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Smithsonian Folkways and Friends Remember John Cohen

On September 16, the world lost John Cohen, a founding member of New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most iconic groups in the history of Folkways Records, and a preeminent musicologist, photographer, and collector. Many of us here have had close personal relationships with John, and we’re all going to miss him. We have collected some thoughts on John and his influence from members of our staff, as well as friends of Folkways and friends of John.

Tony Seeger (Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology, Emeritus, UCLA | Director and Curator emeritus, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

“Uncle John is gone!” It sounds like an old-time song, but alas it’s true.  We agreed I would continue to call him “Uncle John” even after his marriage with my aunt Penny ended.  For my entire adult life his photos captured my eyes, his films enchanted my senses and my intellect, and his musicianship delightfully engaged my ears.  He was an exacting collaborator on several Smithsonian Folkways projects we worked on when I was curator/director of the label, but the results were always original and memorable. Yet it was talking with him that had the biggest impact.  I’m probably just one of thousands whom he challenged with acute questions and “take-no-bullshit” responses to our answers that led us to think in new ways. His conversations were long and deep and humorous and wide-ranging.   He was fragile a year ago at our Seeger family reunion, but our pleasure in having another chance to talk was palpable and our times together memorable. Now Uncle John is gone. I miss you, uncle, as do many, many others.

Jeff Place (Smithsonian Folkways)

John Cohen (1932-2019) was a force of nature. With an insatiable curiosity to learn, Cohen became a field recorder, documentary filmmaker, photographer and musician. He collaborated with many over his lifetime including Gary Davis, Robert Frank, Harry Smith and the beats. He and his camera could be found in the middle of the 50s counterculture and the later folksong revival. John was a member of the group the New Lost City Ramblers who revitalized early country and string band in the 1950s and introduced it to newer folk audiences. The Ramblers would record over a dozen albums for Folkways and Smithsonian Folkways. He continued to produce anthologies for the Smithsonian into the 2000s.

His fieldwork in the south led to the discovery of Roscoe Holcomb, Dillard Chandler, and various mountain musicians from Appalachia. Cohen introduced them to northern folk audiences in what would be called the folk arrival, bringing traditional musicians to the folk revival. He brought them to folk festivals and a series of concerts he produced in New York called the Friends of Old Time Music.

John kept active until the end producing anthologies of his work, he even suggested an anthology of the “B” sides from the Anthology of American Folk Music. He presumably was working on it at his death. He continued to play with younger musicians in Brooklyn as part of the string band revival at the Jalopy Theater.

The loss of John will create a big hole. From the early days of Smithsonian Folkways, John was a go-to guy for stories of the past. He was present for many of the events that happened over the years in Moe Asch’s world and you could get the truth. As the years passed, we lost more and more of the people who were part of it all. John was one of the last people I could call and find out what happened when. A conversation with John always went on for a while with his enthusiastic reminisces. One morning at a Woody Guthrie event, I sat at a breakfast table and listened to John, Ramblin’ Jack and Guy Logsdon for hours spinning tales. Always a twinkle in his eye. The world will be a worse place without John.

John Smith (Smithsonian Folkways)

I’m devastated to hear about John Cohen’s passing.  The importance of his work as a musician, musicologist, filmmaker, and photographer cannot be overstated.  He touched so many people here at Smithsonian Folkways and around the world.  He mentored me in my early days at the label when I had the pleasure of working one on one with him for his “There Is No Eye” project, and it was a transformational experience for me. I looked forward to talking to him on the phone or visiting with him, listening to his stories about his travels and so many other musical heroes of mine.  I’m so grateful for the time we spent together and will miss him tremendously.

Daniel Sheehy (Director and Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian Folkways)

John Cohen was both a traditionalist and a multi-dimensional, irrepressibly creative musician, photographer, and film maker.  He fueled America’s passion for folk music as he bridged the folk revival and the folk “arrival,” faithfully interpreting keystone Appalachian musical traditions and bringing top flight rural artists to new, urban audiences.

Eli Smith (Down Hill Strugglers, Brooklyn Folk Festival, Jalopy Theater & School of Music)

John Cohen was one of the last of the first. He arrived as an original and clear thinker at an important turning point in our culture and remained a truly vital and creative force up until the present time. John’s life and work spanned the arc of the “folk song” movement and the movement towards traditional music, which he helped to create, here in New York and around the country. His breadth of knowledge and experience will not be seen again, and his acuity of thought was remarkable and singular. On top of everything else, the music, photography, recordings, films, paintings, drawings and graphic design, John was a great writer. He lived in a world of ideas.

