if he did something wrong. If Pen didn't say anything, Bill knew he was doing pretty well right. Bill's future style of instructing his musical sidemen was being formed.
There was other music around, other sounds to enthrall and delight the boy. Uncle Pen's friend Clarence Wilson played five-string banjo in a basic two-finger picking style. Uncle Birch Monroe played a cello with a bow, proving a bass line for the fiddler and banjo during parlor music sessions. The very first live music Bill heard was the three men playing the old frolic tune "Soldier's Joy."
There were local ensembles like the Foster String Band and Faught's Entertainers that played "breakdowns" (fast square dance tunes), waltzes, even a little Hawaiian music. Mechanical music was moving into the hills by now. The Monroes' nineteenth-century-style world had admitted no electricity, not even, it seems, a battery-powered radio. But J.B. purchased a windup Victrola.
Most of the children learned to play instruments. Speed became a fine if reticent fiddler. Bertha could play the guitar a little and loved to sing the old hymns. But it was Birch and Charlie who started practicing in earnest.
Birch was the oldest of the children still living at home. At age thirteen, he laid claim to the use of his mother's fiddle. Charlie purchased his first guitar a few years later, when he was about eleven. It was an old thing and had only one string on it, but he bought it on credit, promising to pay three dollars.
"Well, Charlie, how in the world are you going to pay for it?" Malissa asked.
If that weren't bad enough, Charlie had a further problem: "Mama, I've got to have five more strings."
Another parent might have sent Charlie straight back to return the instrument. Instead Malissa said, "Well, if you're going to have five more strings, we're going to have to pick up a few chickens and take them to town." Malissa selected some frying chickens, sold them, and with the proceeds bought Charlie his strings. Charlie strung up the guitar and then sat up all night, beating on it, unable to make chords, unable even to tune it, but too excited to leave it alone.
When Bill was older, he helped the sons of a family that worked on the Monroe land to take horses to water at a creek on the property. He loved racing the horses — like mother, like son in this case — and on one occasion Bill was thrown, partially dislocating his hip. He tried to hide his limp, but his parents summoned a doctor who popped Bill's leg back into its socket. Bill was already showing the traits that would characterize him as a man: his willingness to break the rules, his fierce competitiveness, his stoicism.
That stoicism almost killed him. When Bill was about ten, he developed abdominal pains. He did not complain or show discomfort — until he collapsed in agony. Neighbors helped carry the boy on a makeshift stretcher to the Horton station, where he was transported by train to the hospital in Owensboro. It was discovered that his appendix was about to rupture. If an emergency operation had not been performed, Bill would have died.
One day, around 1918, the train stopped in Rosine and some men — once young, but now older in many ways — got off. In the distance, Bill could hear them singing an old hymn: "By and by when the morning comes, when all the Saints of God shall gather home. . . ."
It was his brother Speed and some other boys from Rosine who had survived the carnage of the Great War. The snow was deep, but no deeper than the mud of France had been.
Malissa insisted on going out to meet them. This despite the fact that she was very ill. In fact, Bill's mother was dying.
There are conflicting reports as to the cause of Malissa's death. Family tradition varies, holding that she had a brain tumor or spinal meningitis. Her death certificate lists antero myelitis, a degenerative disease of the spinal cord.
Most of the Monroe children had been born in an old log house that later burned down. Bertha and Bill were born in another home on the property. Now, a new farmhouse was constructed, begun around 1919 and completed in 1920, a final gift of love from J.B. to Malissa. It was thoughtfully designed, a modest but rather elegant one-story structure with Victorian elements laid out in a T-pattern. Front and back porches with small gingerbread appointments on their columns ran the length of the bedroom wing. Although not spacious, the house was cheery. Surprisingly long windows opened nearly floor to ceiling. Their size certainly was the cause of Bill recalling vividly in his song "I'm on My Way to the Old Home" the lights in the window that had shone there long ago. To a child with poor eyesight, these illuminated windows would have shone like lighthouse beacons.
Malissa's condition worsened. She was in ghastly pain. It was hard on everyone. Speed would sometimes flee to the farthest reaches of the property and clamp his hands over his ears, trying to escape the agony of hearing her screams. Somehow, walking seemed to have eased the pain. One of Bill's last memories of his mother was that she walked and walked and walked, supported by his father and one of his older brothers.
