John Cohen (musician)

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John Cohen (August 2, 1932 – September 16, 2019) [1] 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. [1]


Life and career

Early life

Cohen was born in Queens, New York, where his father, Israel, owned a shoe store. [2] 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.

College Career

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. [1] 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. [1] Cohen called this "a true rumor." [3]

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.” [4] Rather than pursuing commercial success through a polished sound, Cohen and the Ramblers undertook numerous research field trips to the South. [4]

Photography/ Film Career

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 [5] . 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.) [3] Cohen subsequently recorded Dillard Chandler and made the documentary The End of an Old Song about Chandler and his world. [2] 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 [1]

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. [6] [7]

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. [6] 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. [8] Cohen's recording of a Peruvian wedding song was included on the Voyager Golden Record which was attached to the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. [2]

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. [4] From 1972 to 1997, Cohen was a Professor of Visual Arts at SUNY Purchase College where he taught photography and drawing. [1]

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

Music Career

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. [3] [9]

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." [10]

Cohen was associate music producer on the movie Cold Mountain (2003), working with T Bone Burnett. [4] 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. [1] 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. [1]

In 2011, the Library of Congress acquired the John Cohen archive of manuscripts, films, photographs and audio recordings. [11] 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. [8]

Cohen resided in Putnam Valley, New York. [3]

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.

Personal life

In 1965 Cohen married Penny Seeger, a member of the musical Seeger family. [1] 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. [2]


Recent publications

Selected filmography

Selected discography (as producer)

Related Research Articles

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  5. "The High Lonesome Sound | Folkstreams". Retrieved 2021-03-26.
  6. 1 2 Lerman, Maya (July 29, 2020). "There is No Eye: The John Cohen collection is ready for research". The Library of Congress. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  7. Dyer, Geoff (July 23, 2016). "Beat Echoes". Spectator. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  8. 1 2 "John Cohen collection, circa 1950-2009". Library of Congress. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  9. "Mountain Music of Kentucky". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  10. Leggett, Steve (March 2, 1999). "Stories the Crow Told Me". Retrieved September 30, 2020.
  11. Harvey, Todd (December 31, 2014). "A Visit From John Cohen". American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  12. 1 2 3 4 "The High Lonesome Sound (1963); The End of an Old Song (1969); Musical Holdouts (1975); Gypsies Sing Long Ballads (1982)". Folkstreams. April 10, 2015. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
  13. "Play On, John: A Life In Music, Smithsonian Channel". Smithsonian Channel. Retrieved September 29, 2020.