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Bill Monroe’s bluegrass — Black and white music intertwined

By Jack Tottle 

"All In The Family II," a mural painted by Marianne Mylet and based on a work by Virginia artist Willard Gayheart, has been on display since 2002 on the first floor of ETSU's Sherrod Library. The mural portrays influential figures in bluegrass and country music, both white and African American. (Photo by Appalachian Places staff.)

This is the second in a series of articles by Jack Tottle on the evolution of bluegrass music — its origins, influences and inspirations in Appalachia and beyond.

The “Father of Bluegrass Music” often spoke frankly and eloquently about the indispensable role of African American influences on the creation of bluegrass music. His insights are worthy of study for any discussion of America's music.

At one time bluegrass music was widely perceived as a pure lineal descendent of the Scots/Irish/English culture that arrived in Appalachia with the early white settlers. There are indeed a host of bluegrass songs that trace their origins to Britain and Ireland including “Roving Gambler,” “Pretty Polly,” even Bill Monroe’s signature “Footprints in the Snow,” and countless more. Numerous fiddle tunes like “Soldiers Joy,” “Billy in the Lowground,” and “Turkey In the Straw” (sometimes bearing different names) likewise crossed the Atlantic to America along with the dances they accompanied.   


Bill Monroe’s uncle Pendleton Vandiver (Uncle Pen) played a great many traditional tunes on his fiddle. Bill’s admiration for his uncle’s music was boundless and provided much of the inspiration for the vision that underpinned Monroe’s iconic musical creation. 

However, we now realize that bluegrass — along with, jazz, western swing, popular music, rock ’n’ roll, and hip hop — owes an overwhelmingly large debt of gratitude to African Americans. 


It is generally understood that the blues first took form among Black musicians in the South during the latter 1800s and into the early 1900s. There are aspects that suggest traces of African heritage, but it is clearly overall an African American art form.   


In the early 1900s, African American musicians and singers such as W.C. Handy, Ma Rainy, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong introduced the blues format and blues notes — and related microtonal slurs — to the general public. Before long, blues became such a craze that not only did blues songs and tunes become hits, the word “blues” began showing up in numbers that were not blues at all.   

Bill Monroe on blues  


“I love the blues, I always have,” Monroe told Tim Stafford and me during a 1991 interview in Nashville. “There was a man used to come around where I was at. He was a Black man. His name was Arnold Schultz. He could play the guitar and play the blues. We were good friends.” 


Throughout his life Monroe was not often known to praise other musicians in depth. For Schultz he made an exception. 


“There’s things in my music, you know, that come from Arnold Schultz — runs that I use in my music,” Monroe is quoted as saying in the 1971 book, Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters, by Jim Rooney. “I don’t say that I make them the same way that he could make them, ’cause he was powerful with it.   


“In following a fiddle piece or a breakdown, he used a pick, and he could just run from one chord to another the prettiest you’ve ever heard. There’s no guitar picker alive who could do that.”  

From left, Jack Tottle, Ernie Sykes, and G.C. Matlock perform with Bill Monroe. (Photo courtesy of Jack Tottle.)

Monroe has said that had he not picked up the mandolin, he would likely have been a blues guitarist in the same style as Arnold Schultz. 


During the 1991 interview, I asked if there were people other than Schultz who played the blues that made Monroe think that he could do it on the mandolin. He implied that there weren’t, asserting with characteristic self-assurance, “All I needed to do was just hear blues singing and music . . . and I could take it right from there. Now (with) bluegrass — the timing of it and everything — it was hard to put the blues in there. You had to think about it and try a lot of it out and see how it would work. But (now) it fits right in with bluegrass music.” 

Monroe identified with the blues. “It’s not just colored folks that’s had the blues.” he said. “Many a white man’s had ’em.” Over the years he made numerous recordings with blues connections. Some were in the classic blues mold, some were not, but the blues were deeply ingrained in the music he played throughout his life.   

