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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Books - The High & Lonesome Sound: The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb - by John Cohen

Star rating - 10/10

John Cohen has produced much more than a handsome coffee table book of staggeringly beautiful photographs, which record for posterity a way of life in rural East Kentucky that no longer exists, but which is forever preserved through its legacy of song. This fascinating and mesmerizingly beautiful tribute to Roscoe Holcomb also contains a fabulous DVD of two 30 minute films about the man, and a CD of his music too. Now that's what I call real value for money, entirely justifying the £25 cost.

Their relationship was the result of a random encounter in 1959 by Cohen, a New York photographer and music enthusiast, who was desperate to find the real sound and images of rural Appalachia. After following several fruitless leads to find authentic musicians, he stumbled upon 'Rossie' after some local boys directed him to his home. When Cohen first heard Roscoe, who had just returned from a hard day's work, play he recalls that 'it made the hairs on my neck stand on end'

The powerful and moving music that Halcomb played was influenced by bluegrass, gospel, and traditional folk ballads. And the images in this book reveal the harsh way of life - at work down the mines and in the fields, and at home in dirt poor shacks. Their hard lives are not bemoaned here but recorded as fact. Music was not an optional leisure pursuit, these people  simply needed to play and sing to be able to endure the hardships of everyday living; much like the slaves had sang to keep their native homeland alive in their hearts,  and the Welsh miners had male voice choirs to get them through. 
Poor as they were Holcomb and the people of his community treasured their musical instruments, complete with improvised string straps. There is a lovely picture a George Davis 'The Singing Miner' with his beautiful and proudly held Martin guitar.  Cohen's friendship allowed Holcomb to perform all over the world and make some much needed money.   It's sad to hear how his welfare payments were stopped through due to his meagre new earnings, pushing his family back into destitution.    
Roscoe's voice is raw and full of emotion, and won famous admirers such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.  But his head was evidently not turned by such attention, and he remained rooted in his deep faith, and in the company of his family and friends in Kentucky, despite playing concerts far and wide.  He didn't emulate others in his playing style: 'I never did want to be like nobody in my playing. I just played, and that's it.'  And the DVD also features his son Odabie playing a beautiful, sad protest song, War In Viet Nam - I haven't been able to track it down elsewhere yet but I will keep on searching. Roscoe died in 1981, alone in a nursing home.                                                                                                                                   
The black and white photographs which form the main part of the book are simply stunning. They pay homage to a man and his community who had little, most of the women and children are barefoot as they work and play, but whose rich musical talent and heritage is undeniable, and thanks to John Cohen, is preserved for the delight of us all. A breathtakingly beautiful and haunting book.

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