This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.
Editor’s note: John Cohen has played many important roles in creating an audience for old-time music — as a photographer, filmmaker, field collector and musician with one of the most influential groups of the folk revival, The New Lost City Ramblers. In the following recollections, Cohen tells of his first trips into the Southern Appalachians, the people he met, and his continuing efforts to understand mountain culture. At a time when many young Southerners were rejecting traditional music, Northerner John Cohen and a handful of other visitors explored our heritage. Had it not been for collectors like John Cohen, Guy and Candie Carawan, Archie Green, Ralph Rinzler, the Lomax family and the Seegers, it is doubtful the desire for musical roots would have developed as it did. The photo above is the New Lost City Ramblers: (l-r)Mike Seeger, Cohen, Tracy Schwarz.
My first impressions of Southern music were formed during the 1940s. So was my initial image of the South. Those were the days of segregation and lynch-mob justice, and the obvious pride which the South took in its notorious racism could not help but color my perceptions. Yet I sensed the presence of different and conflicting messages behind the stereotypes which then passed for truth about that region’s outcasts, black and white alike. Though Northerners deplored the racist stereotypes about black people, they accepted the popular image of white mountain folk — closed, inaccessible and hostile — without objection. In fact, as late as 1960, one of the first bluegrass concerts ever given outside the South, presented by the Friends of Old Time Music in Greenwich Village, elicted the reaction, “Wow — these are the musicians who dress up in white sheets at night!”
This “hillbilly” stereotype, rooted in our own ignorance and provincialism, was nurtured by the country music which blared forth from the radio after sundown, when under cover of darkness, stations like WWVA made their electronic penetration deep into the enemy territory of the North. 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. I saw in country music the rural counterpart to the opportunity which professional sports gave the children of the northern ghettos — one of the few routes to success open to a poor kid. The music seemed suffused with glitter and commercial success.
By 1959,1 was living in New York, on lower Third Avenue, in the midst of the abstract expressionist art scene, the birthplace of Pop art. My social life included parties with Red Grooms, Claus Oldenberg and Jim Dine; neighbors included sculptress Mary Frank and photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank. I was working on Frank’s films (“Pull My Daisy” and “Sin of Jesus”), doing free-lance photography for magazines like Life and Esquire, playing banjo with the New Lost City Ramblers. Surrounded by painters, poets, musicians and writers, and friendly with the young Bob Dylan, I was on the edge of the birth of Pop art. With the money which Life magazine had paid for my photos of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, I traveled on my own that year to eastern Kentucky to capture the feel of a depression in America.
I recorded local musicians, and photographed miners, family farms and the people of the region. On that first trip South, I heard a music which moved me deeply, a kind of music which was receiving very little attention, either in the world of commercial country music or in its own home community. The music of one particular musician, Roscoe Holcomb, hit me the hardest, both emotionally and spiritually, and I suddenly wanted to know what Roscoe had seen and experienced to be able to make that kind of music. When I returned to New York, I carried my eastern Kentucky photographs to Southerner Harold Hays, editor of Esquire. He was not impressed and rejected the photos, explaining that Esquire would be interested only “if the people were really dirty and starving.” The music that I had taped and several of the photographs were subsequently issued on Folkways Records’ Mountain Music of Kentucky. Hays and I may have been in the same place, but we were moving in opposite directions.
In those days, many people had the idea that the mountains were being overrun by folklorists dragging complete recording studios behind them. I remember one gig with The New Lost City Ramblers at the Gate of Horn (an early “folk club” in Chicago) at which a comedian got a big laugh with his sketch of an exchange between a folkorist and a mountaineer — both of them with their own tape recorders. But during this entire period, field collectors never numbered more than a handful. Public attention was captured by people like Alan Lomax, who swept through picking up the big chunks, and Kenneth Goldstein, who produced endless so-called “folk” recordings for Prestige Records, using nontraditional musicians. Yet there were only three or four of us looking for music at the community level — people like Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler, who were doing the initial collecting which would eventually lead to the national acceptance and appreciation of bluegrass as a legitimate field of study, a valid musical genre.
