Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass

By Stephanie P. Ledgin | Go to book overview

3

Banjo Meets the High Lonesome Sound

Just as it was enmeshed in the cultural and social lives of so many others in the region, so, too, was music in the family life of Kentuckian Bill Monroe, born in 1911. It is important to glimpse into the life of the “Father of Bluegrass” to understand further the music's developmental path.

Cross-eyed and teased as a child, he enjoyed the gift of music courtesy of his mother, who sang and played button accordion, harmonica, and fiddle, and her brother, Uncle Pendleton Vandiver, who was a fiddler for local dances. Monroe's father could dance well, and this talent was inherited by the father-to-be of bluegrass.

Music made in the family was supplemented by what was heard and sung in church. It was a large family, and the four youngest Monroe children demonstrated the keenest interest in playing music. Bill's sister Bertha took up guitar, as did brother Charlie, while another brother, Birch, played fiddle. Bill was the youngest and by “default” ended up with mandolin, although he first pursued guitar and fiddle.

Completely orphaned by his mid-teens and his siblings largely gone out on their own, Bill lived for several years with his Uncle Pen, from whom he learned much about life and music. Uncle Pen's fiddling became a heavy influence on the music Bill would cultivate into bluegrass. Years later, he was known to pull from his memory the notes and phrasing of Uncle Pen and convey them to fiddlers who passed through the ranks of Blue Grass Boys, wanting them to capture the same spirit and sound in their playing. These dance rhythms became the backbone of the drive found in Monroe's bluegrass music.

From about the age of twelve, Bill had accompanied his Uncle Pen on guitar at dances. It was during this same period that he met a local black blues guitarist-fiddler, Arnold Shultz. Monroe would later acknowledge other realms of black music, including gospel, as influences. The great impact of

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