Lesson 1: Learning “Uncle Pen”

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 CD or online audio
Standards: GA: MK-2GM.1, MK-2GM.2, MK-2GM.3, MK-2GM.4, MK-2GM.6, MK-2GM.7, MK-2GM.8, MK-2GM.9
SC: MGK-2.1, MGK-2.2, MGK-2.3, MGK-2.4, MGK-2.5, MGK-2.6
Vocabulary: bluegrass, introduction, break, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar

Meet Carolyn and Jake

  • Meet Carolyn and Jake on SG30.

Sing “Uncle Pen”

  • Listen to “Uncle Pen,”  Track 30 
  • Carolyn and Jake sing and play bluegrass. Bluegrass is a style of acoustic music that originated in the 1940s, incorporating traditional Appalachian music and elements of country/western, blues, and gospel. Most bluegrass bands consist of mandolin, banjo, fiddle (violin), guitar, and bass, and musicians trade off improvised solos, as in jazz music. Bluegrass is often described as having a “high lonesome” sound, created in part by rich vocal harmonies with prominent tenor singing.
  • Learn to sing the chorus of “Uncle Pen,”  Track 31 

Uncle Pen

Oh, the people would come from
far away
To dance all night ’til 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,
an’ 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 “Jenny 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 to go


Explore Form in “Uncle Pen” and Learn About Bluegrass Instruments

  • Review chorus and verse with your students (Unit 3, Lesson 2). Chorus and verse are two of the four elements of the standard bluegrass song:
    • 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 30 , and identify each of the four elements. Ask the students to raise their hands when they hear the chorus; they can also sing along. At the end of the song, you also can hear the fiddle tune “Jenny Lynn,” which is quoted after each chorus of “Uncle Pen.”
  • Listen to the demonstrations for each of the bluegrass instruments on Tracks 32–35.
    • Carolyn plays the fiddle, Track 32
    • Jake plays the mandolin, Track 33
    • Banjo, Track 34
    • Guitar, Track 35
  • Ask the students to identify the instrument soloing during each break in “Uncle Pen,”  Track 30 . You can also ask the students to identify the different instruments as they take their solos during the Bluegrass jam,  Track 36
  • Using SG31, have students draw a picture of and name their own bluegrass band.

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, etc.), or the caller can improvise a dance.

Creative Extension: 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!

“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, Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, who was a fiddler and raised Monroe after his parents died.

Musical Word Wall

Add the words bluegrass, introduction, break, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar to the Musical Word Wall.

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