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The minstrel and annex bands were features at the show grounds. Here were a group of colored minstrels, players, band people, under the direction of Edward Rucker... The band plays pretty airs of all kinds, suiting the music nicely to the work in hand. When the snakes were exhibited it played a charming waltz; somehow it fitted the exhibit; others were of similar propriety - The Indianapolis Freeman, July 4th, 1914, quoted in Ragged But Right by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

Author Topic: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin  (Read 4659 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« on: March 21, 2007, 03:34:49 PM »
Hi all,
I have long been an admirer of the music of Bill Monroe, and have been baffled at why his name is most often left out of discussions of Blues mandolin players, for he was definitely one of the finest players in that category.  His early duet recordings with his brother Charlie occasionally show flashes of his Blues playing that surfaced later, but more often are working in an exceptionally smooth and technically clean "brother" style of mandolin playing, with lots of tremolo on slow songs and even runs on up-tempo numbers. 
When Bill started the Bluegrass Boys, even before Earl Scruggs joined the band, he appeared to make a conscious decision to incorporate more of a blues sound into the music of his band.  Bill acknowledged a profound influence from a black guitarist he heard growing up in Kentucky, Arnold Schultz, and Bill had been drawn to Blues and playing it all along, though he didn't record all that many blues with Charlie.
I dug up a bunch of early Bluegrass Boys recordings recently to re-visit Bill Monroe's Blues sound.  Bill recorded a number of blues instrumentals in that period, but perhaps the finest of the bunch was his "Tennessee Blues", which is rivaled by only a couple of Blues mandolin instrumentals, and surpassed by none.  Played in A, it employs a modified 16-bar formula, in cut time (2/2), like so:

   |     A     |     A     |     A     |     A     |

   |     A     |     A     |     A     |     A     |

   |    D7    |    D7    |    D7     |    A (3/2) |

   |    E7    | E7 (3/2) |   A       |    A        |

This a screaming good tune and has a quality of seeming to define the Blues mandolin sound.  Bill spins a seemingly endless string of variations, and just tears it up.  A couple of times through the form he goes to the D7 after four bars of A and shortens the form.  The mandolin solos are interrupted only by two completely incoherent bass solos, which have baffled every musician I have ever known who has heard them.  In fairness, the bass player has great time, but seems to select his notes at random.  Oh well.
Another great performance from Bill Monroe and the Bluesgrass Boys in this era is their rendition of Jimmie Rodgers "Blue Yodel No. 7".  Bill hammers away at his opening solo with downstrokes, showing why some listeners liken his playing to that of Chuck Berry.  His straight-up-and-down time has a more intense tug and swing than do "swung" eighth notes, and he excels at syncopated chordal strumming.
Two instrumentals from this era, "Honky Tonk Swing", in C, and "Blue Grass Stomp", in D, show that Bill's ability to play over these medium tempo Blues has never been equalled, even by today's hyper-technical bluegrass players.  It is apparent from how fresh Bill sounds on these tunes and how comfortable he is expressing himself in the style, just how big a part the blues played in his musical consciousness. 
"Rocky Road Blues", in addition to featuring Bill's great singing and playing, sports the funky accordion-playing of Sally Forrester, who was with the Bluegrass Boys for a time. 
"Bluegrass Breakdown" is one of the first instrumentals to feature Earl Scruggs's banjo playing, but Bill starts it out on mandolin.  It is a very fast variable-form 16-bar blues in the key of G, with a flat VII chord, F, substituting for the IV chord the first two times through the form.  Only with the third pass through the form does the band resolve to the IV chord that is expected in the fifth and ninth bars.  The flat VII chord has a darker sound than the IV chord, and the mixolydian mode that it suggests hearkens back to the fiddle tunes of Bill's ancestors from the British Isles.  It is really fun to hear early live recordings of the Bluegrass Boys with Earl Scruggs playing shows at the Grand Ole Opry.  The response of the crowds to his playing was electric; after his solos they erupt with thunderous applause and yelling.  The sound has become so much a part of our musical environment that we can forget how exciting it was for people first hearing it.
All of this is by way of saying that if you like Blues mandolin and have not sought out the Blues playing of Bill Monroe, do yourself a favor and check it out.  He was sensational, really a one-of-a-kind musician.
all best,
« Last Edit: March 21, 2007, 11:50:31 PM by Johnm »


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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #1 on: March 21, 2007, 03:52:10 PM »
When you consider one of his main influences was a blues guitarist, Arnold Shultz, it should not come as such a big surprise that he was in touch with blues.  Bluegrass was once the melding of hillbilly, blues and swing with traditional instrumentation.  I remember a jam nearly 40 years ago where he and and a blues harp player went at it for over an hour with a guitar player (Ralph Lewis?), Kenny Baker on fiddle, all gathered around a picnic table.  They played blues and old swing type tunes like "Bill Bailey" .  While Monroe recorded some great stuff his jamming was unbelievable.


Offline outfidel

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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #2 on: March 22, 2007, 08:03:12 AM »
FYI I just finished reading the Monroe biography Can't You Hear Me Calling? by Richard Smith -- highly recommended!

