I first heard about Roscoe Holcomb sometime in the early 1950s when the Sign of the Sun Bookstore in San Diego ran a series of films on traditional music, one of which was John Cohen’s film The High Lonesome Sound all about this Kentucky Mountain farmer who played amazing old time banjo and guitar in a haunting mountain modal tuning that backed up a truly amazing mountain tenor voice. I remember that night I bought the LP record Mountain Music of Kentucky on the Folkways label, which included songs by Roscoe and others looking forward to solo albums by Roscoe.
In 1963 Roscoe came out to California to the UCLA Folk Festival an also played a week at LA’s premier folk club in those years, the Ash Grove. I saw him at the festival and at least two nights at the Grove. Unforgettable shows! In the next years a duet LP with Roscoe and Wade Ward came out and finally a solo LP but no more Roscoe on the West Coast.
Come 1972 and I was making plans for the 6th San Diego State Folk Festival. I remember asking Curt Bouterse who he’d like to see and he said, “Why don’t you try and get Roscoe Holcomb?” So I started looking for a way to make contact. My friend Rita Weill suggested that I call Mike Seeger, which I did. Mike said he’d check with John Cohen and before long Roscoe was booked. It would be his first trip to the West Coast in nine years and as far as I know his last one.
As always, the performances at the San Diego State Folk Festivals were taped and remained in my library of reel-to-reel tapes all these years until they came to be digitized as part of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library project for the Library of Congress, the UCLA Ethnomusicology Library, and also the San Diego State Library in a project starting in 2007 and continuing through today. The folks at Tomkins Square Recordings contacted us about the Roscoe Holcomb recordings and wanted to put them out on both CD and a limited edition LP. I wrote some notes and they also got John Cohen to write some new notes about Roscoe, particularly that 1972 trip, which brought him out to San Diego State.
Roscoe Holcomb has been hailed by artists such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton as among the finest traditional mountain singer-musicians in the southern mountains of the United States. I was so proud to get him out here to San Diego in 1972. I’m equally proud to see these rare recordings finally issued on CD and with some fine photographs by my wife, Virginia.
Roscoe Holcomb LP/CD Release Party
Join us on Saturday, December 5th for a celebration of the new Roscoe Holcomb—San Diego State Folk Festival 1972 CD/LP release on Tompkins Square Records. These exceptional recordings come from the vast and remarkable Lou Curtiss Sound Library. This event will include a discussion with Lou Curtiss about Roscoe Holcomb, old-time music, and his life’s work as a festival organizer and archivist. Clinton Davis of the G Burns Jug Band will be performing some banjo songs from his native state of Kentucky, including some Roscoe Holcomb tunes. And Tompkins Square Records owner, Josh Rosenthal, will likely be giving a short reading from his new book, The Record Store of the Mind. CD and LP copies of the new Roscoe Holcomb release, as well as copies of Rosenthal’s new book, will be available for purchase.
Roscoe Holcomb was discovered in Daisy, Kentucky by John Cohen in 1959. He never desired to be recorded or even perform for his neighbors. He was a very poor, working class man who suffered from emphysema and black lung disease. Holcomb was simply a “back porch musician” in 1959. He quickly became recognized as an American treasure. Roscoe Holcomb’s music represents the old, deep soul of American music. His singing and banjo playing has a very distinct, high-pitched, wailing fervor to it, showing the influence of the primitive Baptist churches in remote Appalachia. His old-time songs are deeply traditional; many were centuries old. And he was strongly influenced by African-American music, singing with deep and haunting blues and aggressively pickin’ his banjo with speed. This music perfectly symbolizes the soul of America and its music: battered and pained, yet stubborn, excited, strange, and transcendentally beautiful. There’s a reason why musicians like Bob Dylan consider Roscoe to be one of their biggest influences. —Brendan Boyle
Roscoe Holcomb LP/CD Release Party
Saturday December 5th, 2pm
at Folk Arts Rare Records
3072 El Cajon Blvd.