Additional John Cohen Publications about Roscoe Holcomb

Additional John Cohen Publications about Roscoe Holcomb

By Daniel W. Patterson

John Cohen’s early article in Southern Exposure is only one of a number of accounts he wrote about his fieldwork and friendship with Roscoe Holcomb. He published a number of others in his series of overlapping albums of sound recordings of Roscoe. They vary in the amount and nature of the commentary:

Mountain Music of Kentucky (1960), Folkways FA2317.  29 performances by 14 musicians (only 6 by Holcomb), all recorded in 1959 in Kentucky. Notes include texts of the songs.

The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward (1962), Folkways FW02363.  26 performances, 10 of them by Holcomb. Recordings made in New York City, with an introduction emphasizing Roscoe’s aesthetic and the making of the recordings, and with short notes on the songs and transcriptions of their texts.

Roscoe Holcomb: Close to Home (1975), Smithsonian Folkways, FW02374.  11 songs, With a short introduction and song texts and notes on songs.

Mountain Music of Kentucky (1996), Smithsonian Folkways, FW02317. Reissued in a very different form:  66 performances by 14 musicians, 8 by Holcomb, 3 by a Regular Baptist congregation, and 4 from a Pentecostal Holiness church; no song texts or notes on individual songs, but an extended commentary, including sections headed “Social Setting,” “Musical Setting,” Banjo Styles,” “Singing Styles,” “Collector as Recollector,” “Finding the Musicians,” “The Visits,” and “Aftermath.”

Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound (1998), Smithsonian Folkways, FW02368.  21 songs, recorded in 1961, 1964, and 1974. The commentary includes short notes on individual songs but no song texts. The lengthy introduction includes quotations from interviews with Roscoe and sections labeled “Roscoe’s Music,” “History,” “Musical Influences,” “The Blues Singer,” and “Travels with Roscoe” (which includes his travels to various folk festivals, colleges like Sarah Lawrence, and distant places like London and Stockholm, Germany and Switzerland, and his encounters with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley).

Roscoe Holcomb: An Untamed Sense of Control (2003), Smithsonian Folkways, SFW40144.  26 songs from never-released recordings made on various occasions across the years from 1972 on. Brief notes on songs, with no song texts. Cohen’s commentary includes fresh reflections on Roscoe and on their relationship and quotations from a few of the letters Roscoe wrote him.

Smithsonian Folkways offers each of these albums for sale on line. On the webpage for each of the albums, the Smithsonian has posted the full original commentary, photographs, and notes. Cohen’s comments for each one held fresh information and insights. In several of the albums, for example, Cohen told of Roscoe’s singing the “Wandering Boy” at home in Kentucky or on musical tours, and in particular “’lining out’ this song with Ralph and Carter Stanley together during the 1966 European tour. Cohen usually mentioned that the song deeply moved Roscoe. Only, however, in the Close to Home album, did he give this full account: “Often at performances in the past six years, Roscoe has choked up with emotion while singing on stage. In Michigan he had to stop singing during his performance of the ‘Wandering Boy.’ The stunned audience broke into applause—they were unprepared to face the reality of a grown man choked with emotion triggered by the sentiments of his own song. During the Michigan performance something special moved him.” The incident made Cohen reflect on “the function of folk music to those who sing it,” and he wrote, “I get the impression that his performance is not a performance at all, but becomes an actual event for him. There is no rehearsal for the music. He does not ‘practice’ at home and the instruments seldom come out of their cases from tour to tour. It is as if each time he sings is like the first time he has sung. In this respect, there is a newness in each performance.”

Tom Davenport’s film “Remembering the High Lonesome” (2003, available on Folkstreams) and the more recent film “Play On, John: A Life in Music” (2009)—both of them biographical films about Cohen--are other venues for John Cohen’s recollections of Roscoe Holcomb. But Cohen offered his own last report of his experience with Holcomb in his book The High Lonesome Sound: The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb (Göttingen: Steidl, 2012). The volume is composed of some 226 large pages of Cohen’s striking photographs of Roscoe, the eastern Kentucky world in which he lived, and a few related documents (pages from a 1956 “Agreement” printed by the Hazard United Mine Workers and from Foster Ratliff’s The New Baptist Song Book (Lookout, Ky., 1952), and an official letter of investigation from a Kentucky social worker. Following these are 28 important pages written mostly by John Cohen, his fullest account and thoughts concerning Roscoe Holcomb. This section includes transcriptions of interviews with Roscoe and excerpts of letters he wrote to Cohen. In this material Cohen, for example, quotes tributes to Roscoe from both country-music and folk-revival performers and points out that both he and they were keenly aware of how different Roscoe was from those performers. “On camera at a TV studio or on stage with other performers,” Cohen wrote, “he hung back, and rarely did any of the things a stage performer would do to get attention. He was never a professional musician—just the little man looking at the important stuff going on around him. But when it was his turn, he would play directly into the microphone and sing as he had done all his life. Roscoe was his own man, and couldn’t attempt to be anything else. Many people in music at that time were busy inventing themselves, or building a career, or making a personal or political statement. Roscoe did none of that, and the effect was that he was unique and different, and listeners would have to bring their own interpretation to his music; he wasn’t giving them anything except his fully realized song. And other performers noticed” (p. 234). Pockets inside the rear cover of the book hold two additional items: A CD of 13 songs performed by Roscoe Holcomb and a DVD with two films, “The High Lonesome Sound” (1963) and “Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky” (2010). The latter is composed of footage from his first shoot that he did not use in the original film. The volume also lists for “Further Reading” the following significant essay:
Brian Jones, “Finding the Avant-Garde in the Old Time: John Cohen in the American Folk Revival,” American Music, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter, 2010), pp. 402-435.

Cohen died on September 17, 2019. See John Cohen's obituary in the New York Times.