John Cohen (August 2, 1932 – September 16, 2019)was an American musician, photographer and film maker who performed and documented the traditional music of the rural South and played a major role in the American folk music revival. In the 1950s and 60s, Cohen was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a New York-based string band. Cohen made several expedition to Peru to film and record the traditional culture of the Q'ero, an indigenous people. Cohen was also a professor of visual arts at SUNY Purchase College for 25 years.
Cohen was born in Queens, New York, where his father, Israel, owned a shoe store.Throughout most of his life John grew up in the eastern parts of Long Island where he learned to play the guitar and banjo He later attended Yale University where he studied painting. He later on met one of his good friends Tom Paley. They began organizing small concerts for people on their universities campus. Later on him and Tom both moved to New York City and formed the New Lost City Ramblers. This newly formed band introduces several generations of musicians and audiences to the music styles of rural string bands in the 1920's and '30s.
When living in New York John was in the heart of a diverse world of art and music forms. He began taking photos of many painters and artists around the area and this brought in his love for photography.
In 1958, Cohen formed the New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley. In 1962, Paley was replaced by Tracy Schwarz. The Ramblers introduced young urban folk music fans to the work of rural performers such as Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten and Blind Alfred Reed. The influence of the Ramblers has been compared to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.It has been suggested that The Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band", released on the album Workingman's Dead , was about Cohen and his band. Cohen called this "a true rumor."
Cohen described the outlook of the Ramblers: “We made it possible for urban-based musicians to step out of the demands of the music business and look out into America to get in touch with the genuine energy, drive and craziness out there.”Rather than pursuing commercial success through a polished sound, Cohen and the Ramblers undertook numerous research field trips to the South.
John Cohen Had been taken photos and participating in photography for many years. Cohen also enjoyed filmmaking. He created a film called The High Lonesome Sound. This documentary shows the many emotions of life among the poor in the times the Cohen lived. It illustrates how music and religion helped people in the Appalachian region maintain hope and traditions during hard times.
In 1962, Cohen returned to Kentucky, where he spent six weeks filming the documentary The High Lonesome Sound which centred on Holcomb. (The title of the film became synonymous with the Appalachian music he captured.)Cohen subsequently recorded Dillard Chandler and made the documentary The End of an Old Song about Chandler and his world. With Ralph Rinzler and Izzy Young, Cohen created the organization Friends of Old Time Music. They produced a string of concerts featuring traditional musicians in New York in the 1960s
In 1959 He worked as an assistant photographer to Robert Frank and photographed the production of his film Pull My Daisy Once out there in the world John got in contact with Life Magazine and paid him for early publication rights of his "beat generation" photos. In New York, John was at the center of wildly diverse worlds of art and music. He photographed poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso; painters Franz Kline and Red Grooms; and a young Bob Dylan, who had just arrived in the city, the Beat Generation film directed by Frank and Alfred Leslie, written by Jack Kerouac and featuring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. Influenced by Frank, Cohen photographed the Abstract Expressionist painters and Beat writers who congregated in artists' studios and at the Cedar Tavern. Once out there in the world John got in contact with Life Magazine and paid him for early publication rights of his "beat generation" photos.
Cohen learnt about weaving customs of Peru through an archaeology course at Yale. He travelled to the Peruvian Andes in 1956 to write his master’s thesis on their weaving techniques.Cohen visited Peru eight times between 1956 and 2005. His work in Peru included audio recordings of Andean music and documentary films as well as books about weaving, music, festivals, and dance. Cohen's recording of a Peruvian wedding song was included on the Voyager Golden Record which was attached to the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
Cohen ceased to perform with the New Lost City Ramblers in the 1970s, though they would re-unite for a 20th anniversary concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1978 and for a 35th anniversary tour in 1993.From 1972 to 1997, Cohen was a Professor of Visual Arts at SUNY Purchase College where he taught photography and drawing.
John made 15 films, including The High Lonesome Sound (1963), Sara and Maybelle: The Carter Family (1981), and Mountain Music of Peru (1984). He himself was the subject of the Smithsonian Channel’s 2009 film Play On, John: A Life in Music
In spring 1959, Cohen went to Hazard, Kentucky in search of traditional musicians. A series of chance encounters led him to Roscoe Holcomb who 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." Cohen's recording trip resulted in the album, Mountain Music of Kentucky, released on the Folkways label.
