I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys , Columbia 20459, 1947

This song helped dislodge several prejudices I’d long had against bluegrass music. I’d listened to and enjoyed quite a few Bill Monroe records over the years, including “Little Georgia Rose,” “Gotta Travel On,” and the original ¾-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but never owned any and never sought any out. Then I came across the 78 of “Little Cabin on the Hill” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and brought it home for a spin. I enjoyed “Cabin” about like I had other bluegrass songs, appreciating the instrumental breaks, tapping along to the steady beat. But when I turned the record over, it stayed there for a while.

It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass.

The song starts out with pretty ordinary musical structure on the verses. Bill Monroe, taking the lead vocals with his sharp tenor, out-Dickenses Dickens’ melodramatic Little Nell scene as he pines about a young girl on her deathbed trying to console her bereft parents. “Tell Mommy to come to me quickly / I want to kiss you both then go.” That piqued my interest.

But then a series of escalating surprises unfolds during the chorus. First, the instruments drop way down, and three vocal parts come in, with Bill on top. Next, on the second line of the chorus, the voices swoop way up, with Monroe on a high B, and the effect is startling. Then, on line three, the vocalists entwine themselves in a “steel-guitar” harmony, going in and then out of discordance. Line four brings us back to reality, and the instruments rejoin for verses four and five. Every time I listen to the record and it gets to those last two verses, I know that three-part-harmony chorus is about to come around one more time, and I’m spellbound waiting for it. It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass. What a revelation!

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this key period included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. They were soon to break away to become a bluegrass-novelty act of great renown. In fact, when I was growing up, I was familiar with Flatt & Scruggs, thanks to their theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and their appearance on the show as themselves, come to visit old flame Pearl. But I don’t think I was aware of the great Bill Monroe until way into my adulthood. If he’d only made an appearance on Petticoat Junction…but I don’t reckon t’were Bill’s kinda thang, do you?

Before the few Bill Monroe 78s I recently acquired, I owned no bluegrass music, other than a Dave Grisman LP or two and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. But now I listen to bluegrass a little differently, and I’m at long last a Bill Monroe convert.

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