William Smith "Bill" Monroe b 13 Sept 1911
Rosine Ohio Co, KY; buried Rosine Cemetery, Rosine, Ohio Co KY; d 9 Sept 1996 Springfield TN; buried Rosina, KY; s/o
James Buchanan "Buck" Monroe and
Melissa Vandiver. William Smith "Bill" Monroe m. 18 Oct 1935 Lake Co IN
(divorced) to Caroline Minnie Brown. (See bio). (Bill's
Monument at Find a Grave). (Bill
Monroe Birth and Burial Place Slideshow). (Bill
Monroe Website). (Bill
Monroe Wikipedia). Children of William Smith "Bill"
Monroe and Caroline Minnie Brown;
I. Melissa Kathleen Monroe b 17 Sept 1936 d about
II. James William Monroe b 15 Mar 1941 m. ?;
bluegrass musician. (See
1. James William Monroe
William Smith "Bill" Monroe
and Della Streeter
William Smith "Bill" Monroe b 13 Sept 1911
Rosine Ohio Co, KY d 9 Sept 1996 Springfield TN; buried Rosina, KY; s/o
James Buchanan "Buck" Monroe and
Melissa Vandiver. William Smith "Bill" Monroe m. 24 Apr 1985 to Della Streeter.
Father of Bluegrass
Can't you hear me callin': the life of Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass. By
Richard D. Smith:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
County based 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. 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.
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."). 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!"
In Detroit, Charlie and Birch found piecework at the Briggs Motor Company, which
made parts under contract to Ford. 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
And now Birch and Charlie were going by a specific name when they performed —
the Monroe Brothers.
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.
James Buchanan Monroe succumbed to pneumonia on January 14, 1928, at age
seventy. 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 holdings 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
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
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.
Country music has been examined by many
authors, both in print and on the Internet, trying to explain it in intellectual
terms - often with bewildering confusion. And the part of country music that has
been analyzed the most is bluegrass. This is surprising since it is its pure
simplicity, accompanied by outstanding musicians, which has attracted such a
large audience to bluegrass. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music,
explained it this way: "To me bluegrass is really THE country music. It was
meant for country people." Therefore, it is surprising that bluegrass gained
strong support in urban areas at a time when the trend was to popularize country
music. It took a proud, stubborn man like Bill Monroe to resist the pop tide and
make bluegrass what it is today.
There are few performers who have had the solid country music background that
William Smith Monroe had at a very early age. He was born September 13, 1911, on
a farm in Jerusalem Ridge, near Rosine, Kentucky. His father,
Buck, was a
farmer, saw mill operator and noted step-dancer. His mother,
fiddle, accordion and harmonica, and was a respected local singer of old-time
ballads. Among his eight siblings, older brothers Harry and Birch played fiddle,
and brother Charlie and sister Bertha played guitar. All of them were influenced
by Bill's uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, the "Uncle Pen" about whom he would write
an important song years later. Bill once told an interviewer, "he'd bring his
fiddle and he'd stay a night or so, and after supper, why, we'd get up around
him and listen to him fiddle - maybe an hour, hour and a half. My father would
call bedtime then."
At the age of nine, Bill learned to play the mandolin, because no one else in
the family knew how to play it. He also learned to play the guitar. His mother
died when he was ten years old, and his father died soon thereafter. As a
result, he went to live with his Uncle Pen. That's when his real music education
began. "Maybe if I hadn't heard him," said Bill years later, "I'd never have
learned anything about music at all. Learning his numbers gave me something to
start on." Soon the two started playing guitar together at local dances. Bill
also played with Arnold Schultz, a black blues musician, who became another
major influence on his future music. He was given the chance to play guitar in
Schultz's band, thus incorporating something new into his awareness - the blues.
"[Arnold] was a real musician," reminisced Monroe, "and I thought it was an
honor to get to play with him. There's no colored man could play the blues with
him, nobody in the world could play blues with the man."
By the time he reached the age of 18, Bill Monroe was already an accomplished
musician. In the summer of 1929, he joined his brothers, Birch and Charlie,
working at the Sinclair refinery in Whiting, Indiana. At one time, during the
Depression, Bill was the only one who was working, and the three brothers would
play as a trio at local square dances and parties. They also worked six days a
week doing shows on WJKS in Gary, Indiana - for 11 dollars a week.
