Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music


Bill Monroe's Formative Years

His parents died when he was young, so Bill Monroe spent much of his early years with his mother's brother, Uncle Pen, a renowned old time fiddler, and an African-American blues guitarist, Arnold Schultz, whose musical talents allowed him some freedoms otherwise not afforded blacks in a region marked by segregation.

AIRED: August 30, 2019 | 0:02:35

- [Narrator] Melissa Monroe died when Bill was ten.

He began spending more and more time

with her brother, Pendleton Vandiver.

Uncle Pen, as the Monroe children called him,

was renown in the region as an old time fiddler.

Monroe would later describe the sweet sound in a song.

♪ Oh the people would come from far away ♪

♪ They danced all night til the break of day ♪

♪ When the caller would holler do-si-do ♪

♪ yYou knew Uncle Pen was ready to go ♪

♪ Late in the evening, about sun-down ♪

♪ High on the hill, an' above the town ♪

♪ Uncle Pen played the fiddle

♪ Lord, how it rang

♪ You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing ♪

By the time Bill's father died in 1928,

Bill was Uncle Pen's full-time musical protege.

He spent his teen years

learning from a wide variety of musicians,

including the area's number one music man,

a blue's guitarist named Arnold Schultz.

In rural Kentucky, as in most of the nation,

blacks and whites lived segregated lives in the 1920s.

But, Schultz, an African American

who worked in a coal mine by day,

was welcome at roadhouses, barn dances,

and even in the homes of well-to-do whites.

- Bill and everybody else that started this music

grew up in a deeply segregated society.

And the places where African American and white people

could get together on any kind of equal footing

were very limited.

One of them was music and music-making.

And so, in many, many communities,

there were connections between people like Bill Monroe,

young white musicians

and people like Arnold Schultz

who was the young black musician

who was in demand to play fiddle and guitar for dances.

- Certainly, I believe that there were blacks and whites

you found ways to

move together and engage with one another

because they shared an interest in,

and a love of, not just music,

but of particular kinds of instruments.

I think the fascination of music

and the fascination of creating music

and the fascination of the creative experience

in being in the company of musicians,

I think it's exciting in a way that many musicians

took advantage of,

that curiosity overwhelmed any cultural boundary

that threatened to stand in its way.