In 1998, Cohen released his first solo album, Stories the Crow Told Me. Steve Leggett wrote in AllMusic that the record is "not so much a redefinition of Appalachian music as it is an attempt to enter it fully and completely. Cohen does this so well that the album sounds exactly like some great, lost Alan Lomax field tape, and although by definition what Cohen has done here is a facsimile, it sounds so much like the real deal that it hardly matters."
Cohen was associate music producer on the movie Cold Mountain (2003), working with T Bone Burnett.Cohen appeared in the Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home (2005), describing Dylan's development in the context of the 1960s folk music revival. From 2008 onwards Cohen performed with The Down Hill Strugglers, an old-time string band featuring younger performers. In 2009, the Smithsonian Channel released a documentary about Cohen, Play On, John: A Life in Music.
In 2011, the Library of Congress acquired the John Cohen archive of manuscripts, films, photographs and audio recordings.Cohen's archive includes interviews with Harry Smith, Roger McGuinn, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Gary Davis and Roscoe Holcomb. The photographs include these artists and Willie Dixon, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Merle Travis, Muddy Waters and many others.
Cohen resided in Putnam Valley, New York.
Through the 1960s, John continued to make albums for Folkways. The artists included ballad singer Dillard Chandler, “Singing Miner” George Davis, and Roscoe Holcomb. Most of John’s recordings of Roscoe can be heard on two Smithsonian Folkways CDs, The High Lonesome Sound and An Untamed Sense of Control. John’s 1953 recordings of Reverend Gary Davis were released by Smithsonian Folkways on the 2003 CD If I had My Way. In 1998, Cohen released his first solo album, Stories the Crow Told Me. Cohen was associate music producer on the movie Cold Mountain (2003), working with T Bone Burnett.
In 1965 Cohen married Penny Seeger, a member of the musical Seeger family.They had a daughter, Sonya Cohen Cramer, a singer who died in 2015, and a son, Rufus. Penny accompanied her husband to Peru and collaborated on recording music. She died in 1993.
The Anthology of American Folk Music is a six-album compilation released in 1952 by Folkways Records, comprising eighty-four American folk, blues and country music recordings that were originally issued from 1926 to 1933. Experimental film maker Harry Smith compiled the music from his personal collection of 78 rpm records. The album is famous due to its role as a touchstone for the American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s. The Anthology was released for compact disc by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on August 19, 1997.
Hazel Jane Dickens was an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs. Cultural blogger John Pietaro noted that "Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her into the cause." The New York Times extolled her as "a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music." With Alice Gerrard, Dickens was one of the first women to record a bluegrass album.
The New Lost City Ramblers, or NLCR, was an American contemporary old-time string band that formed in New York City in 1958 during the folk revival. Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tom Paley were its founding members. Tracy Schwarz replaced Paley, who left the group in 1962. Seeger died of cancer in 2009, Paley died in 2017, and Cohen died in 2019. NLCR participated in the old-time music revival, and directly influenced many later musicians.
Agnes "Sis" Cunningham was an American musician, best known for her involvement as a performer and publicist of folk music and protest songs. She was the founding editor of Broadside magazine, which she published with her husband Gordon Friesen and their daughters.
Jean Ruth Ritchie was an American folk singer, songwriter, and Appalachian dulcimer player, called by some the "Mother of Folk". In her youth she learned hundreds of folk songs in the traditional way, many of which were Appalachian variants of centuries old British and Irish songs, including dozens of Child Ballads. In adulthood, she shared these songs with wide audiences, as well as writing some of her own songs using traditional foundations. She is ultimately responsible for the revival of the Appalachian dulcimer, the traditional instrument of her community, which she popularized by playing the instrument on her albums and writing tutorial books. She also spent time collecting folk music in the United States and in Britain and Ireland, in order to research the origins of her family songs and help preserve traditional music. She inspired a wide array of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Judy Collins.
Mike Seeger was an American folk musician and folklorist. He was a distinctive singer and an accomplished musician who played autoharp, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, guitar, mouth harp, mandolin, dobro, jaw harp, and pan pipes. Seeger, a half-brother of Pete Seeger, produced more than 30 documentary recordings, and performed in more than 40 other recordings. He desired to make known the caretakers of culture that inspired and taught him.
