The Music of Bill Monroe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252031212
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2007
  • Series: Music in American Life Series
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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The Music of BILL MONROE


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03121-2


"Walls of Time": Assembling the Bill Monroe Discography


Since the death of the longtime Grand Ole Opry star and "Father of Bluegrass Music" in September 1996, the many recordings that Bill Monroe made over more than sixty years enable us to continue hearing him "through the walls of time." Since 1997 Charles Wolfe and I have been working on this book, The Music of Bill Monroe, a catalog of Monroe's published recordings. We started with the album notes we did for the German company Bear Family's three comprehensive boxed sets of Monroe's Decca/MCA recordings between 1950 and 1979. We've expanded it to cover Monroe's entire amazing sixty-year recording history. Charles has been in charge of the narrative, and the discography has been my bailiwick. There's been considerable exchange of information and assistance in both directions, and we've depended upon the knowledge and resources of many others. I'll say more about this later.

In 1961 I came to Bloomington, Indiana, to begin graduate work in folklore at Indiana University. Within a week of my arrival, I'd gone to nearby Bean Blossom and seen Bill Monroe for the first timethere at his Brown County Jamboree park. At just about the same time I learned about what I now call a "research discography" when I discovered Disc Collector ("The Country Record Collectors Bible") and its research spin-off Country Directory, mimeographed country and folk music record journals published occasionally by Lou Deneumoustier. The research discographies included a few bluegrass ones by Pete Kuykendall that inspired me to start compiling a series of bluegrass discographies. This was my way of making sense of the music-trying to understand its history, to distinguish fact from assertion. I wanted to hear recordings others spoke of as "definitive," name the musicians making the sounds I heard, and know who had done what first.

In the case of Monroe, it was also a way to learn his repertoire, which was necessary because I played his music as a member of the house band at Bean Blossom and occasionally as a substitute banjoist in his band. I began with partial Monroe research discographies published by Brad McCuen and Pete Kuykendall in Country Directory and Disc Collector that listed his Victor and Columbia recordings made between 1940 and 1949. But for Decca recordings made since 1950 there was only Kuykendall's list of singles-just numbers and titles. Using that list I started building my own Decca research discography. I dug through personal collections and record store bins, looking at copies of published singles and noting master numbers and other label information. I also sent "want lists" of the titles for which I needed master numbers to bluegrass and country record collectors. Soon I was ready to start typing my first list organized by master numbers, and eventually I had a rather complete outline. But recording dates and musicians' names were missing. Also missing was anything not released on a single (singles have master numbers on their labels) because I didn't have master numbers for the unissued cuts and the recordings released only on LP. Such information could only be gotten from the companies, and they didn't answer my letters.

What are "master numbers"? When Bill Monroe began his recording career he sang into a microphone that converted sound waves into an electrical signal fed to a needle that created grooves on a wax disc (the "master"). From it, a metal casting (a "stamper" or "matrix") was made. The 78-rpm records that the companies marketed were "pressed" using these stampers. In order to keep track of recordings during this process, companies assigned numbers to masters at the time of recording. These numbers ("matrix" or "master" numbers) were written, or stamped, onto the wax disc on the blank space between the end of the grooves and the edge of the label. Because numbers enabled companies to identify individual recorded performances in their files, the practice of assigning numbers in this way continued even after newer recording technologies replaced that of the wax disc. The master is, in most cases, the same as one side of a single, one band on an LP album, or one track on a CD album. Each of the three companies to which Monroe was under contract assigned master numbers to his recordings in this way. The numbers that record companies assigned were sequential within each recording session; hence, master numbers are the starting point for studying recording sessions.

In the spring of 1963 Ralph Rinzler moved to Nashville to work as Monroe's manager. We met at Bean Blossom when Monroe next played there, and at the end of June Rinzler hired me to work for Monroe as manager of the Jamboree. Rinzler was working to revitalize Monroe's career by booking him at folk venues, suggesting innovative recording projects, and writing articles. We often spoke about this, sharing as we did an interest in the history of this music. He soon told me he had gotten access to the Decca files, thereby gaining a complete list of masters with dates and personnel for each recording session. He had thus been able to compile the complete research discography for the Decca sessions. I was very excited about this and immediately asked for a copy, but he demurred, saying he was saving it for a songbook to be published soon. During the next few years, bits and pieces of that discography appeared in the liner notes of reissues that Ralph edited for Decca, but the songbook never appeared. I continued to build my own version from Ralph's reissue notes, new releases, and anecdotal information from Blue Grass Boys I'd met at Bean Blossom.

