Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man

Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man

by Tom Ewing


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The Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe was a major star of the Grand Ole Opry for over fifty years; a member of the Country Music, Songwriters, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame; and a legendary figure in American music. This authoritative biography sets out to examine his life in careful detail--to move beyond hearsay and sensationalism to explain how and why he accomplished so much. Former Blue Grass Boy and longtime music journalist Tom Ewing draws on hundreds of interviews, his personal relationship with Monroe, and an immense personal archive of materials to separate the truth from longstanding myth. Ewing tells the story of the Monroe family's musical household and Bill's early career in the Monroe Brothers duo. He brings to life Monroe's 1940s heyday with the Classic Bluegrass Band, the renewed fervor for his music sparked by the folk revival of the 1960s, and his declining fortunes in the years that followed. Throughout, Ewing deftly captures Monroe's relationships and the personalities of an ever-shifting roster of band members while shedding light on his business dealings and his pioneering work with Bean Blossom and other music festivals. Filled with a wealth of previously unknown details, Bill Monroe offers even the most devoted fan a deeper understanding of Monroe's towering achievements and timeless music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252041891
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/07/2018
Series: Music in American Life Series
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 810,618
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.10(d)

About the Author

Tom Ewing was guitarist/lead singer of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys for ten years. He is the editor of The Bill Monroe Reader and wrote the "Thirty Years Ago This Month" column for Bluegrass Unlimited.

Read an Excerpt



J. B. and Malissa Are Wed

On Wednesday, August 3, 1892, in that week's edition of the Hartford Herald, the following announcement appeared on page 3:

J. B. Monroe and Miss Malissa Vandiver were united in the holy bonds of matrimony at the bride's home near Horton yesterday.

Seeming terse by modern standards, most wedding announcements in the Herald were about this length at the time. J. B. and Malissa's names would never again appear together in print during their lives, and they would not announce the births of their children in the newspaper, as others often did. (They were issued a marriage license on August 2. But according to their marriage certificate, signed after the ceremony, they were actually married on August 3.)

On their wedding day, Malissa was twenty-two and J. B., thirty-four. The day may have been part of a "downtime" for farmers in western Kentucky — the wheat and oat harvests were usually completed by then and the tobacco harvest wouldn't begin until later — and the couple probably planned it that way. The ceremony was actually held at a cousin's house (not "the bride's home"), but was still in keeping with the long-standing Southern tradition of weddings being held at home. If only the immediate family was invited, there must have been quite a crowd, considering the nine brothers, four sisters, four aunts, and four uncles that J. B. and Malissa had. And after the ceremony, there was surely music and dancing, with Pen fiddling.

It was 1892, the one hundredth anniversary of Kentucky's statehood. Benjamin Harrison's single term as president of the United States was coming to an end. Before leaving office, he issued a proclamation endorsing the daily recitation of the newly composed "Pledge of Allegiance" in all public schools. Down in Nashville, Tennessee, at 116 Fifth Avenue North, construction of the Union Gospel Tabernacle (later called the Ryman Auditorium) had recently been completed.

J. B. and Malissa settled down on Pigeon Ridge, on a small portion of land given by J. B.'s father. There, on that plateau about 150 feet above the countryside surrounding it, J. B. set about building a log cabin, probably with the help of his younger brothers.

The newlyweds wasted little time starting a family. Four of their eight children were born before 1900: Harry Carlisle Monroe, born September 8, 1893, may have been named for the recently departed Republican president, "Harry" being short for "Harrison"; Speed Vorhees Monroe, born November 30, 1895, his first name possibly from noted Kentucky Republican James Speed, attorney general for Presidents Lincoln and Johnson (or an old synonym for "success"); John Justine Monroe, born May 16, 1897, named in honor of J. B.'s father, John Jesse, who died on December 30, 1899; and Maude Bell Monroe, born November 17, 1898, her first name inspired by another Maude Monroe, distant kin from Indiana whose family lived in Beaver Dam, about four-and-a-half miles west of Horton.

