Music from the archives: The music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward

A coalminer and a farmer combine to make unmatched banjo music

The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward

The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward

 

It’s a contentious one to love but I have to profess or confess my love for the banjo.

What exactly draws me to its insistent sound is hard to pinpoint but that strident and steely, resonant tone is one I find instantly appealing when plucked by the hands of a master.

It’s origins in Caribbean music of the 17th century, having been introduced by West African slaves, is the beginning of a journey through every type of music. It occupied a central place in the minstrel shows of the 1920s.

Along with the fiddle, it’s the mainstay of American old-time music.

It has found its way into many indigenous styles including bluegrass, folk and of course traditional Irish music.

Its teak-tough sound has a strong lineage to match. It brings a certain groove to situations that aren’t necessarily intent on being particularly groovy. It can be the spine or it can occupy the sweet spot that sets the twilight reeling. It’s good value, the banjo.

I love the unaccompanied version and these two are among the finest exponents there’s ever been.

Ward began plying his trade a few decades earlier than Holcomb but the dates of these recordings are both from the late 1950s.

Apart from having a similar clawhammer style, they both hail from towns with sweet names. Wade Ward was born in Independence, Virginia in 1892 and Roscoe Holcomb had the pleasure of entering the world in a place called Daisy, Virginia in 1912.

Holcomb is the more versatile of the two, being blessed with a falsetto that perfectly matches the high lonesome sound of the banjo as well as mastering the guitar, fiddle and harmonica.

There’s an untrammelled spirit to this music that cannot be dampened or diluted. Its power largely comes from its purity. There was no showboating on these recordings yet much in the way of virtuosity. There’s a rawness to them that is so rich and real.

What charms me the most is the fact that Holcomb spent his life as a coalminer, construction labourer and farmer while Ward made his living as the latter.

The joy they found in music was an escapist one. They left no stone unturned in their pursuit of of the higher ground. The love pursued with ardour is a beautiful thing.

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