Fred Price & Roscoe Holcomb on the beach.
Roscoe Holcomb was born on Sept. 5 1912 – died Feb. 1 1981. He was raised in Daisy, Kentucky, situated in the foothills of the Appalachias in the southeastern tip of the state. He played banjo, guitar and sang.
Below is footage of Roscoe Holcomb that is associated with some work Mike Seeger did with him.
Sorry our video display isn’t working, but the video works if you just click on the youtube link below.
Interview With Roscoe Holcomb By John Cohen
What are old time people?/ Far as I know, they’re just old time people… they got their own ways; they’re just a little different from the younger generation.
Are their houses different?/ They live different from what we do now. There wasn’t any modern living back them days. Most of the buildings were log buildings, hewn, with a broadax, notched and laid up, and they was chanked with mud, the cracks was, to keep the air out, and then papered inside – made a very warm house; and then covered with boards. Go to the hill and cut a big oak tree or chestnut, and dry the boards out and nail them on the roof. Last for years, 25 and 30 years a board roof would last… I was raised up that same way, but we made our living mostly in farming. The oldtime songs was all we knew anything about. We don’t like this new stuff that’s out and that’s the reason we don’t sing it.
How was it when the coal came in?/ Well, farming’s about all there was in this country til the coal mines come in here. Man made his living on the farm. Course there was railroad work – that give a lotta people work and still they farmed, raised their own stuff to eat. One of the best livings a man ever lived when you raise all your vegetables, have 3 or 4 big hogs to kill, plenty milk and butter and your own eggs, raise your chickens and you don’t have to go to the store for it, you got it. It’s all pure food buddy, that’s the reason the old generation was stronger and lived longer, and stronger than they are today… I guess the coal mines have been here before my time, but not but just a few. After they got started and seen what it was, why they all worked at it then. The first ones started and they made their own pushcarts and pushed it out of the mines and hauled it in a wagon to the railroad. Then they got the trucks, it kept building up. Then they got the coal machines to cut the coal and shoot it, motors to haul it with, but they first had ponies and mules to haul it and still do cause you take a lot of places that you can take the ponies and mining mules – they’ll jerk ’em to the main line before the motors can get ’em and the motors don’t have to do so much switching in each room. But the big mines they don’t use no stock at all – all machine. It’s getting to much machinery – taking the work away from the people. No, I don’t think they’d (the people) ever like it back like it one time was, cause the coal mine has given an awful lot of work in this country. See, these old mountains is about wore out. People used to work 10 hours for a dollar and half – 15 cents/hour. You worked from the time you could see to when you couldn’t hardly see. I loaded coal, set timber.
Why was it you stopped playing music for a while?/ They (Baptists) seemed to think it was wrong. I used to think it was too. I get disgusted with it yet, cause I try and try and it don’t seem I’m doing good at it, and get disgusted and think sometimes I’ll quit anyway. I like it and I don’t like it; I love to hear it and I love to play sometimes, but after so long a time I get burned out with it. Long as I’m able to work and do, it ain’t so bad – been used to it all my life. When I can’t do nothing it worries me and you don’t feel like playing anymore.
What kind of churches were here?/ It used to, there wasn’t nothin but the old regular Baptists and missionary Baptists. And then the holiness come in, the Presbyterians and the freewheelin’ Baptists. It’s different. Branches of religion started in and there’s quite a few of them around now.
Is it better with more?/ Well, it suits everybody’s notions. Some people don’t believe in some things, some in the other. They get started, maybe an argument in the church and they just branch off – leave the church and set up one of their own – call it what they want to.
Which churches have music?/ Ever since I remember the Holiness had guitars – guitars is mostly what they used, now they use anything. Any kind a man bring in they use it. Music’s all right in church – I love to hear it. The old regular Baptists, they don’t believe in stringed instruments in church, no kind of music in a church. I guess a lot of people doubts the Holiness, but I think Holiness is nothing more than livin a good clean life. You have to be holy before you can be righteous. But, they have things in a church that everybody cain’t see, don’t believe in – some don’t believe in talkin in unknown tongue, some don’t believe in this shoutin, jumpin up and down, dancin and so on, but that’s their belief, and I can’t fall out with a man because he believes something. He’s gotta right to believe his beliefs as well as I’ve mine. Let him live his life and I’ll live mine. Well, that’s the way the world oughta stand, I think.
To be continued…
Early Memory of Roscoe Holcomb.
by: Matt Scherger
When I first heard Roscoe Holcomb I was a freshman at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. College home to the great car salesman Larry Bird. I used to live on the 12th floor of Rhodes Hall on campus. Off campus about 3/4 of a mile south was a record shop called Headstones. I was 18 and from Kokomo, so never had I been to a place like this before.
I walked in and the first thing I saw was a record of a man standing with a banjo in his hands in front of an old shed. He was old. Really old. I passed by it and went browsing for a while. Beck’s album Mellow Gold was just being released so I had to pick that up. That may give you a clue to my age there. But as I went to pay for my Beck album I grabbed the banjo album too. I’m pretty sure that I went back to my dorm room and sat and listened to Beck’s Mellow Gold and Roscoe Holcomb’s album Untamed Sense of Control for a few weeks straight.
When you listen to someone like Roscoe Holcomb play and talk about his life it makes you realize that he is a part of a vanishing America. One that has traded tradition for convenience. Cut out the face-to-face time, let’s get down to the dollars and sense, blub blub blub… I need a cheeseburger to go no pickle, no ketchup.
It makes me sad sometimes when I get all caught up in someone I’m researching who is dead and gone. And I sit and think of what it must have been like being active in a time where self sufficiency was your key to survival in rural America. A time of desperation to perservere and not complain and just live your life day to day as you do any other. That’s what’s different. That type of living is not in the American voice anymore. At least it’s few and far between. Only here could we push our own people out of their homes and force them to work low paying hard labor jobs for next to nothing.
If it weren’t for the struggle in life, we wouldn’t have people like Roscoe Holcomb. Original in every sense of the word. And probably one of the last. Struggle was the voice that came out of his recordings and that’s about as real as it gets.
Until next time, where we will continue with Part Two of John Cohen’s interview with Roscoe.