Their "big break" came in 1934 when they were offered a job touring for Texas
Crystals, a patent-medicine purgative. Birch decided not to join them, but Bill
and Charlie started a duet act called the Monroe Brothers. Bill was married to
Caroline Brown in 1935, and soon the Monroe Brothers were making radio
appearances in Iowa, Nebraska and the Carolinas. In 1936, the pair worked for
Crazy Water Crystals, the larger rival of the company for whom they had
previously worked, on the Crazy Barn Dance at WBT. They made their first
recordings on RCA's Bluebird label, recording some 60 tracks there. Then, in
1938, the two brothers decided to go their own ways. Charlie stayed at RCA and
formed his band, the Kentucky Pardners, and Bill started his first band, the
Kentuckians, at KARK in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Things didn't go too well for his band, though. So he moved to Atlanta and got
work with the popular Crossroad Follies. It was at this time that Bill Monroe
formed his first Blue Grass Boys band. The band was made up of Cleo Davis
(guitar and lead vocal), Art Wooten (fiddle), and Bill (mandolin). In Asheville,
North Carolina, John Miller (jug player) was added. Miller was replaced by Amos
Garin (bass) in Greenville. The band auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in
October of 1939. They were hired then, and they never left.
The early 1940's showed Monroe's band to be quite similar to other string bands,
such as Mainer's Mountaineers. However, by the middle of the decade, his driving
mandolin and his high tenor singing became the dominant style of the band,
setting the Blue Grass Boys apart from all the other bands. The band's personnel
changed much over the years, but the classic bluegrass group was formed by Bill
Monroe in the winter of 1945, when a young banjo player named Earl Scruggs, and
guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt, joined the band. Scruggs' three-finger banjo
style would become the standard for future bluegrass groups. It was when Flatt
and Scruggs were in the band that Monroe first recorded the song "Blue Moon of
Flatt and Scruggs left the band in the spring of 1948 and formed their own band,
the Foggy Mountain Boys. It might have seemed at that time that the heart had
been removed from the Blue Grass Boys, but Bill Monroe's confident leadership
kept him at the top of the bluegrass genre. Looking back, the list of former
members of his band looks like an all-star team of musicians: Lester Flatt, Earl
Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Gordon Terry,
Sonny Osborne, Chubby Wise, Dave "Stringbean" Akeman, Vassar Clements, etc.
In 1951, Bill Monroe bought some land at Bean Blossom in Brown County, Indiana.
Here he established a country park, which soon became the home for many
bluegrass shows. A severe car accident in 1953 prevented him from performing for
several months. But, throughout the 1950's, he toured extensively. "Scotland"
was a chart success in 1958. In the song he used Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks on
twin fiddles to simulate the sound of bagpipes - a tribute to his Scottish
Bill Monroe was a strong-willed person with stubborn ideas, and it was not
always easy for his co-workers to achieve the perfect arrangement. In 1959, he
refused to play a major event in Carnegie Hall because he thought that the
organizer was a communist. He was not trustful of the press and he rarely gave
interviews. However, in 1962, he became friends with Ralph Rinzler, a writer
(and former member of the Greenbriar Boys), who later became his manager.
The 1960's were a period of "rediscovery" for Bill Monroe as the Father of
Bluegrass. He made his first college appearance at a folk festival at the
University of Chicago in early 1963. As folk festivals proliferated, Rinzler and
Carlton Haney put together the prototype festival - the First Annual Blue Grass
Music Festival at Fincastle, Virginia, in 1965. Then, in 1967, Bill started his
own festival at Bean Blossom. During the 1960's there were many young musicians
whose careers were helped by being members of his band. Such musicians included
Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Byron Berline, Roland White and Del McCoury, among
others. In 1969, Bill Monroe was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel.
In 1970, Bill Monroe was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
His plaque reads: "The Father of Bluegrass Music. Bill Monroe developed and
perfected this music form and taught it to a great many names in the industry."
He was not only an excellent performer, but he also wrote many songs, several
being recorded under the pseudonyms of Albert Price, James B. Smith and James W.
