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Music In Conversation

It Just Gets Out of Hand: JOHN COHEN In Conversation with Stephen Ellis, Ivy Sheppard, and David Sheppard

John Cohen. Photo by David Sheppard.
John Cohen. Photo by David Sheppard.

John Cohen, now eighty-five, has been part of more influential cultural moments and close to more seminal figures in music, photography, painting, and film than would seem possible for any one person. Student of Josef and Anni Albers, brother-in-law of Pete Seeger and bandmate of Pete’s half-brother Mike, friend of Harry Smith, protégé of Robert Frank, friend and photographer of Bob Dylan, “discoverer,” caretaker, and promoter of the remarkable old-time Appalachian singer and instrumentalist Roscoe Holcomb (just to name a few of the remarkable people he’s worked with), Cohen has been a presence at the nexus of high and popular culture for nearly seventy years.

His own work—recorded music, musicology, photography, and, perhaps most of all, film—is in no way inferior to that of his associates. Last winter Anthology Film Archives devoted several nights to his peerless films about the music of the Southern mountains, such as The High Lonesome Sound (1962), and his haunting series documenting the music and weaving of the remote Andes, including Mountain Music of Peru (1984).

In March 2017 Ivy and David Sheppard and Stephen Ellis interviewed Cohen in his home north of New York. The interview ranged from the New York City folk scene in the 1940s to the Beats and the making of Pull My Daisy in the ‘50s, from the Folk Revival of the 1960s, to the time John spent over several decades filming in Peru. 

The following excerpt deals with the early history, in the 1940s and ‘50s, of the recovery and appreciation of the prewar blues and hillbilly recordings, and the cross-fertilization in the ‘60s of American popular music, as the more urban, university-trained northerners got to know and play music with the rural, mostly southern musicians they admired. Our musical landscape would be a very different place without their musicological curiosity and devotion.

Rail: Did you record at Union Grove in ’62? (The Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’s Convention, held annually since 1924 not far west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Cohen and the New Lost City Ramblers began playing there in the early ‘60s).

Cohen: I think it was ‘61 or ‘62. At that time there were maybe 800 people at the festival; then it went up to 1,200; then it went up to like 20,000. That seems to be sort of the history of a lot of things that I’ve done: We’d go, try it out, then put it out, then people would hear it, and then it just gets out of hand.

Did you [Ivy] go to Union Grove when it was a sort of haven for motorcyclists?

Rail: I was specifically not allowed to go there or any other fiddlers’ conventions until I graduated from high school because of my mother’s recollection of Union Grove. And all I wanted to do was play music!

Cohen: Well, when we went that’s all there was. You played twice—in a classroom and then in the big auditorium. Robert Shelton from The New York Times was there, and the Greenbriar Boys were there, the Friends of Old Time Music started in ‘61. Our first concert was Roscoe Holcomb, the second was Clarence Ashley, and that’s when Doc Watson came. That means Ralph [Rinzler] had already recorded Ashley before. Ralph was recording down there with a guy named Gene Earle, the record collector who introduced me to all this stuff. I’m stuck in the past but it’s alright!

Rail: Gene Earle was in New York? 

Cohen: He was an engineer who lived just across the bridge in New Jersey. Because he’d heard the Ramblers’s first record, he came to a concert we did in Philadelphia and said, “ I collect old country music records.” I didn’t know what kind of music he was talking about! We thought we were doing folk music. We knew [old-time music] was different, and the folk music world was totally suspicious of the country music world, but the country music world wasn’t the old-time music world. So when a guy comes up and says, “I collect old country music records” and invites me to come to his house, “Well, okay, I thought, I’ll try it.”

Rail: But before that how did you guys find the old-time music you were playing?

Cohen: Of course, the Harry Smith [Anthology of American Folk Music]. And before that there were a few Lomax reissues: Mountain Frolic and Listen to Our Story, which I heard in ‘48. I still have them in the barn right here because they meant so much. And that was it...except when I first heard Mountain Frolic and those records I wanted more, and there wasn’t more. I lived in suburban Long Island. Somehow I told my art teacher about it. He said, “Oh, I’ve got some records—you want ‘em? Here!” And he brought in Smoky Mountain Ballads, which Lomax did in ‘41, and that was quite good, but there was one record missing from the album package. Where could I find that other record? That was on my mind. This is going back to ‘48 and ‘49.

Rail: What was it that attracted you to that music?

Cohen: I was predisposed; my parents were folk dancers. We heard a lot of that kind of music, some square dancing as well. When we lived in Queens, in Sunnyside, my parents ran a folk dancing thing and they’d invite Margo Mayo to come to the square dancing, so I was hearing that even before I moved to the suburbs.

I want to get back to those very first 78s I heard. I was collecting those things way before the Anthology came out, not before Harry Smith was collecting them, but before they were issued in his anthology.

Rail: You knew Harry Smith.

Cohen: [Incredulous] Did I! I did an interview with him in 1969 that took up two issues of Sing Out! It was so long—thirty pages. It’s the most quoted and reproduced thing I wrote. It’s the only time he talked about music. Actually just yesterday I took out the old cassettes from that interview.

