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".

Contributor

Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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