Smith. In fact, the Nashville Songwriters Association elected him to their Hall
of Fame in 1971. One of his proudest moments came in 1979, when he appeared on
the stage of Ford's Theater in Washington, DC at a televised concert for then
President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter sat beaming as Bill and
the Blue Grass Boys performed "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
Monroe kept a hectic schedule throughout the 1970's, but in 1981, he was
stricken with cancer. Nevertheless, he survived treatment and continued a
schedule that would have challenged younger men. He always followed his own
path, and he never bowed to commercial pressure. His contribution to country
music is inestimable. On August 13, 1986, one month before his 75th birthday,
the United States Senate passed a resolution, which recognized "his many
contributions to American culture and his many ways of helping American people
enjoy themselves." It also stated that, "As a musician, showman, composer and
teacher, Mr. Monroe has been a cultural figure and force of signal importance in
For a singer whose music, bluegrass, is supposed to have merely a cult
following, Bill Monroe has had an amazingly broad influence over the years. His
1985 album, Bill Monroe and Friends, had some of Nashville's biggest stars
fighting to get put on it. He still remained unique in many ways. Actually, he
had only a few certified hits, his preference being to produce a consistent
series of steadily selling albums. And, unlike many of his peers, he refused to
rely on remakes of old favorites for TV packages and did not restrict his
touring to only a few large concerts. In 1986, in celebration of his 50th year
in the music business, Bill took off on an exhausting, 50-state tour - traveling
by car and bus as he had always done. Monroe`s signature song, "Blue Moon of
Kentucky," was also named an official state song by the Kentucky General
Assembly in 1988.
Bill Monroe built himself a legend. He didn't just attract fans - he made
disciples. People have named their kids after him; mandolin players brought
their instruments for him to bless; families planned their vacations to attend
his annual gatherings at Bean Blossom. When he was asked about how he felt about
being called The Father of Bluegrass Music, he replied, "Well, I don't mind
that. That's really the truth, you know. I accept that, I guess, as well as any
man could. I think it's a great honor to originate a music - something to be
proud of." He once said of bluegrass, "It's got a hard drive to it. It's Scotch
bagpipes and old-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's
blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a
story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you."
In 1991, Bill was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
He was awarded the "Lifetime Achievement Award" by the National Association of
Recording Arts and Sciences in 1993, and was presented with the National Medal
of the Arts in 1995 by President Clinton. He performed as recently as March 1995
at the Grand Ole Opry. Opry president Hal Durham called Monroe "the epitome of
the stately, Southern gentleman, a shy and generous man who was justly proud of
the acceptance of bluegrass music."
He suffered a stroke in April of 1996 and was hospitalized in both Baptist
Hospital in Nashville and Tennessee Christian Medical Center in Madison. Sadly,
he passed away at Northcrest Home & Hospice in Springfield, Tennessee on
September 9, 1996, just four days short of his 85th birthday. His funeral took
place appropriately at the old Ryman Auditorium, where he had graced the stage
of the Grand Ole Opry for decades. He was buried in Rosine, Kentucky, where he
Bill Monroe, probably the only American to have single-handedly invented an
entirely new genre of music, will be missed greatly. But his legacy to the world
- the bluegrass music he created and shared and taught to so many during his
lifetime - will never die. (Not from Annette: Sorry, I can't find the source of
Inscription Dedication at Monument
by James William Monroe Son of Bill Monroe - 1997
William Smith Bill Monroe was the youngest
of eight children born to James Buchanan
Monroe and Melissa Ann Vandiver Monroe. The
Monroe Homeplace on Jerusalem Ridge near
As a youngster, Bill worked on the family
farm and attended Horton Grade school
through the seventh grade. In his spare time
he went fox hunting with his dad and learned
to make music from his mother and his uncle,
Bill lost his mother when he was nine years
old and his father when he was just sixteen.
After living with his Uncle Pen, Bill left
his home in Kentucky and began the journey
which led him to the creation of Blugrass
music and to becoming one of the true
legends of the American music industry.
In 1935, Bill Monroe married Carolyn Minnie
Brown. They had two children; Melissa
Kathleen Monroe born Sept 17, 1936 and James
William Monroe, born March 15, 1941
Bill Monroe became a member of the Grand Ole
Opry in Nashville, Tennessee in 1939. During
his career he would sell millions of
records, win many national awards for his
music and perform at the request of four
United States Presidents
God blessed Bill with a rare musical genius
and the willpower and determination
necessary to bring his music to millions of
fans around the world. For many of those
fans and for all of us who are members of
his family Bill Monroe is "Bluegrass Music!"
Walk softly around this grave for my father,
Bill Monroe rests here as the blue moon of
Kentucky shines on.
Son: James William Monroe