On the afternoon of October 31, 1921, Malissa Vandiver Monroe died. She was laid out in the living room. What happened next was one of the most painfully perplexing experiences of Bill's life. Malissa was carried out of the house to be buried in Rosine. No one had bothered to explain to ten-year-old Willie what was happening. Having only the vaguest idea of what death was, he was not sure why his mother was being taken away.
Malissa's cries were gone but so too was her lovely music, the mountain ballads, the lilting fiddle, the jaunty accordion. Bill's overwhelming association with the loss of his mother was the shattering silence of the house. Later, in his song "Memories of Mother and Dad," he would write of her death and a home "silent and so sad."
His mother, sister Bertha, and other women had been kind to him. His father had been a good man but busy, distant, and his brothers had teased or ignored him, even bullied him. Bill had learned: Women were to be found and clung to. But with men you had to be strong, unyielding, a competitor and a victor.
He soon learned something else. On the first Christmas morning after his mother's death, Bill got up and found no gift awaiting him. His father had been too distracted to buy him a present and his siblings too disinterested. Little Willie found out the hard way that there is no Santa Claus.
Bill began going out into the fields, far away from the house. Speed had gone there to escape his mother's dying wails; Bill was probably escaping the silence. He specifically went to sing old numbers like "Old Joe Clark." There was true freedom in this, because Bill thought that he could sing loud there, and no one would hear and then make fun of him if they didn't like it.
But others did hear him. As he walked away from the house he was walking closer to other properties. His voice drifted over to other farms. The neighbors were attracted to the high, clear quality of his voice.
As a boy, Bill had heard men walking the nearby railroad tracks and "hollering," a special kind of keening falsetto cry that carries more efficiently than simple shouting. Similar to Swiss yodeling (which also started as a means of communication and became a musical form), hollering was a favored mode of communication among southern farmhands and track workers. Bill tried it. When he saw animals at the edge of the forest, he would try to sing loudly yet gently, forcefully but compellingly, in a way that attracted their attention but didn't frighten them off. A powerful vocal style was being developed that would captivate listeners far beyond the fields and forests of Jerusalem Ridge.
Charlie was younger than Birch, but with his outgoing personality he had become de facto leader of a little musical trio that began to form around the Monroe household. Its third and rather unlikely member was Bill.
Bill wanted to play music, too, but his brothers were not about to share the fiddle or the guitar. So he picked up a mandolin in the family collection. Like so many momentous choices made in the course of great lives, it was initially just a matter of necessity disguised as convenience.
Hubert Stringfield, the farmhand, was the first mandolin player Bill had ever seen or heard. He had a well-developed tremolo and a little repertoire of tunes. Stringfield gave the boy his first pointers on the instrument. From the beginning, he impressed on Bill the importance of forcing himself to use the often uncooperative little finger of the left hand in reaching for high notes and playing descending and ascending scales.
Bill's first instrument was a little Neapolitan-style mandolin that was lying around the house. With its rounded, lutelike back and construction of alternating strips of light and dark wood, it looked like a notorious insect that infested tubers; so the slang name for it among rural musicians was "potato bug mandolin" to differentiate it from the flat-backed instruments that had guitar-style construction (one of which Bill would soon acquire).
Bill gained some ability on the mandolin. Birch and Charlie grudgingly allowed him to play with them but with the stipulation that he only use four single strings instead of the full complement of eight strings in four pairs.
His brothers didn't want him to make too much noise.
Contrary to popular belief, the performers who emerged from the southern hills to become the pioneers of country music and bluegrass were not from an exclusively aural folk tradition. Formal musical education, albeit rudimentary, was available each summer in towns like Rosine in the form of "singing schools."
A local person or traveling teacher would give choir lessons to classes of adults and older youngsters. Students were taught "shape notes," a system invented around 1800 in New England, in which notes on the musical staff were also assigned specific shapes (eg., round, square, triangular), thus giving additional visual cues to intervals. Students learned the notes of their parts first — singing do, re, mi, etc. — before they learned the words to a song. They were also taught the basic principles of music: keys, measures, rhythms, timing, rests.
Gospel songs with responsive sections in which lead, tenor, baritone, or bass voices each stood out momentarily were especially prized — songs like "A Beautiful Life," "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire," and "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul." These would become familiar to wide new audiences thanks to the Monroes and other hill country musicians. At the end of the course, the class would join with others from nearby towns at a centrally located "singing convention" to show off their new skills. This was true country "singing all day and dinner on the ground" — nonstop musical presentations and picnic lunches.
