Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dead Air Church: Uncle Pen

At left, the grave of Uncle Pen in Rosine, Kentucky.

In this post, I talked about how our deeds may outlast us in ways we don't expect. And today, I salute Bill Monroe's Uncle Pendleton Vandiver, known as the legendary Uncle Pen.

When Uncle Pen instructed his nephew in his traditional, old-world ways, who knew that he would change the whole direction of American music and that someday, even New Yorkers and Europeans would know his name? I often wonder what the modest Kentucky mountain man would have said about that.

He probably taught his nephew simply because he enjoyed playing with him. He could never have known the far-reaching legacy of his teaching.

In the 60s, America-at-large was introduced to bluegrass music through Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and their famous TV-theme for The Beverly Hillbillies, as well as their boldly shit-kickin rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (used nicely in the film Bonnie and Clyde).

I can still remember what it was like, as a child, when my family heard the TV-theme. Everyone went quiet, in hushed amazement: They are playing bluegrass on TV! (I imagine it was quite similar for African-Americans when they saw one of their own on TV back then, which hardly ever happened.) It felt strange to have remnants of my culture unexpectedly thrust into the mainstream, particularly regarding a type of music that we kept "to ourselves"--as bluegrass was then considered country music's poor, rural, barefoot cousin, almost an embarrassment. And there it was on prime time!

We were very ambivalent, since of course, The Beverly Hillbillies made us all look pretty stupid. Nonetheless, there we were. And suddenly, kids asked me if my stepfather (well-known country musician in the neighborhood) could play the banjo, too? I took some of my classmates home, and he played bluegrass-style banjo for them. This was way before bluegrass was widely available on records, and they were thoroughly bedazzled to hear the mysterious Flatt/Scruggs music, right in front of them. (You could hear it talk/you could hear it sing.)

And so, on this Feast of St Francis of Assisi, DEAD AIR remembers the important, pioneering work of Uncle Pen. Thank you for teaching your nephew the music of our people. The world was made so much richer by your presence.


Oh the people would come from far away
They'd dance all night till the break of day
When the caller hollered "do-se-do"
You knew Uncle Pen was ready to go

Late in the evening about sundown
High on the hill and above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle
Lord, how it would ring
You could hear it talk
You could hear it sing

He played an old piece he called "Soldier's Joy"
And the one called "The Boston Boy"
The greatest of all was "Jenny Lynn"
To me that's where the fiddle begins

I'll never forget that mournful day
When Uncle Pen was called away
They hung up his fiddle, they hung up his bow
They knew it was time for him to go


Uncle Pen - Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys (1956)


Rachel said...

very cool. I think most people are unaware of their legacies while creating them.

sheila said...

Ah, that was nice. Yes, thank you's are in order. I love walking around cemeteries and reading old headstones. Things aren't as personalized these days.

Marshall-Stacks said...

I love that song ... and The Dillards ... and Ricky Skaggs.
Steve Martin and Billy Connolly are both good on their banjos too.
There is a great documentary on Mr Bill Monroe if you care to search.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown indeed.

Rootietoot said...

I grew up on Flatt&Scruggs, and love cleaning the house to them.

Dave Dubya said...

I grew up in a house where my father's jazz was the homespun music. I never did see much of that on TV.

My mother was from the "other side of the tracks" so she grew up with more contry music. Yankee hillbillies? Ya, you betcha.

I, of course, needed to learn to play both country and jazz when not playing rock n roll with my peers.

I guess that makes me pretty much a product of American music. It is surprising how many musicians are fluent in all these styles. Ol' Uncle Jerry was a classic example.