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COME HITHER TO GO YONDERPlaying Bluegrass with Bill Monroe
By Bob Black
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneREMEMBERING THE OLD DAYS
"Let's never forget the old days." Bill's voice was soft and sincere. He always spoke from his heart. My wife, Kristie Black, and I were visiting my old boss on his farm just outside of Nashville one day in early November 1992. We were on our way to Cedars of Lebanon State Park where I had been invited to supervise some banjo workshops at the Tennessee Banjo Institute. At the last minute, we had decided to drive out to Bill's place just to see if he was there. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the sun was shining on the tree-lined bluff to our right as we drove up the lane. When we pulled in, there was Bill, hulling a pile of walnuts he had spread out on the ground. He was stepping on them to mash the hulls off. We noticed the walnut stains on his trousers as he walked over to greet us with a friendly smile, as though he had been expecting us. About five minutes after we arrived, he went into the house to get his mandolin, saying he had some tunes he wanted to show me. We sat down together on some benches he had placed outdoors, enjoying the warm autumn sunshine as it streamed down through branches still thinly covered with leaves. He tuned up his mandolin with great care, bowing his head close to the strings while I waited in anticipation. Then he began to play. As I listened, I was transported back in time, realizing that once again I was the student and Bill Monroe was the teacher. It was just like the old days.
I was struck by the amount of energy and passion still present in the older man. At the age of eighty-one, the Father of Bluegrass Music hadn't lost his touch. His music was still a part of him—strong, vital, and filled with the spirit of tradition. Old-time melodies were resurrected in his hands. The past lived on in Bill Monroe—he had never forgotten the old days.
Nearly twenty years had gone by since I first met Bill. In 1974 he hired me to play in his band, the Blue Grass Boys, and I was given the chance of a lifetime to learn from a musical master. Now, as I listened to the melodies that sprang from his fingers, my mind went back to those exciting times. Some of the tunes were familiar; he had taught them to me while we were on the road. These songs made me think of the thousands of miles we had traveled together and the scores of shows we had played. As though from a scrapbook of old photos, pages from the past were opening up. The images were only slightly faded.
How could I forget the old days? My years as a Blue Grass Boy would always be a part of me. Playing with Bill Monroe was much more than an opportunity to increase my knowledge of songwriting and performing. It was also a rare chance to glimpse the personality of a man who had a profound effect not only on the lives of musicians, entertainers, and fans, but also on the entire course of American music itself.
His playing took me back to the old days. I was listening to the source. When it came time to leave I had to tear myself away, but I knew I would be back. I would always be back because Bill Monroe and his music would always be there. He was impossible to ignore and, like the choruses of his many songs, he was impossible to forget.
The Lore of Bluegrass
We Blue Grass Boys called him the Chief—partly out of respect for his skill, drive, and dedication, but mostly because we just plain admired him. For most of us, this admiration was born long before we got to know him personally. Listening to Bill Monroe's recordings and watching his live performances, we came to recognize the true significance of this man and his music. Our special regard for him never diminished even after our active days as Blue Grass Boys. His remarkable personality continued to affect our attitudes about music, performing, and life in general. He was a role model for us all. Approximately 175 musicians passed through the ranks of Bill's band down through the years, and there wasn't one not deeply affected by the experience.
Long known as the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe created the style of that music and wrote many of the songs still performed by bluegrass bands today. Born in rural Kentucky, near Rosine, Monroe absorbed a number of musical influences while growing up: old-time fiddle tunes; country music; southern blues; and Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness gospel singing. These, along with jazz and Scottish bagpipe music, are the principal elements he later combined to create one of the few musical art forms truly indigenous to America: bluegrass.
Bill often described his music as having "a good drive and a high pitch," and many times I heard him use the expression "singin' from my heart to yours" when discussing his expressive vocal style. Bill admired the Carter family, and he liked the singing of Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933), the famous Mississippi singer and songwriter who originated many stylistic elements common to country music today, including yodeling and use of the blues as a defining component.
Bill loved the distinctive old-time fiddling of Clayton McMichen (1900–1970), a Georgia musician whose playing incorporated elements of many different musical genres including country, jazz, and swing. He also respected the music of Fiddling Arthur Smith (1898–1971), a Tennessee native who developed an innovative style of fiddle playing still copied by bluegrass players today.
In addition to his regard for these musicians, Bill frequently talked about how much he admired the guitar playing of Riley Puckett (1894–1946), a Georgia musician who created his own style that featured bass note runs between the chord changes. Modern bluegrass rhythm guitar styles can be traced back in part to Puckett.