Bill attended one singing school. He also sang in the youth choir of the Rosine Methodist church for about half a year when he was twelve or thirteen, and at first thought he might like to be bass singer because the harmony line was simple. But his eyesight was a major obstacle to his musical education. He could read adequately during slower-paced elementary school sessions, but couldn't decipher the notes and staffs drawn on the blackboard quickly enough to keep up during singing school. He tried to get his brothers to tutor him. They were unable or unwilling to do so.
Bill never went back to singing school after that one cycle. He quietly resolved to learn his music by ear, the way his mother and Uncle Pen had done.
Bill's formal education ended with the fifth grade. He began working for pay when he was about eleven. Although old enough to labor, he was still too young to accompany his brothers into town on Saturday night, his father decreed. So J.B. would take him out to run the foxhounds.
Foxes were a scourge to farm families, who depended on having chickens but couldn't afford expensive fenced enclosures. Thus developed a specialized form of southern foxhunting, and it was not the mounted sport of a red-coated, monied gentry. After dark, hunters would build a big fire near the woods. The hunting horn would be blown to excite the dogs (and again at the end of the evening to bring them back). Once the hounds were loosed, the hunters would stay by the fire and listen as the pack found a scent and pursued their quarry through the night.
Sometimes the dogs succeeded only in chasing off a fox, not catching one. But the kill was secondary to the hunt. As the hounds gave voice in the woods, all joking and joshing would cease. Connoisseurs of foxhunting not only characterized dogs by their mouths — bell-mouths, turkey-mouths, chop-mouths, and half-chops — they could recognize each animal by its distinctive barks and yelps. Thus they tracked the progress of the hunt, which dogs were in the lead, which ones were falling back.
The packs of dogs were exactly like bands of musicians. Put them together and they made a wonderful sound; and even without seeing them, you could tell which ones were soloing, which were in support, which were working their hardest, and which were slacking off.
Bill also helped raise birds for one of Buck's hobbies, cockfighting. Bill loved animals, but this bloody ancient sport held a certain fascination for him. His grittily competitive nature responded to a smaller and younger bird that could defeat a bigger one through spirit and determination.
Violence in Ohio County was not confined to foxhunts or cockfights. Rosine was a pleasant community, but not a paradise. It had churches and tight-knit farming families, but there was also drinking and the need of some men to be stronger and tougher than the next man, the "bully of the town." These troublemakers would just as soon fight you as look at you.
Charlie Monroe found out about that. He loved to tease people and, despite his strength and size (he grew to be nearly 6 foot 2), Charlie had a high-pitched, almost giggly laugh. Although Charlie never intended it, both the teasing and the laugh could wear thin in a hurry. That is why, Rosine old-timers believe, when Charlie was in his late teens or early twenties, an exchange turned ugly and another Rosine man slashed him across the left cheek with a straight razor.
Carrying a terrible scar, Charlie would turn the left side of his face away from the camera for the rest of his life whenever he posed for a photograph. One day, this scar would prominently mark the lore and myth surrounding the Monroe brothers.
By age fourteen, Bill was working for his father hauling heavy wagonloads of cross ties down to the Rosine train depot. It was challenging. He had to heft the heavy chunks of wood into the wagon, then use the horses and brakes to maneuver the dangerously weighty loads safely down the winding road into town.
As people around Horton and Rosine watched so young a lad doing so big a job, Bill began to take pride in his growing strength and skill. He made a silent show of his labor. It was an early experience in public performance.
After work, Bill was becoming more and more of a student of music in his own private, self-taught way. Soon another master appeared to help him.
He was a short, somewhat chubby fellow who usually wore a big black hat. He was quiet but personable when spoken to. He was African-American, a local laborer and a truly exceptional musician. Indeed, the consensus of those who heard him is that Arnold Shultz was one of the greatest blues guitarists who ever lived.
Shultz was born in February 1886 in Ohio County near Cromwell. He worked near McHenry as a coal miner and later as a coal loader around Rosine and Horton. He could lead a gypsylike existence. One day in late autumn he might play a tune on a relative's porch, then without a word walk down the road, then sit and play another tune. His relations would hear Shultz and his music fade away into the distance. He apparently made it to the Mississippi, worked his way south on riverboats as a deck hand, then wintered in New Orleans where he absorbed that city's musical influences.
In addition to his compelling blues picking, his transitions between chords were silky smooth. He also knew how to play in the sliding "bottleneck" style, like most country blues guitarists using a pocketknife to make the notes. The strap holding his guitar was not leather, just an old woven grass rope.