J. B.: Farming and Logging

During this time (1893–98), Mother Nature again challenged the survival of farmers in western Kentucky, including J. B. Monroe. In 1893, heavy rains and flooding washed crops away, and in 1894, a late frost killed crops planted too soon and a three-month drought followed. By 1895, with a wife and child to feed (and Speed on the way), J. B. teamed up again with Andrew and Jack, this time to start a logging business. In November, the Herald took note in a report from Beaver Dam's train depot: "The Monroe Brothers are having a great quantity of very fine timber delivered and loaded here" (for shipment via the east-west rail line, then owned by the Illinois Central Railroad).

Another late frost came in 1896, and a cutworm infestation decimated the corn crop. Heavy rains and flooding returned in early 1897, followed by another drought so severe that travel by boat was suspended on the Ohio River between Louisville and Evansville, Indiana (about forty miles northwest of Ohio County), due to low water levels. In 1898, the weather improved, but the fall brought swarms of voracious grasshoppers, and harvested tobacco was badly damaged by heat and humidity. Meanwhile, the war with Spain began in April 1898, two months after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, increasing the demand for raw materials, including timber. Until the destruction of the Spanish fleet in July 1898, the brothers would have been busy supplying the demand.

When the Monroe brothers began logging, about half of the forest that covered Ohio County when the first settlers arrived was still standing. In an 1898 report to the Herald, a newsman visited one of the county's logging camps:

We found an oak tree, which they had fallen, which measured five feet three inches in diameter at the butt, from which forty-five feet had been taken off, the top end of which was four feet and five inches. This, we thought, was a large tree; it was a beautiful log, no limbs or knots and as straight as an arrow; but a little farther on we found one of the same variety with an actual measurement of seven feet nine inches in diameter, which, when standing, extended into the heavens 135 feet.

The effort involved in dealing with these behemoths without power tools nearly defies modern comprehension. A long crosscut saw, with a man at each end, was used to cut the trees down. Logs were wrestled up ramps into wagons pulled by cattle or oxen, the stronger ones close to the wheels called "wheelers" or "wheel cattle." Hauled to a portable sawmill powered by a steam engine, the logs were cut into lumber. The Monroes took the sawn lumber to town in wagons pulled by teams of horses; those closest to the wheels were called "wheel horses." Like wheel cattle, they were "responsible for the brunt of the actual work in breaking the inertia of a heavily-loaded wagon, as well as for maneuvering the turns," according to an album's liner notes for "Wheel Hoss," which Bill recorded in 1954. (Bill always preferred to call the tune "Wheel Horse.")

Malissa and Her Music

While J. B. was "working in the timber," Malissa had her hands full by 1899, with three boys (Harry, five; Speed, three; John, two) and newborn Maude. Her life revolved around (a biographer once wrote) "raising chickens and turkeys for market, doing the chores about the house and farm, caring for the children, and gardening, canning, and cooking for her family." To cope, it appears she relied on an old friend, her music, beginning a daily ritual of playing and singing whenever she had time, leaving her instruments out and ready to play. If, indeed, she found help this way, she was lucky. There would be more to cope with soon.

J. B. and Malissa's fifth child, Birch Monroe, was born on Thursday, May 16 (the same as brother John) in 1901. He was named for J. B.'s youngest brother, Burch (the spelling here differentiates the two; in Kentucky, it could be spelled either way). Like him, Birch wasn't given a middle name, probably honoring the precedent.

The sixth child, Charles Pendleton Monroe, was born on the Fourth of July in 1903. Given J. B. and Malissa's penchant for naming their children after well-known public figures and a lack of national politicians named Charles, his first name might have been inspired by Charles M. Schwab, the first president of US Steel and one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. The source of "Pendleton" was, of course, Malissa's brother, James Pendleton Vandiver.

These early years of the twentieth century saw a wide array of other developments within the family circle: J. B. began participating in local politics in 1900, serving as an election officer at the Rosine polling place for Democratic primaries and regular elections, a duty he continued to perform for nearly twenty years. That spring, J. B.'s brother William, thirty-three and married with a young son, was involved in the new "national pastime," playing shortstop with the Beaver Dam baseball team. On July 21, 1900, J. B.'s brother-in-law Pen Vandiver, thirty-four, married fifteen-year-old Anna Belle Johnson. Then, in 1902, J. B.'s twenty-seven-year-old baby sister, Susan, a teacher in Ohio County, left for "a summer's course of study" in Chautauqua, New York, and thereafter moved to Riverside County, California. In February 1903, brother Jack, forty-one, married Eleanor Mary "Eldamary" (Crowder) Pierce, a thirty-year-old widow with three children. That same year, Pen and Anna Belle's first child, Cecil E. Vandiver, was born. (And on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made their first successful aircraft flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In their leisure time, Wilbur Wright enjoyed playing harmonica and Orville Wright, the mandolin.)

