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Wednesday, October 21, 2009


by john cohen

Clear sky, full sun, temperature in the 60s, short sleeve weather for a day. Earlier, I saw a photograph of Roscoe Holcomb, banjo and guitar picker, singer of old time music from Daisy, Kentucky, a suburb of Hazard, where mountain music is very much alive. Judy Carmichael had stopped by to see Jr and Vonda is here. We were sitting at the table talking about gospel singing. I had a 2cd set of music from East Kentucky, most of it from all around Hazard, and played them a singing of Great Speckled Bird by an unidentified woman in a Holiness church there. It's sung so beautifully in the mountain way I feel it in my soul.

I remembered the time these two guys dressed like mechanics came into the store I had in Sparta, Backwoods Beat Music. We talked some. They were brothers living in Wilkes, originally from Hazard. It turned out they were both musicians in a gospel band. They browsed around and we talked. One of then said to the other, pointing at a b&w picture I had on the wall in a frame of Roscoe Holcomb, 'Look! It's Uncle Roscoe!' 'Why it shore is!' 'Where'd you get that picture of Uncle Roscoe?' more a statement of awe than a question. They had to know how I had a picture of their uncle in my store in Sparta. It was a photograph in a poster for a Roscoe Holcomb album, the photo by John Cohen of New Lost City Ramblers, who played banjo and did a lot of field recording in these mountains, emphasis on banjo pickers, plus photographing and filming in b&w.

They brought up the b&w film John Cohen made called HIGH LONESOME SOUND. I had a copy at home. One said, Remember the little girl carrying the cat? I said, Yeah. That was Aunt something whose name I don't remember. When we go into a coal miner's house in the film when he's getting home from work, the miner was their grandpa, and the boy sitting at the able who looked do be 12-14 was their daddy. There was a picture in the book of their grandpa playing a guitar in a Holiness church. Several pictures of in and around Hazard. Several pictures of Uncle Roscoe. They told me about a banjo picker Lee Sexton who lived down the road from Uncle Roscoe. They showed me the house in the book. He's another old time banjo legend from there. Coal miners.

One doesn't tend to think of coal miners as musicians, but many of them are and they're really good. It seems the harder a man's life the more dynamic his music. Like Morgan Sexton, Lee's cousin. Looking at the pictures of him, he looks like a man who is built of solid muscle, the kind of man that you know a handshake would feel a hand rock hard. And he plays such a lyrical banjo and sings a good song, a man who worked in the mines all his life. Lee Sexton has the same look of a man who worked like a workhorse all his life, was paid next to nothing, but can pick a banjo with artistry.

We talked quite awhile and they told me a lot about Uncle Roscoe, so I now feel almost like I know him. They didn't know Uncle Roscoe had 2 albums on Rounder label and is in about every collection of Kentucky old time music, and many of old time music. I had in the store a book of John Cohen's b&w photographs for half price. When they were telling me about Uncle Roscoe, I took the picture down from the wall and handed it to them. I couldn't do otherwise. They bought the book.

Some 4 or 5 years ago I was at Jr's and we were listening to WBRF playing bluegrass in the evening. For an unknown reason the dj put on Roscoe Holcomb playing banjo and singing Little Birdie. He has a really high voice from way up in a holler. I was loving it. After about a minute Jr said, He cain't sing for shit. Cain't pick for shit neither. Then the dj turned it off in the middle and started playing something else. I wanted to go on hearing Roscoe Holcomb, but Jr already had the remote in his hand ready to gong him when the dj beat him to it.

I wanted to go on hearing it, but if the dj hadn't turned it off when he did, Jr would have in the next second or two, so I'd missed the song either way. That's ok. It was just funny, like the dj heard Jr. Maybe he got some phone calls. Turn that shit off! His voice isn't pretty, but it's real. It's no where near as beautiful as Ralph Stanley's. Ralph and Carter Stanley made Little Birdie their own. Nobody else can do it and it sound right. I tend to like Roscoe's singing of The Hills of Mexico. Among others.

In the film, HIGH LONESOME SOUND, Roscoe talks quite a lot telling bits of his life. He said he was a coal miner and when the mines shut down, he and everybody else were out of work. Hard times. He prayed to God to give him something he could do to make a living. He picked up banjo and played guitar at square dances. He can make a square dance go with solo guitar, he's that powerful a picker. Same with a banjo. He made his living ever since making music. That doesn't mean he lives high and mighty, but it gets him along, and that's good enough. Probably means he has a new refrigerator and washer and dryer, and maybe a car that doesn't break down all the time.
Roscoe is one of the many gems of old time music. He plays in church too. Roscoe is one of the many reasons I love playing mountain music to mountain people. Hillbilly music good as it gets. Pure, raw hillbilly with no trimmings, no concessions to money, art for art's sake by artists of the real. Constantine Brancusi, abstract sculptor of the 20th Century, said Art is reality itself. Old time music is the art form of these mountains. In this way it is the living spirit of these mountains.

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