Through his work as a founder of the seminal string band the New Lost City Ramblers, his beautiful photography, films and field recordings and work as a record and concert producer, John Cohen had an indelible impact on American culture. It was not something that was supported by the music industry (initially his work was almost exclusively published by Folkways and Sing Out! magazine), and it did not happen overnight. Rather, the meaning and reach of John’s work continued to build over a long period of time, starting in the mid 1950’s and still going, on into the future. His effect cannot be quantified. John’s work and ideas operated at a deep level and were revelatory for a great number of people.

John had a feeling and an idea about music, visual art and culture that he followed for his entire life. He advocated for that idea relentlessly across various disciplines for nearly 70 years. If you knew John, you knew that he had a very strong will. His work meant a great deal to him and he was tireless in that work. He also had a seemingly endless supply of great, mostly corny jokes and was always ready for a pun. Oh lord.

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I met John at the home of our mutual friend and musical collaborator Peter Stampfel in 2007 and started working with John in 2008. We became close friends. He toured the country with us as a part of our string band the Down Hill Strugglers (and the Dust Busters before that), and we played countless shows together. He was a teacher to us as well as a bandmate. We recorded three albums together (one for Smithsonian Folkways, Old Man Below), and he and I worked to produce two albums of historical reissues. Working, playing music, writing and simply talking with John was a great pleasure. He raised the level of any project he worked on and taught me a lot about how to work.

I’ll always remember cooking with him in his old kitchen at his house, and the times that he visited and stayed here with me in Brooklyn. Those were good times. John was able to play music and work right up until shortly before he passed. We played at the Newport Folk Festival with him in July on the stage presented by Smithsonian Folkways, and at the Oldtone Roots Music Festival less than two weeks ago. On Saturday he presented his new photography book at the Tompkins Corners Cultural Center near his home, and he passed away peacefully at home that Monday evening.

John played at every Brooklyn Folk Festival since the beginning, as well as at every Washington Square Park Folk Festival and many shows here at the Jalopy Theatre. He was a great friend to us here at the Jalopy and a guiding light for us. We will continue here in the spirit of his work.

John Cohen helped shape the ideas that are represented by the Down Hill Strugglers and by the Jalopy Theatre at our festivals and in our other offerings. Without John’s work and work by the NLCR and associates such Ralph Rinzler, Izzy Young and others - with Folkways Records, the Friends of Old Time Music, early Newport and University of Chicago folk festivals and more - I would not be doing what I’m doing now, I would never have even thought of it. That goes for the rest of us in our band, here at the Jalopy Theatre, and probably for thousands of other people.

John meant a great deal to me as an artist, cultural worker and as a friend. I’ll miss him very much.

Sending my love to his family and many friends.

Dom Flemons (The American Songster)

"Rest well John Cohen! John and I got to spend many moments together laughing and joking and talking music! He is one of the true pioneers of the Folk Music and Old-time Music Revivals!

I met John Cohen through Mike Seeger back around 2007 or 2008. I had read and seen so much of John’s work in all of the early stages of my musical development. He was so prolific as a photographer, writer, documentarian and a musician.

In all the years I knew him, he remained just as prolific, if not more so, because he was not only doing new projects, he was constantly repackaging all the other projects from his entire career.

I remember discussing his compilation “Back Roads to Cold Mountain” when it was released on Smithsonian Folkways. We discussed philosophies, past and present, and shared more than enough bad jokes and puns which were the staple of John’s extended repertoire.

At one point, John even pitched me to do a movie. He told me he wanted to do a film about my bones playing that would be an analysis of old-time music, rhythm, and the pulse of human existence through movement. I told him anytime, anywhere. We never got the chance to discuss it again, but that conversation still inspires me to this day.

Another moment that sticks out in my mind is one of the years I saw John at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. John’s collaboration with the Down Hill Strugglers revived his musical career in a new era and he sounded better than ever. This particular festival ended up, like many years, at the apartment of Eli Smith of the Strugglers, who also founded the festival. Opening his doors after the first night’s activities, Eli’s place was packed with 500 people in a room that could not have fit more than 100. I was sleeping on the couch that year, so I had to see the party through to the end. As I stood there pressed against the wall, watching the madness of music and mayhem, who should I see but John Cohen, taking pictures and explaining to the young people how the youth in his era had changed generations. I remember him telling them,

“The future is yours... say it with me now... paradigm shift... come on say it with me...”

