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Review: John Cohen - recent articles about

Desert Dancer 23 Jan 11 - 11:13 AM
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Subject: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:13 AM

At 78, photographer, filmmaker, musician, etc. John Cohen (New Lost City Ramblers, High Lonesome Sound, etc.) is picking through his files and releasing more material. As a result, he's come back to the attention of a few writers and there are some nice articles out about him. I'll copy them here (in separate posts) for the Mudcat archives.

(See also this thread: Review: new Roscoe Holcomb film by John Cohen.)

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:25 AM

This one's from National Public Radio. It's always worth listening as well as reading. The audio often has a little more text than is transcribed, as well as music, of course. The web page has pictures, links, etc.

John Cohen's Passionate Pursuit, From Kentucky To Peru

by Karen Michel
NPR Music
January 23, 2011

For more than half a century, John Cohen has been taking photographs, making films, recording rural musicians and creating his own music. He's a co-founder of The New Lost City Ramblers, a string band that set the standard for authenticity in the 1950s' "folk boom," and at the age of 78, Cohen is still at it.

A seminal figure in the folk revival of the 1950s, Cohen grew up in New York City. Now he lives in a snug, wood-heated home, about an hour north of the city.

"I live up here in Putnam County on an old farm, like I'm supposed to," Cohen says, as he shuffles toward an old staircase. "This apparently was an old smoke house and now it's my music library."

It's here, in what Cohen calls his "inner sanctum," that he keeps the relics and results of his more than 50 years of exploring the stories and lives of others, as a still photographer, filmmaker and sound recorder.

In 1954, while still a student at Yale, Cohen went to Peru, knowing only two words of Quechua. Three years later, he headed for Kentucky, where he met banjoist and singer Roscoe Holcomb.

Holcomb became the subject of a classic Cohen film, The High Lonesome Sound. Sometime after he finished it, Cohen took the film back to the village of Daisy, Ky.

"I was anxious to hear the comments," he says, "[Then someone said,] 'Look, Aunt Jane painted her porch!' That's all I got from all that political correctness."

Between visits to Kentucky and Peru, Cohen lived in a downtown New York City apartment, next door to photographer Robert Frank. When Frank shot the iconic beat film, Pull My Daisy, Cohen took the still photographs. When young Bob Dylan came to Greenwich Village, Cohen took photos of him, too, on the roof of the building.

There's a famous shot of Woody Guthrie, curly hair sprouting from the top of his narrow head, framed by the hulking backs of two acoustic guitarists. That picture was the image used for a show of Cohen's still photos, films and music at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1997.

Cohen was a musician himself. A banjo player since high school, he began learning the music of the old-timers while he was at Yale, and soon after, he formed the New Lost City Ramblers.

"In the very first notes I wrote for the very first New Lost City Ramblers album, I said there's a side of ourselves that goes out trying to change the world to our own image, and there's another side of ourselves trying to find our image in the outside world," he says. "I think it's that second one that's forced me to become who I am."

It's through the Ramblers that Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, was first exposed to Cohen's multifaceted work.

"One of the things you can really see from John Cohen is that you don't have to pigeonhole yourself," Rankin says. "You can follow that naive passion of interest, be a participant and be an observer."

Cohen says, "I'm an artist rather than a documentarian."

But back in his barn a few years ago, Cohen put the lie to that. Rummaging around, he found footage for his most recent film, a follow-up on Roscoe Holcomb.

"About 20 years ago I made my last film in Peru, and I said I've done 15 films, that's enough. Then I remembered, out in the barn I had all of this footage that didn't make it into my first film," he says. "I found some beautiful music and devastating stories from Roscoe, and that what gave me the impetus to make the new movie."

That film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky, has just come out on DVD, along with the original Holcomb documentary. Also out are John Cohen, Past, Present, Peru: A Collection of CDs, DVDs, Photos and Text and a new book about The New Lost City Ramblers.

"I'm 78 years old and I didn't expect to have this much attention come to my work," Cohen says. "I'm very happy it's happening and I'd like people to see it, because it should be seen."

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:34 AM

The Revivalist
How John Cohen Found Folk Music And (Accidentally) Inspired a Klezmer Renaissance

By Ezra Glinter
The Jewish Daily Forward
Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.

At the end of John Cohen's 1963 film, "The High Lonesome Sound," Roscoe Holcomb, a coal miner, construction worker and banjo player, sits hunched over a songbook on the threadbare sofa in his ramshackle house, singing the Baptist hymns he learned as a boy. Holcomb has long since abandoned the austere Old Regular Baptist Church to join the Pentecostal Holiness Church, which, unlike the Baptists, welcomed banjos, guitars and other instruments as part of their worship. But in a quiet moment, Holcomb returns to the spiritual chants of his childhood.

