91: Uncle Pen

91: Uncle Pen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Uncle Pen

Story by James Monroe

Song written by Bill Monroe

Recorded by Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner, Ricky Skaggs and others

Uncle Pen — Pendleton Vandiver was his name — lived in a little cabin not far from where my dad grew up, in Rosine, Kentucky. He had three or four acres of land. The cabin sat high on a hill above the town, just like the song says. Pen was my dad’s mother’s brother. My father said he had brown eyes like I have. All of the Monroes have blue eyes.

My dad lost his parents pretty young. His mother died when he was nine, and his daddy died when he was just 16. That’s when he moved in with Uncle Pen. That was the last place my father stayed before he left Kentucky around the age of 18. Pen used to take my dad with him on horseback or muleback and they would play shows in that area. They would play parties and square dances together. Whatever Uncle Pen got paid, he would give my father half.

My father was known for his mandolin, but he played fiddle, too, and guitar sometimes, and he would play fiddle and guitar with Pen. The music always came from the Vandiver side; it wasn’t on the Monroe side. It was on the Dutch side. Uncle Pen was a self-taught musician. Back in those days, not many people took formal music lessons. My grandfather could dance, too, and my grandmother played a little accordion and fiddle, and could sing, too.

My father told me Pen was a wonderful man, and a good uncle to my dad. Pen would cook breakfast for my dad in the morning and then cook him dinner, too. Pen was divorced at the time. Uncle Pen had some health problems, so later in life he would get paid to play music and he would also go from town to town trading things. He would trade knives or guns or whatever. He would buy them and then sell them at a profit.

My dad wrote the song to pay tribute to his uncle. It was really a memorial in the form of a song. It was a big hit for my dad, but a lot of other people recorded it, too. Porter Waggoner had a pretty big hit on it, and Ricky Skaggs had a good hit out of it. It’s had over a million airplays. BMI gave us the million-air award for “Uncle Pen,” and that’s pretty unusual for a bluegrass song.

I think it’s been so popular because it’s a real story. You can just feel it when you play it. It all fits together perfectly, the story and the music. The song is made for a fiddle. It’s got that shuffle timing and you can’t really even play the song without a fiddle. I’ve tried it, and you can’t do it.

Uncle Pen

Oh, the people would come from far away,

To dance all night ’til the break of day.

When the caller would holler, “Do-Si-Do”

They knew Uncle Pen was ready to go.


Late in the evening, about sundown,

High on the hill, an’ above the town,

Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord, how it’d ring,

You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing!


Well, he played an old tune they called the “Soldier’s Joy”

And he played the one they 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.


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