After the death of his father, Bill, at age sixteen, moved in with his fiddle-playing uncle Pen Vandiver. Pen used crutches and needed help carrying water and wood. According to Bill, his uncle had broken his hip when his mule slipped in the mud, pinning him and his fiddle underneath. Uncle Pen's fiddling influenced Bill's music in a fundamental way, especially with respect to rhythm and timing. Bill frequently talked about what a wonderful sense of timing Uncle Pen had; that same important element of his uncle's playing later found its way into Bill's music.
Another musical influence from Bill's childhood was a black railroad employee and farm worker named Arnold Schulz, who played blues on the guitar. Whenever Schultz came to Rosine, Bill would listen to him perform. Growing to love the blues, Bill later incorporated elements of that musical genre into his music.
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, Bill left a lasting impression on the landscape of American music, and his influence can be heard and felt in many diverse musical styles today. In 1982 he received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts as a master folk artist in the first National Heritage Fellowships. Bill Monroe is now acknowledged as the founder of an original musical art form.
I first heard of Bill when I was a high school student in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1960s. Folk music was enjoying a renaissance back then, and that's what opened the door to bluegrass for me. I was instantly attracted to it as a good alternative to the mass-produced, commercial, "Top 40" sounds saturating the radio waves. I found bluegrass music to be exciting and driving, full of creative expression in the interpretations of individual musicians. It was an acoustic music—that is, none of the instruments were amplified electronically. In addition, the singing regularly featured two-, three-, and four-part harmonies, which made an impression on me. I realized the performers had to be expert singers as well as skillful musicians. Bluegrass instruments included a fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, and sometimes Dobro (a commercial brand name often used to describe any type of resonator guitar. In bluegrass, the instrument is generally played with a metal bar).
The banjo was the instrument that really turned me on. The first bluegrass record I ever heard featured a good banjo player by the name of Kenny Wertz. He was part of a group called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. A friend of mine named Steve Herbert had purchased their album, Bluegrass Favorites, at the Hinky Dinky grocery store on Ingersoll Avenue in Des Moines. Steve and I listened eagerly to their spirited renditions of such great bluegrass songs as "Shady Grove," "Cripple Creek," "Reuben," and "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane." (Later, I learned the group was also known as the Kentucky Travelers—different editions of that same album listed this name for the band. I liked the name the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers better!)
Additional bluegrass albums purchased by Steve at the Hinky Dinky store included Bluegrass Banjos on Fire by the group Homer and the Barnstormers, and Ten Shades of Bluegrass by the Lonesome Travelers, featuring the banjo talent of Bob Johnson. Also featured on that album, on mandolin, was Norman Blake, an artist who later achieved fame as a guitarist. None of the musicians were given credit on the editions marketed in Hinky Dinky stores, but these inexpensively produced projects, and others similar to them, helped to fire up an interest in bluegrass music among shoppers who might never have gone into actual record shops.
Steve and I made a deal: he would learn the guitar if I learned the banjo. My father rented an instrument for me from a downtown Des Moines music store. It was a cheaply made Kay brand. I took it to the basement as soon as I got home and spent nearly eight hours sitting on the cellar steps practicing and learning from an instruction book I had obtained. Quickly, I became hooked. I was going to learn the banjo come hell or high water! Steve—though he tried—never really got the hang of playing the guitar. As a result, I found myself embarking on my musical odyssey as a solo act. I had no idea where the trip would take me.
I soon discovered that the greatest banjo player of that time, or any other for that matter, was Earl Scruggs, part of the famous group of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. He had a finger-style approach to banjo that was a more sophisticated offshoot of earlier playing techniques such as those practiced by North Carolina banjo greats Charlie Poole and Snuffy Jenkins. Performing all over the United States, especially on college campuses, Earl Scruggs introduced myriads of young people to bluegrass and banjo playing. Many of those same people eventually became leading exponents of the music as we know it today. Scruggs's banjo style was what I was trying to emulate, and I worked hard to duplicate the subtle nuances of tone and timing he had so masterfully achieved.
I combed through record stores in the Des Moines area during the late 1960s looking for bluegrass music, purchasing mostly Flatt and Scruggs albums. These two musicians had achieved a great deal of fame after their music was featured on the popular television comedy series The Beverly Hillbillies. A further boost for their career came in 1967 with the release of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, featuring a soundtrack spotlighting Earl Scruggs's banjo composition "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." (Flatt and Scruggs won a Grammy for "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at the eleventh annual Grammy awards ceremony in 1968. Earl Scruggs won a second Grammy for his more recent recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at the forty-fourth annual Grammy awards ceremony in 2002.)