Sacred songs move bluegrass 

Among the most profound and least appreciated aspects of Monroe’s music was his own comment during our interview. “The gospel’s in bluegrass,” Monroe told me, speaking earnestly. “The Methodists and Baptists and Holiness singers. You can hear them . . . on other kinds of songs — not (just) gospel songs. You can hear the feeling of the way they’d sing in church.”

From “Molly and Tenbrooks,” to “Whitehouse Blues” Monroe’s music relies heavily on elements, such as vocal intensity and urgent rhythms typified by Black gospel artists like the Silver Leaf Quartet of Norfolk or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This is a world apart from the music of his fellow 1940s country stars such as Red Foley, Ernest Tubb and Eddie Arnold.  


“I put the timing in myself,” Monroe said. “Where it would pick the fiddle up, and where it would pick the mandolin up and would really show the banjo . . . where he could really move along.” 


Music ignores the color line

In 1973, I was leading a band that was opening for the great African American blues-rock innovator Bo Diddley in a spacious upscale Boston nightspot. Before the show, Diddley’s attention was drawn to the band’s fiddle.

Borrowing the instrument, he said, “I used to play one of these for dances down in Mississippi — ‘Soldiers Joy’ and so on!” His large fingers expertly negotiated the fingerboard and, drawing the bow across the strings, he produced as sweet a sound as one could desire. We marveled at the contrast between his sensitive touch on the fiddle and the punchy and raucous guitar style he made famous starting with his pioneering 1955 No. 1 rhythm and blues hit, from which he took his stage name, “Bo Diddley.

He was among a multitude of Southern Black fiddlers over the years who were unconcerned that “Soldiers Joy” was originally white fiddlers’ dance music. The tune had been played in Scotland since the 1700s. It had been a staple of enslaved musicians on the plantations of the American South. The tune has been a favorite in Appalachia for generations — and still is.

If Bo Diddley enjoyed playing the tune and audiences liked it, that fact — not its origins — is of course what counted. Bluegrass musicians have adopted musical concepts from African American sources for the same reason.


Although the majority of his compositions were secular, Bill wrote many first-rate gospel songs. He also recorded sacred songs from among the multitude which have origins in the African American community. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “This World is Not My Home,” and “I Am a Pilgrim” are examples.   


In the book, Bluegrass 1950-59, Bill Monroe, by Charles Wolfe, Monroe is quoted recalling how he got at least one song, “Walking in Jerusalem,” directly from African American fans of his. “He (the lead singer) wanted me to record it and sing it on the Grand Ole Opry,” Monroe said about the song. “They sang it for me there kind of the way I sing it.”    


Another powerful religious song, “Working on a Building,” may well have come to Monroe by way of the A.P. Carter Family, who, in turn, seem to have reworked it from the version sung by Maybelle Carter’s African American blues guitar mentor, Leslie Riddle. 

Start of a storied career  


In 1939, Bill Monroe debuted on Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, over clear channel radio WSM, with his high energy, up-tempo rearrangement of Jimmie Rodgers’ somewhat relaxed, medium-tempo “Mule Skinner Blues.” Rodgers’ songs and style were closely copied by numerous artists of the era, most notably by future singing movie star Gene Autry. Unlike other imitators, Monroe imbued Rodgers’ blues with a distinctive new urgency. Monroe’s strong, high-pitched singing was compelling. The fiddling — heard to excellent advantage on Monroe’s 1940 recording with fiddler Tommy Magness — deluged listeners with rapid-fire showers of blues-note phrases in a fresh and exciting way. The audience and the Grand Ole Opry staff loved it. Bill and his band had clearly ended up in the right place at the right time.  


Of the first 28 songs released by Monroe from 1940 to 1946, roughly half bear unmistakable connections to African American music. Nine are blues songs. Most, though not all, adhere to the “Blues Progression” format illustrated above. One up-tempo fiddle tune, “Orange Blossom Special,” contains a vocal section that adheres to a blues progression. A couple of songs are called blues but, although they describe having the blues, aren’t actual blues songs. Three are gospel songs of African American origin. Some of Monroe’s own blues songs, such as “Honky Tonk Swing,” “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” and “Bluegrass Stomp,” do not include “blues” in the title.


