John Cohen pt.1


cohen 1


John Cohen: My parents had been doing folk dancing even before I was born, back in the 1920’s, so, they listened to folk dance records. They’d had square dancing in the city, in Sunnyside, Queens. So that sound, that feeling of warmth and being part of a down-to-earth thing, contrasted with the pop culture then. But the music was always there, even before I was born. My parents sometimes had Margot Mayo come to the folk dancing events, and she taught longways and square dances.

OTW: Margot Mayo?

JC: Margot was from Texas, but she came from Kentucky before that. Her uncle was Rufus Crisp, the old banjo player. She made recordings of Crisp for the Library of Congress. And she knew people like Stu Jamieson, who did wonderful things with the banjo. He and Woody Wachtel were her prime students. In New York City she was Arlo Guthrie’s teacher when he was a kid. She brought people together—Woody Guthrie, Josh White, whoever she could find—and put on concerts with them there.

OTW: Some authors look askance at your being a city fellow learning and playing Appalachian music. Would you want to examine that?

JC: [Pause.] There was a book about folklore, about folklorists and how they all got started. [“Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined,” edited by Neil Rosenberg] A woman named Ellen Steckert wrote that it was absurd “to see John Cohen from East Egg, Long Island, learning old-time.” It hurt to see that in print. She stated that several times—and then Neil Rosenberg, who wrote the introduction to the book, he mentions it again. It got me wondering, not so much about the “absurdity” of learning old-time music in the suburbs, but why she was using me as a whipping boy for what we all did, when she had been there with me at the time.

What really troubled me was that I didn’t learn old-time out in the suburbs. My parents were disposed toward traditional music. I wasn’t born into the Seeger family or in the mountains of Kentucky, yet that music is a very important part of who I am. When I heard Bob Atcher sing Barbara Allen, it really spoke to me. Not through my parents—the song was speaking right to me, something wonderful and strange as a story like that.





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