In 1973 Bill Ivey, a former academic and music colleague from Indiana University who had recently become director of the Country Music Foundation, asked if I would be interested in doing a publication on bluegrass for the Foundation. I was already under contract with the University of Illinois Press for the book that would appear in 1985 as Bluegrass: A History, so I suggested a complete and illustrated Monroe discography. He agreed that it was feasible and appropriate given Monroe's recent induction into the Hall of Fame and the popularity of bluegrass festivals, so the project began. Ivey introduced me to his board member, Owen Bradley, the Nashville musician, producer, and recording studio owner, who gave me access to the Decca/MCA files. These did not, I discovered, include files on the first six or seven years of Decca sessions from which Rinzler had drawn most of the recordings on his reissues. I was only able to complete the Decca research discography after obtaining a copy of Rinzler's version covering those early Decca years. It came from David Grisman, who'd obtained it in the mid-1960s from Rinzler.

The information thus cobbled together from many sources I mixed and poured together, with considerable help and direction from former Blue Grass Boy Douglas Green, into a slim volume published in 1974 as Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography. It received enthusiastic reviews in the bluegrass, old-time, and folk music press and polite notice in a few academic journals. The first and only printing of 2,100 was gone by about 1981, but I still receive letters and calls from people looking for copies. In 1973, while conducting research at MCA for that book, I tried to talk Owen Bradley into doing a reissue album of the many pieces Monroe had put on singles only. I also pointed out that there were many unreleased cuts from the previous fifteen years. Unimpressed, he said, "We already have too much product out on Monroe."

MCA's lack of interest notwithstanding, within the next year several foreign reissues appeared that took advantage of the information in Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. Two albums, apparently produced in Europe, pirated thirty-two songs and tunes recorded between 1950 and 1954 that had not previously appeared on LP. They included complete information on recording dates and personnel taken from my book. And from Japanese Victor, which owned the rights in that country to the MCA masters, came a three-LP set with thirty-eight songs and tunes that included, in addition to everything not on LP, seven previously unissued masters. The twelve-page book of notes that accompanied the set contained the entire Decca discography in tabular form, in addition to a number of photographs. Both were taken without credit from the discography. Toru Mitsui translated a part of the introduction to these notes for me; my work had, Japanese Victor indicated, enabled them to "trace all the unidentified recordings of Bill Monroe."

That was just the beginning. Ultimately, I saw the book widely quoted, copied in part or whole, and its format was borrowed for other discographies. Often, secondhand copies were offered in record auction lists. Although I didn't see Monroe until some six or seven years after it appeared, on more than one occasion his comment to my friends, acquaintances, and relatives who mentioned my name to him was to ask how much I'd made on the book. I'd made nothing-it was done without a contract.

When Bear Family decided to reissue the complete recordings of Bill Monroe in sequence and include previously unissued material, they began at 1950 and invited Charles Wolfe and me to do the notes. This was my first experience with Bear Family. Charles, however, had done many interesting and substantial projects for them before urging the initially wary Weize to try the bluegrass market. Officially, I led the work on the discography while Charles did the work on the song notes. For the first BF set, which included all of Bill's Decca recordings from 1950 to 1959, Charles drew heavily from the Decca/MCA chapter in Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, adding new material from his research. With the basic discography, Richard Weize and Eddie Stubbs added new information as the booklet was followed by an errata sheet and then a revised reprint.

Notes for the second set, covering the years between 1960 and 1969, were written in a somewhat similar way. By the time of the third set for 1970-79 the contents of my discography had been exhausted, and Eddie Stubbs and Weize provided additional data, along with help from Blue Grass Boys Dana Cupp and Tom Ewing as well as by Don Roy and Charles.

By this time Charles had done a considerable amount of new research that was reflected in those final notes. Throughout, we'd been helped considerably by Richard Weize, whose reissue activities have given him access to and made him familiar with the archives of many record companies as well as the activities of a wide circle of collectors and discographers. In October 1996, just a few weeks after Bill Monroe's death, Charles and I met backstage at the Riverfront Center in Owensboro, Kentucky, during the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual awards show. He was there as a member of the IBMA's board of directors; I was there to play banjo along with Byron Berline, Vince Gill, Bobby Hicks, Billy Rose, and Ricky Skaggs in a Blue Grass Boys' tribute number to Monroe. Charles suggested that we put together a book about Monroe's recordings based on our Bear Family material and the Monroe Brothers project on which he was working with Rounder. I agreed, and that was the beginning of our work on this volume.

