Spare Me Over 'Til Another Year
Wandering around a record store a few years ago, I found myself browsing though the Americana section and came upon An Untamed Sense of Control, one of the Smithsonian Folkways collections of Roscoe Holcomb recordings. I had never heard of Holcomb before - in fact I didn't know anything at all about Appalachian folk (or "old-time music", if you prefer). It was pretty much just the photograph on the cover that convinced me to buy the album, but the first two tracks ("Swano River" and "Across the Rocky Mountain") turned made me a devoted fan.
For whatever reason, I never made much of an effort to explore the genre very much, but I recently had the good fortune to come upon a couple of tracks by Dock Boggs. Boggs, while he shares the "high, lonesome sound" so often associated with Holcomb, is generally thought to be more accessable. Holcomb's catterwail, admittedly, can get a little shrill. But I go for that kind of thing.
In any case, Dock Boggs' originally recorded a number of songs in the 20s and early 30s, then spent a number years away from music before being rediscovered in the 60s, when he also put out quite a lot of material through Folkways. Included are a number of traditional songs such as "Sugar Baby," which Holcomb also performed as "I Ain't Got No Sugar Baby Now," or "Little Black Train," also played by Woody Guthrie.* Boggs' instrumentation rarely goes beyond vocals and banjo, but in part it's the sparseness of these performances that make them timeless. These are mostly songs about love and death - similar to music from any time and place, probably - but what grants artists like Holcomb and Boggs a special kind of grace is that they don't seem to need to talk about either of these themes in terms of grand universals. Emotions ring clearly enough in the particlar stories told in these songs, so that grand declarations seem unnecessary. It's just good, old music. Plain and simple.
The 1960 documentary That High Lonesome Sound, which focuses on Holcomb, is also well worth watching if you get the chance. I have a copy on DVD if any locals are interested.
Recommended tracks: Dock Boggs/Little Black Train, Oh Death, Danville Girl, Country Blues. Roscoe Holcomb/Swano River, Across the Rocky Mountain, I Ain't Got No Sugar Baby Now, I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow**.
*On Folkways' High Lonesome Sound, Holcomb also performs "In The Pines," which Leadbelly played under the name "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," a song that Nirvana covered during their Unplugged performance.
**Click here to listen to Holcomb's acapella version of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," the centerpiece to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.