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Remembering John Cohen (1932-2019)

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).


  1. Jim Cowdery
    September 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    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.

  2. John Fenn
    September 18, 2019 at 1:38 pm

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

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