Appalachian music is the music of the region of Appalachia in the Eastern United States. It is derived from various European and African influences, including English ballads, Irish and Scottish traditional music, hymns, and African-American blues. First recorded in the 1920s, Appalachian musicians were a key influence on the early development of Old-time music, country music, and bluegrass, and were an important part of the American folk music revival of the 1960s. Instruments typically used to perform Appalachian music include the banjo, American fiddle, fretted dulcimer, and guitar.
Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter.
Alice Gerrard is an American bluegrass singer, banjoist, and guitar player. She performed in a duo with Hazel Dickens, and as part of The Strange Creek Singers and The Back Creek Buddies.
Roscoe Holcomb, was an American singer, banjo player, and guitarist from Daisy, Kentucky. A prominent figure in Appalachian folk music, Holcomb was the inspiration for the term "high, lonesome sound," coined by folklorist and friend John Cohen. The "high lonesome sound" term is now used to describe bluegrass singing, although Holcomb was not, strictly speaking, a bluegrass performer.
Smithsonian Folkways is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. It is a part of the Smithsonian's Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, located at Capital Gallery in downtown Washington, D.C. The label was founded in 1987 after the family of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, donated the entire Folkways Records label to the Smithsonian. The donation was made on the condition that the Institution continue Asch's policy that each of the more than 2,000 albums of Folkways Records remain in print forever, regardless of sales. Since then, the label has expanded on Asch's vision of documenting the sounds of the world, adding six other record labels to the collection, as well as releasing over 300 new recordings. Some well-known artists have contributed to the Smithsonian Folkways collection, including Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly. Famous songs include "This Land Is Your Land", "Goodnight, Irene", and "Midnight Special." Due to the unique nature of its recordings, which include an extensive collection of traditional American music, children's music, and international music, Smithsonian Folkways has become an important collection to the musical community, especially to ethnomusicologists, who utilize the recordings of "people's music" from all over the world.
Allan Thomas Paley was an American guitarist, banjo and fiddle player. He was best known for his work with the New Lost City Ramblers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Happy Traum is an American folk musician who started playing music in the 1950s and became a stalwart of the Greenwich Village music scene of the 1960s and the Woodstock music scene of the 1970s and 1980s. For several years, he studied blues guitar with Brownie McGhee, who was a big influence on his guitar style. Happy is most famously known as one half of Happy and Artie Traum, a duo he began with his brother. They released several albums, including Happy and Artie Traum, Double Back, and Hard Times In The Country. He has continued as a solo artist and as founder of Homespun Music Instruction.
The American folk music revival began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Billie Holiday, Richard Dyer-Bennet, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, John Jacob Niles, Susan Reed, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Cisco Houston had enjoyed a limited general popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The revival brought forward styles of American folk music that had in earlier times contributed to the development of country and western, blues, jazz, and rock and roll music.
Contemporary folk music refers to a wide variety of genres that emerged in the mid 20th century and afterwards which were associated with traditional folk music. Starting in the mid-20th century a new form of popular folk music evolved from traditional folk music. This process and period is called the (second) folk revival and reached a zenith in the 1960s. The most common name for this new form of music is also "folk music", but is often called "contemporary folk music" or "folk revival music" to make the distinction. The transition was somewhat centered in the US and is also called the American folk music revival. Fusion genres such as folk rock and others also evolved within this phenomenon. While contemporary folk music is a genre generally distinct from traditional folk music, it often shares the same English name, performers and venues as traditional folk music; even individual songs may be a blend of the two.
Dillard Chandler was an American Appalachian Folk singer from Madison County, North Carolina. His a cappella performances on compilation albums were recorded by folklorist and musicologist John Cohen.
Folkways Records was a record label founded by Moses Asch that documented folk, world, and children's music. It was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987 and is now part of Smithsonian Folkways.
The Down Hill Strugglers, previously known as the Dust Busters, is an American old-time string band trio from Brooklyn, New York, United States. Forming in 2008, they are influenced by the music that came out of rural America, including Appalachian traditions, music from the Deep South, and the Western States. They combine the feeling of the old music that can be heard on commercially recorded 78 RPM records and field recordings made throughout the 20th century. The band was originally made up of Craig Judelman, Eli Smith, and Walker Shepard. In 2012, Craig Judelman left the Dust Busters and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Jackson Lynch. At that time, the band changed its name to the Down Hill Strugglers.