Because we live in such a hurried time, we hear countless “noises” but have little time to appreciate actual “sounds.” Sound is a sensation that you can feel, not just something you can hear. To understand this idea, consider how some musicians have actually played concerts for the deaf, who cannot hear the music but still feel the vibrations. These “feelings” that sounds give us are actually changing our molecular structure. We could examine water under a microscope while playing different sounds and would observe the transformation of the water molecules. Similarly, since our bodies are about 70% water, we are affected in the same way. Music has the power to physically transform us: it will make people aggressive in a mosh pit, hoedown at a square dance, or twerk in a nightclub. Aristotle, in his work On the Soul, wrote that “all bodies are capable of being affected by smells and sounds, but that some on being acted upon, having no boundaries of their own, disintegrate, as in the instance of air, which does become odorous, showing that some effect is produced on it by what is odorous?” Just like Aristotle stated, our bodies are affected by sound.
The reason is that sound in general is penetrating and more pervasive to our senses than almost any other sensation. If you do not want to see something, you can close your eyes. If you do not want to touch something, you can keep your hands to yourself. If you do not want to smell something, you can pinch your nose. Finally, if you do not want to taste something, you can throw it away. But even if with blocked ears, one could not escape feeling of a sound. It is time to re-examine our senses and seek a greater understanding of what is unique within Southern sound.
Sound has the power to be used as a weapon, but it can also be used to facilitate change. Entire decades have been described through their sounds. The 20s-30s had big band and swing. The 40s-50s had doo-wop and soul. The 60s-70s had rock and disco. The 80s brought new electric sounds like synthesizers. I was born at the start of the 90s, which many people describe as grunge. The grunge sound was a distorted electric guitar sound, played in low key, with heavy drumming and was personified in the band Nirvana. Interestingly, the band’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain once noted that his favorite performer was Leadbelly and stated that someone from the Leadbelly estate wanted to sell him Leadbelly’s guitar to him for $500,000. These connections to the South can be found in many of the popular forms of music we hear today.
I argue that the Southern people are traditionally more oriented to learn through touch, oral communication, and listening. They are a people more in tune with sound. This practice was evident in places like Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas that utilized viva voce voting, or voting with the sound of your voice. Drinking and socializing were used as networking tools for influencing elections. Men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and even Lincoln, all came to political leadership in states that voted by voice. On one occasion when George Washington ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, “a quart and a half [of alcohol] per voter” was served. George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting “The County Election” portrays one such festive voting celebration in Missouri. By 1888 Massachusetts was the first state to enact a secret ballot as law. This shows that the North may be more oriented towards print and visual mediums than Southerners.
A lot of people only identify the South with sounds like the “crack of the lash,” “the field holler,” and the dreaded Deliverance dueling banjos scene. But in reality it is filled with the sounds of echoes from the open fields, the sounds of running rivers, beautifully plucked chords and hymns. It has the power to connect to us to our pasts.
Because Southerners have had to spend so much time defending and dissecting our true heritage, it has been easy to forget that our homeland is also the birthplace of some of the most beautiful and uniquely American sounds. There is a common misconception that Southerners are uptight or that we only like country music. It certainly doesn’t help that one of our foremost intellectuals, Richard Weaver, went on a diatribe against a uniquely Southern form of music, Jazz, in his work Ideas Have Consequences. Weaver stated that Jazz was “born in the dives of New Orleans” and that it was “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep seated predilection for barbarism.” He went on to say some of the following things about Jazz:
- Jazz “was a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness.”
- He wondered “Jazz often sounds as if in a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement.”
- Jazz reflects a mood “impatient for titillation” and reflects the desire of the performer for “fullest liberty to express himself as an egotist.”
- “By dissolving forms, [jazz] has left man free to move without reference, expressing dithyrambically whatever surges up from below. It is a music not of dreams–certainly not of our metaphysical dream–but of drunkenness.”
- Jazz “shows how the soul of modern man craves orgiastic disorder.”
- Finally “one can detect signs of suicidal impulse; one feels at times that the modern world is calling for madder music and for stronger wine, is craving some delirium which will take it completely away from reality.”
