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A Visit From John Cohen

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The following is a guest post from Todd Harvey, a curator and reference specialist at the American Folklife Center archives, Library of Congress.

In this photo from John Cohen’s personal collection, Cohen performs with the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. That is probably Ralph Stanley whose hand and banjo neck come into the extreme left of the photo, and Carter Stanley whose face is obscured by John’s banjo headstock. The other players are noted in ink on the photo; Chick Stripling, George Shuffler, John Cohen.

It is a banner day when John Cohen visits the American Folklife Center. We greet him as an old friend, though in truth John has a longer association with the Center and with the Library than any of the staff. In the late 1950s he visited the Library to study the famed FSA photographs, and their realism imbued his own photographic work. John donated copies of his Kentucky field recordings to the Center’s archive in 1960, so he has actively shaped our institution for more than fifty years.

Now in his 80s, John Cohen (b.1932) maintains a frenetic schedule of publishing and travel. His new photography book John Cohen: Here and Gone, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie & the 1960s is the latest in a series released by the publisher Steidl. A discussion with John moves quickly from his family, to his performing schedule, to publishing, to work with his photo dealer L. Parker Stephenson, to John’s insights about the Library’s mission–all doled out with humor and the conviction of a man who has a man who has experienced many of the great moments and movements of our time.

But his most recent visit was “above the fold” because it involved an accrual to the John Cohen Collection (AFC 2011/059). In 2011 the American Folklife Center acquired the bulk of John’s accumulated film, photographs, sound recordings, and manuscripts. The collection documents John’s original fieldwork, his life as a photographer to the folk music scene, and his career as a performer. It is a cognate collection to those of the Lomax family, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie and George Pickow, and the Seeger family, all of whom have placed seminal collections at the American Folklife Center. The breadth of John’s collection, however, breaks new ground for the Center. Here we have the collected documentation of one of the 20th century’s vital artists, and it is the Library’s pleasure to make this material available to the public for research.

For three decades, beginning in the late 1950s, John documented communities in Peru. His association with the indigenous Andean Q’eros community resulted in published books, films, and recordings such as Past, Present, Peru (2010), “Carnival in Q’eros” (1991), and Mountain Music of Peru (1966). John’s archival collection includes the original film and audio elements, photographic prints and negatives, and papers relating to his Andean work.

As a member of the folk group The New Lost City Ramblers, John was integral to the 1960s folk revival. He crossed paths with Bob Dylan, with artist and anthologist Harry Smith, and with older musicians such as Carter Stanley. Alone, and with bandmate Mike Seeger, he sought out Eck Robertson and Roscoe Holcomb. At other times, John had connections to the Beat and Happening movements in New York, had friendships with photographers such as Robert Frank, and studied art with Joseph Albers. John visited all these scenes as an insider, and his collection contains this trove of documentation.

Today John added to his collection dozens of posters that provide graphic representation of the New Lost City Ramblers, Friends of Old Time Music, and other projects. Many were designed by John, and these are likely the only surviving copies. He also donated his unique collection of Huayno recordings. Huayno is the broadly-influenced everyday music of Peru, often captured on small-run cassettes or 45 rpm recordings. Finally, John donated elements to his film “Musical Holdouts” (1975), released mid-way through his most productive filmmaking period. It showcases a number of musicians who maintained traditional genres, from Gullah children’s songs, to bluegrass, to Comanche songs. As always, John is unencumbered by academic definitions of authenticity, preferring to show how these music cultures enrich contemporary life.

John’s visit was short. He had another appointment down the street to talk about Harry Smith’s string art. He is, of course, an authority in this arena, further evidence of how he moves effortlessly between genres and disciplines. “Cross out the ‘folk’ in folklife,” he told me with a wave. “What’s left is life.”



  1. There are few people who have contributed as much to American folk music — old-time music, especially — as John Cohen. Just recently, I went back and re-read his introduction to the New Lost City Ramblers Songbook, published in 1964, and found insights that challenged my thinking five decades later. Everything that comes from John Cohen inspires you to see things from new angles. His music is like that. His photos are like that. His writings are, too. We’re so very lucky that he’s placed his works in the public trust. Thanks, John, and thanks to the AFC for making it possible.

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