Sadly, Shultz was never recorded. Neither the academicians collecting folk music in the field nor the producers scouring the country for salable "race" artists in the 1920s ever found him. If they had, Arnold Shultz would today share the pantheon of African-American country blues greats with Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and even Robert Johnson. Those who heard Shultz — blacks and whites alike — assert that they never heard his equal before or after. Even without recording, Arnold Shultz's legacy was profound. Merle Travis, the influential fingerpicking guitarist, and Ike Everly, father of the Everly Brothers of 1950s pop music fame, were among those who learned from disciples of Shultz.
Shultz also played some fiddle, and in the early 1920s performed in the Ohio Countybased hillbilly and Dixieland ensemble of Forrest "Boots" Faught. The band was all white except for Arnold. Occasionally someone would complain, "Hey, you've got a colored fiddler. We don't want that."
"The reason I've got the man is because he's a good musician," Faught would reply. Shultz stayed on the bandstand.
Arnold fiddled for square dances around Rosine and Horton, where older residents recall him playing with Charlie and Birch Monroe and other white musicians. All this was in the South and nearly a decade before the Benny Goodman Trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson was hailed as the first racially mixed jazz combo to perform in public. Bill Monroe's earliest paid music work was thanks to Shultz, who asked Bill to "second him" on guitar when he fiddled for square dances. Bill was thrilled by the invitation — and proud of his stamina when the sun came up and they would still be playing. With his growing sense of life as a competitive event, Bill was awed by how Arnold won a music contest by following up his blues numbers with a beautiful waltz.91 Years later, he recalled the man and his art with gratitude and affection:
I tried to keep in mind a little of it. . . . I wanted some blues in my music too, you see. . . . I believe if there's ever an old gentleman that passed away and is resting in peace, it was Arnold Shultz — I really believe that.92
Around this time, Birch, Charlie, and Bill began playing for parlor parties and dances around Rosine as a trio. (This helps explain later statements by Bill — and a slogan painted on his mandolin case — that his music had been going "since 1927.")93 But soon the lure of big-paying factory jobs took Charlie and Birch north. Uncle Pen scoffed at it all: "Mark my words, Charlie, you'll soon be back on Jerusalem Ridge, drinkin' lonesome water!"94
In Detroit, Charlie and Birch found piecework at the Briggs Motor Company, which made parts under contract to Ford.95 They brought their instruments and made extra money playing at house parties and dances for fellow southern expatriates. These were mellow affairs, no drinking or fighting; just sandwiches, coffee, Cokes, and fun. Birch played old-time tunes for dancing, and Charlie was beginning to sing numbers like the popular tearjerker "May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister?"
And now Birch and Charlie were going by a specific name when they performed — the Monroe Brothers.96
Laid off at Christmas, they returned home to Rosine. Charlie, flush with his earnings, had a special present for his dad — a $100 bill. As it turned out, the money exactly covered an account J.B. had in Beaver Dam.
The family knew just what train they would be arriving on, so Bill went down to the station especially to meet his brothers. The train pulled in and, yes, there they were. Bill went up to greet them.
It was just like old times, in the very worst way. Birch and Charlie ignored their kid brother. They walked home the whole way without ever speaking to him.97
James Buchanan Monroe succumbed to pneumonia on January 14, 1928, at age seventy.98 His coffin was carried into town on a horse-drawn wagon. Malissa and J.B. now rested side by side in the little lonesome Rosine cemetery. On her headstone was carved, "Gone But Not Forgotten." On his, "We Will Meet Again."
It is unclear who inherited the farm. (No wills were registered for J.B. or Malissa, and probably none was ever drawn up.) One of the older sons presumably kept working the land, which stayed in the Monroe family for the next four decades. But the days of the J. B. Monroe farm as a major operation employing dozens of local men were over.
Bill's home life became unstable. His sisters Maude and Bertha took care of the household for a time but soon, with brother John, headed north to join Birch and Charlie in the Chicago area.
At age sixteen, Bill's maturity had been thrust upon him. He received a horse from his father's holdings99 and began farming in the warm months for his uncle Jack Monroe. In the cold weather he worked for his uncle Andrew Monroe, hauling timber for railroad ties and mine supports on a ten-mile round trip from Andrew's land to the Rosine depot.
Bill lived briefly with his namesake, Uncle William, then with Jack, whose second wife, Elda Mary, was a loving mother hen of a woman. At Jack's house near the Rosine depot, Bill at last found some security. But one day he returned to find even that haven denied him, shut out by a quarantine after an outbreak of measles.
