Tom Ewing presents fans of bluegrass music with an in-depth and long-awaited biography on the Blue Grass Man himself, Bill Monroe. Called “insightful” by The Wall Street Journal, Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man covers Monroe’s story from birth through childhood and adolescence, his beginnings and growth in the music industry, and his relationships with the people that came in and out of his life. Read the excerpt below for a glimpse into Bill’s early life, balancing work with his love of music.
Bill, eighteen, was still in Kentucky when spring came in 1930, but not for long. Uncles Andrew and Jack might have encouraged him to “go to public work” like John, Birch, Charlie, and Speed. Speed, thirty-four, had recently come home after working in Owensboro and married thirty-one-year-old divorcée Geanie (Clark) Whitehead. “I reckon my people figured I would never make anything there,” Bill said, “and that they should try to get me out of there to where I could make a decent living.”
Possibly delaying his decision to go was a brief romance. All he ever said about it was, “I never had a date ’til I was eighteen. I never kissed a girl ’til I was eighteen years old. I didn’t know what I was doin’.” It may have inspired many “what ifs” in the years to come.
“I could have stayed in Kentucky and been a farmer. I’d have been satisfied with
that. I could’ve probably planned a married life and raised a family. But my
people went and talked me into leaving Kentucky and going up to where there
was money. I was afraid to leave Kentucky because I’d never been around no place
like that. I didn’t know whether I could find my way around or not.“
Shortly after they returned to Detroit, Birch and Charlie were laid off again, so they and brother John headed back to the Calumet. A letter home may have convinced Bill to join them in Whiting, where they could all live together cheaply.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 30, 1930, after the crops had been planted, Bill said goodbye to Uncle Pen, whom he had lived with for nearly two years. Bill never spoke of this parting, but it couldn’t have been easy: “He done a lot of good things for me. 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. . . . Maybe, if I hadn’t heard of him, I’d have never learned anything about music at all.” Bill carried his suitcase and tater bug (stowed in a pillowcase, it’s said) down to the Rosine depot and was met there by Speed. “It never hurt him so bad as anything in his life to put his little brother on a train goin’ north,” said Frances Harvey, who had heard about that morning. With tears in his eyes, Speed gave Bill a twenty-dollar bill and sent him on his way.
“I didn’t have music on my mind. I went up there to work,” Bill said. But finding a job wasn’t easy; by the end of June, he was still unemployed. Charlie was working at the Sinclair Oil Refinery in East Chicago, southeast of Whiting, and in July he used his influence as a standout player on the companybaseball team to get Bill hired: “[The] manager of the team was my boss at the plant—Max Tucker. . . . I said, ‘Max, I’ve got a brother here, eighteen years old. Now, he’s not well. Now, if we can’t get him through that gate out there, I’m going to have to leave Sinclair’s ball team and company.’” Charlie played on Tucker’s sympathies, using Bill’s cross-eyed appearance to claim he wasn’t completely normal. But it worked, and he was given a job.
At that time, Jimmie Rodgers was in Hollywood, California, recording for Victor Records. He had been dubbed “America’s Blue Yodeler” for the series of “blue yodels” he’d recorded, combining his black-sounding blues singing with a seemingly effortless yodel (which, for some early listeners, confirmed he was white). On July 11, 1930, he recorded a new one, “Blue Yodel No. 8,” subtitled “Mule Skinner Blues,” and when it was released, Bill’s avid record-buying brothers would’ve bought it immediately. Bill would’ve been easily drawn to it, with its frank mention of using a whip “on a mule’s behind” and of working for “a dollar and a half a day,” something he himself had done recently.
Bill was assigned to “the barrel house” at Sinclair, cleaning and stacking empty oil barrels. In later years he described his job, which, like logging in the 1890s, seems to define hard work.
“Many’s a day I’ve stacked a thousand barrels—two thousand barrels. We could
unload a freight car in forty-five minutes. There would be two inside the car and
two or three of us outside and they would spin those barrels down on you and
you would have to catch them—just like playing ball. And then we would clean
barrels with gasoline. Some of them weighed one hundred and fifty pounds.
I learned how to handle those barrels just like a man throwing a ball, throwing
a curve. I got to where I could handle a drum—you’d be surprised at what I could
do with it and how far I could throw it and make it set up. I believe I could clean
thirty-six drums in fifteen minutes and have them all setting in the dryer.”
With Charlie and Bill both working, sisters Maude and Bertha were encouraged to come to Whiting and, after they arrived from Rosine on August 5, they moved in with their four brothers. Then Charlie’s temper flared and he was fired at Sinclair after a fistfight with a co-worker. Bill, earning $65 every two weeks, was suddenly the sole breadwinner for six Monroes. He recalled:
“Well, there was a time when my brothers couldn’t find work. And my two sisters
were there, and they wasn’t workin’ either. But I worked every day. The people out
at the Sinclair refineries, some of them was from Kentucky, and they knew that
I needed the money to take care of everything—pay our rent and buy groceries.
And they let me work thirty days in the month, ’cause they knew I needed the
work. And I took care of everything. I would work there, and I’d go out on the
streetcar to go to work, and my brothers would go out and pick up my check.