We must remember that Weaver was looking to extol the values of conservatism and track the decline of Western Civilization. And there are forms of jazz, called “acid jazz,” that pride themselves on confusion and spontaneity. But Weaver had to spend so much effort defending the Southern tradition that he may not have had time to stop and think how the origins of Jazz merely contribute to our already wide array of unique sounds. Weaver himself went on to say that in Jazz, “we hear a variable into which the musician pours his feeling and whimsy more freely than the Romantic poets laid their bleeding hearts.” That sounds like something to be proud of to me.
One of my favorite Southern poets, Dubose Heyward, wrote that obsession with forms can inhibit your artistic ability in the long run. He was a writer during the Southern Literary Renaissance and produced the novel Porgy, which was adapted into one of America’s only original operas– Porgy and Bess. Heward thought that one of the best ways to embrace our artistic side was to unlearn all the forms and definitions we have been taught, and examine the world from our own sensory perspective The two areas that I want to examine from a sensory perspective are the Mississippi Delta and the mountains of Appalachia. From both of these areas came unique forms of music that sprang from the land. From the cotton fields of the Delta came blues, and from the coal mines of Kentucky came a unique type of bluegrass dubbed “The High Lonesome Sound.” For the purpose of this essay, we will personify the blues sound in Charlie Patton and the bluegrass sound in Roscoe Holcomb.
Charlie Patton and The Delta
The origins of the blues are somewhat nebulous and there are a lot of claims as to where it began, but its origins can undoubtedly be traced back to the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is an incredibly fertile land stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg, bordered on the west by the Mississippi River and on the East by the Yazoo, and is now split by Hwy 61. From there, the blues migrated to Chicago, Texas, and the West Coast, where it took on different forms. The African contributions to the sound can be found on the Senegambian coast, which had many stringed instruments (from one stringed gourd fiddles to two-to four-stringed guitar like lutes). Contact with Arab and Berber cultures produced a strong vocal tradition that passed on stories and history through musical storytellers called griots.
As Africans were brought to America as slaves, their sounds began to meld with Southern white religious songs, British folk music, and plantation chants. The result was a deeply spiritual, unique sound that can only be explained as “the mixing and hybridization that took place in the planting fields as African slaves and immigrant indentured servants from the British Isles worked together.”
The conditions of the land in which these cultures worked together are even more significant. In 1908, Faulkner described the Delta : “the vast alluvial swamp of cypress and gum and brake and thickets lurked with bear and deer and panthers and snakes, out of which man was still hewing savagely and violently the rich ragged fields in which cotton stalks grew ranker and taller than a man on a horse….” The area also is abundant with wild turkey, wildcats, wolves, and deadly mosquitos. Back in 1879, the Delta was originally valued as a source of white oak. Midwestern millmen faced depleted hardwoods in Michigan and Wisconsin and began looking to Mississippi. However, not until the arrival of railroads was it possible for large scale farming and logging. At the turn of the century, one observer wrote that “In the rainy season the wagon roads are well nigh impassable, and a long high haul by wagon through the alluvial mud of this country is, and will continue to be, out of the question.” The soil was said to be so lush that it could yield one or two bales of cotton per acre when half a bale was considered a good yield; the sediment was so fine that one could drill fifty or sixty feet beneath the topsoil before touching rocks. Out of this sweltering and swampy frontier would come Dockery’s, the plantation and sawmill where Charlie Patton developed his musical style.
The owner of Dockery’s was a man named William Dockery, the son of a Confederate colonel who was wounded at Corinth, and whose family fortune was wiped out by the Civil War. He graduated from Ole Miss in 1886, worked for two years at an uncle’s store in Memphis, then set out for the Delta to make a fortune. He found himself in a frontier setting where hundreds of cattle grazed along the cane ridges outside of the town. Dockery described the settings:
“There was a small amount of cleared land then and it was on the bayous, lakes, and rivers. The country was covered with blue cane fifteen to twenty feet high and the land was rich as cream…I remember seeing one forty-acres of land being traded for a cow and another forty acres for a Winchester rifle. The only land on large plantations was on the Mississippi River front. Rosedale Miss. was the county seat and hard to get to as there were no roads worth considering…I remember going to Rosedale in a tall two-wheeled cart with a single horse by way of Merigold. My wheels got stuck and I had to pull the cart out in the cane, and hang the harness in a tree and lead the horse for several miles.”