‘Mule Skinner’ and other blues 


Rodgers, a Mississippian regarded as “The Father of Country Music,” was the first white artist to bring the blues to the country music audience in a big way. During his brief recording career — 1927-1933 — country music’s first superstar released, among many others, 18 blues songs of his own composition, many of which borrowed heavily from African American composers. Starting with his own first recording session, Bill Monroe introduced several new interpretations of Rodgers’ material. 


Three recordings indicate one route by which the blues entered bluegrass. While the Rodgers and Monroe versions are not word-for-word copies of Tom Dickson’s song, the relationship is obvious. 

In the years before Billboard magazine’s country music listings, Rodgers’ songs, including his blues, showed up regularly on the popular music charts of the day. Several of Monroe’s songs made the 1940s country charts but neither artist’s arrangement of “Mule Skinner Blues” placed on Billboard’s survey. Of the more than 40 rerecordings since then (by Woody Guthrie, Jerry Reed, the Fendermen, Van Morrison and others) perhaps the best is Dolly Parton’s 1970 rendition of Monroe’s arrangement, which charted for 16 weeks with a peak position of No. 3. We have no indication that either Dickson or Monroe was ever compensated for their contributions. 

Another song from Monroe’s 1940 recording session — sung by and credited to his guitarist, Clyde Moody — provides more evidence of how bluegrass adopted lyrics and themes from African American artists. 

The above examples just scratch the surface. There are abundant additional instances of crossovers between African-American music and bluegrass, including the following:

Throughout his life, the blues and Monroe were inseparable. Instrumentally, Monroe consistently employed elements of the blues in his virtuoso mandolin work. He got his various fiddlers to do the same. Prior to Monroe’s 1957 classic recording of “Sittin’ On Top Of the World,” the 1930 blues song by The Mississippi Sheiks, the piece had been recorded by various Black artists. Throughout his career, Monroe continued to record songs infused with the blues. Some were actually blues, and some were titled “blues” of one sort or another including “Brakeman’s Blues,” “Travelin’ Blues,” “White House Blues,” “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and “Lonesome Road Blues.” 

Other songs in Monroe’s repertoire have been recorded by numerous artists, Black and white. Among them are “This World Is Not My Home,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “John Henry,” “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” “Life’s Railway To Heaven,” and “Careless Love.” 


Listening to early 20th century jazz recordings we can hear scales and other concepts that show up in the bluegrass played by Monroe and the multitude of musicians who have followed in his footsteps. Like early jazz, bluegrass does not rely on written music, but rather uses “head arrangements.” Bluegrass follows jazz precedent by letting each instrument shine in turn while the rest of the band backs the lead instrument — or vocalists — with the best possible support. Black jazz musicians established the framework in which the band stops on emphasized beats during a bass solo. An example is the bass break in Johnny Dodds’ 1928 recording, “Bull Fiddle Blues.”

Monroe’s rhythmic offbeat mandolin backup chop falls on the 2 and 4 beats of a 4/4 measure. These are the beats on which Black audiences of the day instinctively clapped along with live music, as opposed the 1 and 3 beat clapping common among white listeners.


Understanding something of Bill Monroe’s creative process can help inform our view of the world. All the borrowing and sharing of musical ideas across racial lines happened only because so much of life’s experience was, and still is, common to us all. 


For just a moment, let’s consider the big picture. The first photos of earth from space showed us a planet without artificial political boundaries. For some of the astronauts, seeing this firsthand was a life-altering experience. All at once they understood at the deepest level that all of us on earth are close relatives and share the responsibility for taking care of our planet and of each other.  


To the extent that we allow them to do so, bluegrass and other enduring and beloved art forms can fulfill a similar role. Their interrelationships confirm that what we share in common — regardless of race, appearance, gender, social status, and political inclination — is more significant than the forces that seek to separate us.   

Jack Tottle is a bluegrass artist, songwriter, author and educator who founded the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program in 1982, which he directed until his retirement in 2007. He has performed and recorded with some of the most respected artists in bluegrass.


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