"I didn't know quite how we were going to end [the film]," Cohen recalled on a recent Saturday morning over breakfast at a diner near his home in Putnam Valley, N.Y. "But I had shot a scene of [Holcomb] just sitting alone at home, lining out these old Baptist songs, reminding himself, I think, of his past, of the music he was raised on. It reminds me of my grandfather, in shul. You're part of a community, but you're very solitary, and the music is just this deep moan."

Forty-seven years later, Cohen is a spry 78-year-old whose rust-orange beard is now nearly white, and whose career defies categorization. As a photographer, Cohen captured the cultural tumult of midcentury Manhattan, including many pictures of the young Bob Dylan; as a documentary filmmaker, he has made some 16 films about traditional communities in the United States, Greece and Peru. His recording of a Peruvian wedding was even selected by NASA as part of Voyager's Golden Record to represent humanity to the cosmos.

As a musician, he was an early instigator of the folk music revival in the 1950s and '60s, laying the groundwork for such subsequent cultural movements as the klezmer revival of the 1970s. And, according to what Cohen calls a "true rumor," he was the inspiration for the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band."

"I've been called an ethnomusicologist, a visual anthropologist, a professor, a filmmaker, a musician," Cohen said of his wide-ranging activities. "I think it's the inadequacy of our language, or our need to put a label on every aspect of things. But to me, I just move from one to the other."

Cohen's latest film takes him back to his love of American folk music, as well as to his first attempt at filmmaking. "Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky," a movie made out of footage left over from "The High Lonesome Sound," presents a picture of the man and the music that became, thanks to Cohen, a central influence on the folk revival. After being named best short documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival last October, "Roscoe Holcomb," now available on DVD, received its official premiere November 13 at the Museum of Natural History's Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival as part of a retrospective of Cohen's documentary work.

Born in 1932, in the Sunnyside area of Queens, Cohen moved with his family to the suburbs of Long Island when he was 9. Though he recalls his parents practicing "some kind of international folk dancing," it wasn't until the age of 16, at a summer camp in the Catskills, that he first heard Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads," an album that depicted Guthrie's experiences as an "Okie" during the Great Depression. It exposed Cohen to a part of America he never knew existed.

"It was the kind of music that I could connect with: social causes and people in America having a hard time," Cohen said. "I found this music opened up a huge world to me."

After high school, where his newfound interest in folk music made him something of a social misfit, Cohen attended Williams College, at which he spent a "misdirected year" before transferring to Yale to study painting and photography. There he made friends with Tom Paley, a mathematics student and fellow folk music fanatic who introduced him to hootenannies and to the first stirrings of the folk revival.

Upon graduating from Yale, Cohen worked as a photographer in New York for such magazines as Esquire and Life, taking pictures of the Abstract Expressionist painters he had met as an art student, as well as shots of the Beat and folk music scenes in Greenwich Village. He also volunteered to be the set photographer on "Pull My Daisy," a short film adapted by Jack Kerouac from part of his play "Beat Generation" and directed by photographer Robert Frank, who at that time was Cohen's neighbor on Third Avenue.

While Cohen's participation in both the folk music scene and the avant-garde art world was unusual, he found the noncommercial nature of the two cultural strains perfectly compatible. "When I thought about the raw energy of painting that was going on, and the raw energy of the music I was hearing, it didn't seem that different to me," he said. "It was not smooth, background music; it was raw and had jagged edges."

Cohen also nurtured his musical interests by forming an old-time string band with Paley and Mike Seeger, half-brother of folk musician Pete Seeger. Calling themselves the New Lost City Ramblers, the trio aimed to play faithful renditions of the edgy songs that came from the mining towns of Appalachia. The tunes' themes of violence, poverty and religious salvation were often sanitized from the commercial folk music then making its way onto the nation's airwaves. To perform material of this nature, however, the group first had to discover authentic songs to sing. So in the spring of 1959, Cohen set off for Kentucky.

"In those days I didn't have a car, so I went to Kentucky by bus," he recalled. "I didn't have any leads, didn't know where I was going."

Cohen arrived in the town of Hazard, got a room in a boarding house and spent his days, recording gear in tow, visiting amateur mountain musicians. One sweltering Sunday afternoon, after visiting a fiddler who was too old to play anymore, Cohen was wandering around the outskirts of Hazard, unwilling to return to the rooming house. Without anywhere else to go, he decided to take the first dirt path off the main road. After crossing a small railroad bridge, he ran into a couple of children and asked them if they knew any banjo players. They pointed to a house, where he found a man he had recorded in a bar the previous night. After a few tunes, a thin, worn-looking man named Roscoe walked in. The man took the banjo and played "Across the Rocky Mountain."

"My hair stood up on end," Cohen recalled. "It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song. Not the song itself, but the way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, 'Can I come back and hear you some more?'"