It’s no exaggeration that the Delta was a wild frontier, but by the time of Charlie Patton’s birth, it had been largely settled and developed. Dockery’s plantation was nearly ten thousand acres, both drained and cleared by Dockery himself. He acquired the land for something around five dollars an acre and lived to see it attain a value of three hundred dollars an acre, thus making him a millionaire, but he was no snob. He found the title “planter” too pompous and labeled himself “a merchant and farmer,” preferred simple pleasures like fishing, hunting, and horseback riding until his death. His plantation had a government post office, minted tokens and paper scrip, had a commissary with six full time employees, a sawmill and blacksmith, two churches, two elementary schools, and even a physician on property to care for patients of either race.
People also often overlook the opportunities that were provided by the delta. A day laborer could earn a dollar or 1.20 a day there in the 1920s, while most people in the hill country only made fifty or sixty cents. A member of the Dockery family stated that the total wages paid out by the plantation ran to some $20,000 annually in the 1920s and the average family could clear $2-3,000 (inflation calculators for $2500 in 1925 point this to at $35,000 in today’s money) in a season. There were many black success stories and even all black towns like Mound Bayou, which was financed by a black man named Charles Banks (the JP Morgan of his race?). A man on Dockery’s named Lee Frederick amassed $100,000 over fifteen years helping Dockery develop land. It’s also important to remember that not all blacks were tillers of the soil. Alfred Stone wrote in 1906:
“Throughout the Delta there are blacks filling places of responsibility and trust. In the country the gin crews and engineers are practically all black, and there are black foremen, agents, and sub-managers. There are many constables, and there is in my county a black justice of the peace. In my own town every mail carrier is black and we have a black on the police force. Some are employed by cotton factors and buyers, and earn from $600 to $1000 per annum…One cannot travel through this section without observing black landowners everywhere.”
Another forgotten aspect of Delta labor is the leisure time. There was about a four-five month layoff each year in between each ginning season and planting. There were even shorter layoffs between the planting, chopping, and picking cycles of cotton growing. During the busy season, most workers did not work continuously: one study shows that adverse weather and other factors produced a fifteen day work month. Dockery’s son holds that workers were employed fewer than 150 days a year. Because of this large amount of downtime, many black Mississippians took up the guitar without any real hopes of making careers out of it. There are two additional reasons that Delta plantations like Dockery’s harbored the blues: a laissez-faire attitude towards the leisure activities of tenants (so long as it did not interfere with work) and the fact that many owners, like Dockery himself, took the route of absentee ownership as soon as he could afford it (having moved to Memphis because he found the climate “too unhealthy for living souls”).
Most sources show that Charlie Patton was born into this environment in 1891. He was mixed race but his parents’ ethnicities are unknown. Most people assume he is mixed with black, white, and Native American. His complexion was light as a white person, he had straight hair, and walked with a limp. He was described as somewhat frail and short, with a smile that revealed some missing back teeth–his voice was also reputed to be loud enough to travel 500 yards. His voice has been described as a growl, with words bleeding into one another and not always distinguishable. It was said that he never gambled or danced, but loved to drink and it often took him two hours of steady drinking and playing before he really hit his stride. Patton even was claimed to prefer fatty meat on the assumption that it kept him from getting drunk.
