The history of Country Music, airing on WTTW (PBS) and produced by filmmaker Ken Burns, has a local connection. Bill Monroe, considered by many to be the Father of Bluegrass Music, lived, worked, and started his professional music career in Northwest Indiana.
The Indiana connection is mentioned briefly in Part Two of the eight-part series, and Monroe’s impact on music is covered more extensively in Part Three.
Born in Rosine, Kentucky, in 1911, Bill Monroe was the youngest of eight children. Two of his older brothers moved to Northwest Indiana in the late 1920s to work at the Sinclair Refinery in East Chicago. The Sinclair Refinery was adjacent to Whiting city limits. It was on Indianapolis Boulevard, on the west side of the road, between 129th Street and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, just south of the Stiglitz Park neighborhood of Whiting.
Bill moved to the area in 1929 to join his brothers, one year after their father died and when Bill was just 18 years old. His job at the refinery, according to Tom Ewing in The Bill Monroe Reader, “consisted of washing, loading, and stacking oil drums. He stayed with the company four years during which time he supported two brothers and two sisters.”
The Monroe boys grew up in a musical family. Older brother, Birch, played the fiddle, Charlie played the guitar, and Bill grew up playing the mandolin. Together with two friends who also played, they formed a musical group known as the Monroe Brothers. In the early 1930s, they seemed to be everywhere in the East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond and Gary area.
Churches provided one of the main venues for them. The Monroe Brothers “will be the special singers” for a Sunday school rally, the Church of the Nazarene announced in October 1933. The church was located at 1830 Indianapolis Boulevard in Whiting. In April 1934, they performed at the Pine Street Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Pine and Chicago Street in East Chicago, in a show aimed at natives of the American South. “We have secured the Monroe brothers, who will render many southern gospel numbers, as well as rendering some Negro spirituals.” Among the songs they performed that night were “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “God Will Set Your Fields on Fire.”
The Monroe Brothers performed at barn dances, at a fund raiser for the Hammond American Legion Post, in a musical revue at East Chicago Washington High School, at birthday parties, and for numerous local organizations that needed musical entertainers for their events. All the while, Bill developed the musical skills that he started learning at an early age.
He was also introduced to live radio performances while living here. The Monroe Brothers were regulars on WWAE radio in Hammond, which later changed its call letters to WJOB. They also performed on the vaudeville stage, appearing at the Parthenon Theater in downtown Hammond.
A Chicago music promoter heard one of their performances, which led them to new opportunities in a larger city. They performed live on WLS radio and performed on stage as a vaudeville act at several Chicago theaters.
By the mid-1930s, the Monroe Brothers were on their way to greater fame. The oldest brother, Birch, didn’t want to pursue life on the road as a musician. He chose to stay at the Sinclair Refinery and continued to live on the 4700-block of Magoun Avenue in East Chicago for years after. Bill and Charlie stayed together as the Monroe Brothers, but split up in 1938.
Bill formed his own band, first called the Kentuckians, but later taking the name the Blue Grass Boys. By the 1940s, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, which included musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, were nationally known. With the addition of other big-name musicians of the era, Monroe created a sound that became known as bluegrass music.
Besides being a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, numerous performers cited him as a major influence on their music, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Monroe died in 1996. His obituary said that rock music derived from two primary sources: the soul and rhythms of African-American music, and the music of Bill Monroe. Northwest Indiana audiences and their love of the Monroe Brothers music, played at least a small role in helping to make that happen.