Banjo Newsletter

October 2005: Bob Black: Come Hither to Go Yonder
By Murphy Henry

The bluegrass community has been blessed in recent years with an outpouring of books about bluegrass, many centering on the father of the genre, Bill Monroe. (Although, as a banjo player, when it comes to patriarchs I have to cast my vote with Earl Scruggs.)

Two years ago, Butch Robins, who first played with Monroe in 1967 and then again 1977-1981, presented us with What I Know 'Bout What I Know: The Musical Life Of An Itinerant Banjo Player. And what an astonishing read that turned out to be! The climax of the book finds Butch in Monroe's face, cussing his hero, and demanding that Monroe fire him. Butch admits it was a "horrible, horrible way" for a 32-year-old man to behave.

Now we have Bob Black's Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass With Bill Monroe, a calmer but no less insightful look at being the banjo bearer for the Blue Grass Boys. Published by the esteemed University of Illinois Press, the heart of Come Hither chronicles Bob's two years with Monroe, 1974-1976, and is dedicated to those who "wore the hat." During those two years, we get to watch Bob grow up musically and personally under the tutelage of his role model, Bill Monroe.

Like Butch, Bob's admiration for Monroe borders on worship, yet in the anecdotes he shares about his employer (never anything inappropriate) we come to know the quirky human being behind the mandolin. Monroe didn't believe in seat belts, he thought they might trap you in the car if you wrecked. He loved pie, oysters, and RC Cola. Breakfast was a meal that the Blue Grass Boys never skipped and Monroe always ordered dry toast, unbuttered. He paid the band in cash and he didn't like for the Blue Grass Boys to jam. He could make Cat's Cradle and Jacob's Ladder with a piece of string. He liked to brag that he didn't sweat, and Bob says that it was true.

Mixed in with these Monroe stories, however, is Bob's story which is long on self-reflection. When he passed his audition with Monroe and was told that they would be leaving at 3 a.m. for a festival ("You got your clothes?" says Bill), Bob felt "elated, eager, anxious, and proud-all at the same time." He also frequently notes what he imagined Monroe to be thinking on particular occasions, which often reveals Bob's ingenuousness as well as his desire to believe the best about his idol.

Case in point. Bill would sometimes phone his young banjo player at 7 a.m. to join him for some "old-fashioned farm work." Bob always answered the call even though he had usually been up all night picking. Admitting that he may have misinterpreted Monroe's motives at the time, Bob thought that his boss "wanted me to prove myself by showing him what a good worker I was." Now he thinks that Monroe was "giving me an opportunity to improve my self-confidence and assurance." Cynical me thinks that Monroe was looking for some cheap labor--and was enjoying the fact that he could lean on his eager-to-please side musician. Even when Monroe fired him--"I'm changin' the style of my music,"-Bob still believed the older man had his (Bob's) best interests at heart. According to Bob, Bill let him go "because he was worried about my health."

And you just have to love this. On his first trip out with the band, riding in Monroe's station wagon, Bob reports that both Bill and fiddler Kenny Baker brought their pillows. Bob says, "It had occurred to me to do the same, but I didn't want to appear soft or weak--so I left my pillow at home." Bless his heart. Don't you love him for admitting that?

And lest you think Come Hither is strictly chick lit (all that introspection), there are plenty of entertaining tales about music, banjos, and playing with the Blue Grass Boys. One of my favorites has Bob on stage playing Working on a Building which features a classic, instantly recognizable fiddle break by Kenny Baker. "It seemed like the notes he was playing just had to be the right ones," says Bob. So, when Bob stepped up to take his break, he played it exactly like Kenny. Bad idea. After the show, Bill chastised Bob for copying Kenny and told him to work up his own break. Bob says he still plays the break two ways: his and Kenny's!

Bob, however, was not always a Blue Grass Boy and the first part of the book recounts his life before Bill. When Bob auditioned for Monroe he was 25 years old and had been playing the banjo for 10 years. Raised in Iowa, he had come to bluegrass via folk music and had learned to play banjo by slowing down vinyl records to 16 rpm. He played in several different bluegrass bands while in college, finally landing in Grassfire, a group devoted to traditional, Monroe-style music. Bob's departure from the group after three years illustrates his wry sense of humor. He says, "I performed with Grassfire until the fall of 1974, when I resigned to explore my potential on a wider musical front. In other words, I got mad and quit." Which opened the door to his gig with the Blue Grass Boys.

However, even before joining Monroe, Bob had played on his first album, Kenny Baker's Dry and Dusty (1973). Bob had honed his distinctive melodic style of playing several years earlier by learning fiddle breaks from Kenny's records note for note on the banjo. Bob would go on to play on several more of Kenny's albums including Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Bob's banjo can also be heard on Monroe's Weary Traveler.

As the book winds down, Bob describes in brief what he did after he left Monroe. He had numerous adventures with a variety of bands including Buck White and the Down Home Folks. His departure from that group after a couple of years was somewhat tense (bringing to mind Butch and Bill but not as loud) and Bob accepts full responsibility for Buck's having to let him go. Twenty years later he apologized to Buck for his "immature behavior." Gotta admire the self-analysis and the squaring things up.

The book closes, as is appropriate, with Bill Monroe's funeral. Bob was graciously released from a musical commitment that day so he could attend. After reading this book, you understand that it was simply something he had to do.

Working with Bill Monroe had a profound effect on the life of the young Bob Black. Bob says, "The music I play today is still governed by the rules laid down by him." That an older and more reflective Bob Black chose to share some of those life lessons with us is our good fortune. This perceptive, highly readable, entertaining memoir will be a joy to bluegrass lovers, banjo players, and anyone who is a student of life. Yes, it contributes to the Monroe myth, yet paradoxically it helps to give us a fuller picture of the man himself. Bill Monroe would be proud of you, Bob.

(You can hear Bob's playing today with the group Perfect Strangers and with the group he and his wife Kristie have, Banjoy.