I've also been listening a lot to the Bill Monroe/Doc Watson duets from the 1960s, where they do mostly Monroe Brothers & older fiddle tunes. In the liner notes, Ralph Rinzler says that this is the fastest version of "Soldier's Joy" that he'd ever heard. Great stuff.
« Last Edit: March 22, 2007, 08:08:21 AM by outfidel »
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Offline Stuart

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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #3 on: March 22, 2007, 08:58:58 AM »
There are a lot of his recordings out there, but the JSP set (1936-1949; 4 CDs, 112 sides) which covers a lot of his early material for the usual JSP price is a good place to start.
« Last Edit: March 22, 2007, 09:18:18 AM by Stuart »


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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2007, 05:25:06 PM »
Can't you hear me calling is a great bio.

Bill monroe wasn't playing blues, in my opinion, he was playing rock and roll before anyone had ever heard of it.

Yes, I am saying Bill Monroe invented Rock and Roll. Listen to Rocky Road Blues again. Fundamentally, it's rock n' roll. Play that same song the exact same way with electric instruments and there is no question. It is NO coincidence that the pioneers of rock n' roll, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, etc. were big Bill Monroe fans. Buddy Holly even had a bluegrass band. I saw a Carl Perkins interview once where Carl talked about the first time he met Elvis. The very first words out of Presley mouth to him were "Do you like Bill Monroe?"
This might be a coincidence, but Rocky Road Blues has the word "ROCK" in it. Bill Monroe was recording Rock and Roll while Adolph Hitler was still alive and World War II was raging.
Bluegrass Stomp is a possible rock and roll candidate, as is Heavy Traffic Ahead.

As for influences, don't forget Bill Monroe hired DeFord Bailey into his traveling show.

Bill Monroe didn't have a lot of influence on blues, but Rock n' Roll is a different story. Jimmy Rodgers merged the blues with white music, to make what some folks call the earliest country music. Bill Monroe takes that a step further. His contribution was a driving beat, a one and three beat like a left jab and a 2 and 4 like a right hook. That is what made rock and roll possible, blues with that hard, steady rock-solid beat. Bill Monroe invented rock n' roll in the same way  Columbus discovered America, he found it first, but others capitalized on it. 

In an interview late in life, Bill said he could have invented another form of music besides bluegrass, but didn't do it because he wanted to devote his energy to nuture bluegrass into a legacy that would outlive him.  When asked what that music style was, he clammed up. I've heard scholars say that it might have been some sort of jazz, based on the instrumentals he did late in life and mourn that we'll never hear what that music would have been.

I really believe we've already heard it. It's rock n' roll.

I've got a 78 recording of "Rocky Road Blues" It's one of my most treasured possessions, mostly because i believe it to be the first rock n' roll record ever released. I think the release date was January 1945.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2007, 01:20:42 PM by fischjaeger »


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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #5 on: April 15, 2007, 04:05:45 PM »
I'll put forward "Rocky Road Blues" as early Rock n' roll, but Monroe's "Blue Yodel No. 7'' is pure blues.
Monroe's Blue Yodel No. 8 "New Muleskinner Blues" and Blue Yodel No. 3 (she's long, she's tall, she's six feet from the ground), I'd say are quintessential 12-bar Bluegrass. But Bill No. 7 doesn't sound like bluegrass, it sounds like old country blues and it is excellent blues. The tempo is slower than Monroe's other Jimmie Rodgers remakes and the beat is more of a one and three than the 2 and 4 he usually does.
That's a shining example his mastery of blues mandolin.

Offline poymando

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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #6 on: April 15, 2007, 07:53:11 PM »
I remember a quote from rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers, "Rockabilly is nothing but cottonpatch blues and Bill Monroe Music"
A buddy of mine was a Blue Grass Boy for a pretty decent stretch. He remembers stopping the bus one time to gas up and by chance another tour bus pulled up. It turned out to be a prominent blues guitar player (I cant remember if it was Albert King or perhaps Albert Collins) Anyway, the guitar man asked if Bill was really on the bus. My buddy said he was. The guitar man asked if he could meet him as he'd always been a fan. Sure enough, the two bandleaders had a nice chat and expressed admiration for each others work there in the truck stop parking lot.

Offline outfidel

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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #7 on: April 16, 2007, 08:17:50 AM »
Yes, I am saying Bill Monroe invented Rock and Roll

imho rock 'n roll is a mulatto child that was the result of a "mixed marriage". On one side of the aisle you had Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe & Hank Williams (& many others); on the other side was T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, & Mahalia Jackson (& many others). Sam Phillips & Alan Freed presided over the nuptials, which took place in Memphis (& not Cleveland as sometimes reported).

« Last Edit: April 16, 2007, 08:20:06 AM by outfidel »
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Offline RobBob

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Re: Bill Monroe's Blues Mandolin
« Reply #8 on: April 18, 2007, 07:34:06 AM »
I'll put forward "Rocky Road Blues" as early Rock n' roll,

When you consider that Monroe got Rocky Road Blues from banjo picker Stringbean when he joined Bill, then String should be elected to the rock 'n roll hall of fame!   Blues were prevalent in the south, well more prevalent in some regions.  That banjo players played blues says a lot.



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