J. B. Buying Land

Also in 1903, shortly after Charlie's birth, J. B. began buying land, using the hard-earned money he'd made in logging to establish a large-scale farming enterprise. His initial purchases were on Pigeon Ridge, a total of about 502 acres bought from newlywed brother Jack for around $1,845 (the equivalent of nearly $40,000 today). A few years later, in 1907 and 1911, he acquired about 104 more acres from a neighbor. According to one of the deeds, forty-two of the acres were located on what was variously named as "Gernsden," "Geruslen," or "Gerslen" Ridge (later called "Jerusalem" Ridge), just south of and contiguous with Pigeon Ridge, yet rising slightly higher above it. One small purchase in 1910, of an acre for $150, included a house. And after the purchase of about 182 additional acres (in partnership with Jack) on Christmas Eve 1912, J. B. had amassed nearly 790 acres, the measure of his land for the next several years. By this time, all of his brothers owned smaller farms near to or adjoining his, with "the entire neighborhood belonging in effect to the Monroes," as Robert Cantwell aptly described the area in Bluegrass Breakdown.

Between 1904 and 1912, an entrepreneurial J. B. also bought several lots in the town of Rosine, some that were owned by Jennie McHenry, properties he rented or leased. But within a few years he would sell them to Jack and others.

In the midst of these busy but happy times, there were also troubles and sorrows, especially for Malissa and the Vandivers. Around 1902, Malissa's brother William, who came to Ohio County in 1888 and remarried in 1890, died of pneumonia at age forty-three. In April 1905, Malissa's father, eighty-year-old Joseph, was killed after being struck by a train shifting in position in the railroad yard at White Run, about five miles east of Rosine (and was buried in an unmarked grave in Rosine Cemetery). And in December 1906, Malissa's oldest sister, Martha Jane (Vandiver) Cook, died of typhoid fever at age fifty-three. The following year, it appears that Pen and young wife "Annie" separated, for as J. B. noted in one of the ledgers he kept of all his transactions on the farm, "Moved in my House — Feb. 19, 1907 — Pen Vandiver." By this time, J. B. was hiring workers for his expanding acreage, and Pen worked alongside them, making a dollar a day, the going pay rate at the time. But Pen and Annie were soon reunited. A daughter, Lena B., was born in 1907 or 1908, and in 1910, they and seven-year-old Cecil moved to a small, seventy-acre farm near White Run.

Life in Ohio County

Life in rural Ohio County continued as it had during Civil War times. Electricity for street lights came to Hartford in 1905, but it wouldn't be widely available in the surrounding farm country until after World War II. Dirt roads, maintained by those living near them, were the norm (paved roads wouldn't arrive until the mid-1930s). Given the roads' unpredictable quality, especially after it rained, mechanized vehicles of any kind (the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908) were seldom seen. Country folks walked, rode horses or mules, or traveled in wagons pulled by horses or mules well into the 1940s. And indoor plumbing was a luxury limited to larger towns. According to Harrison and Klotter, "As late as 1940 ... ninety-six percent [of rural dwellings in Kentucky] had no running water."

Meanwhile, the town that J. B. and Malissa lived closest to, Rosine, had already begun to shrink in size; from a population of more than two thousand in the 1880s, it would have only 166 by 1910. Unpredictable weather probably caused many to leave, and economic opportunities in the industrial North beckoned. Also, as one of the few places in dry Ohio County where liquor could be bought, Rosine had developed a reputation for the violence fueled by drink. But it wasn't the only town losing residents — Kentucky in general experienced a dramatic decline in population growth after 1900. Record numbers of immigrants were coming to America, but most were going elsewhere. Kentucky was becoming "more and more self-contained," according to Harrison and Klotter, and the area around Rosine more and more isolated.

