He kinda looks like the American Gothic fella.
He sounds like nothing you ever heard.
He was from Kentucky.
Roscoe Holcomb was an incredible artist. If you start to know a bit about American folk music and folk songs, you'll recognize many of his songs. But that recognition is suffused with something like awe, because there is NO popular tune or song that he sings that sounds like the way anyone else does it. You know "On Top Of Old Smoky"? Of course you do, and it's cheesy. Like on top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese. Well he makes Old Smoky sound kinda dangerous and mournful. it ain't cheesy. He plays the guitar like the banjo and the banjo like the guitar. He's obviously influenced by the blues--if you wanted you might be able to call him a blues performer.
However there's obviously something else besides blues going on in Holcomb's style and repertoire. That something else is Primitive Baptist singing. Here's Roscoe with the Stanley brother's singing "Village Churchyard"-- or rather, a fragment of it. you can hear Holcomb deliver the definitive complete version, solo, on his album. That version speaks of grief, desolation, and a cold & distant hope in mind-bendingly slow, drawn-out syllables that radiate a spiritual electricity, and I'm going to stop describing now because words fail me when it comes to how brilliant R.H. is.
Anyway here's 3 dudes singing together, in a good illustration of the Primitive Baptist style. No harmonies are used in that tradition, but you can hear in this recording how the 3 singers aren't matching every line with each other perfectly. that's part of it. the ornaments like a held-out note or a decorative trill remain individual and cascade around each other, creating a sort of ad hoc polyphony, while the core melody stays the same.
Okay? Okay. Those Stanley brothers's aren't so bad at singing either. Fun fact: one time the Stanley Brothers and Roscoe Holcomb played 2 different versions of the same song. After the brothers heard Roscoe's version, they said, "Well....at least we got the words right." Now take a listen to some religious singing in Scots Gaelic. Why is this relevant, you ask? It's the ancestor of the religion and the music you've just been hearing.
That's fun and all from a music-history standpoint, yes. in my opinion it tells us a lot about the emergence of bluegrass music and what we think of as the High Lonesome Sound, and what we think of as an Appalachian style of singing. it's also musically riveting. because no matter what he was singing or performing, Holcomb conveys a vibrating tension that people really respond to, and it lives in those ornaments and long-held notes.
BUT WHERE DOES IT COME FROM??
"The year that I started trying to learn to play a banjo and it was pretty hard times...hard for men to get work and so...I asked God to give me something that I could do...that I could make a little money. Twelve months from the time I started playing with this old fiddler, I learned I guess around 400 hundred tunes and could sing practically every one of them. That's why I say it is a gift, and I believe that God give it to me and I believe it enough...that I'm gonna let Him take it."
It would be possible, in my opinion, to mis-read this quote badly. "Oh wow, he gets his tension from his desperate lot in life, and the pressure to use his music to earn money to feed himself and his family," one could say. But I think that would be underestimating him. Not to say that he didn't have a hard life -- he did. Don't we all. He did work that was hard and hazardous till he couldn't anymore, and he had a hard time getting by. He lived in what was then and is now one of the poorest parts of the country. But the important thing here is that he saw his 'untamed sense of control' (as Bob Dylan famously put it) as coming from a deep connection with his creator.
So, we could talk about 'authentic' all day. But here's what I'm gonna say: Roscoe Holcomb wasn't futzing around. Because he saw his music as a gift, from the highest possible source, he treated it with dignity. He ain't winking at you (not that a wink is bad). He's giving away something precious. I can't know for sure what he meant by "I'm gonna let Him take it". But to me that quote conveys a letting go, a release that is one of the things that makes art beautiful. To say, "this art does not belong to me--I'm only a vessel." That shows true grace. And that's what Roscoe Holcomb had, amongst all his hardships and the weirdness of being discovered and becoming popular to a mainly pretty odd niche of people. And what I'M saying is, his stuff is GOLD and you should put it in your ears and it will make you feel feelings and think thoughts. That is all.