This week, a little more about Bill Monroe and one part of the background of bluegrass. In shaping his music, Bill incorporated several strands of the music he heard as a boy and a young man. The strand I will be discussing in this post is old time fiddle music.The Kentucky music scene into which Bill Monroe was born in 1911 was a fertile mixture of many musical styles, including ballads little changed from Elizabethan times, Scots-Irish fiddling, and African-American blues. Bill’s father worked a large farm in Rosine, in western Kentucky. His mother Malissa played the fiddle and was likely the first fiddler Bill ever heard. She played old time dance tunes like “Old Joe Clark” and also sang old time ballads. In addition, Malissa’s brother, Bill’s uncle James Pendleton Vandiver (known as Uncle Pen), was a noted old time Kentucky fiddler. According to Bill, Pen played tunes, including “Soldiers Joy” and “Going Across the Sea,” that are today considered old time fiddle standards. Bill wanted to play the fiddle in the family band but as the youngest child he was relegated to the mandolin because the fiddle (and the guitar) had been claimed by his older brothers.
As a young musician Bill was heavily influenced by Pen’s old time fiddle playing. Bill later memorialized his Uncle Pen in a famous bluegrass song, “Uncle Pen,” recorded in 1950. What did the old time music that so influenced Bill Monroe sound like? Unfortunately Uncle Pen never recorded. Thankfully, as a young man Bill memorized a number of Pen’s fiddle tunes on the mandolin and he recorded eleven of them after teaching them to Kenny Baker, his longest tenured Blue Grass Boy. The resulting album was called Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen, released in 1972. The tunes included “Jenny Lynn” (as Bill sang in Uncle Pen, “The greatest of all was Jenny Lynn, to me that’s where fiddling begins”), “Goin’ Up Caney” (a variant of the old time tune “Wild Horse/Stoney Point”), and “The Old Grey Mare Came Tearing Out of The Wilderness”, also known to old timey musicians as “The Old Yellow Dog Came Trotting Through The Meeting House.” (Old time tunes have the best names; or, put another way, Q: Why do fiddle tunes have names? A: So you can tell them apart.)
In addition to the “Uncle Pen” recording, some evidence of what Pen might have sounded like comes from recordings made by other Kentucky old time fiddlers, who were born in the nineteenth century and were roughly Pen’s contemporaries. These included Hiram Stamper and John Morgan Salyer, whose recordings provide a good sense of what Kentucky fiddle music of that era sounded like. Stamper’s son, Art, also a leading old time fiddler who had played with the Stanley Brothers in the 1950s, was briefly a Blue Grass Boy in the 1980s.
Today, Bill is not usually thought of as an old time musician. But Bill knew better–he was steeped in old time music: “I think I’ve studied old time music deeper than anybody in the country. It all leads to where I know what was the foundation of a number in old time music. I know what’s back there and you can get it out or you can not get it out; but if it’s not brought out, why I don’t care nothing about really listening to it.” (Bill Monroe, quoted by Ralph Rinzler, Notes to the Decca LP “The High, Lonesome Sound of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys).”
And Bill could “get it out”; the old time strand runs deep in Bill’s instrumental music. Over his long career, Bill recorded many compositions with a pronounced old time feel, both melodic and rhythmic. Just a few of the great ones include “Jerusalem Ridge,” “Ashland Breakdown,” “Pike County Breakdown,” “Road to Columbus,” “Kentucky Mandolin,” “Woodstock Hornpipe,” “Big Mon,” “Old Ebenezer Scrooge,” and “Big Sandy River.” These and other Monroe tunes are widely available and worth a listen if you favor the old time bluegrass sound.
The way Bill picks a “fiddle tune” on his mandolin seems “old time” compared to the way the youngsters pick fiddle tunes on mandolin nowadays! As the years have rolled along younger mandolin players have added notes willy-nilly and made fiddle tunes much more “note-y” and less rhythmic. Also the bluegrass tendency to freely “improvise” has moved modern mandolin pickin’ further and further from the simpler old time sound. Nice article Andy!
Thanks Dick. I agree with your comment about Bill’s style of playing fiddle tunes compared to how most mandolin players approach them now. I like the old time way!