Lesson 1: Learning “Uncle Pen”
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Aim: What is the form of a bluegrass song?
Summary: Students learn to sing “Uncle Pen” and use movement to identify the different parts of bluegrass song form.
Materials: Musical Explorers digital resources, Musical Explorers Student Guide
Standards: National 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 , 10, 11
Vocabulary: banjo, bluegrass, break, chorus, fiddle, mandolin, verse
“Uncle Pen” is a famous bluegrass song written by mandolinist Bill Monroe, who is known as the Father of Bluegrass. Bill Monroe wrote this song as a tribute to his uncle Pendelton “Pen” Vandiver, who was a fiddler and raised Monroe after his parents died.
Oh, the people would come from far away
To dance all night till the break of day
When the caller hollered, “do-si-do”
They 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, oh, how it’d ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing
Well, he played an old tune he called the “Soldier’s Joy”
And he played the one he called the “Boston Boy”
Greatest of all was the “Jennie Lynn”
To me, that’s where the fiddlin’ begins
I’ll never forget that mournful day
When old Uncle Pen was called away
He hung up his fiddle and he hung up his bow
And he knew it was time for him to go
Explore Form in “Uncle Pen” and Learn About Bluegrass Instruments
- Discuss the four elements of the standard bluegrass song with the students:
- The introduction is played just by the instruments.
- The verses tell the story.
- The chorus is repeated after each verse; it gives you the main idea of the song.
- The break is the part of the song when the instrumentalists play while the singer takes a break.
- Listen again to “Uncle Pen,” Track 35, and identify each of the four elements. Then ask the students to raise their hands when they hear the chorus; they can also sing along.
Move to the Form of “Uncle Pen”
- Ask students to stand in a circle. Choose different movements for each section of the song (e.g., raise your hands during the introduction, walk during each verse, skip during the chorus, and do-si-do with a partner during the instrumental break).
- Ask for a student volunteer to stand in the center of the circle and be the “caller,” the person who calls out each section of the song. At the break, the caller also can call out a new movement (e.g., hop, twirl, clap, flap your arms), or the caller can improvise a dance.
Write Lyrics About How Bluegrass Got Its Name
- Bluegrass musicians often write songs that tell stories about people they know or something memorable that happened.
- As a class, write lyrics to a song that tells a story about the day that bluegrass music got its name. Have each student contribute a line; if your students are ready, you can include the A-A-B-B rhyme scheme found in “Uncle Pen.”
- After you finish your story, share the real story of how bluegrass got its name (not nearly as interesting as your students’ story will be): Bluegrass wasn’t officially named until the 1950s; it refers to a kind of grass that grows in Appalachia called Kentucky bluegrass. The grass is not blue!
Learn About Bluegrass Instruments
- Listen to the demonstrations for each of the bluegrass instruments on Tracks 37–40.
- Ask the students to identify the instrument soloing during each break in “Uncle Pen,” Track 35.
- You also can ask the students to identify the different instruments as they take their solos during the bluegrass jam, Track 41.
- Students can make their own bluegrass band in Make Your Own Bluegrass Band (PDF).
Musical Word Wall
Add the words banjo, bluegrass, break, chorus, fiddle, mandolin, and verse to the Musical Word Wall.