Roscoe Holcomb – Stranger in a strange land
Put in another setting, this cabin would have been perfectly appropriate for a summer camping trip, which for us it was. After all, we bedded down in sleeping bags on the floor. You had to think yourself into the situation of a mining family trying to make it through a mountain winter in a house with no insulation or running water in times that you might have to risk your life stealing coal to keep your family from freezing to death.
When I heard Harlan County singer Sarah Ogen Gunning at another Chicago festival, she talked about moving to New York and escaping the union wars of the 1930s. It was the first time she had ever seen the extra fat many of us carry on our hips and call “love handles.”
That night we had dinner at Roscoe’s house with his family. The meals at Roscoe’s home and other mountain families we visited that summer were practically what we would call vegetarian. The Holcombs had a vegetable garden and the table was set with bowls of beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and a little side meat with bread. This food was very fresh and was usually served with Kool-Aid or possibly soda.
The conversation turned to the coal mining union wars of the 1930s, during which dynamite was a common weapon. Abruptly the whole house shook with a thunderous shock, as if we had been transported back to those times. When we recovered our wits, Roscoe explained that there was an Air Force base nearby and a fighter jet had just broken the sound barrier.
The inside of Roscoe’s home was furnished with a few basics, and the rooms were small and spare. There was no living room. The real living room was the front porch, where you could sit on a swing that was hung from the ceiling and gather in the sunlight and breeze in the daytime, or the moonlit darkness at night. On that front porch, you could stretch out your arms and legs — or, in the case of Roscoe, your voice.
One morning, after a cup of coffee, Roscoe got out his guitar, leaned back against the porch railing and really cut loose on a song. Although it was the same high lonesome Roscoe we all knew, there was a relaxation in his stance that I had never experienced before. His legs were spread, feet squarely planted on the porch floor; his shoulders were laid back and so was his head. He was singing to the hills.
But this was not to last. Before Roscoe could finish the song, he was wracked by a fit of coughing so strong that he had to run into the house.
The next morning, as we sat on the same front porch, drinking our coffee, the sound of a lone woman singing a modal hymn came floating up from an unseen source in the holler. Her voice was strained with an eerie edge of hysteria, and the combination of such music with the peacefulness of the country morning was more than strange. Roscoe told us the singer was a mentally ill woman who lived in the cabin below, whose escape from a tortured life was expressed in her song. To this day, I cannot erase that sound from my mind.
Later on in the day, we attempted to help out on a little carpentry project with several of Roscoe’s neighbors, who were amused with our inability even to drive a nail straight, and proud of their own ability to do so. They also talked with some pride about Kentucky mountain history. According to them, the colonial immigrants to eastern Kentucky had been too wild and ornery to fit into the communities of North Carolina and Virginia.
That night we were invited to come along to the funeral of a neighbor who had just committed suicide. Although the opportunity to hear the hymn singing was tempting, we decided not to impose ourselves. Roscoe and his friends praised the deceased man as being “a good worker,” their highest compliment.
My cousin and I went south again the next summer and again drove north from Virginia into eastern Kentucky. This time we entered Kentucky from the Virginia coal town of Norton, where we had the chance to meet another banjo player, Dock Boggs, who had recorded in the 1920s and had recently been rediscovered by Mike Seeger.
We spent more time during our second trip, began to get a better feel for the community, and noticed more details. Evidence of coal mining injuries was pervasive. (John Cohen’s liner notes to The High Lonesome Sound note that Holcomb’s back had been broken twice in the mines.) It seemed that whenever we stopped at a gas station or grocery store, we noticed someone with a missing finger or a pronounced limp.
When we visited banjo player Lee Sexton, an active miner, he described his own mining accident when a slab of rock had fallen on his leg and put him out of work for a while. When recovering from his injury, he said that he “just couldn’t wait to get back into the mines.” His attitude echoed the Merle Travis song, “Dark As A Dungeon”, with its assertion that mining “will form as a habit and sink in your soul, till the streams of your blood run as black as the coal,” or that “a man will have lust for the lure of the mine.” Although the song originally was recorded to reach the urban folk music market, it had traveled back home.
When my wife Steffy was a teenager, she had traveled through the coal country of West Virginia with her family, about a year before my southern trip. They stopped for gas, and the mechanic, while filling their tank, saw her with her guitar in the back seat of the car. He asked if he could play and sing something. She handed him the guitar, passing it over the front seat, and said, “Please sing whatever is in your heart.” He put his foot on the door jam of the car and movingly sang “Dark As A Dungeon” for her right there in the parking lot.