Patton’s family moved to Dockery’s in 1897 and he began to pick up some blues technique from a man named Henry Sloan. While Patton may have learned a few chords, he was largely self taught and developed his own style that incorporated stomps, slapping the guitar box, and even playing the guitar between his legs and behind his head. He was a man of contradictions, who was known to dress like a simple plough-hand yet lived a flashy lifestyle and loved to argue with people. Hayes McMullen said Patton would “scrap in a minute,” and stated that he once saw Patton smash a guitar over a woman’s head…he also said they never went a single evening without witnessing a verbal clash between Patton and another person. This type of talk was regular at Delta barrelhouses, and was referred to as “woofing,” a pastime Zora Neale Hurston described as “a sort of aimless talking. A man half seriously flirts with a girl, half seriously threatens to fight or brags of his prowess in love, battle, or financial matters.”
While most reports show that Patton died of a heart condition, many of his acquaintances refused to believe that he suffered a natural death because his many violent encounters in the Delta barrelhouses. The “barrelhouses,” sometimes referred to as “jukehouses,” were commercial recreation spots that had gambling, dancing, a bar (with whiskey straight from the barrel), a brothel, and even a boarding house. At the time, a whole half pint of whiskey was about fifty cents and the barrelhouses even offered food like hot fish, soda, and beef stew. They often opened Friday evening and remained in continuous operation through Sunday, with people staying all night. The Delta area also was more promiscuous than the hill country, where shacks were farther apart with no real forms of entertainment for the laboring class. They even had their own vernacular. A “crayfish,” for example, could be someone who went back on their word- “Get all you can and doodle back in your hole.” This was much like Shakespearean performances at the globe theatre, where new words and insults were made up on the fly. The barrelhouse’s activities resembled earlier plantation frolics but were open to the broad public, with some Delta clubs regularly attracting people from Memphis (usually between 50-75 people would frequent). They were often further distinguished by green exteriors and could generate enormous gambling profits. One operator estimated that a prosperous barrelhouse could make approximately $1000 on a Saturday night, with upwards of $1500 in an entire weekend. Most barrelhouses were started with white investment and black managers, and often had to maintain pay-offs with local sheriffs to stay in business. Violence was a regular part of this night life, where church dress would often be required yet “house men” would check weapons like guns, razors, and knives at the front door.
It is in this environment that Charlie Patton became renowned for his performance skills and got into many squabbles, mostly over women. He was known to get liquored up and refer to anybody’s wife as “honey” or “sugar.” At least twice in his career, he suffered disabling wounds, and when he met Booker Miller he had a scar on the side of his forehead that looked like the imprint from a knife or bottle. On one occasion, a man’s wife got drunk and sat in Patton’s lap. The man came and jerked Charlie’s chair from underneath him and a fight ensued. Another time, a man’s drunk wife had knocked Charlie’s fish sandwich on the floor accidently. While Patton was expecting an offer to pay for his sandwich, the husband told him to pick it up and eat it, then cussed and shoved him. Patton got up and knocked the man out. At a barrelhouse called Hole in the Wall, Patton suffered a near-fatal gunshot wound that might have accounted for his partial limp.
The accounts of violence do not end there. Willie Morris once saw a man attack Patton when his wife began indiscreetly glancing at the musician. In 1933, Patton almost lost his life in Holly Ridge because a woman sat on his lap and the husband, in a rage, slashed Charlie’s throat (damaging his vocal chords, impairing his singing, and leaving a jagged scar across his throat). This constant consumption of alcohol and pursuit of women have led some to believe that he may have been killed by a poison dose of whiskey rather than a heart condition. These brutal encounters show that Patton’s environment was much like the plantation mindset W.J. Cash described when he wrote:
“…the individualism of the plantation world would be one which, like the backcountry before it, would be far too much concerned with bald, immediate, unsupported assertion of the ego, which placed to great stress on the inviolability of personal whim, and which was full of the chip-on-the shoulder swagger and brag of a boy–one in brief, of which the essence was the boast, voiced or not, on the part of every Southerner, that he would knock the hell out of whoever dared to cross him.”
Patton was both a lover and a fighter, who personified “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” before they were major industries. He had songs like Shake It and Break It, which refers to getting lucky with women; Spoonful Blues, a song about cocaine, which was used commonly at the time (the Memphis Commercial-Appeal estimated that 80% of the city’s black residents used it and it was available for a nickel or dime at pharmacies); and his faster paced songs like High Water Everywhere and Mississippi Boweavil Blues describe the importance of land and how it was impacted by pests and floods.
