The High and Lonesome Sound: The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb by John Cohen – review

John Cohen's photographs of Kentucky musician Roscoe Holcomb evoke a rural way of life that has all but disappeared

In 1959, John Cohen, photographer, musician and musicologist, travelled to East Kentucky "to search for old music and to take photographs". He was listening to an elderly banjo player, Mary Jane Holcomb, on her front porch, when her stepson, "Rossie", sauntered by on his way home from work. "He had a thin body with a gait like Charlie Chaplin," writes Cohen, "She called him in, he tuned up a guitar and sang his song, Across the Rocky Mountain – and it made the hairs on my neck stand on end."

Though they had little in common, Cohen and Holcomb became friends and this book is a testament to an often strange and stilted friendship. "We walked two paths simultaneously," writes Cohen, "and neither was truly visible to the other, nor close to the surface." It is essentially a book of black-and-white photographs taken on Cohen's wanderings through East Kentucky in 1959, Virginia in 1961 and North Carolina in 1965.

It is also a record of a rural life that has disappeared or is rapidly disappearing, the harsh struggle for survival in the mountains and backwoods of Appalachia and beyond. The small towns have names that give some indication of the hardship therein – Hazard, Viper, Defiance – and the pictures often show women, young and old, picking cotton or tilling the dusty ground. The interiors of wooden shacks – pots, pans and dishcloths hanging from nails, raggedy curtains, makeshift stoves – recall the dustbowl images Walker Evans made in the 1930s, but Cohen has an eye for reportage that comes into its own when he captures the local musicians performing in churches and living rooms and on front porches.

The final section of book follows Holcomb's brief brush with cult fame as he is lionised by the folk revivalists in New York. (Cohen was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, who played "old-time" folk music, from the 1920s and 1930s, and a friend of Pete Seeger and the young Bob Dylan.) Although Roscoe Holcomb brought his high and lonesome sound into metropolitan concert halls and on to the stages of folk festivals, he died alone and poor in a nursing home in 1981. By then, he had been feted by Dylan, who praised his "certain untamed sense of control", and Eric Clapton, who called him "my favourite country musician". You can hear him in full flow on the CD that accompanies this book, on which he sings standards like I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow and In the Pines and makes them his own. The images provide the context for that incredible voice, which, as Cohen points out, "penetrates, and recalls the soul of an earlier, irretrievable time".


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Seat at the Table by Amy Raphael; Wayfaring Stranger by Emma John – review
Women in music speak out – plus a personal odyssey into bluegrass country

Barbara Ellen

25, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Memory of a Free Festival by Sam Knee review – countercultural spirit captured
These unpublished photographs of provincial pop gatherings celebrate nascent musical tribes and underground organisers

Sukhdev Sandhu

06, Aug, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
78-87 London Youth review – 'the document of a stranger, more tribal country'

Derek Ridgers's photographs of London youth culture chart the switch from punk confrontation to new romantic decadence, says Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

21, Mar, 2014 @3:21 PM

Lord Huron: Lonesome Dreams – review
Ben Schneider's epic hymn to America's wilderness nods to Fleet Foxes, writes Neil Spencer

Neil Spencer

13, Jan, 2013 @12:05 AM

Article image
America Over the Water by Shirley Collins review – a vivid tale of ballads, gunfire and rattlesnakes
In this welcome reissue of her 2004 memoir, the celebrated folk singer recounts her song-hunting 1959 journey through the American south with the folklorist Alan Lomax

Neil Spencer

31, Jan, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson – review
A painstaking story of the guitarist’s shocking life

Kitty Empire

30, Jun, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Ernest Cole: Photographer – review
Ernest Cole captured some of the defining images of apartheid in his native South Africa. This book is a fitting testament to a pioneer photographer, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

23, Jan, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Tractor Boys by Martin Bogren – review
Martin Bogren's blurry photographs of Swedish boy racers capture a world that is both familiar and strange, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

07, Jul, 2013 @1:00 PM

Article image
Pastoral/Moscow Suburbs by Alexander Gronsky – review

Alexander Gronsky captures the edgelands of Moscow's suburbs in a series of shrewd, quietly surprising photographs, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

23, Feb, 2014 @11:30 AM

Article image
The Heath by Andy Sewell – review

Andy Sewell's evocative photographs of Hampstead Heath capture the hinterland between the created and the wild, writes Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

16, Jul, 2011 @11:06 PM