Uncle Pen

Friday, August 3, 2007

By Donice Woodside

Pendleton Vandiver was next to the youngest of ten children. The youngest of the ten was his sister, Malissa, the mother of Bill Monroe.

  Not much is known about Vandiver's early years. He was born in 1869 in Butler County, Kentucky. He married Anna Belle Johnson who bore him a son and a daughter. After he and his wife separated, Vandiver moved into a one-room cabin in Ohio County, near Malissa's home, where his nieces and nephews knew him as "Uncle Pen."

  It was in the small, rural towns of Ohio County that Vandiver gained renown as an old-time fiddler. He was the first fiddler Monroe ever heard play, and by age eleven, Monroe was accompanying his uncle to old-time square dances, playing back-up on the mandolin.

  "He was one of Kentucky's finest old-time fiddlers," wrote Monroe on the cover of his 1972 album, Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen, a compilation of Monroe's renditions of Vandiver's tunes. "And he had the best shuffle with the bow I'd ever seen."

  In his book, Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Richard D. Smith weaves the narrative of Monroe's life from diverse sources, including accounts from Monroe's manager, Ralph Rinzler, a folklorist and fellow mandolin player.

  After his father died, the sixteen-year-old Monroe lived for brief periods with his Uncle William and, then, his Uncle Jack. When Jack's house was placed under a measles quarantine, Vandiver invited Monroe to "batch it" at his cabin, according to Rinzler.

  Vandiver was crippled and on crutches, having been thrown from a young mule spooked by a passing train.

  "He done the cooking for the two of us," Monroe wrote on the album cover. "We had fat back, sorghum molasses, and hot cakes for breakfast followed by blackeyed peas with fat back and corn bread and sorghum for dinner and supper."

  Smith quotes Monroe further: "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 to get ..."

  Vandiver's cabin was on Tuttle Hill overlooking Rosine. Monroe continued to keep his horses in his Uncle Jack's barn near the train depot, and at the end of the day, as he put the horses away, Monroe could hear his Uncle Pen playing outside his cabin on Tuttle Hill.

  The song Monroe would later write, memorializing his Uncle Pen, would rise to number one on the Country Music charts:

Late in the evenin' about sundown

High on the hill and above the town

Uncle Pen played the fiddle

Lord, how it'd ring

You could hear it talk

You could hear it sing

  Pendleton Vandiver died in 1932, at the age of 63 while Bill was away working for Sinclair Oil in Chicago.

Arnold Shultz

By Donice Woodside

Arnold Shultz was the son of a slave. Born in 1886 in Ohio County, Shultz worked the coal mines in Western Kentucky. Popular among black and white audiences alike, he was among the most accomplished blues guitarists of his time and introduced a young Bill Monroe to African-American music.

  "People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky," said Monroe. "If he was playing a guitar, they'd go gang up around him."

  When he was fourteen years old, Monroe began playing guitar as back-up to Shultz's fiddle at square dances, and Shultz insisted on splitting their earnings down the middle. It was Monroe's first experience making money playing music, but he took far more away from the experience than cash.

  Throughout his career, Monroe continued to use the bluesy musical runs he learned from Shultz. "I don't say that I make them the same way that he could make them 'cause he was powerful with it," said Monroe. "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 today that could do that."

  Shultz lived on what folklorist Charles Wolfe called the "misty borderland" between unrecorded traditional American folk music and commercial country music. Although never recorded, Shultz's influence has a direct lineage to contemporary string musicians.

In his article "The Evolution of Country Fingerpicking," Rich Kienzle credits Shultz with having a profound impact on white guitarists in Western Kentucky, most notably Kennedy Jones who taught Mose Rager who taught Merle Travis.

  Travis, who wrote "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon," is most famous for his unique style of thumbpicking called "Travis picking." Thumbpickers Hall of Famer Eddie Pennington widely recognized as among the best living "Travis pickers," called Arnold Shultz the "Johnny Appleseed of music."

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