Patton’s rockstar lifestyle was also totally contradicted by his strong religious beliefs. He was raised in a Fundamentalist environment which taught that playing the blues and religious feeling were “irreconcilable opposites.” He was often said to have broken down into sudden interludes of church music during his shows. During his downtime, he imagined himself an enemy of God that could burn in hell for playing sinful dance music for pleasure-seekers. Like many great artists, his art may have tortured his mind; he once wrote a song called Love My Stuff where he sings about an encounter with an evil spirit.
Patton was also a wanderer, known to hobo along the train tracks to different towns where country folks “would pour out their hearts in song while the audience ate fish and bread, chewed sugar cane, and dipped snuff while waiting for trains to carry them down the line.” As a blues singer, he went wherever the wind took him. He was practically guaranteed whiskey, women, and food wherever he went as a performer. He got his start performing by the 1910s and by the late 20s, the hobo type had been sung about extensively by artists like Harry McLintock, who wrote Halelujah I’m a Bum and Big Rock Candy Mountain.
One author has written that Patton was a great artist, not for his forcefulness in making blues dance music, but for “his refusal to respect the abiding limitations and conventions of his genre.” He was the only recorded blues musician of his day that brought elements of drama, surprise, spontaneity, and subtlety to his work. He was a rambler, who set the bar for blues performers with his abilities. Many other blues artists often relied on gimmicks or promotions to advertise themselves. Leadbelly, for example, was paraded around as having been a prisoner and often wore a prison uniform for his recordings. Robert Johnson also repeatedly advertised himself as having sold his soul to the devil to learn the blues. Charlie Patton merely had to get a little liquor in him and was able to completely define what a blues man should be.
Roscoe Holcomb and The High Lonesome Sound
Just over 600 miles away from Dockery’s in the Mississippi Delta lies the small mountain town of Daisy, Kentucky where Roscoe Holcomb was born in 1912. He noted that his people were from North Carolina and went back as far as the American Revolution, but left because of trouble and changed their name when they came to Kentucky. He was described as “closer to the people of the Third World, rather than to European high-art culture.” Holcomb made his first banjo by taking a square box, tacking a piece of metal over it, putting a neck made out of poplar with strings. He said within the first twelve months he learned four hundred tunes, and that it came naturally.
By the time he was “discovered” in 1959, the musical traditions of East Kentucky had begun to fade. The region once had vibrant social activities involving music like bean stringings, box lunches, fiddle and banjo contests, molasses making, string bands entertaining at moonshiners’ stills, and barn dances. Roscoe once described this period:
“I’ve played for square dances ‘til the sweat drip off my elbows. I used to play for square dances a lot. Used a bunch of us get out, maybe we go to a party somewhere ‘n after the party was over the moon’d be a-shining bright you known ‘n we’d all start back home n gang up in the road – somebody’d start his old instrument, guitar or banjer or something, or other ‘n just gang up in the middle of the road n have the awfullest square dance right out in the middle of the highway…People could have real good times back then. Nobody raised no trouble r anything n it didn’t matter how much you was out – people would trust their girls out with boys n neighbors. Nowadays they won’t do it.”
Roscoe lived in isolation with these memories for many years before ever being recorded, never having seen an actual guitar until his adult years. He stated that he never felt like a musician and did not think he could make a career of it, because it could put his family at risk. Holcomb was the last of the generation whose music was home based, before radio and phonographs. He was content to sing on his front porch, at home, and merely preserve his music rather than commercialize it. They were humble people, for most of the 1800s, Appalachian communities like Roscoe’s followed a pattern of traditional family farms on small plots in the valleys and uplands. Life was simple and quiet, and dedicated mostly to agricultural work. Tocqueville had the following to say about Kentucky: “As [the Kentuckian] lives in an idle independence, his tastes are those of an idle man… and the energy which his neighbor devotes to gain turns with him to a passionate love of field sports and military exercises; he delights in violent bodily exertion, he is familiar with the use of arms, and is accustomed from a very early age to expose his life in single combat.” It was the Jeffersonian vision of America, a time before industry came to dominate the region, where people were self reliant. Roscoe even mentioned his people were traditionally stronger because they raised “pure” food from the land.
