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  • Photo by Diana Davies. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections

    Photo by Diana Davies. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archive and Collections

    Smithsonian Folkways Mourns the Passing of John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers

    Smithsonian Folkways is mourning the passing of John Cohen, a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most iconic groups in the history of Folkways Records, and a preeminent musicologist, photographer, and collector. From the 1958 release of the New Lost City Ramblers self-titled debut to his most recent appearance on this year’s Folkways stage at Newport Folk Festival, John has been a cornerstone of the Folkways family. His influence on American culture is unquantifiable. Many of us here have had close personal relationships with John, and we’re all going to miss him.

    As a co-founder of New Lost City Ramblers, John was instrumental in the migration of rural traditional music from the South to the cultural hub of New York City, sparking the folk revival. Along with his cohorts Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, and eventually Tracy Schwarz, the Ramblers presented the music of the South in an unvarnished, authentic way that introduced old techniques and songs to a legion of new fans. The group also advocated for musicians such as Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotten, Cousin Emmy, and more, master practitioners of the styles they championed, by recording and performing alongside them throughout the early 1960s.

    John was also a remarkable photographer and filmmaker, known for his 1963 film The High Lonesome Sound, a documentary on Holcomb, as well as iconic photographs of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and others. During the ‘80s and ‘90s he turned his attention to documenting folk music of South America in Mountain Music of Peru, Dancing with the Incas, and Carnival in Q’eros. In 2001 Smithsonian Folkways released There is No Eye, a book collecting John’s many remarkable black & white photographs of musicians, dancers, and snapshots of life in the cities and towns in which he played. John could find the humanity in any subject and recognized great talent, regardless of previous acclaim or stature.

    More remembrances of John Cohen from Smithsonian Folkways are forthcoming.