As the small group repeated “paradigm shift” they were somewhat scratching their heads before turning their attentions back to the party, I smiled and chatted with John about Roscoe Holcomb. He told me that when he asked Roscoe about the blues, he was surprised to hear that Roscoe Holcomb used to own Blind Lemon Jefferson 78s and that he was his favorite blues singer! I also spoke about his extensive field research in South America. We always spoke about Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas.

As a musician, we have now lost the last of the original New Lost City Ramblers. As a human being in this world, we’ve lost one of the great explorers of folk music who curated a world of music that connects musicians from the city and the country, pop and folk on stages that range from the front porches of the South to Carnegie Hall.

He was also a great friend and a mentor. Rest well John Cohen!

Happy Traum

It was a terrible shock to hear about the passing of John Cohen. Sure, he was 87, but he seemed unstoppable, still playing string band music with pickers decades younger than him; still brilliant, opinionated, creative, vital.

I had first heard the original New Lost City Ramblers at a little concert they did at the Folklore Center in the late '50s and I was an instant fan. Later, we became friends when I was editing Sing Out! and John was on the Advisory Board. He was a tough critic with very strong opinions, but an important part of the magazine's direction back then. I was grateful for his help.

Aside from being a working musician, John was a hugely talented photographer, filmmaker, teacher, song collector and advocate for traditional old-time music and arts. We didn't see each other regularly but we stayed friends over the years, and we had some good visits here in Woodstock in recent times. He booked me to play at the lovely venue in his town of Tompkins Corners, and I was delighted to have played a show with him, not long ago, at the Towne Crier. The photo below is from that evening, taken by Ralph Baskin.

His loss is huge in so many ways. He was a repository of deep knowledge and history that is impossible to replace, and he will be deeply missed by us and so many others. We especially send our love and condolences to his beloved son, Rufus.

Amanda Petrusich (author and journalist, The New Yorker)

I got to know John Cohen in 2015. I’d heard him play with his string band, the Down Hill Strugglers, every year at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, and we’d politely shaken hands once or twice, but mostly I just admired him from afar, shyly and with deep reverence. His film “Pericles in America,” about a Greek clarinetist living in Astoria and traveling back to his home in Epirus, had been such a foundational and inspiring document when I attempted to write about the same music for the Times. The feeling for me was always, “Maybe I can just get close to what John did.” Of course, nobody ever got close to what John did.

Later on, I became unreasonably preoccupied with the banjo player Roscoe Holcomb, who John first recorded on a trip to Kentucky, in 1959, and later championed with his whole heart. The folk musician and producer Eli Smith gave me John’s number, and eventually, I worked up the nerve to call and ask if I might drive up to Putnam Valley to talk to him about Holcomb for a feature in The New Yorker. It was the beginning of a wonderful and too-brief friendship. John was extraordinary to be around – funny, weird, brilliant, overflowing with remarkable knowledge, the sorts of things no one else knew or even could know. He was generous with his time, and never said no when I asked him for help or advice, even though he was constantly burrowing deeper into his own projects. When I applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, I asked John if he’d write me a letter of support; I gasped when he said yes. I’m still entirely certain that his endorsement is the only reason I got the thing. He later sent me a copy of the letter, when I was feeling disillusioned and hollowed out. “Hope it doesn’t upend your apple cart,” he said. Of course, his letter made me sob with gratitude and wonder. All of John’s work has that effect on me. It’s devastating to imagine this world – my world, our world – without him. (Amanda Petrusich)

Art Rosenbaum

How sad to lose John Cohen, a great artist and a good friend over many years. And I mean many years. We met in the mid-1950s at the Yale Hoot. I was a Columbia student in New York City, he was a few years older, had--I think--finished his art studies at Yale. We both were steeped, even at that early time, on Lomax recordings and the Folkways Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. We were fueled in our musical efforts by the example of Pete Seeger, and also the recorded voices of Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt. Little did we think in those days that we would meet and hear those last two in person, and more, in concerts organized in New York by the Friends of Old Time Music. John, along with Izzy Young and Ralph Rinzler were the guiding forces of that organization (I, Peter Siegel, and others also played a role.) Also to come, for John, was The New Lost City Ramblers, in which he, Mike Seeger, and Tom Paley teamed up to form the first urban-based group to seriously perform early Southern string band music.

