Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Exultation of Despair

Roscoe Holcomb is a sonic memento mori. A skull on the desk. Switching between banjo and guitar and employing a style on each that evokes the other, Holcomb sounds like Dock Boggs superimposed on a Skip James jam. It’s bluesy, but it’s also high lonesome, deep holler, mountain madness – stretching back to hermit monks in beehive caves, the rocky coast of some desolate fringe of Ireland or Scotland, waiting for the invaders to wipe away history. And he looked like William S. Burroughs leading a scouting troupe. This version of “Moonshiner” makes me think of Cormac McCarthy, both because of the bug-juice theme, the backwoods spookiness, the revenue coming to get you, stilling up all his corn, etc, but also for the bone-dry aesthetic, the compressed-into-dust austerity. Cat Powers, Uncle Tupelo and Dylan (all of whom have done versions of the song) need to take it home and work on it for a while longer. Someone once referred to Holcomb’s “exultation of despair” and I think that’s about right. You can see footage of Holcomb on YouTube -- and there's a movie, The Lonesome Sound, which features him as well. I love the thought of Holcomb sitting alone on his front porch in Daisy, Kentucky, not far from the lumber camp, singing Old Regular Baptist hymns. I’m not sure what the physical-physiological factors are, but this one of those performances that always sets up sympathetic vocal harmonies in my head whenever I hear it. I’ve seen others express the sentiment about Holcomb’s music and I share it: it’s what you want played at your funeral. But even more, it practically makes me want to hop on a pyre and light a match.

“Moonshiner” – Roscoe Holcomb

“The Wandering Boy” – Roscoe Holcomb


Frankie Lee said...

That's funny, someone sent me that postcard a long time ago, and that image is seared in my brain. It's such great picture.

Frankie Lee said...
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