by Tony Attwood
According to an article in the New Yorker, Bob Dylan has described Roscoe Holcomb’s work as exhibiting “a certain untamed sense of control, which makes him one of the best.”
I am not sure when Bob said, and indeed IF Bob said that, but it is a quote that turns up in all sorts of places. But there is an album by Roscoe Holcomb called “An untamed sense of control”. I’m not sure if Dylan nicked the phrase or the people releasing that record took it from Dylan. Either way it is a great phrase.
What makes me very suspicious is that each of the internet sites that quotes Dylan in this way just puts in the quote in a very similar style, says Bob said it, but without saying where and when he said it – which is usually a good indicator that someone just made it up.
Certainly one of Holcomb’s best known performances is “Man of Constant Sorrow” which of course Dylan recorded. Spotify has five songs by the artist available – including “Across the Rocky Mountain” which is well worth seeking out.
Holcomb lived from 1912 to 1981, came from Kentucky and performed Appalachian folk songs. The phrase “High lonesome sound” was apparently originally said by Holcomb’s friend John Cohen, and is now used as a general description of bluegrass rather than just Holcomb’s singing although it suits Holcomb well.
During the “folk revival” of the 1960s Holcomb became famous among those seeking out the origins of the music they were discovering. Much of his work is unaccompanied, despite his skills as a musician, because the Baptist church of which he was a member forbad the accompaniment of music, but did encourage singing.
Here’s a movie about Roscoe – if you don’t want to watch the whole thing just forward to 3 minutes 40 seconds to hear him perform.
Mike Yates, in an on line commentary on Holcomb says, “Roscoe’s music stems from a number of factors. It is rooted in the hard life that he was forced to endure in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. It takes in the traditions that were all around him, the old ballads and love-songs, the Baptist hymns and chants, the blues 78s that were played on treasured Victrolas, performers on the radio. But, whatever the source, Roscoe’s singing was, as I said, his and his alone.”
It is the second volume of Holcomb’s music that took the title “An untamed sense of control” – whether Bob said it before that is not clear, but either way the phrase is now placed in history. That album is available on Amazon, but you have to be a member to hear it. However (at least in the UK) you can sign in and have a month free, if you just want to hear the album. If you do, take a listen to “Train that carried my girl from town”. It’s not Bob Dylan in any way, but it is an early example of that link between the effect of the railways on love which all the singers of the era and since have continued.
Certainly Dylan knows a lot about the origins of popular music and of folk music so I can’t imagine Bob has not come across the music of Holcomb, but who created that phrase… well, I suspect not Bob, but I also suspect we’ll never know.
Other articles in this series
- Why does Dylan like “Black white and brown”?
- Why does Bob Dylan like “Mystery Train” by Junior Parker (and Elvis Presley)
- “Me and My chauffeur blues” – the foundations of Obviously 5 Believers
- Why does Bob Dylan like “Lucille” by Little Richard, and some Zappa too
- Why does Dylan like Johnny Cash’s Train Of Love..,#
- Bob Dylan’s fascination with Barbara Allen
- Why does Bob Dylan like “Friend of the Devil”?
- Why does Bob Dylan like “Not Fade Away”
- Why does Dylan like “Lonely Avenue” by Ray Charles?
- Why does Bob Dylan really like “Lonesome Town”
- Why does Bob Dylan so adore “So Cold in China”?
- Why and how did “Cottonfields” change Bob Dylan’s life?
- Why does Dylan love “Uncloudy Day”? A bolt straight from the heavens.