Back in that era I knew that John was not only an enthusiastic player and singer of old-time music, but was a dedicated artist: he was taking significant photographs, drawing and painting (he had studied with Bernard Chaet at Yale.) I had been a painter since I was a kid, and played banjo since my high school days, so we had a lot to talk about when we were neighbors in NYC. I did not hang out with the older abstract painters as much as John did, nor did I get to know the beat poets, but his recently exhibited and published photos of those groups are impressive as art and documents of an important period. As the years went on, John ventured to the Andes and the Appalachians, learning, documenting on film and photo cultures from the Peruvian Altiplano weavers to the intense Kentucky banjo playing of Roscoe Holcomb and so many others. City-based, we were artist-antenae who reached out into cultures other than those we grew up in, because we felt there was deep expressive art out there, apart from commercial mass culture. Worries about "cultural appropriation" and "political correctness" were not on our minds.

Early on, John connected with Moe Asch at Folkways and began issuing on LP his recordings from Kentucky and Peru, to be followed by more. John contributed insightful notes and gripping graphic design to these and later projects. At the time I was recording blues artists like Scrapper Blackwell in Indianapolis as well as rural Hoosier ballad singers, and one day John yelled down at me as I walked by his Second Avenue place: "Here's someone you should meet next time you go back home to Indiana!" He played a home-made recording he had been sent of a thrilling Indiana fiddler, John W. “Dick" Summers. I took his advice, connected with and recorded Summers, and shortly thereafter John helped me complete my first project with Folkways, “Fine Times at Our House," recordings Pat Dunford and I made in Indiana.

Specific memories? In the 1980s Margo Newmark Rosenbaum and I had an NEA Folk Arts grant to do photographs (Margo), paintings and drawings and field recordings (me) of traditional music in North Georgia, and John was one of the two outside consultants to visit and help structure our project. John was the perfect fit for understanding that the work of visual artists and vernacular musicians could not only gather valuable cultural material, but explore new modes of presentation.

Another interesting memory. A few years ago John and I and Eli Smith (of the Brooklyn Folk Festival and Down-Hill Strugglers) and Blind Boy Jerron Paxton were on a panel at Appalachian State University, exploring why so many urban Jewish people had a compelling interest in Appalachian banjo! Paxton, an African American from Los Angeles, was the only observant Jew on the panel, but no matter. We hashed out this complex and interesting question. Someone said that individuals as well as groups can be multi-cultural. John surely was, moving from the art world in New York to the Andes to the academic community, to the mountains of East Kentucky, learning and looking.

John's films, starting the "The High and Lonesome Sound," are masterpieces, as are his large body of still black and white photographs. Good that they have received the many screenings and museum exhibitions and well-produced books they richly merited. His photographic project "There Is No Eye" is a rich paradox, for his eye sees deeply into the human condition. Not much offhand humor or a gentle touch, but a stark sense of crucial moments and telling compositions.

John was a teacher in many ways. In his later years, he was a beloved mentor to younger musicians, notably The Downhill Strugglers, whose tributes you'll surely read. Earlier he was an artist teaching at SUNY Purchase--that would have been a career in itself. When I was a faculty member in two large state university art schools, I had occasion to call on John to write letters in support of my efforts, akin to his working not only in studio art practice, but also in studying, documenting, and performing traditional music--these interests were not in conflict but in synergy. His letters were eloquent and helpful.

On our last visit to his home in Putnam Valley, John put together a simple lunch and showed us some watercolors he had recently done in Aix-en-Provence, homages to that town's and the world's great painter, Paul Cézanne. John and Cézanne kindred spirits? In some ways, no, the painter was very private, traveled little; John was out there, a performer on stage and a teacher. But both were by turns crotchety and generous, uncompromisingly dedicated to their art, blazing paths for others to follow.

Pam Wintle (Senior Film Archivist, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

There is so much one can find on John Cohen on the internet as I well know from a recent search. During the government furlough, when I was not allowed to formally work, I watched for the first time High Lonesome Sound on Folkstreams.net (even though it has been in the Human Studies Film Archives collection since 1997). I was stunned. How could such a starkly beautiful and timeless film have escaped my viewing? Thus, began to percolate an idea: High Lonesome Sound belongs on the National Film Registry. Just two weeks ago, I shared my research in support of my public nomination and my shameless lobbying of National Film Preservation Board colleagues. (I served on the Board for nine years.) Anyone can also publicly nominate at https://www.research.net/r/national-fim-registry-nomination-form.

