Archive for the ‘John Cohen’ Category

Walking in the Light

April 21, 2015

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 from https://steidl.de:

John Cohen: Walking in The Light

Published by Steidl
Text by John Cohen.

Hardcover, 9 x 9.25 in. / 96 pgs / PUB DATE 4/28/2015

Walking in the Light is John Cohen’s photographic journey towards and through gospel music. From 1954 to 1964 he photographed in the black churches of East New York, on the streets of New Haven, in the home of blind Reverend Gary Davis, as well as in the darkness of a boxing gym and the blackness of coal shovelers at an industrial site.

Of all these images, those of worshippers at a small church in Harlem form the emotional centerpiece of Cohen’s journey, where music leads to spiritual release in trances and dances. The last destination of this odyssey is Johns Island, South Carolina, where Gullah children connect to African ancestors through games and play.

Cohen’s photographs of musical performances in religious settings reflect the inner sound expressed on the face of a singer, a soulful expression, the quality of light that illuminates the face of a child, or the intensity of a prayer. Sound, song and religious feeling are permanently rendered in black and white.

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

January 13, 2015

 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

Gott and Cohen in Madison Co.

December 11, 2014
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from “Curious Tales and Captivating Voices: The Ballad Tradition of the Southern Appalachians” by Wendy Baker:
“Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound” examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott’s film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today’s ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O’Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner.

Peter Gott came to Madison County, NC, in pursuit of traditional banjo music.  He happened to hear a recording of Madison County banjo player Obray Ramsey playing “Pretty Polly” and the traditional tune “Little Maggie.” Gott, in turn, inspired musician and filmmaker John Cohen to come to Madison County.

Cohen’s interest in the singers of Madison County inspired him to produce a film entitled “End of an Old Song” about the legendary Dillard Chandler (1907-1992). Chandler, one of a long line of ballad singers, is said to have had one of the best voices for ballads in the world.

Cohen describes Dillard Chandler’s bewilderment when, in 1963, Cohen asked if he could record him singing ballads. “There was this big wall of silence–not resistance…I was there an awfully long time trying to explain to him why he should sing for my microphone…There’s something about this music–it would be so good if other people could hear it.”  From this account, we can see that clearly, Dillard Chandler had never anticipated the interest in his singing from a wider audience.

This outside interest in the people of the ballad and traditional music scene eventually led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about the use of the recordings. As singers began to perform for festivals, strangers told them about seeing or hearing a recording of them. This revelation led to the belief that others were making money from their talent, without sharing in the financial benefits.
Sheila Kay Adams explains, “Wherever they would go, somebody would inevitably come up to them and say, ‘I heard you on this record that John Cohen put out.’ To them, it started to sound like there were millions of these records out there because people would say, ‘Oh look, here I’ve got this record with your picture on it.’”
In fact, while Cohen’s work may have given the Madison County singers much deserved recognition and external respect, his efforts were focused on the documentary aspect of this culture and its traditions, rather than on reaping commercial profits.
The singers’ misconceptions continued to build. Singer Doug Wallin one day said to John Cohen, “That record you made of my parents [Lee and Berzilla Wallin]–that’s all over the place…it’s probably all over the country in jukeboxes everywhere, and you’re keeping our money.”
The conflict finally came to a head in one incident. Peter Gott and John Cohen frequently spent time at Doug Wallin’s house. One day Doug explained to them that they were welcome to come, but that he didn’t want any more recording.
In Gott’s words, “Well, John wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept begging until finally, Doug lost his temper and took a
swing at him. And he said, ‘Get outta here and don’t ever come back! And that goes for both of you!’…For me it was the end of a beautiful friendship not just with Doug but with his whole family. I never went back.”

John Cohen Looks Back

November 7, 2014

American Standard Time Presents John Cohen

August 22, 2014

“My hair stood up on end”

June 29, 2014

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”4

– See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. “In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.1 “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”2

John Cohen map, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Two girls, KY, 1959
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”

“Over there in that house,” they replied.

Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.

“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.

“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.

Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, KY, 1959
John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.” “My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”4

– See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.

excerpt from “John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Holcomb During the Folk Revival,” by Scott L. Matthews:

Scott L. Matthews,
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf
John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival – See more at: http://www.southernspaces.org/2008/john-cohen-eastern-kentucky-documentary-expression-and-image-roscoe-halcomb-during-folk-revival#sthash.ntp8ltKm.dpuf

On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about “hard times” that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers.

“In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959,” he recalled.  “The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn’t and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, ‘Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'”

Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, “Any banjo players around here?”
“Over there in that house,” they replied.
Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.
“What are you doing here?” Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.
“Well, I’m looking for music,” Cohen said.
Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, “Charles Guiteau,” about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, “Here comes Rossie!”

A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called “Across the Rocky Mountain.”

“My hair stood up on end,” Cohen later remembered. “I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde.” The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. “It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, ‘Can I come back and hear you some more?'”

John Cohen pt. 3

May 22, 2014

cohen 3

from https://banjonews.com:

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.

John Cohen pt. 2

May 17, 2014

cohen 2

from https://banjonews.com:

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.

John Cohen pt.1

May 12, 2014

cohen 1

from https://banjonews.com:

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.

 

 

 

Payday at Coal Creek: John Cohen and Jean Ritchie

April 29, 2014

 “Folk legend Jean Ritchie turns 90,”  by Bailey Richards (www.hazard-herald.com):

A Perry County icon and national folk music legend turned 90 years old this week past weekend, only a couple weeks after she was honored during the Appalachian Winter Homecoming in Hazard.

Jean Ritchie has spent decades writing and preforming music that has kept the musical traditions of the mountains alive. She grew up in the Viper community a few miles south of Hazard as the youngest of 14 children. The family all preformed music and memorized songs as they worked, and would often times perform at churches and festivals.

Ritchie was first recorded in the 1930’s by acclaimed folklorist and musician Alan Lomax while he was recording songs for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song. The Singing Ritchies were recorded along with hundreds of other folk singers.

Ritchie attended Cumberland College and the University of Kentucky, graduating with a degree in social work. She moved to New York where she began working at the Henry Street Settlement School. While in New England, she met several musicians and started playing her old folk songs again.

She also met George Pickow, who would later become her husband. She and Pickow have two sons, Peter and Jonathan.

Ritchie began playing and recording regularly and brought much attention to a little known instrument, the lap dulcimer. She, Pickow, and Pickow’s uncle Morris Pickow, began a workshop making dulcimers in Brooklyn. Ritchie would tune them and Pickow would finish them.

Ritchie believed that there was going to be a dulcimer revival, and she was right. While the instrument remains obscure in mainstream circles, it has become very popular in folk music. According to Dean Osborne, director of the Hazard Community and Technical College’s Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music, it is because of Ritchie’s influence that the dulcimer has become such a large part of folk music.

“She is in the top three of dulcimer players in terms of what they have done for awareness of the instrument,” said Osborne.

She went on to create hundreds of recordings and write many songs. Several of those songs were written under the pseudonym Than Hall, her grandfather’s name, because she felt many of her songs, particularly about coal, would be taken more seriously if they were written by a man.

As it turns out, this may have been true. One of her most well-known and frequently covered songs, the “L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” was written as Than Hall.

Osborne said that he believes one of the reasons Ritchie’s music is so often covered is because of how timeless and iconic it is. “Her music is honest and from the heart,” he noted.

Another reason she has been able to become truly iconic is her ability to bring the music of the region outside of the mountains, Osborne continued. While there were many emerging folk artist during the 1940s and 50s, Ritchie was able to rise above because of her willingness to collaborate with many of the greats and take the music to places it had never been before.

He compared Ritchie to a modern figure in folk music, Alison Krauss, for her ability to bring the music of Appalachia to the world.

“While there is nothing wrong with playing around your home, she was able to bring our music to major venues,” Osborne said.

Ritchie’s music covers many different facets of her life, from the songs she and her family sang while working in the fields to songs about the coal industry and religion. She kept her music traditional, with most of it being the way it would have been sung at home with no accompaniment. She would play guitar or dulcimer in some of her songs.