Folkways Records pioneered in this field, and gave us the freedom to produce anything we felt was worthwhile. We worked hard editing, researching, and annotating with a great sense of responsibility. And no audience. Relatively few records were sold, but people assumed that enterprises such as ours were financially successful. In its first year, Mountain Music of Kentucky sold only 440 copies. Yet when I went to visit Roscoe Holcomb several years later, the word in Hazard, Kentucky, was that 440,000 copies had been sold, and that I had kept all the money. I encountered the same misunderstanding some years later in Madison County, North Carolina, where I recorded Old Lovesongs and Ballads. It had only sold 50 copies in the year after it was released, yet on my next visit there, Doug Wallin, one of the musicians on the record, took a swing at me on his front porch for keeping all the money. Since he knew three people who had the record in his little town (I had sent copies to all the participants), he had assumed that it was selling equally well across the nation. The difference between commercial recording and folklore collecting was rarely understood, least of all by the musicians themselves, and became a source of misunderstanding which persists to this day in some quarters. The fact is that none of us ever received any payment for our efforts.
I mention these misunderstandings about our finances because they have been a source of real pain and discouragement to many of us who invested a considerable chunk of our lives in an effort to preserve traditional music. A teacher of mine once said, “To distribute material goods is to divide them, while to distribute spiritual goods is to multiply them.” As I see it, the underlying question is whether one views music and local traditions as either commodities or spiritual achievements. Since my first drive through eastern Kentucky, I have viewed traditional culture as a hidden spiritual resource, and my only aim throughout has been to share it with others, an enterprise which is its own reward.
In 1961, a couple of years after I had produced Mountain Music, I was driving through Kentucky once more. My friendship with Roscoe Holcomb had continued, and I was still curious about the forces which shaped his music. What were the tensions, contradictions and beliefs that made him who he was? On this trip the questions, sounds and images came together, and I found myself feeling a combination of things which I could not express or communicate through sound alone. So I decided to make a movie to bring sound and image together, to try to capture some of the music, culture and countryside.
In August 1962, Joel Agee and I moved to Daisy, Kentucky, where for six weeks — without the proper training or the best equipment — we filmed Roscoe and recorded his music. We worked in churches, homes, coal mines and train yards. Although the camera was often hand held, the people were less aware of us when we used the tripod; they thought we were surveyors. Music was the film’s subject, yet the camera always looked over the musician’s shoulder to catch the life around him.
Out of some self-inflicted respect for scholarship, I tried to include a sampling of every type of music: Child ballad, broadside, Native American ballads, banjo song, dance tunes and early country rock. We developed long lists of opposing traditions and forces, and tried to capture them on film. In Roscoe Holcomb’s music there were certain tensions which produced a blending of blues and ancient ornamented, almost oriental-sounding music. His experience included not only the traditions of stoical Old Baptists who insisted on unaccompanied church singing, but also those of Holiness congregations who found Dionysian emotional release in shouting, clapping and playing stringed instruments. Roscoe’s belief in old-time living — gardening, hard physical work and home-made music and dances — contrasted with the mechanization of the coal mines, juke box music and white bread and baloney sandwiches. His own kids listened to country rock ’n roll, and shunned their father’s music. These tensions, along with the physical hardships and poverty of eastern Kentucky added an intensity and keenness to his singing.
When High Lonesome Sound was first released, I felt as if it had no impact at all, especially on the folk musicians and scholars around me. It was received poorly by Alan Lomax, and with little understanding by anyone except reviewer Paul Nelson in Sing Out magazine. However, it has had an effect on the subsequent generation of folklorists and filmmakers, and was an early part of the movement towards folk-film. It is now used in basic folklore courses at Indiana University and at the University of North Carolina. The phrase High Lonesome Sound has become the generic name for bluegrass-style singing. Nonetheless, I didn’t receive any royalties until 1970, seven years after completing the film, and I have yet to recover production costs.
In 1967, with only a sense of personal commitment and a low budget, I began my second film, The End of an Old Song. I had met some powerful ballad singers in Madison County, North Carolina, in 1963 and had recorded them for Folkways Records. I was impressed by their seeming isolation from the influences of modern American culture; a sense of separation and the loneliness was embodied in the music and life of Dillard Chandler, who became the film’s central figure.
