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Remembering John Cohen (1932-2019)

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This is a guest post by Todd Harvey, reference specialist and acquisitions coordinator at the American Folklife Center. Todd worked closely with John Cohen in recent years, and was able to conduct an oral history interview with him in 2012.

Photograph depicting John Cohen talking with several AFC staff members outside the Pickford Auditorium in 2009.
John Cohen with AFC staff members Nancy Groce, Guha Shankar, and Todd Harvey at an event in 2009. Photo by AFC staff.

The American Folklife Center sadly notes the passing of collection donor and longtime friend, John Cohen. His involvement with the Library of Congress began in the mid-1950s when he visited to explore the Farm Security Administration photographs. Here at the Center, documentation by and about John peppers the archive from that time until the present. His personal collection began to arrive in 2011. Taken as a body these sound recordings and photographs and films and papers tell the story of a restlessly creative man. John was a working musician, filmmaker, and photographer with incredible breadth who rambled from Morocco to Peru, from Greenwich Village to Daisy, Kentucky, in search of music and other expressive culture.

John Cohen’s visits to the American Folklife Center sometimes came about because he was donating collections material, though he was known to come by to view collections material and inspire reflections by staff on the nature of the items held at the Center.

Other visits focused on getting him behind a microphone, in this case during a 2009 Botkin Folklife lecture in order to discuss his fieldwork in Kentucky with Roscoe Holcomb and the production of the documentary High Lonesome Sound:

In 2015, AFC staff invited John to get behind a microphone on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium for a performance with the Down Hill Strugglers. Watch the video below, and also read a blog post by Stephen Winick about the concert and accompanying oral history interview.

The links above to online resources and catalog records from the Library of Congress will hopefully contribute to our remembrance of John Cohen (1932-2019).

Comments (6)

  1. It must have been around 1979 that John Cohen went to the Towne Crier Cafe to hear How To Change a Flat Tire, a group I played in. Chatting with us afterward, he was wonderfully warm and supportive. To this day I am in awe of the fact that such an accomplished artist–and avowed traditionalist–took the time to listen to and encourage a handful of kids who were fooling around with Irish music. I’ll never forget that kindness.

    • Jim- Thanks for reading the blog, and thanks for sharing your recollection about John!

  2. Got a question. At some point, perhaps in the first third of the video showing the four band members talking about their concert the day before, John Cohen mentions John Lomax’s driver – the name sounded like “Sydney Robertson,” but I couldn’t make it out – could you help me there? Also, I couldn’t hear the name of the man she married – Henry Kalb? Thanks for posting these great videos, and your recollections of John Cohen. V/R, Lew Stern

    • Lew- Apologies for the tardy response, as somehow this comment slipped by us! “Sydney Robertson” is the name you heard, and she went on to marry the American composer, Henry Cowell. You can learn more about Sydney and her amazing fieldwork during the New Deal by exploring the “California Gold” digital collection.

  3. Before I ever knew of John Cohen as a truly great photographer, I was familiar with his recordings as a founding member of the preeminent ‘folk revival’ trio, the New Lost City Ramblers. That was 1963, and the NLCR probably more than any other musicians were responsible for assuring my life-long love of what most certainly can be called ‘roots’ music.

    Much of my life has been influenced by a twined fascination with indigenous music and photography and ethnography, and John Cohen, who just took the leavin’ train yesterday, exemplified the best of all these fields. His close friend Robert Frank just preceded him, passing away last week, and it was through John Cohen and the NLCR- use of Frank’s photos for several of their album covers- that I first saw Frank’s pictures.

    The groundbreaking use of photographs in “The NLCR Song Book” (Oak Publications, 1964)- which Cohen edited alongside Depression-era songs- introduced me and many others to the work of Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein (who a few years later was a teacher of mine), along with examples of his own work which stood equally with those earlier luminaries. Cohen was as superb a documentarian and ethnographic filmmaker as he was a musician.

    He made a picture of Woody Guthrie, with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in performance, that remains to this day as one of my all-time favorite photographs. It’s on the cover of his excellent retrospective monograph, “There is No Eye.” Other books of his such as “Here and Gone” and “Walking in the Light” pretty much sum up how I am feeling right now.

    Here and gone, he was one who truly was walking in the light. THANK YOU, JOHN COHEN- from the depth of my eyes- for taking us along on your walk.

    • Lewis- Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about John with us! It’s great to hear from others who were impacted by his wonderful and rich body of work.

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