Another way she kept old traditions alive was by recording many of the Old Regular Baptist hymns that she grew up with. They were recorded as they were sang, lined out one line at a time. Osborne said that it was her voice that made these recordings work. He called it just perfect and sweet.

Over the years, Ritchie has performed on some of the grandest stages in the world including Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall. Her and her husband’s photographic archives and Irish music have been purchased and are displayed in the National University of Ireland. She was awarded with a Rolling Stone Critics Award in 1977 for her album None But One. In 2002 she received the highest honor in the folk music world, the National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Among all of the musicians from the mountains, Osborne said that Ritchie stands out because of her honesty in her songs and ability to cross boundaries with her traditional music. Osborne was a part of the selection committee that chose her to be in the first class entered in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

“She is in a class all her own,” he said.

Ritchie’s career has spanned from the late 1940s through 2009. She continued preforming until she suffered a stroke in Dec. 2009 that affected her communication. She was able to make a great amount of recovery and begin speaking again in 2010.

From her humble beginnings sharing a bedroom with her nine sisters and signing in the fields, Jean Ritchie has been regarded as a national treasure for preserving the music of the mountains and bringing folk to the world.

The High and Lonesome Sound

May 17, 2013

high-lonesome-sound-legacy-roscoe-holcomb-john-cohen-paperback-cover-art

The High and Lonesome Sound (new book by John Cohen)

  • Text by John Cohen
    with a DVD with two films about Roscoe Holcomb
    and a CD with music of Roscoe Holcomb
    Book design by Gerhard Steidl
    and Katharina Staal
  • 216 pages
  • 28 cm x 24 cm
  • Clothbound hardcover with a dustjacket
  • 158 photographs
  • ISBN: 978-3-86930-254-6

“The music of Roscoe Holcomb transcended daily life. Although it was grounded in Appalachia, in East Kentucky, in his little town of Dais, his music traveled like it was on a path towards a distant star.”   

John Cohen

 

from publisher steidlville.com:

In 1959 John Cohen traveled to East Kentucky looking for what he calls “old music”. Cohen asked for names at local gas stations but soon ran out of leads, and drove off the highway onto the next dirt road. Here he stumbled across Roscoe Holcomb playing the banjo and singing on his front porch in a way says Cohen, “that made the hairs on my neck stand up on end”. And so by pure chance began the life-long friendship that is the background for The High and Lonesome Sound.

Cohen visited Holcomb frequently over the next three decades, and made many photographs, films and records of his music. In time Holcomb, a poor coal miner by trade, became a regular feature on the American concert and festival circuits. The “strange beauty and discomfort” of his music – a mixture of blues, ballads and Baptist hymns, and unique through his high strained voice – was exposed to a larger audience. Nevertheless Holcomb died alone in a nursing home in 1981.

The High and Lonesome Sound combines Cohen’s vintage photos, film and musical recordings as well as an anecdotal text into a multimedia tribute to this underappreciated legend of American music whose every performance was in Cohen’s words “not just a rendition of music, but a test of something to be overcome”.

There Is No Eye

March 15, 2013

images

edited from Mike Yates (www.mustrad.org.uk):

Review of There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40091)

 
‘There is no eye: music for photographs’ is a companion CD to John Cohen’s recent book of photographs of musicians There Is No Eye (Powerhouse, 2001).  Many – though not all – of the tracks on this CD are taken from his own recordings.

Bob Dylan’s Roll On John is taken from a 1962 radio broadcast.  Officially issued here for the first time, it has, in fact, appeared on a number of underground tapes.  On first hearing I was quite surprised how well Dylan sang the song.  Subsequent hearings, however, show a shallowness when compared with the source recording of Kentucky singer Rufus Crisp (Folkways 2342).

John Cohen has spent some considerable time documenting the music of eastern Kentucky.  Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian Folkways 40077) first introduced us to the singing of Roscoe Holcomb, among others.  When Roscoe’s solo album High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways 40104) was reissued on CD I was disappointed that his haunting Man of Constant Sorrow had been omitted.