Originally, I had planned to film Dillard singing an old love song on the front porch, showing the mountaineers and farm animals around, and then cut from his face to a gigantic audience of long-haired, counter-culture kids at the Newport Folk Festival where Dillard was scheduled to sing. My camera was ready, but Dillard never appeared at Newport; he was afraid to travel and unwilling to leave the mountains. So I returned to North Carolina that fall and completed the filming there. It was amazing to hear him narrate intimate thoughts of his neglected love life. The ease with which he sang old ballads belied the surrounding social emptiness. Listening to him, I could see a real connection between the singer and the subject matter of the songs. The frustrations of Dillard’s life found expression only in his music, while he maintained a deadpan character — cool and removed from the changing world.
Good fortune brought me together with Helen Levitt — humanist, artist and photographer — and together we edited the film. From her I learned about the filmmaker’s responsibility to subject and self. In fact, the connection between the film, the arts and society all became clear as a result of this first collaboration with Helen. She has saved me several times since in the face of distractions and diversions.
In the End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler is pitted against the Jukebox; background music in a bar becomes a combatant. I find that the background music in our lives is our ambivalent enemy. On one hand, its soothing sound provides an artificial continuity to our life; on the other hand, as we sink into that sound, we are deprived of our own voice, and our own songs and made deaf to the voices and songs of others.
My most recent film effort, Musical Holdouts, is a tribute to those who have resisted the forces of the media in their music and life. It deals with a sampling of those American groups who have maintained their individual identity in an age of mass culture. The question is no longer whether these groups will survive; this film only celebrates the fact of their existence. The film includes short musical sections about black children in the Carolina Sea Islands, and home musicians in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky whose music flows into the bluegrass of Ralph Stanley. Cowboy singer Glen Orhlin sings at his ranch in Arkansas, and Indians in Oklahoma sing on the radio and at their gatherings. The film ends with the street musicans of Berkeley, California, playing mountain songs for busking — and an uneasy comparison between their constructed lifestyle and the inherited traditions around the older musical groups in the film.
Today it is wonderful to see a new generation of young Southerners becoming actively interested in their own musical traditions, and doing some exciting and significant collecting and performing. At the same time, however, I am disappointed by their apparent need to discredit the work that we did — which brought attention to that same music in the days before it was fashionable or even feasible to do so.
It is questionable whether this revitalized interest in musical roots and traditions (symbolized by the popular passion for fiddle conventions and bluegrass festivals) would have happened if the Yankees hadn’t done their initial investigations. How affected were the present-day Southern folk fans by companies like Rounder Records, County Records and Folkways Records - all of them Northern-based? How much did they listen to the ideas of Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger and Guy and Candie Carawan? Without these collectors would we have had Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, Tommy Jarrell and the Round Peak musicians? Would the early history of bluegrass records be available, and would the revival of old-time music have happened without the reissues and recognition of County Records? And would Cajun music be as alive as it is today without the efforts of Ralph Rinzler, Chris Strachwitz and Mike Seeger, along with the Newport Folk Festival and the University of Chicago Folk Festival?
Maybe so, but I know it took a lot of effort to create a situation where young Southerners could view their own heritage for its own sake, and for its own environment. The counterculture and the new awareness which evolved in the 1960s contributed to the climate which exists today. The recognition that mass-culture America is inadequate and leads nowhere was the inspiration guiding this effort to re-define and sometimes re-invent all sorts of local traditions.
Having called attention to what had previously gone unseen and unappreciated, perhaps the role of such visitors from the North has been played out. Certainly the musical traditions of the South have rarely enjoyed such widespread popularity. And considering the present generation of Southern folklorists and field collectors, the tradition rests in competent and caring hands. But for a while, it seemed as if only a few visitors really cared.
John Cohen has played many important roles in creating an audience for old-time music — as a photographer, filmmaker, field collector and musician with one of the most influential groups of the folk revival, The New Lost City Ramblers. (1977)