A historian named R.D. Eller wrote that “By the third decade of the Twentieth Century, the Jeffersonian dream in Appalachia had become a nightmare of exploitation, corruption and social tragedy. While the Southern mountains remained a predominantly rural area, changes in land ownership, economy, and the political system had left people dependent, impoverished, and powerless within a new alien social order.” After having lived through the transformation of rural farming community into an industrialized economy, music became one of the main ways to preserve a culture that was consumed by industry and lost its ability to maintain self reliance. Indeed, work was Roscoe’s life and he never had any desire nor time to make records or have any live performances until his later years. But in middle age, his music lost much its importance to the kids in Appalachia that were listening to Elvis and Johnny Cash.
His music is a link between Bluegrass and a more old-timey music that came before it. Roscoe was a strict conservative, to the point where he even once said he did not approve of long hair on any men, except for Jesus because he was “for men and women.” A major influence was his Old Baptist upbringing, which forbade the playing of instruments. Roscoe actually quit playing music early on because he thought it was wrong but then he stated “I got to reading the Bible about it – and asking David. You know, David was a man out of God’s own heart, and he played music, set his tunes and danced in front of the Lord with all his might, trying to bring the spirit back. I said, well, as good a man as David was, there wasn’t no wrong for him to play music and it wouldn’t be for me , and so I just picked [music] up and it never bothered me a bit.” He went on to join a baptist sect called “The Holiness” church, which praised God with string instruments, and played many Old Baptist hymns. All of these elements give his music a powerful spiritual feeling.
His appearance was described as having “[cracked hands] by work in cement” with “craggy, weathered features set off by his clear blue eyes.” His body was damaged, with a shambling gait from work related injuries. He said, “I worked construction work most all my life. I worked in the coal mines, some. Worked at sawmills, got my back broke…I was not much account after that….Too much exposure, hard work, old age.” His singing was a struggle between his creativity and the limits of his damaged lungs (asthma, emphysema, coughing, and incessant smoking).
Roscoe was almost a stoic when it came to work, nothing else made sense to him. And the pain from years of work in the mines was evident in his voice. Some of the first people who recorded him described it as “music that came from a life of hard work in coal mines and lumber mills, from deep religious belief, from a past of banjos and square dances in the moonlight and moonshining in the mountains.” Indeed, you can hear a yearning for a simpler time.
When we start to examine the deeper sources of the “High Lonesome Sound,” we find that there is a violent history involving the coal mining industry in his region:
- (The year Roscoe was born) The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in WV of 1912 lasted for over a year, resulted in the deaths of 50+ people (many more from starvation and malnutrition)
- Battle of Matewan, WV- In 1920 area miners went on strike to gain recognition of UMWA. On May 19 of the same year, twelve Baldwin-Felts Agency guards came from Bluefield to evict the miners from company houses. As guards left town, they argued with town police chief Sid Hatfield and Mayor Testerman. Shooting of undetermined origins resulted in the deaths of two coal miners, seven agents, and the mayor.
- Battle of Blair Mountain- the largest labor uprising in United States history and one of the largest, best-organized, and most well-armed uprisings since the American Civil War. For five days from late August to early September 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers, called the Logan Defenders, who were backed by coal mine operators during the miners’ attempt to unionize the Southwestern West Virginia coalfields. The battle ended after approximately one million rounds were fired and the United States Army intervened by presidential order (Warren G. Harding).
- Harlan County War (39 miles from Roscoe’s home of Daisy)- In the 1920s, its homicide rate surpassed that of any other county in the United States, and was “seven times as high as Al Capone’s Chicago.” In the first two decades of the century, the county’s population had increased over sixfold, from 10,000 to 64,000. Signs that the family structure was breaking down included an unusually high divorce rate (one in four marriages) and a growth in child desertion. After a 10% pay cut in the depths of the Great Depression, workers organized with Unions and began striking. This started in 1931 and lasted about until 1939. Mine guards protected the few who were allowed to work and gunfire was exchanged between strikers and guards/law enforcement early on. Several ambushes and skirmishes ensued after this.