Then someone provided stability in Bill's vertiginously uncertain world. Uncle Pen invited Bill to "batch it" in his humble cabin, high on Tuttle Hill overlooking the town center.
Pen had gotten this place in 1922 after having lived for some time at the home of his longtime friend Clarence Wilson. One evening Pen's mule showed up at the Wilsons', riderless. A search was made, and Pen was found on the ground, his fiddle beside him. His hip was broken. The mule was young, a recent trade acquisition, and it had been spooked by a passing train. The break never healed properly. For the rest of his life, Pen was forced to go around on crutches.
After his accident, Pen had made his living through trading. He was reputed to leave his cabin on a Monday morning with goods of small value. After a week's traveling and trading up, he would return leading a cow.
Bill kept his workhorses in a barn behind his uncle Jack's house near the Rosine depot. Late at the end of a day, in the evening, just about sundown, as Bill put the animals away for the night, he would become aware of a sound ringing out from the nearby hill overlooking the town — Pen sitting outside his cabin, playing his fiddle. To Bill it was an almost human vocalization. He would one day immortalize these sensory impressions in song.
Uncle Pen did all the cooking. The grub was plain but filling, rich in proteins, carbohydrates, and calories, just the thing to fuel hard physical labor. For breakfast, they would have hoecakes topped with sorghum molasses, an all-purpose sweet syrup as truly of the South as maple syrup is of New England. Dinner and supper were often black-eyed peas with fatback (bacon) and cornbread with sorghum. Occasionally, they would have a comparatively extravagant breakfast: fried potatoes and eggs. (Malissa had specialized in fried potatoes, too; forever after they were Bill's favorite dish.) They had no stove; all the cooking was done over the fire.
It was a barebones existence. Yet Bill gratefully communed with every morsel of Pen's magnanimity, as he later reflected:
A man that old, and crippled, that would cook for you and see that you had a bed and a place to stay and something for breakfast and dinner and supper, and you know it come hard for him to get . . .
Pen continued to be in demand for square dances. He took Bill along as his backup musician. They rode their mules to neighboring homes where a large room or a barn floor had been cleared for the party. Sometimes they would make a couple of dollars, sometimes five. Like Shultz, Pen insisted on sharing the money equally with Bill.
Pen gave Bill more: a repertoire of tunes that sank into Bill's aurally trained memory and a sense of rhythm that seeped into his bones. Sometimes Bill played guitar behind his uncle, sometimes the mandolin.
As his playing developed during these long dance sessions, Bill began, in his mind, to move his feet and dance. He would move his right hand in time with the imagined movement. It was the same for the rapid shuffle of a breakdown or the lilting time lifts of a waltz. While playing music, Bill was dancing in his mind.
Music not only gave Bill enjoyment and some cash money. For probably the first time in his life, people he loved were valuing him in return. To Uncle Pen and Arnold Shultz, Bill was a fine young man, a promising musician, a sober, reliable partner, and they were happy to have him.
But for the young Bill Monroe, it was a revelation and a turning point. Thanks to music, he felt he was someone. Thanks to music, he was connecting with people who truly cared.
And there were other connections to be made. Playing at dances probably facilitated his first romance.
Bill had thought that if he was lucky, his life would be this way: I'll stay in Kentucky, keep farming, find a girlfriend, fall in love, get married, have a family. But even finding a girlfriend? Bill was painfully shy. He was afraid that if he said even one wrong word a girl would never talk to him again.
He didn't have his first date or first kiss until he was eighteen years old. It was a late start. But Bill was about to make up for lost time.
|Ch. 1||Blue Moon of Kentucky Rising (The Beginnings to 1929)||3|
|Ch. 2||The Big City, the Big Country (1929 to 1938)||28|
|Ch. 3||His Own Man (1938 to 1945)||47|
|Ch. 4||Bluegrass (1945 to 1953)||86|
|Ch. 5||Impacts: Rock 'n' Roll, Flatt and Scruggs, Folk Music (1953 to 1961)||124|
|Ch. 6||Renaissance: Folkies and Yankees (1962 to 1965)||160|
|Ch. 7||His Best Days on Earth (1965 to 1983)||200|
|Ch. 8||Blue Moon of Kentucky Setting (1983 to 1996)||243|
Posted February 8, 2013
Although I consider myself well versed in Bluegrass music and in Bill Monroe's life and contributions, I found much material that was new to me. The narrative is well documented and moves along without needless digressions.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2012
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Posted October 20, 2011
No text was provided for this review.