This is a guest post by archivist Maya Lerman, who completed processing on the John Cohen collection. Maya has written for the blog about her work on this collection previously, and another of our staff, Todd Harvey, offered a recollection of Cohen’s rich body of documentation upon his passing last year.
Musician, visual artist, writer, producer, and folk music champion, John Cohen passed away on September 16, 2019. The staff at the American Folklife Center are grateful for the opportunity to serve as the stewards of the prolific records of his rich life’s work. As part of our efforts, we’re pleased to announce the publication of the John Cohen collection (AFC 2011/059) finding aid, which describes and contextualizes the products of Cohen’s many projects, from founding and playing in the New Lost City Ramblers, to photographing and filming prominent folk musicians and artists, and to documenting rural communities in Peru.
As an early teen taken with folk music, I found out about John Cohen through his New Lost City Ramblers albums on Smithsonian Folkways, and learned to sing songs from the NLCR’s Old-Time String Band Songbook. Some years later when I interned at Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I came across Cohen’s photography. There is No Eye: Music for Photographs, an album of songs and photographs with a companion book, had recently been published (in 2001) and I was floored by the depth and beauty of Cohen’s photographs that captured the innately human atmosphere of the music. When I discovered a few leftover posters advertising the publication – specifically Cohen’s photograph of Woody Guthrie from 1959 – I immediately asked if I could take one. It was the first piece of art I ever framed, and it is still hanging on my wall. It’s been a treat to work on the collection and to learn more about John Cohen. I was fortunate to meet and speak with John a few times over the last few years. The more I have learned about his life and projects through reading his writings, seeing his photographs, watching his films, and speaking with his family, the more interested and fascinated by him I have become.
John Cohen’s collection enhances and expands upon a special focus of the American Folklife Center’s collections: the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, a period that stimulated renewed interest in American vernacular music. As a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, Cohen performed and helped introduce and popularize early folk and blues music from the American South to New York City audiences, and to audiences across the country. Cohen’s major role in the folk revival as a performer and concert organizer would have been enough to produce a collection worthy of research. But Cohen did much more – he was an artist, folklorist, writer, producer, filmmaker, designer, and photographer – and the collection holds much of the fruits of his labor and talents. What perspectives does the John Cohen collection provide? The collection is rich with visual and audiovisual material documenting the inside story of the New Lost City Ramblers and the Friends of Old Time Music, from correspondence to song research, writings to ephemeral posters, fliers, and publicity. The collection materials subtly underscore the essence and beauty of the communities he was documenting. He had the advantage of connecting personally with people’s sense of creative expression by virtue of his background, as a musician and visual artist. His films, photography, and recording projects encourage audiences to see his subjects in this way as well.
Cohen’s career in the visual arts covers a wide range of mediums and subjects, which he honed from an early age. He earned a bachelor of fine arts (1951) and completed a master of fine arts (1957), both from Yale University. As an undergraduate, Cohen studied painting with artist and educator, Josef Albers, but shifted his focus to photography after being exposed to Robert Frank’s documentary photography work. He studied with modernist photographer, Herbert Matter, who he assisted on a project documenting performances of gospel music in Harlem. He would go on to take some of the most iconic photographs of American folk musicians, Beat poets, and indigenous communities of the Peruvian Andes. The photographs, recordings, and films in the collection are products of Cohen’s appreciation of these communities steeped in tradition and creativity. They also highlight his artistic sensibility and desire for people to “see” particular traditions, practices, and individuals that might have otherwise go unnoticed. He developed close connections with these traditions and communities.
Cohen’s deepening artistic sense, combined with learning about weaving customs of Peru through an archeology course, led him to travel to the Peruvian Andes in 1956, write his master’s thesis on their weaving customs, and commence his lifelong involvement documenting indigenous Andean communities.
He appreciated the ancient tradition and craft of textile making of the Q’ero people as a folklorist/ethnographer and as a visual artist. His fascination and connection with these communities deepened over the years. He would write about, record, photograph, and film their cultural practices and striking landscapes. The collection holds Cohen’s research, drafts, notes, song transcriptions, translations, and correspondence that surrounded his film and recording projects. Spinning, weaving, and tie dyeing processes, as well as religious festivals, street scenes, music making, and dancing are depicted in the audiovisual materials.
Grown out of his passion for Andean culture, and as part of his film and album research, Cohen amassed a collection of over 450 45rpm discs of huayno music, a genre of music and dance that originates from traditional folk music of the Andes and is primarily practiced by Quechua people. The collection encompasses the recordings of numerous lesser-known indigenous musicians on a range of smaller record labels or regional subsidiaries of major record labels. The musicians on these discs may have had regional popularity, but the recordings are now rare and endangered. They enrich and complement Cohen’s original fieldwork and projects about Andean people.
After completing graduate school, Cohen moved back to New York City (he was born in Queens and raised on Long Island), which turned out to be a hub where many of his interests and passions could flourish. The folk revival was at its height. There were clubs, coffeehouses, and audiences to support the careers of the newly formed New Lost City Ramblers. Folk albums from the 1920s and 1930s were being reissued onto Long Playing records (the most notable being the influential Anthology of American Folk Music compilation assembled by Harry Smith). The revival renewed interest in traditional, and predominantly rural, American music. The New Lost City Ramblers embraced a respect for rural Appalachian traditions and canons, while infusing originality, rejuvenating, and making the music accessible to folk revival audiences in New York City and throughout the United Sates. The John Cohen collection materials reflect the work that went into the band – correspondence, extensive notes and song research, song lists, lyrics, liner notes, contracts, publicity – and Cohen’s dedication to its success.
