Bob Dylan and the untamed sense of control.

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.

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  1. Tony: Interesting piece as always but why offer the opinion that you ‘suspect’ Dylan did not coin the oxymoronic phrase ‘untamed control’ when no one else is discovered to have or claimed to have done so?

    Sources state that Dylan said it, and surely some hard evidence is needed rather than just your opinion that it’s not his phrase.

  2. It’s from the John Cohen and Happy Traum interviews, conducted at Woodstock during June and July 1968. Published in Sing Out in October that year:

    BD: Well my voice is one thing, but someone actually having hate for Roscoe Holcomb’s voice, that beautiful high tenor, I can’t see that. What’s the difference between Roscoe Holcomb’s voice and Bill Monroe’s?
    JC: I don’t think Bill likes Roscoe’s voice. Bill sings with such control. Roscoe’s voice is so uncontrolled.
    BD: Well Bill Monroe is most likely one of the best, But Roscoe does have a certain untamed sense of control which also makes him one of the best.
    JC: I don’t think Doc Watson’s voice and your voice are compatible, it doesn’t bother me.

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