“Here and Gone: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the 1960s”


 EXCERPT OF INTERVIEW OF JOHN COHEN BY MARK GUARINO (http://entertainment.suntimes.com/)

“I’m the Zelig of the folk music world,” says John Cohen, laughing. “Always there in the background.”

A lot of documenting of American roots music at that time was by enthusiasts like yourself and not necessarily big record companies or even professional archivists. If people like you were not documenting these things we would have lost much of this music.

The old-time music was still around but it was dying out. We gave it a big push just by looking at it and presenting it. That might be a good way to think about what we did. I’m playing with a young band now, the Down Hill Strugglers. They’re wonderful and they have same musical taste and the same idea about music that the Ramblers had, which is really exiting. Since Mike Seeger died and the Ramblers were finished, it was strange for me, empty. But then these guys came by and it was full.

You have a song on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which was set during the folk revival. What did you think of the film?

I liked it. I know lot of people who say it wasn’t that way. But I don’t care, I liked it. What I got from the film was it reminded me of all the anxieties of that period. Not the specifics, but the anxieties. Should you do this or should you do that. Should you go commercial and if you go commercial, then what happens if you give up a regular life. What happens if you lean this way, what happens if you lean that way. All these things. If you go all the way to Chicago to make a hit and change your mind and do something very traditional — those are the kinds of anxieties that I remember tremendously all the time. There were the commercial possibilities all around us and we weren’t taking them.

Your new book features photographs you took of Woody Guthrie. How did you meet him?

I first saw him in person in 1950. He was not that far gone yet. He was starting down that path. I had seen him over the years, a little bit here little bit there. What it really came down to his muscles were out of control [due to his suffering from Huntington’s Disease]. There were people who photographed him that way. But I couldn’t bear doing that. I could see a certain dignity and strength that would show up and that’s what I photographed. I didn’t want to look for pity or anything like that. Most of my photographs have some of that spark still with him.

At a later stage, it was very strange. You could go to [the hospital] and say, “I’d like to take Woody Guthrie to New York to take him to a concert.” “Okay! Hey Woody!” There was no great security. I felt I was going to a library and checking out Woody Guthrie.

I sat with him in a big concert at Carnegie Hall. It was in a special box. And Pete Seeger was onstage singing that wonderful [Woody Guthrie] song “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Everybody was singing along with it. But Woody hadn’t meant it to be a song. It was just a poem to him. So he was reciting it as a poem. Hearing him in one ear and then thousands of people singing it as a song in another ear was very touching.

I knew him a little bit earlier. I visited him at record stores, we had some conversations. He was also sort of lost and always was a little bit difficult at first in person. But I was so deeply appreciative of his music. It meant so much to me. That was quite comfortable. And I am blessed in a strange way that I had a similar easygoing relationship with Dylan. It was never a big promotional buddy-buddy kind of thing either

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