Now we know why.  It’s here!  Thank God!  Hallelujah!  John prints a number of comments about Roscoe Holcomb’s singing from other writers.  I especially like this one: ‘A voice that bypasses the head and shoots straight for the soul’.  I have to say that it came as something of a shock to learn that Roscoe had originally learnt the song from a recording by Ralph Stanley, his delivery sounding as though he had been born with the song already implanted in his mind.

One of John Cohen’s films is of Kentucky musicians.  Also titled The High Lonesome Sound, it focuses primarily on Roscoe Holcomb, although Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are also seen performing their version of John Henry, which is likewise included here.  It’s a high-powered performance, one which contrasts sharply with the almost sedate performance of the Baptist song Come All You Tender Hearted sung superbly by Carter Stanley.

Other mountain – Appalachian, of course – recordings include Doc Watson and his father-in-law Gaither Carlton singing and playing Hick’s Farewell, Sidna Myers playing the exquisite clawhammer tune Twin Sisters and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard performing a tight bluegrass version of TB Blues.

The 1964 recording of Paloma Blanco, performed by a Peruvian stringband, is exquisite.  It is preceded by the New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz) playing a version of Buck Creek Girls that John had previously collected from Kentucky banjo player Bill Cornett.

What strikes me is how similar the New Lost City Ramblers sound to their Peruvian musical cousins.  The tunes are, of course, dissimilar, but, the manner of playing – the philosophy behind the playing – is clearly related.

Roots of John Cohen

June 22, 2012

Excerpt from “John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky,” by Scott Matthews

In 1948, at the age of sixteen, John Cohen first heard Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads at summer camp at a site called Turkey Point, north of New York City. The music entranced him. Guthrie’s ballads and other albums of old songs and fiddle tunes sparked not only Cohen’s fascination with old-time music, but also his rebellion against mainstream culture.

At the same camp, Cohen also got an introduction to Kentucky mountain music and learned how to both build and begin to play a banjo. Woody Wachtell, a camp counselor, had been to Kentucky with Margot Mayo, founder of the American Square Dance Group, whose uncle, Rufus Crisp, was a banjo player from Allen, Kentucky. Crisp had recorded for the Library of Congress during the 1940s and ’50s.

Wachtell and Mayo made recordings of Crisp who, in turn, taught Wachtell about the banjo. Wachtell, as Cohen remembered, “conveyed such joy with his music . . . it was astounding to me . . . it had the feeling that it was something that I could do.” Cohen also listened to music collected by John and Alan Lomax in the southern mountains while attending camp.

A record called Mountain Frolic gave Cohen his first glimpse into the world of old-time music and string bands. When Cohen returned to his suburban high school in the fall, familiar with sounds from Appalachia, and interested in playing the guitar and banjo, he began to feel alienated from his peers. “I was the only person — the only person — playing a guitar in high school,” he recalled, “and the only one singing these kinds of songs . . . which didn’t make me special . . . it made me seem weird, you know, strange.”

Cohen’s sense of alienation persisted when he attended Williams College in 1950. Fraternities dominated the school’s social scene and he met no one who shared his fascination with folk music. He found solace playing the banjo in his room and listening repeatedly to the Library of Congress recordings in the school’s library. At night, he tuned his radio to WWVA and listened to country music broadcasted many miles to the south. The sounds seemed alien, but deepened his fascination for Appalachian music.

“The songs spoke of Honky Tonk life and cheating wives and husbands on the one hand, and of the longing for home, farm and tradition, on the other.” Enraptured, Cohen spent his first summer after college hitchhiking south to experience the music firsthand. When one of his rides stopped for gas somewhere in Virginia late at night, Cohen noticed the bugs swarming around the station’s lights as a radio outside blared Flatt and Scruggs. He had heard Flatt and Scruggs before, but never so close to the source. They hit him hard.

Fed up with the preppy culture of Williams, Cohen transferred to the art school at Yale in 1951 and fell in with a group of students and professors who played a profound role in shaping his career. Cohen found Tom Paley, a mathematics graduate student, who shared his passion for southern folk music. Cohen, Paley, and other enthusiasts started hosting and promoting “hootenannies” in 1952 and 1953. Early on, the “hoots” attracted only a few art and graduate students, but word spread and the next thing Cohen knew “two or three hundred students were showing up to sing with us on Friday nights.”