Roscoe Holcomb (#2)


by Mark Humphrey (from notes to “Legends of Old Time Music,” Vestapol DVD)

The unalloyed pure spirit of old time music never had a stauncher exponent than Roscoe Holcomb. His stewardship of the True Faith came naturally (though not effortlessly); he didn’t seek his missionary role but nonetheless embodied it like no other. Given his deep and implacable uniqueness, it comes as little surprise that Eric Clapton once referred to Holcomb as his favorite singer, or that Bob Dylan lauded similar praise on Holcomb’s album, “The High Lonesome Sound” (Folkways FA2368).

There was something almost super-naturally intense about Holcomb’s engagement with his ma- terial: not only did he move others to tears but on occasion was himself so affected by a performance (like that of Little Bessie on the aforementioned album) that he would enter a days-long seclusion from music-making. It wasn’t an activity Holcomb took lightly; given his shamanic wrestling with his music’s essence, how could he? ‘Soul singer’ is a sobriquet that fits Holcomb, for he sang from his tradition’s core.

Black fiddler Howard Armstrong noted this quality, calling Holcomb’s music devoid of decorative artifice, “pure.” His discoverer and champion, John Cohen, wrote this elegiac ap- praisal of Holcomb’s hard-lived art: “In his singing some heard the blues, others a medieval chant, as well as the wail of Old Baptist unaccompanied hymns and the long ballad tradition. His banjo and guitar introduced an element in the music which was full of individualistic rhythmic patterns answering more to a continuous pulse than to a big beat…He confirmed our belief that such a profoundly moving musician could grow and exist in America apart from the commercial and art mu- sic which surround us. His homemade music and voice con- veyed a precise clarity which reached people far beyond his immediate home in eastern Kentucky.” (Old Time Music # 36, Summer 1981.)

Daisy, Kentucky, Holcomb’s remote mountain homeplace in Perry County, won’t be found on many maps. Nearby Haz- ard, infamous for family feuds and labor violence, is the clos- est town of note, and it was on a field trip there that John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers discovered and first recorded Roscoe Holcomb in 1959. Then 47, Holcomb had lived a hard life (coal mining, lumber milling, construction) typical of the region. No less typical was the strong presence of music in Holcomb’s life. Fascinated by the harmonica as a boy, he was given a homemade banjo by a brother-in-law which served him through his teens. Holcomb recalled turn- ing to music as more than a hobby during the grim Depres- sion year of 1932. “Pretty hard times,” he recalled. “The year I started learning to play the banjo I learned 400 tunes and could sing practically every one of them…” He teamed with a fiddler to play local dances, a role reprised in the Sumner, Young & Holcomb performances here.

Religious conviction and regular employment both cur- tailed Holcomb’s secular music-making for many years, fac- tors which preserved a style little-changed at the time of his 1959 discovery from its Depression-era development. Holcomb’s Folkways recordings and subsequent perfor- mances at the Newport Folk Festival and similar events caused something of a national stir, though not enough to really alter his fortunes. Despite respiratory ailments (asthma, em- physema, black lung) and a broken back which would have qualified him for disability benefits, Holcomb continued to seek odd jobs as long as he was able. (“All my life I’ve worked hard,” he said. “I don’t know what to do when I’m not work- ing.”) “Upon meeting him,” Cohen wrote, “someone com- mented that they weren’t sure whether he was a very simple man from a great tradition, or a giant among men.”

Holcomb’s five featured selections here demonstrate the contours of his secular repertoire, which incorporated Afri- can-American elements into an Anglo-American framework. Across the Rocky Mountain has been called “Roscoe’s most famous composition” by Charles K. Wolfe, though it is a less an original composition than a composite reworking of older balladic material. Holcomb’s guitar playing in open G tuning is distinctly banjo-influenced. The banjo is a drum with strings, and Holcomb exploits this fact with offhand mastery as he provides finger percussion on the banjo head while perform- ing Little Birdie. This was the song he opened with on the one occasion this writer saw Holcomb perform; I will never forget the sheer physiological power of that voice for which the “high lonesome sound” description was well coined. Holcomb moved some men to tears; I felt my scalp prickle as if my hair was standing on end!


One Response to “Roscoe Holcomb (#2)”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    …And one night in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Holcomb was with her husband. She was singing with him, but out of range of a microphone. Later, we were able to encourage her to sing a couple of songs solo. I can only hope that somewhere out there are tapes of Mrs. Holcomb singing. Her voice was equally astounding.
    ….Reed Martin

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