I never met John although we emailed and spoke on the phone a number of times. I enjoyed speaking with him. When I expressed my enthusiasm for High Lonesome Sound, he demurred saying that he didn’t know how to make a film when he made that one. He added that he learned how to make future films from the editor, Patricia Jaffee. But perhaps it was his photographic eye untutored by filmmaking conventions that makes this film so very special. Robert Frank, the highly influential Swiss born documentary photographer who is credited at the end of the film, died September 9, 2019. As young men, they had been neighbors in a Manhattan apartment building. Serendipity.

Tom Davenport, a Virginia independent filmmaker and the inspiration behind Folkstreams.net, responded to my email informing him of John Cohen’s death: “I did not know. Thanks. He was a hero to me as a filmmaker.”

Josh Rosenthal (Tompkins Square)

As a record collector starting to dig for traditional music in my early twenties, John Cohen was one of those names that kept coming up. Samuel Charters, Joe Bussard, Alan Lomax, Harry Smith - if you saw those names, you knew you needed to own it. I was always fascinated with Roscoe Holcomb, and John's film and book (Steidl) about him are both essential. So is John's classic recording of Holcomb on Folkways from 1965, The High Lonesome Sound.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to release Roscoe's only full live concert recording from 1972 for the first time, and I reached out to John to compose new liner notes for the set, which he graciously did. He wrote, "In my heart and mind he has always been 'live', and his music still hits hard and deep. Despite, or because of his hard life, that music conveys it all as his true legacy."

Tompkins Square also reissued the lone 1975 album by North Carolina folksinger Dillard Chandler, The End of An Old Song, in 2014, which John Cohen originally recorded and produced.

It’s fitting that just today I should find a copy of an LP I never knew existed - Mike Seeger's The Second Annual Farewell Reunion on Mercury (1973), featuring Ry Cooder playing a Frank Hutchison song, Hazel & Alice, Elizabeth Cotten, Roscoe Holcomb, and of course, John Cohen.

The circle will be unbroken, and John Cohen is partly why. Thank you, John Cohen.

Barry Mazor (author and journalist)

Encountering John Cohen

The basic list of John Cohen’s lasting contributions to the arts are well-known enough: the creation of the revivalist “old time” country genre with his buddies in the New Lost City Ramblers; the revitalization of the working careers of performers in that acoustic, string-driven mode of a generation or two before; the photography that immortalized moments in lives famed and otherwise; the do-it-yourself films shot when few were doing that. The market for his now celebrated footage of Bill Monroe, unknown young Bob Dylan, and Maybelle and Sara Carter back then was basically nil. As a writer and interviewer, he was among the earliest to suggest that musical encounters and interchange between black and white Americans were in need of some serious study.

 For John, all of that, really—everything that took hold of him—was about live, genuine person-to-person encounter and exchange. And that’s how he did all of his work--with genuine respect for the varied people who were his subjects, whatever their background, and in pursuit of precisely the revealing, living moment in encountering them whole which would capture who they were for others. He and I had an epic one-on-one in mid-Manhattan’s storied Gotham Book Mart in November 2001, for an interview that was published in No Depression, the roots music magazine named for a Carter Family song the Ramblers had brought to modern attention in the first place. He had put out the multimedia photo, text and music project There Is No Eye at the time, and since I’m a film school grad, country music journalist and something of a music historian myself, we had plenty of sight and sound themes to engage. I was acutely aware that I was interviewing a master interviewer trying to grab candid photos of a master of candid photography.

When he caught me getting him laughing at one point, with the camera at hand, he saw what was happening and was nodding. (“You’ve got me smiling. Take your picture!”) When I deliberately raised the old issue of whether a middle-class kid from Long Island like him, pursuing roots music’s core and a simplified, rural life intended to be more authentic, was romanticizing those other places and people, he stiffened, got half way out of his chair and let me know very pointedly “I don’t want to have my life dismissed as a romantic notion!”

I was proud of his response, the right one, and a few seconds later, he grasped that I’d evoked that from him, and we were friends ever after. Interchange and encounter.

Allison Hussey (journalist, Pitchfork)

I met John Cohen only once, through a mutual friend. It was backstage at a music festival, and it transpired in the hurried, effusive way that backstage mutual-friend introductions at music festivals tend to go. Even so, it was a profoundly humbling moment to be in the presence of someone who has had such a massive influence on how I think about life, work, and where I come from. His work celebrated voices and stories that might have otherwise faded from memory, enriching our understanding of musical connections across centuries, genres, and places. It is impossible to overstate the value of that kind of knowledge. John Cohen gave us so much in his time here, and thanks to him and the archivist-stewards who have helped preserve his efforts over the years, we can cherish those lessons for many more decades.

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