They’d take it back and get it cashed, and pay all the bills. And I’d hang in there
It was a situation that appears to have happened more than once during the next few years. “I never could put any money aside,” Bill said later. “I’ve often wondered if I was doing the right thing. I guess I was. It wouldn’t be right not to support your people.”
After work, Bill was surrounded by new worlds of entertainment: movie theaters with “talking pictures” (which he had not yet seen), nightclubs, vaudeville shows, dance halls. Even old familiar radio seemed new, with numerous local stations coming in loud and clear, unlike the static-filled signals he’d heard at Crowder’s store. Most powerful was WLS in nearby Chicago, then a 5,000-watt station owned by the Prairie Farmer newspaper.
In 1930, the stars of its Saturday night Barn Dance included cowboy singer Arkie, called the Arkansas Woodchopper (Luther Ossenbrink of Missouri, who wore riding britches as part of his stage costume); Kentucky folksinger Bradley Kincaid (whose repertoire included “The Butcher Boy”); and the original Cumberland Ridge Runners (Karl Davis, mandolin; Doctor Howard “Doc” Hopkins, banjo; leader John Lair, jug; Gene Ruppe, fiddle; and Hartford Connecticut “Harty” Taylor, guitar), all from Kentucky. Bill must
have heard they were all earning a better living than he was by just singing and playing on the radio.
Before long, Charlie found a job at Sinclair’s competitor, Standard Oil in Hammond, due south of Whiting; Maude and Bertha were hired at the Queen Anne Candy Company (famous for their chocolate-covered cherries), also in Hammond; and Birch went to work at Sinclair. With some time off, Bill made a bold move: no longer worried about “finding his way around,” he took his tater bug, journeyed to a small radio station in Hammond he’d been listening to, 100-watt WWAE, and guested on one of its many live shows. “I was the first Monroe to go on radio,” he told John Hartford in 1990 (forgetting, at age seventy-eight, about Charlie and Birch’s radio debut in 1927), “and the next day, the Monroe Brothers was together—we’s all on it.” Thereafter, the three visited WWAE occasionally, but their main musical activity remained playing for parties. As Bill later put it, “We’d play wherever we’d get to play, anybody that wanted us, they didn’t have to pay us nothing, we just wanted the experience. We thought it was great for somebody to want us to play.”
After most of the Monroes were employed, they began looking for a new place to live, closer to their jobs. That fall they moved into an apartment building in East Chicago at 4714 Magoun [Ma-goon] Avenue, near the busy intersection of Chicago Avenue and Forsythe Avenue (now Indianapolis Boulevard). It was a short streetcar ride for Bill and Birch to Sinclair, and Charlie had only another half mile farther north to go to get to Standard Oil in Hammond. The Queen Anne factory in Hammond was less than a mile to the west of the apartment building for Maude and Bertha. Brother John, meanwhile, couldn’t find work and returned to Rosine in November 1930.
By 1931, Bill had a reputation as a solid and dependable worker. As was his style throughout life, he thrived on hard work, but he then had the happy-go-lucky attitude of youth. “I weighed about 165 pounds and was young then,” he said in 1977. “I got kind of a kick out of doing it.” Co-worker Roy Hatton and Bill would pick up and deliver oil barrels and building materials around the refinery, with Hatton driving a tractor and Bill riding in a wagon behind it. Hatton remembered nineteen-year-old Bill singing and yodeling at the
top of his voice as they traveled around the huge Sinclair facility.
While Bill worked, the WLS Barn Dance grew in popularity, especially after WLS boosted its power to 50,000 watts in early 1931 (a year before WSM in Nashville). Joining the Barn Dance cast that year were duet pioneers Mac and Bob (Kentuckian Lester McFarland, tenor singer and mandolinist, and Tennessean Robert Gardner, lead singer and guitarist). Bill would learn a great deal from McFarland, especially about using a mandolin to accompany singing. Also new were twenty-four-year-old Gene Autry, then an interpreter of Jimmie Rodgers’s songs; tenor-voiced Hugh Cross, who replaced Doc Hopkins with the Cumberland Ridge Runners and sang a song called “Footprints in the Snow”; and comic Max Terhune, “the Hoosier Mimic,” who could “make all kinds of funny noises” and “keep a crowd happy for hours at a stretch.”
As the Depression deepened, two new duet-singing duos emerged in 1931—the Delmore Brothers (of Alabama) and Karl and Harty (Karl Davis and Harty Taylor of the Cumberland Ridge Runners)—and both recorded near the end of the year. But sales were limited, and both would have to wait until 1934 before they had another record released.
In early 1932, the news from home was mixed. Uncle Andrew, J. B.’s general store partner, died on February 1 of cancer and double pneumonia at age seventy-two. Then, on March 27, thirty-four-year-old brother John, once again farming, married thirty-two-year-old divorcée Clara Wilson (not related to Clarence Wilson). But there is no indication that the Monroes of East Chicago returned home during this time.
That March, the WLS Barn Dance moved from a small studio to the 1,200-seat Eighth Street Theater, to accommodate the crowds thronging to see it. Caught up in the rising “hillbilly fever,” little WWAE began to increase its country music programs. Live shows titled Old Time Music or Old Time Tunes were broadcast three to five times a week, and a weekly Old Time Midnight Frolic was added on Wednesday nights. Birch, Charlie, and Bill undoubtedly guested on these shows, and, before long, were approached about doing a show of their own.