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An Untamed Sense of Control

Roscoe Holcomb

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Album Review

As documented by the Smithsonian Folkways reissue The High Lonesome Sound, Roscoe Holcomb, like contemporaries Dock Boggs and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was the real thing, a raw, solitary musician who expressed the inexpressible, a yearning out of time and place, a sense of the wild, the unseen, the unknowable, perhaps even the unspeakable. The title of this second volume of Holcomb's recordings comes from Bob Dylan, who was describing what he heard in Holcomb's music. And he's right, he knew how to get that sound, how to seek and find the mercurial ghost inside whatever instrument he was playing, the banjo, a guitar with a jackknife, or from that graveyard, sorrowful voice of his. His was able to channel the wisdom and tragedy of the ages and allow for both possibility and despair, even in his a cappella numbers. His is the sound of Appalachian midnight, somewhere past bluegrass, folk, and country. These recordings were made not in 1959 like the material on the other volume, but later, between 1961-1973, when Holcomb was touring, though in declining health and spirits. And, while some the material is duplicated on this set, the versions are very different, and, if anything, this material is somehow spookier, deeper in the trenches of both sorrow and resignation. Some of these tunes were recorded in New York City and in concert in Cambridge, MA, and others on Holcomb's front porch in Daisy, KY. The settings hardly matter; this includes his versions of "Little Maggie," "Frankie and Johnny," the knife-guitar take of "Foggy Mountain Top" that is only rivaled by Maybelle Carter's, his 1961 version of Carter Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow" (which is the definitive version of the song done a cappella), and his read of "I Ain't Got No Sugar Baby Now" (which rivals Dock Boggs' earlier version). The truth in all of these songs is the way the blues, bluegrass, ancient folk traditions, and Holcomb's uncompromising and truly unusual sense of rhythm and phrasing collide and, rather than cancel each other out, bring one another to life. His blues songs, such as "Milk Cow Blues" and "Sitting on Top of This World," are fraught with edges and trail-offs that unsettle the listener, seeking a kind of completion that could only come from a singer who didn't hold the song as a living, breathing presence that haunts him. The bravado in the latter is offset by the irony that Holcomb's life had been an image in direct opposition to what the braggadocio in its lyrics offers. There is no grain in Holcomb's voice and banjo style; his voice is the grain, the American Grain in all its rough-hewn glory and grace and desolation. It is majestic in its reediness and singular in its power. This is an essential collection for anyone interested in American traditional music — be it folk, blues, country, or bluegrass — and is a primer for those who seek to discover what it was that all of those musics sought to express.

Biography

Born: 1911 in Daisy, KY

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s

One of the most noted Appalachian old-time musicians, banjo player and singer Roscoe Holcomb spent most of his life in the small town of Daisy, KY, and was one of the most authentic exponents of American mountain folk music. Indeed, he never had any professional ambitions but become a recording artist and participant in the folk revival circuit after being recorded for the first time in the late '50s. Holcomb's style is stark, epitomizing the keening, at times pained vocals associated with Appalachian...
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An Untamed Sense of Control, Roscoe Holcomb
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