The high lonesome sound of Roscoe Holcomb

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Roscoe Holcomb, was an American singer, banjo player, and guitarist from Daisy, Kentucky. A prominent figure in Appalachian folk music, Holcomb was the inspiration for the term “high, lonesome sound,” coined by folklorist and friend John Cohen. The “high lonesome sound” term is now used to describe bluegrass singing, although Holcomb was not, strictly speaking, a bluegrass performer.

Bob Dylan once commented that Holcomb “… has a certain untamed sense of control, which makes him one of the best.”  That sense of control, vocally, derives from his participation in the Old Regular Baptist church and, later, the Holiness church.  The Baptists forbade musical instruments; and since Holcomb grew fond of string instruments and harmonica, he drifted to the more musically adventurous, boisterous Holiness church.

John Cohen, of the New Lost City Ramblers, first met Roscoe Holcomb in 1959.  The 12 recordings he made during that initial meeting were released in the Smithsonian’s Folkways album Mountain Music of Kentucky – his first exposure to music fans beyond the Kentucky hills.  Bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, who in 1966 toured Germany with Holcomb, noted “you could feel the smell of woodsmoke in that voice.”

holcomb04Originally issued as a single LP in 1960, Mountain Music of Kentucky was praised as “the greatest Kentucky record ever issued and one of the greatest records in the entire literature of American folk song” (San Francisco Chronicle 1960). This much expanded compilation features some of the outstanding traditional musicians of the twentieth century with two full hours of performances (60 minutes previously unreleased), new notes, and many photographs by John Cohen. “One of the greatest records in the entire literature of American folk song.” — San Francisco Chronicle.

As noted by Amanda Petrusich writing in The New Yorker (December 17, 2015):

Like many amateur folklorists who went trawling the South for undiscovered performers during the first half of the twentieth century, Cohen was craving a more multidimensional sense of how the music he prized functioned in context. With folk music, that idea is particularly paramount. “For years, I’d heard singers—Pete Seeger, Burl Ives—talking about some old guy out on his back porch singing this wonderful music. And I kept thinking, I want to hear that old guy. Who is that old guy? This was a way of getting at that, and at what in that music got to me. What was that feeling? What was that thing? How could I get to that thing?”

Throughout the nineteen-sixties, a number of surviving American visionaries—players like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Reverend Gary Davis, Bessie Jones, and Elizabeth Cotten, musicians who had previously issued only a smattering of commercial releases, if any at all—were granted full second acts.

When John Cohen met Holcomb in Daisy, Kentucky, in 1959, Holcomb was forty-seven years old and had never made a recording, nor had he ever considered a career as a musician. Cohen is deliberate on this point; Holcomb wasn’t rediscovered, like some of those other players, he was divined, realized. Found. In an essay printed on the back of the new LP, Cohen writes, “If I hadn’t ‘found’ him in Daisy, Kentucky in 1959, there would be no record of his music. He never had the desire to record, go on radio, or perform in public…. He was little appreciated or recognized back home in Kentucky.”

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Other recordings have been released, most notably –

Holcomb01The High Lonesome Sound

These recordings from 1961, 1964, and 1974 were previously released on three different Folkways LP records and had a powerful influence on the folk music revival.

A coal miner, construction laborer and farmer for much of his life, Holcomb was not recorded until 1958, after which his career as a professional musician was bolstered by the folk revival in the 1960s. Holcomb gave his last live performance in 1978. Due to what he described as injuries he sustained during his long career as a laborer, Holcomb was eventually unable to work for more than short periods, and his later income came primarily from his music. Suffering from asthma and emphysema as a result of working in coal mines, he died in a nursing home in 1981, at the age of 68.

Below are two videos of Holcomb performing several Appalachian songs accompanying himself on banjo and guitar with short Q&A segments with Mike Seeger.

 

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