On Friday, July 17, 1908, J. B. and Malissa's seventh child, Bertha Lee Monroe, was born. Malissa may have borrowed the baby's first name from her eight-year-old niece, Bertha Vandiver, the youngest child of her brother Stanley and wife Martha, who lived in Butler County. "Lee" may have come from Butler County too, where there were many Lees.

Interviewed recently, Rosine native Frances Harvey said that around 1909– 10, her grandmother, Caroline Goff, an old friend of Malissa's, would come up from Butler County with husband Robert to visit on Sunday afternoons, and Malissa and she would race their husbands' horses at a homemade race track south of Rosine. As told to Harvey by her mother, Mae Goff Harvey (Caroline Goff 's daughter, then about eleven years old), they threw themselves into it: "They was as close as sisters otherwise, but when they got on those horses, there was no holds barred. She said each one was tryin' their durnedest to beat the other one." In 1910, the Goff family moved to Ohio County, and Robert Goff began working with J. B. in the timber.

Around this time, the singular event of Malissa's fiddling for a dance may have occurred. When the fiddler hired to play for a dance at the nearby Wright house failed to show up, Mr. Wright rode over to the Monroe place to ask J. B. if he could "borrow" Malissa, bringing a horse with him for her to ride. As Charlie told it:

Dad said, "Malissa, put on your coat, [take] what you need, get on the horse and ride over with Mr. Wright, play the fiddle for them to dance a little bit." Mom got right on the horse, rode off, and the man followed right behind her on his horse. They rode over, she got right off and walked right on in where the crowd was, took her fiddle out, and you never heard such fiddling in all your life. Just sawed it to death. Stood up — wouldn't sit down — just stood up (and she was a tall-like woman) ... and fiddled those old fiddle tunes ... and just put the music right in your feet!

By 1910, the days and nights of Malissa breastfeeding her seventh baby, which limited her ability to get pregnant again, had ended. Both she and J. B. were from families with eight children, so having eight themselves would have been almost preordained.

Financially, it was a good time for another child. The economic hard times of 1907–08 were over. The peak year of the timber boom (1870–1920) had come in 1909, with more than a billion board feet of lumber produced in Kentucky. That year there was also a record harvest in the United States. With increases in rail and factory construction, the nation had begun to experience a "general wave of prosperity," according to an authoritative source. By 1910, J. B. was easily able to buy an additional acre of ground with a house (which he may have rented previously, as Bertha was reportedly born there in 1908).

During the spring and summer of 1911, the entire northeastern quadrant of the United States, including Kentucky, was suffering from extreme high temperatures and lack of rain. The drought finally ended in late August and the crops were saved, but the intense heat continued. On September 12, on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, Caroline Goff, her daughter Mae, and son Gordon left their cabin east of Rosine and walked up to the recently purchased Monroe house on Pigeon Ridge. Goff knew that Malissa's time was near, and she wanted to see how her friend was doing. As Mae Goff Harvey later told daughter Frances Harvey, "She was settin' on her porch, playing music, barefooted — her feet were swollen — and she had on an old loose dress. Malissa said, 'Caroline, the only relief I can get in this heat from this baby is playin' my music.'"

Bill's First Days on Earth

The next day, Wednesday, September 13, 1911, Malissa gave birth to a baby boy. Thanks to Kentucky's Vital Statistics Law of 1910, which, for the first time, required a birth certificate for every child, we know he was born at home at 10:30 in the morning. Helping to bring him into this world was a midwife ("That's the way we was all brought," Bill said later of his siblings and himself). In a few days, he would be examined by Dr. Adam L. Schanzenbacher, Rosine's doctor at the time, who filled out the birth certificate, listing the mother's maiden name as "Lizzie Vandiveer."


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Table of Contents

Preface, vii,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Prologue, xv,
Chapter One. 1892–1919, 1,
Chapter Two. 1920–1929, 22,
Chapter Three. 1930–1939, 46,
Chapter Four. 1940–1949, 109,
Chapter Five. 1950–1959, 158,
Chapter Six. 1960–1969, 227,
Chapter Seven. 1970–1979, 314,
Chapter Eight. 1980–1989, 379,
Chapter Nine. 1990–1996, 434,
Epilogue, 469,
Appendix: Blue Grass Boys, 471,
Notes, 479,
Selected Bibliography, 577,
Index, 579,

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