The result was the album "Mountain Music of Kentucky," which Cohen released in 1960 together with a booklet of photographs he had taken during the trip. The album exposed, for the first time, Holcomb's spare, penetrating style to a general audience, and it quickly gained a cult following. But Cohen felt unsatisfied just recording and taking pictures separately, and in 1962 he returned to Kentucky, where he filmed "The High Lonesome Sound" over a period of six weeks while living in a lumber camp.

Along with unheard music and musicians, Cohen discovered in Kentucky a sense of community and connectedness that was missing from his suburban New York upbringing. Though he always had an awareness of being Jewish, the trauma of anti-Semitism had severed his family from its Eastern European roots. Upon returning from the South and asking his grandmother about her childhood in Russia, the answer he received was the story of a pogrom.

"I was finding something that I was not getting in the suburbs, that there was something people were connected to in their music and their lives that I had been deprived of," Cohen said. "I wasn't deliberately deprived, but I was protected, I was sheltered. They didn't want to talk about it — it was too painful. That gave me a reason to continue with what I was finding out about America."

Though Cohen continued to pursue his study of traditional cultures in places like Kentucky and Peru, his work inspired another generation of Jews to rediscover their own music and heritage. When the first klezmer revival bands started cropping up two decades later, they used his methods as a template for reviving a culture that had been given up for dead.

"The mechanisms he used, performance, publication, concerts — it was a unique way of reanimating a culture," said banjo player and klezmer revival leader Henry Sapoznik, who in 1985 founded KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program. "It was also the model, pretty shamelessly lifted, that I used for my work in Yiddish music. If you replace Roscoe Holcomb with Dave Tarras, we were doing the same reclaiming of a cultural heritage through a direct transmission from hand to hand."

Over the decades, Cohen continued his career as an artist, making films and records, taking photographs and teaching at Purchase College, SUNY. More recently, he has begun preparing his archives for the Library of Congress. But it is not his own legacy he is concerned with so much as the legacy of the artists whose music he helped discover.

In that respect, things are looking up. Along with a new film, Cohen has a new string band called The Dust Busters. Though its members are young enough to be Cohen's grandchildren, they are drawn to the same rawness and vitality that Cohen recognized when he first heard Holcomb in Kentucky.

"My running joke about The Dust Busters is that you take the three of them and add their ages together, and I'm still older. But we play together like it was meant to be," Cohen said. "I think that the outlook I pursued with the New Lost City Ramblers and my own work has affected a lot of young people to follow a path that they wouldn't have followed otherwise. Even though Roscoe never became a big star, and I never became a big star, the music is out there and it's still going."

Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and a contributing editor to the Forward.

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:38 AM

John Cohen and Roscoe Holcomb

Map of the Sidewalk (a New York City blog)
Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jalopy Theatre and School of Music sits behind a storefront along lower Columbia Street in Brooklyn. Half a block to the south, traffic rumbles down Hamilton Avenue on its way to the Battery Tunnel. A block or so to the west is the Brooklyn waterfront. Depending on how you define the neighborhood boundaries, the area is either in Red Hook or on the edge of it.

Inside is a glass counter with the stringed instruments Jalopy sells--banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, vintage acoustic and electric guitars--hanging overhead, and a bar with a few beer taps, an espresso machine and a glass case of bottled beer. In a larger brick-walled room in the back, church pews and mismatched wooden folding chairs face a stage framed in red light bulbs. On a recent Saturday night, the musician, folklorist and filmmaker John Cohen was seated on the stage, playing music with the three members of the band the Dust Busters. Cohen is a gray-bearded 78-year-old, while the Dust Busters--Walker Shepard, Craig Judelman and Eli Smith--all look to be in their 20s or 30s. Cohen alternated between banjo and guitar, and the Dust Busters took turns on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica. Cohen had recently debuted a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky, about a legendary Appalachian musician he had helped discover in the 1960s. And a new book, Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival by Ray Allen, was telling the story of Cohen's old band.

In the 1950s, Cohen was living on Third Avenue, hanging out with and photographing Beat writers, Abstract Expressionist painters and folk musicians. The band he helped found, the New Lost City Ramblers, was one of the folk revival acts that most prized authenticity. They strove not only to play old-time, traditional songs but to play them in the specific, regional styles of the bluesmen and balladeers who originally performed them, putting them at odds with some of the more commercially viable folk groups. "He should have called it 'The New Lost City Ramblers vs. The Folk Music Revival,'" Cohen said of Allen's book.

That fixation on the authentic drove Cohen to Appalachia, where geographic isolation and widespread poverty had preserved a distinct musical culture. "Hazard, Kentucky in 1962 is reminiscent of the Depression of the 1930s," Cohen says in voiceover near the beginning of The High Lonesome Sound, the documentary he shot in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. On the screen in sun-drenched black and white, groups of men crowd the streets of Hazard, talking and smoking as they try to find work.

