John Cohen pt. 2


cohen 2


John Cohen:  The real event was in 1948. I worked at a summer camp, where I had in various years been a camper, a waiter, and then a junior counselor. By some wonderful twist of fate, the old couple who did the interviewing for the camp took out an ad in the “New York Times”: “Wanted: Counselors for progressive camp.” Now, their thinking was progressive education, but for a lot of people, that meant the Progressive Party (1948 was the year of the Progressive Party, the third party, with Henry Wallace running against Truman).

So you had people from Margot Mayo’s square dance group, five or six counselors all who were into Progressive Party thinking, and Irwin Silber, who later [in the early 1950’s] helped Moe Asch turn “People’s Songs” into “Sing Out!,” and Irwin’s sister, a very radical Communist, was there because they all had responded to that ad. They were very interesting people.

But the guy who meant the world to me was Woody Wachtel. He had been to Kentucky, and he came to the interviews for the camp and says, “Yeah, I can show them how to make a banjo. Just take a stick, and you make like a little cigar box, take some cat hide and tack it on….”

Under his instruction, I made a 5-string banjo before I even learned how to play it. Woody did the straight old drop-thumb fretless banjo style with so much drive. That and the folk and square dancing from all those other folks—it was a very big moment. It actually merged traditional music and politics for me.

Another thing that happened there was, Irwin Silber’s sister Helene brought up some albums, one of which was called “Mountain Frolic.” This was a re-issue of early hillbilly records by the Lomaxes, John and Alan, in 1947 or 48. And she also had Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads.”

OTW: Had they played them at that New York radio station?

JC: Yeah, WNYC. When I heard Cluck Old Hen done by Al Hopkins and the Bucklebusters, that was the first time string band really hit me. It was such a rich sound, and it awakened all that earlier stuff. It came at you from every side: dancing, and rhythm, and you could hear all the instruments, guitar, fiddle lead, a banjo break, a ukulele part. It appealed to me and it definitely appealed to all those who could hear its richness. Eventually that became the mission of the New Lost City Ramblers—to get more people to listen to it.

Woody also showed me, later on, how to play Shady Grove, and he tuned the banjo like Rufus Crisp did, with the bass string up to F. The tuning was gFGCD. I was so intrigued with that modal sound which I never had identified as such. Then I got a banjo, and I could do that.

Shortly after that, around 1950, Pete Seeger’s first edition of “How to Play the Five String Banjo” manual came out. He noted that “Woody Wachtel reports there are 15 or 16 ways to tune the banjo.” That intrigued me, and I then spent years and years trying to find out all I could about banjo tunings. Just the quest for tunings became an important element in all the field recordings I’ve done—because it turned out to be something I could talk about to country people.

Later I started a fairly intensive project of trying to catalogue all the tunings I could. I’d get people like Stu Jamieson and Ethel Raim, who would give me lists of 60 or 70 tunings, and they’d mention a song you never heard of and an artist you never heard of. But there were no recordings to go with those, and I would say, “I’m not going to use that. I want to hear what it sounds like. I want it to be verified.” I never finished that project because the list got very, very long.

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