But about my record collecting: So in 1950 I graduated high school. My family drove across the country to visit my brother in San Francisco, and I had time to wander the streets by myself. So there’s this store; it says “Records Five Cents,and I thought “Well, that’s my price!” There’s this huge loft space on the ground floor stacked with hundreds of thousands of 78s. The guy says, “What are you looking for?” I said, “Folk music.” “Folk Music! All that crap that you guys listen to in Berkeley! You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, “Do you have anything by Uncle Dave Macon?” He was totally surprised. (These were the same collections Harry Smith and his friends were mining). The guy sent me up a ladder to a stack of 78s, none of which I had ever seen before or knew anything about. All these names I’d never heard of and no way to listen to them. So I bought ten or fifteen records, including Charlie Poole, Arthur Smith, Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner. Partly by the names or the name of the song. That’s how I chose them, by what seemed interesting. That was my early record collecting. And of course when I got home and could actually listen to them, they were really interesting. I said to that guy at the store, I’m looking for something called Smoky Mountain Ballads, and that’s what the guy showed me.

Then the other magic part of how the 78s got out: Ralph Rinzler was very smart. He checked with Moses Asch, “Where’s the rest of the Harry Smith records?” “Harry sold them to The New York Public Library.” So Ralph puts on his tie, [goes to the N.Y. Public Library], “I’m a music researcher; I’ve got my degree. You have this collection of records by Harry Smith. They’re uncatalogued and virtually useless in that form. I’d be willing to catalog them for you, and this is my assistant, Michael Seeger.” Mike had this big medical suitcase that they used in the war with a Red Cross on it. They would take a whole bunch of records out with them every night—they took out all the Harry Smith recordings—put them on tape, and then put them back. We learned from those. Then, after that, the record collectors started coming to us, and Mike would look for them seriously.

Rail: Did Mike Seeger get interested in this music through Pete?

Cohen: That family, come on! His mother [Ruth Crawford Seeger] was transcribing Library of Congress recordings for her books. As they were growing up, Libba Cotten was in the house. I’m sure the whole story was in Bill Malone’s book about Mike.

Rail: Where did you first meet Mike?

Cohen: Possibly at Pete’s house. But I was going to picking sessions on Eutaw Place in Baltimore in 1958. Mike was there, and there were folk singers as well. It was an interesting mix. That’s where I first met Mike, so I knew who he was. 

But we’re teetering on the edge of another question—that is, how did Bluegrass become respectable? How did it even get called Bluegrass? It wasn’t called Bluegrass back then.

Rail: I thought it got the name during the folk revival.

Cohen: Mike Seeger. He did that first Folkways album, American Banjo: Three-Finger and Scruggs Style. That was really inventive. The same time that the Ramblers were starting, Mike was working on Mountain Music Bluegrass Style. So Mike’s album gave a name to it. Mike was going to so many shows that he would just record the banjo breaks on certain songs and put them together and see how many different ways Earl would play it. We were trying to understand what this [music] was. 

It was all new. Remember the cover of Mountain Music Bluegrass Style? It’s got that intense photograph of Earl Taylor. They were playing in these greasy bars in Baltimore. I said, “That’s where the music’s coming from, and it’s great.” The size of the stage is not from here to there! All those guys are crowded in, a jukebox next to them, signs all over, a staircase. I remember the tables; people were sitting together not particularly listening, and two women dancing together—in pants suits, yet the men weren’t dancing. I thought it was so fascinating, such powerful music in this rundown bar. The next set of photos I took of Earl Taylor was backstage at Carnegie Hall. Alan Lomax put on something called “Folksong ’59.” He wanted Bill Monroe but couldn’t get him, so then through Mike Seeger we heard Earl Taylor and the Stony Mountain Boys.

There was one time when Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys were going to do an audition at The Village Gate. They came all the way to New York and we had to put them up in various people’s houses. But suddenly there was an audition at 5:00 in the afternoon. Who would come to that?! So I ran to the Cedar Bar to see if I could get anybody to come. There’s Allen Ginsburg sitting with a bunch of his followers, “Hey, Allen, there’s a Bluegrass band auditioning . . .” He says, “ Hey c’mon, everybody, let’s go!” Allen was the only one at the bar who was open. Of course most of the painters at the Cedar Bar were going to the Five Spot […] An interesting memory I have of that time was that I would go [there] to hear what the painters were listening to and there’s the noisiest, smokiest place. Everybody’s talking and drinking and yakking away, musicians were up on stage playing to each other. Meanwhile, we had MacDougal Street going on, with coffee houses where people would listen to what you were singing. I couldn’t take that emotional disconnect at The Five Spot. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t been so either/or about it. Because there was some awfully good music.

Rail: Ornette and Monk and so on? 

Cohen: Yeah.


Stephen Ellis

STEPHEN ELLIS is an artist in New York who writes about visual art and music.

Ivy Sheppard

IVY SHEPPARD produces a radio program from her collection of 78rpm records, “Born in the Mountain,” which is heard on stations across the country.

David Sheppard

DAVID SHEPPARD is a master luthier and a photographer. The Sheppards’ band, The Southern Broadcasters, is based in Mt. Airy, N.C.


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