When he first got to Eastern Kentucky, Cohen asked around at gas stations for the names of banjo players, then drove around searching them out. As he tells filmmakers Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld in Remembering the High Lonesome, one day he found himself in the home of a man he met at a local bar, somewhere down a dirt road near a railroad bridge, listening to the man's mother play the banjo. An unassuming man happened by who people referred to as Rossy. When Rossy sat down and played the song Cross the Rocky Mountain, Cohen recalled, "my hair stood up on end."

Rossy was Roscoe Holcomb, a sometime construction worker, coal miner, sawmill worker, subsistence farmer and musician who at the time was around 50. An iconic black and white photo Cohen took shows him standing straight and rail-thin, neatly dressed in glasses, hat and tucked-in button-down shirt, a banjo in his hands. Holcomb considered musical ability to be a gift God had given him; when he first picked up the banjo he had prayed to God for a way to make enough money to get by, and had subsequently learned 400 songs in his first year playing. He was known as both a banjo player and a guitarist, but it was mainly the raw, anguished power of his high-pitched vocals that would haunt Cohen and other listeners.

Holcomb became the central figure in The High Lonesome Sound, a key to exploring Appalachia through music. Music and hardship are the common themes that run though the scenes of the film: Roscoe playing the banjo on a front porch while his shirtless nephew step-dances beside him, a coal miner and his family playing and singing in a house wallpapered with newspapers, people seeking salvation at church services and riverside baptisms, singing hymns and shaking and wailing with the holy spirit. "Music is the celebration of the hard life here in Kentucky," Cohen narrates. "The home music and the church singing are a way of holding on to the old dignity. Music is not an escape. It gives a way of making life possible to go on."

Cohen helped Holcomb achieve a certain degree of fame. He took him on tour through the U.S. and Europe. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton would cite him as an influence on their work. But by the 1970s, he had become sick with asthma and emphysema. In footage Cohen shot from that period, Holcomb mentions his declining health and the fact that he can no longer work. Sitting on his porch, recorded now on color film, he tells Cohen that he has trouble finding the breath to sing. Holcomb gave his last performance in 1978 and died in 1981. Years later, Cohen noticed that young musicians still knew Holcomb's songs, and he decided to edit footage of Holcomb he had shot over the years into a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky.

In the audience at Jalopy in Brooklyn, men in beards and women in glasses drank beer from Mason jars and from bottles they rested on the hardwood floor. In the back of the room, Jalopy's co-owner Geoff Wiley, a big man with a chest-length beard, worked the sound board. Near the end of their set, Cohen and the Dust Busters were joined by another musician, Peter Stampfel. Cohen introduced the song Buck Creek Girls, saying he had learned it from Banjo Bill Cornett when he met him in Kentucky in 1959. "He recorded a bunch of songs for me, then he refused to play any more because he was afraid I might copy them," Cohen recalled. "I couldn't even understand them."

As he indicated, the song was complicated in timing and rhythm. When it was over, Cohen addressed the audience again. "That was 1, 2, 3, 4," he counted the musicians on stage, "5 versions of Buck Creek Girls."

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:45 AM

For good measure, here's Cohen's web site: John Cohen Works

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: peregrina
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:47 AM

thanks for all these!

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 11:50 AM

And, lastly, links to the Dust Busters, an Brooklyn, NY, old-time band with whom Cohen toured and recorded an album last year: Prohibition is a Failure.

The Dust Busters
on MySpace Music

~ Becky in Tucson

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 12:39 PM

A recent book about the New Lost City Ramblers: Gone to the Country, The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival, by Ray Allen, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Martha Burns
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:43 PM

Good work, Desert Dancer. Great reading here. Especially loved the article in the Jewish Daily Forward. Fascinating perspective on what drew JC into American traditional music.

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Don Firth
Date: 23 Jan 11 - 10:49 PM

Yeah, Becky, I heard the NPR interview this morning.

I saw John Cohen, along with the rest of the New Lost City Ramblers (Tom Paley and Mike Seeger) at the 1960 Berkeley Folk Festival. I met and talked with all kinds of well-known singers and folk music personalities there, including Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, but I didn't have a chance to meet him or his two compatriots.

In addition to doing a lot of real fine old-timey string band music, they were a riot on stage. Sort of the Larry, Curly, and Moe of folk music.

Don Firth

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Subject: RE: Review: John Cohen - recent articles about
From: Art Thieme
Date: 24 Jan 11 - 03:21 PM

I got to see 'em with Tom Paley at the Gate Of Horn in Chicago---1959. That was the year I graduated high school.

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