John Cohen pt. 3


cohen 3


OTW: Before the New Lost City Ramblers era, had you done field recording?

JC: At that same summer camp, the cooking staff were all from South Carolina, except for one guy who was from Queens. They would sit around and sing at night, when the campers weren’t around. I would hear songs that intrigued me, and amazed me. In 1949, my brother and I each bought a wire recorder. (And somewhere I have a recording of a guy named Ike Davis singing Gonna Move to Kansas City. I would love to hear that again!) But here was an example of my reaching outside my immediate culture of going to record stores, by instead actually going to people.

In the early 1950’s, I was at another Catskills camp called Camp Woodland. It was the first place I knew of that took city kids out to meet all the local farmers and hear music from them. The camp put on a festival once a year of all the local people singing. There’s a rich, rich tradition of music in the Catskills. They had a square dance every week with local people who played fiddles and accordions. For the two years I was there, that was a big eye and mind opener. One of my campers there was Richard Bauman, who eventually became the head of the American Folklore Society. He introduced me once as the first person to show him how to play an E chord. The first time I heard Earl Scruggs-style was at the end of that camp, played by Roger Sprung, who was in 1949 just beginning to play it. And then I started really listening to the records.

So by 1951, say, I was conscious of the idea that there was a living music out there. I was also listening to radio station WWVA, which you could get late at night and hear this interesting country music.

OTW: Had you traveled in Appalachia or the South much by then?

JC: In 1952, I hitched South on my romantic notion of that being a way to get to the music. I remember the second night at a gas station in Virginia, midnight. Blaring all over the countryside via radio was Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I had arrived.

I was desiring then all that I didn’t know how to do. I stopped off in Washington at the Library of Congress, the folklore division, and said: “I’m heading towards Asheville [NC]. Who should I see there?” They told me to see Virgil Sturgill and Bascom Lunsford. I knew a couple of records by Lunsford, so I thought that would be good.

It didn’t work. Lunsford didn’t want to see me. I called him, and he said, “Where you from?” I said, “New York.” “Who do you know there?” Well, I wondered who I had ever heard of that he’d heard of: “Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger.” “I’m busy,” he said, “What’s your name?” “John Cohen.” “No. I’m busy.”

OTW: I read somewhere that Lunsford disliked Seeger’s liberal views and that he was phobic about northerners—especially New Yorkers.

JC: It was as though I had pushed all the wrong buttons. I knew that my desire to get to hear the music in its context rather than just off the records was important nonetheless.

OTW: You’d been playing banjo by then?

JC: Yes. The first 5-string I bought was at Williams College, around 1949. I was able to buy a banjo in North Adams for nine dollars—but I didn’t know how to play it. One time in the snow, I’m walking across campus with it, no case or anything. Some workman said, “Oh, you got a five string there, huh?” And they picked it up and played something, and I had never heard anything like it. It was neither frailing not Pete Seeger style. I think it was minstrel style, or something.

I had the banjo, but I couldn’t play it. I could only remember what I’d seen of Woody Wachtel’s playing. I had heard Pete Seeger but I didn’t know how he played. And so I started working out frailing. In 1950, in the fall, I hitched up to Putney School in Vermont. Some guy asked me to visit. Peggy Seeger was a student there. We started talking and that’s when I first got my copy of Pete’s mimeographed book.


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