Somewhat in the background, at least as far as I was concerned, stood Bill Monroe, the man who had first brought Flatt and Scruggs together by hiring them in 1945 to play in his band, the Blue Grass Boys. According to an interview with Bill in Masters of the Five-String Banjo by Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick, Scruggs wrote "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" after performing a very similar Bill Monroe tune called "Blue Grass Breakdown." It must be said, however, that Scruggs disputes Bill's claim of authorship of "Blue Grass Breakdown," asserting that he actually wrote that tune as well as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." One thing is clear: both "Blue Grass Breakdown" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" are wonderful vehicles for "Scruggs-style" banjo picking.
Authorship disagreements aside, Flatt and Scruggs owed a great deal of their popularity to the Father of Bluegrass. He had given them valuable performance experience, as well as important popular exposure on the Grand Ole Opry, a radio show he had been a member of since 1939. Bill's band was the perfect training school for Flatt and Scruggs—and when they felt it was time to "graduate," they struck out successfully together, making their own mark on the music world.
During my early searches for bluegrass LPs, I also discovered recordings by many other pioneering groups, including Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, the Country Gentlemen, and the Osborne Brothers. Younger bands that had generational appeal, such as the Dillards and the Greenbriar Boys, were also high on my list of personal favorites.
My awareness of the true extent of Bill Monroe's influence grew as I continued to study bluegrass. In the liner notes of many of the albums I purchased, I read that Bill was credited with creating bluegrass music. He had been the driving force behind the entire musical genre, bringing together all the elements to create the sound that I was now becoming fascinated with. I soon realized that all the bluegrass groups I was listening to owed their inspiration to Bill. The more knowledge I acquired, the greater my respect grew for the man who had breathed life into this musical art form.
When I looked at the pictures of Bill Monroe on the covers of his albums, I was reminded of my grandfather, Ersie Wilson, who was a farmer and lay preacher with rigid, old-fashioned principles. Although he was very kind, he was a bit stern and at times had a stubborn streak. Those same qualities seemed to be reflected in the face of Bill Monroe. I had the feeling he would be hard to work for and difficult to be around. In the pictures he stood erect, with a distant gaze in his eyes that never seemed to center on the camera. He appeared austere and forbidding. The cover of Bluegrass Instrumentals (Decca74601, 1965) is a particularly illustrative example. In that photo, Bill is standing stiffly sideways, face turned toward the camera, with a look that could almost be described as belligerent. I never imagined myself working for him!
I learned with interest that Bill and his brother Charlie had performed as the Monroe Brothers in the mid-1930s on radio station KFNF in Shenandoah, Iowa (my boyhood hometown). Owned and operated by the Henry Field Seed Company, KFNF had an interesting and colorful history as a performance venue for gospel groups, old-time fiddlers, and early string bands. Sometimes called the "Friendly Farmer Station," it was one of the earliest and most powerful radio stations in the Midwest.
Bill and Charlie made twenty-five dollars a week at KFNF (according to an article in the Nashville Tennessean, June 25, 1972). Sponsored by Texas Crystals (a laxative), their show was an important first for Bill in two respects: It was the beginning of his full-time professional music career (prior to moving to Shenandoah, Bill and Charlie—along with their brother Birch—had made their living in the Chicago area as refinery workers and played music only part time). It was also where he first started playing lead solos on the mandolin. Bill stated this himself in an interview at the 1963 Chicago Folk Festival. In a lead solo, one musician presents his instrumental interpretation of the melody while the other instrumentalists—in this case Charlie, on guitar—play a secondary or supporting role in providing musical background or accompaniment. Birch Monroe, who was the fiddler for the trio, stayed in the Chicago area after Bill and Charlie left for Shenandoah. In the absence of the fiddle, Bill had to learn to play lead solos on the mandolin. Before that, he had just been playing background chords and rhythm while the fiddle played all the lead solos.
Having spent my childhood in Shenandoah, I felt a slight connection to the Father of Bluegrass. Much later, I learned that this little town on the banks of the Nishnabotna River was the place where Bill had met his first wife, Carolyn. Her full name was Carolyn Minnie Brown. Born in Marshalltown, Carolyn was living in Red Oak, near Shenandoah, when Bill first met her—Bill told me this himself one day while we were talking about Shenandoah. He liked Iowa a lot, and often expressed to me a fondness for the Tall Corn State.
Excerpted from COME HITHER TO GO YONDER by Bob Black Copyright © 2005 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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