In addition to its supportive environment for his musical interests, New York City provided the grounds for Cohen to become involved with the Avant Garde and Abstract Expressionist art world. He moved to a loft next door to Swiss photographer Robert Frank, whose book, The Americans, had influenced Cohen to pursue photography. Frank would enlist Cohen as still photographer of Pull My Daisy, the influential Beat Generation film directed by Frank and Alfred Leslie, written by Jack Kerouac, and featuring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, David Amram, and others (and has been subsequently inducted into the National Film Registry). Cohen captured these and other photographs of Beat writers and Abstract Expressionist artists at galleries, studios, and bars, such as the Cedar Tavern.
His ability to capture the scenes’ vibrancy was so noteworthy that Life magazine asked to publish a few of his photographs from Pull My Daisy for a feature on the Beat generation. The contact sheets and There is No Eye subseries in the John Cohen collection contain significant representation of this content, illustrating Cohen’s intimacy with the innovative art world and the poetry/writing worlds, which were thriving, converging and overlapping during this period.
Cohen was simultaneously involved in and excited by the writer/artist and the folk revival worlds. The Life magazine money he received from his Beat photographs helped to finance Cohen’s first trip to rural Kentucky in 1959 in search of “old music.” He had immersed himself in learning Appalachian old time tunes and songs for many years, which increased after forming the New Lost City Ramblers. On this 1959 trip, Cohen encountered banjoist and singer Roscoe Holcomb, an exemplar of the unadulterated traditional music he was looking for. They became close friends, and Cohen photographed him, recorded his songs, made a film about him (The High Lonesome Sound) and brought him to New York City for one of the Friends of Old Time Music concerts. The collection holds the notes, correspondence, writings, interview transcriptions, photographs, recordings, and films that emerged out of Cohen’s relationship with Holcomb.
Cohen’s deep involvement with American folk music, combined with his experience as a visual artist, merged in fourteen concerts produced through the Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM) from 1961-1965. His experiences learning songs from early American folk 78rpm recordings, doing song research, and documenting folk musicians such as Roscoe Holcomb (and later ballad singers in North Carolina, among others), would inform his work with the FOTM.
The folk music knowledge, experience, and relationships he built with musicians helped him to curate and present select rural Southern folk musicians to New York City audiences. The FOTM concerts were the first New York appearances for many of the musicians, some of whom had recorded decades earlier and had inspired the New Lost City Ramblers. For many folk music fans, these FOTM concerts marked their first exposure to the true vine of old time music.
Cohen’s photography and graphic design background assisted in creating compelling fliers and concert announcements to draw audiences. He crafted the fliers by hand using old type fonts from his work designing Folkways records. He was inspired by 19th century broadsides and handbills advertising early folk music, and created a signature look to advertise the Friends of Old Time Music concerts. Researchers can see the range of Cohen’s involvement in the organization in the Cohen collection materials – from notes and correspondence to publicity, sample designs, and original posters for the concerts. Through his curatorial work and publicizing of the concerts, Cohen was encouraging audiences to pay attention to and celebrate these rural artists, who were originators of the folk music that was becoming popular.
Bringing to light roots performers and artists remained a touchstone for Cohen’s work throughout his career. Along with his photographs, Cohen’s films presented people in the context of the surroundings that shaped their creativity, conveying the feel of the music. He created seventeen films through the course of his career, and Cohen collection holds the majority of these, including: The High Lonesome Sound about Roscoe Holcomb; The End of an Old Song about Madison County, North Carolina ballad singers; Pericles in America about a Greek American musician; Dancing with the Incas, Mountain Music of Peru, and Q’eros: The Shape of Survival, about Andean people; and, Sara and Maybelle, a rare performance of the Carter Family sisters-in-law. It also includes his research, interview transcriptions, writings, and publicity related to these projects. Cohen was also a prolific record producer. He produced, recorded, photographed, compiled, and wrote liner notes for albums of Appalachian and Peruvian music, such as An Untamed Sense of Control, High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina, Dark Holler, Back Roads to Cold Mountain, Mountain Music of Peru, and Past Present Peru. The Cohen collection holds original project materials for these projects.
Few people are able to master multiple art forms and to gain recognition for more than one. John Cohen is known for his work as folk musician, photographer, graphic designer, and filmmaker. For Cohen, these forms were complementary and connected, and through them he brought to life the expressive traditions of communities he appreciated deeply. His work with the New Lost City Ramblers and the Friends of Old Time Music stimulated generations to appreciate the beauty, rawness, and complexity of American vernacular music. He observed and artistically documented earlier styles of music, and non-commercial artists and musicians. The result was his distinctive approach to presenting traditions through performance, photography, film, curated albums, and concerts, which he tirelessly and masterfully practiced throughout his life. His artistic output continues to inspire a deep appreciation for the richness of expressive culture. The John Cohen collection provides valuable insight into communities and practices that we would not otherwise have. I look forward to the time when people can delve into the John Cohen collection materials as the Reading Room reopens. In the meantime, feel free to direct questions to Reference staff at [email protected] .
Looking back, Greenwich Village in the mid-to-late 20th century was John’s world, the rest of us were just living in it.