Thursday, January 10, 2013

1.10.2013, FTW

1) Revisionist history. Was thinking about deleting all those old blog posts where I eschewed capitalization, a silly affectation I was recently mortified to discover I was still using as recently as 2010 -- can I really have been that burnt out from writing on spec? My sweetie talked me out of it; her take: "It's a work in progress." I finally figured it'd require too much effort. There sure is a lot of bad writing here, though. Sigh.

2) Read a good article by Peter Guralnick on Elvis Presley, challenging the post-Chuck D conventional wisdom that El was a racist. My take: There's danger in mistaking marketing for the performer's intent. Seems to me that Presley was an omnivorous music fan who had the knack for transforming stuff in his own image; in American Pop, Allen Lowe (who's considering self-publishing his long-threatened rock 'n' roll book in electronic format) quotes a Goldmine interview with Wanda Jackson where she recalls him showing her how to hillbilly-ize a blues tune via vocal and riddimic inflection. Elvis didn't copy the styles of the performers he covered, nor did he steal their copyrights, which is more than, say, Jimmy Page can claim. I've been remiss in keeping up with Guralnick's output since Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home. I need to catch up this year, perhaps starting with his two volumes of Presley biography.

3) As alluded to in an earlier post, one of my projects this year is to spend more time investigating pre-rock musics. Lately I find that whenever someone pulls my coat to something new, it invariably reminds me of something old that I'd rather listen to. Conversely, when I start investigating stuff from before I came in ('50s and earlier), I find more that I find of enduring worth. It's like the bibliophile who, sensing his own mortality, tries to read all the great books before he checks out -- a fool's errand.

My current obsession o' the moment is Roscoe Holcomb, a singer, banjo picker, guitarist and harmonicist from Kentucky, discovered during the '50s folk boom and recorded by John Cohen for Folkways in '61, '64, and '74. I first learned of Roscoe and his "high lonesome sound" in an Eric Clapton Rolling Stone interview, of all places; Clapton later recorded a version of "Motherless Children," which Roscoe performs on the compilation CD The High Lonesome Sound I've been listening to continuously for the past few days (thanks again to Hickey). This is, I suppose, what's meant by the term "mountain music;" Hembree, who grew up in rural Tennessee, pronounces it "the real deal."

Born in 1912, Roscoe spent most of his life doing hard physical labor -- coal mining, construction -- and by Cohen's account, enjoyed doing such work (putting me in mind of Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness: “I don’t like work, no one does, but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself”). He only played at square dances and in church; he was never a "professional musician" until his discovery in middle age. Roscoe suffered from black lung and emphysema, the damage from which was further aggravated by heavy smoking. You could say that his musical career killed him: he never recovered from a day-and-night-long bus ride in the winter of '78, returning home from a tour with a stuck-open bus window, and died three years later.

Roscoe's singing is keening, high, and nasal; his cadences reverberate in Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," and practically every note Levon Helm ever sang. Ralph Stanley has some of the same sound, but this feels more organic; you can hear how people could be consoled by this music. His accompaniment is solid, but not as virtuosic as bluegrass would become (blame Bill Monroe for hiring Flatt & Scruggs) -- a good thing, to these feedback-scorched ears. I remember learning "Old Smoky" as a small child via the sanitized version recorded by HUAC name-namer Burl Ives, and "House In New Orleans" is the same song as the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." I got a smile of recognition listening to "Married Life Blues" and hearing a phrase that Rod Stewart borrowed to write "Gasoline Alley." And "Trouble In Mind" flashed me back 15 years, to when I used to play that song with Hosea Robinson.

The vibe I get from listening to Roscoe is similar to what I get from listening to Skip James -- in the same way that I get similar sensations from listening to Robert Johnson and Sun Elvis. This music comes from a different world than the one we live in.


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