* * *

Sound recordings have played a central role in shaping the canons of twentieth-century vernacular musicology. What I learned in assembling the first version of the Monroe discography is that the data discographers distill become valuable knowledge. Once it is published, most people for whom it has meaning immediately forget that someone created it. It is no longer research and ceases to be speculation; it becomes, like a map, reality in shorthand. Discographies become an aspect of the marketing and consumption of the music they represent. People who compile and read discographies consult them before buying or selling "historic" sound recordings. Both directly and indirectly, they shape ideas about recordings as historical musical performances. Discography is a potent form of contemporary musicology.

What discographers seek to do is contextualize sound recordings by describing them as artifacts. We call this artifact, the original recording from which the commercial reproductions are copied, the "master." The creation of each artifact is a historical event. What I call "research discography" is not just a list of published recordings-that's a reference or citation discography. Rather, it's a list of masters or "artifact-events." We create artifact-event descriptions by synthesizing from data published with the recording; from information contained in company, recording studio, and musicians' union files; from trade publications; from the testimony of individuals involved in the recordings; and from whatever other useful straws come within our grasp.

This is a specialized type of ethnography in which aspects of the artifact-event are discovered by asking questions: Who played and sang what instruments and parts? When and where did the recordings take place? What are the specifics of their publication on various media (from 78s to CDs)? What are the proper titles of the pieces and their composer credits? Who was the producer?

Any discography brings together multiple artifact-events around some kind of organizing theme. Each theme is, in essence, arbitrary and reflects the agendas of the discographers. Among the recurrent discographical themes are region, genre, company, and era. Many discographies combine these parameters, and each theme raises its own problems about inclusion and exclusion. That is true as well for the entire discography of one performer.

Early on in our work on this book Charles and I decided to include commercially released videos of Monroe's performances in the discography. That created some research challenges, but it also enabled us to better represent the documentaries of Monroe's work created in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several of which released the same performances on both video (now republished on DVD) and albums.

We also considered including set lists from Monroe's live shows, something in which we're both interested. People began recording Monroe's broadcast and personal appearance performances in the late 1940s, and hundreds of these recordings are scattered in many private collections and large public collections such as the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian/Folkways Archive, the John Edwards Memorial Collection at the University of North Carolina, and the Country Music Foundation in Nashville. Over the years, many of the recordings have been copied and traded among private collectors. Eventually, we hope, it will be possible to bring together these fugitive recordings and create a definitive list. Such a document would allow us to study the life of a repertoire. With it, one could explore many questions about how a master musician like Monroe conducted his art business.

Ultimately, however, we agreed that constructing a definitive list was a more substantial research task than we could attempt now. And yet that dimension of Monroe's music is still present in this more limited research discography, for it includes commercial reissues of recordings of broadcasts and personal appearances. The earliest was made in 1939 before Monroe made his first studio recordings with the Blue Grass Boys.

It's significant that I could not make this statement about Monroe's non-studio recordings in the introduction to my 1974 Monroe discography. What, you may ask, has happened? What changed in Monroe's last two decades of recording activity? When I look now at the 1974 discography I see that several significant changes had already begun to take place in Monroe's career. The first is his recording with persons other than the Blue Grass Boys. The first example came in 1962 when he played mandolin on part of Rose Maddox's bluegrass album. That Monroe was on that album was, at the time, an open secret, but he was not credited on the album itself.


Excerpted from The Music of BILL MONROE by NEIL V. ROSENBERG CHARLES K. WOLFE Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
"Walls of Time": Assembling the Bill Monroe Discography   Neil V. Rosenberg     xi
"I Live in the Past": A Rationale for Methodology   Charles K. Wolfe     xix
Format of the Discographies     xxiii
"What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?": 1936-38     1
Discography, 1936-38     18
"Mule Skinner Blues": 1939-41     24
Discography, 1939-41     34
"True Life Blues": 1942-45     37
Discography, 1942-45     51
"Heavy Traffic Ahead": 1946-49     53
Discography, 1946-49     67
"Uncle Pen": 1950-56     77
Discography, 1950-56     101
"Gotta Travel On": 1957-62     116
Discography, 1957-62     131
"Devil's Dream": 1963-72     146
Discography, 1963-72     168
"Jerusalem Ridge": 1973-80     194
Discography, 1973-80     206
"My Last Days on Earth": 1981-96     224
Discography, 1981-96     246
Numerical Listing of Releases     291
Performers' Names in the Discographies     317
Producers' Names in the Discographies     323
Titles in the Discographies     325
General Index     333
Song Title Index     343
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