The “High Lonesome Sound” in Holcomb’s voice came from a combination of physical pain from the hard life he lived, as well as the emotional of living in a coal mining community. Music was a celebration for his people, a way to ease the pain of their lives. Coal mining was already dangerous enough in the early 20th century, but the rise of labor unions and communism brought a new level of violence and despair never before seen in the region. Between 1908 and 1935, at least 50,000 miners died extracting coal. After the Harlan County War, once known authors and reporters began showing up, the governor admitted:
“There exists a virtual reign of terror (in Harlan County), financed in general by a group of coal mine operators in collusion with certain public officials: the victims of this reign of terror are the coal miners and their families… a monster-like reign of oppression whose tentacles reached into the very foundation of the social structure and even into the Church of god… the homes of union miners and organizers were dynamited and fired into… It appears that the principal cause of existing conditions is the desire of the mine owners to amass for themselves fortunes through the oppression of their laborers, which they do through the sheriff’s office.”
There is even an urban legend that the term “Redneck” actually began as a word to describe the pro-Union miners, who often wore red bandanas as a sign of protest. A socialist novel, from 1936 titled Red Neck (by McAllister Coleman) uses the term at least twice. On one occasion, the main character and charismatic union leader Dave Houston admits “I’m not much to be proud of, I’m just a red necked miner.” Next a police captain curses Houston as a “God-damned red neck” during a jailhouse interrogation, before savagely beating him with a sawed-off chair-leg.
With the violent world Holcomb was born into, its a true miracle that his sound is still preserved today. A great article on Abbeville Institute by Michael Armstrong titled The Invention of the Appalachian Hillbilly brilliantly shows how sociologists came into the region in the 30s (same time as the Harlan County War), and “warped” the hillbilly stereotype in an effort to purge the locals from the region. They made these mountain folk look backward, when the truly barbaric groups that damaged the region were radical unions and the mining industries.
Years of being caught up in this environment were exhausting. In his later years he admitted his body had had enough and that the “old mountains [were] wore out.” He tried to make a decent living recording some songs, playing and festivals, and traveling but his physical condition had caught up with him. Luckily we have 3 albums recorded during his lifetime and two documentaries.
Poor Men in a Rich Land
Both Patton and Holcomb defined genres. Don’t just take my word on this, they were “discovered” and mostly recorded in the North and by Northerners. All of Charlie Patton’s albums were recorded in Wisconsin, Indiana, and New York. He was recommended by a man from Mississippi named HC Spier, but most of his advertisements were done in places like Chicago. The Chicago Defender often advertised Patton as “The Masked Marvel” to attract consumers and stated Patton was “One of the best known singers and guitar players in the South. What he can’t do with a guitar ain’t worth mentioning.” While he was paid well, he was paid per song and did not receive any money for record sales. He died virtually penniless.
Roscoe Holcomb’s records were recorded by Folkways records, which was based in New York City and later sold to the Smithsonian Institute. The man who claims to have discovered him, named John Cohen, states he traveled to East Kentucky looking for “old music” and to study “depression songs.” He described Roscoe’s sound initially as “a man confronting his own existence.” Cohen was a half artist, half scholar and amateur folklorist. While it seems that he did care about Holcomb, he admitted that he believed Roscoe’s average listener at that time was out of touch with the lives of rural Kentuckians.
While it is good that Patton and Holcomb were recorded in their day, it’s a shame they were capitalized on by industry and died alone. They were both Southerners, poor men in a rich land, whose musical genius was exploited by Northern record industries. It was a kind of CULTURAL IMPERIALISM. They came from regions blessed with natural resources and developed sounds that were unique to their place. They lived through depressions, feared God, and sang about older times. These industries took their music and have commercialized it into American music, but it should always be remembered their sounds were inspired by and grew from the South.