John Cohen – The Image Of American Music
John Cohen is best-known as an original member of the New Lost City Ramblers, founders of the modern old-time music movement, with whom he has sung and played string instruments since 1958. Cohen helped bring such legends as Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Dock Boggs north to revitalize their careers during the ’60s folk boom and has produced celebrated albums by performers of traditional American music.
He’s also directed fifteen documentary films, one of which, The High And Lonesome Sound, gave bluegrass a permanent description. A prolific writer himself, Cohen still found time to teach photography for decades, having first been a working photographer — a quiet chronicler of the music scene in which he’s thrived, of the legends he’s known, of the Beat poets scene and more, in photos that “caught him,” as he puts it.
These come together in There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs, just published by PowerHouse Books, simultaneous with release of a companion disc on Smithsonian Folkways, There Is No Eye: Music For Photographs, built on songs recorded by people in the photos (and including previously unreleased cuts from Bob Dylan and Bill Monroe). A lively compilation of New Lost City Ramblers performances, 40 Years Of Concert Recordings, was released by Rounder earlier in 2001.
The exuberant and engaging Cohen, long married to the musical Seeger family’s Penny Seeger, is now 69 years old, and rolling. We sat down in November at New York’s Gotham Book Mart, a fabled midtown Bohemian literary and art hangout since the 1920s.
Before we began, Cohen revealed a bit of information of special interest to No Depression readers. “I’ve been looking forward to this talk for a reason you don’t know,” he said. “I met Jeff Tweedy, and he told me that they didn’t learn the song this magazine is named for from the Carter Family recording, but from ours [the New Lost City Ramblers’]. So an interview with No Depression intrigued me! Uncle Tupelo also recorded ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, which they got off my field recording CD High Atmosphere.”
And then we got started.
I. A WAY TO MAKE IT ALL MORE PERSONAL
NO DEPRESSION: In your interview with Harry Smith in the late ’60s, he suggested something relevant: “Certain things sound good to a person; certain things look good to the eye. And at some level, the two are interconnected.”
JOHN COHEN: Hah! He said that to me? Well, if I started to talk about it too clearly, I’d be a liar. I love Giacometti’s work, I love DeKooning’s work — and I love Roscoe Holcomb’s work. What surprised me was when I realized that they were not so different from each other.
ND: An amateur rural singer and sophisticated abstract expressionist painters? Because of their shared spontaneous expression?
JC: In the sense that Roscoe didn’t know how it would turn out in advance, that’s right. Bill Monroe said about him, “How can that guy go on the stage without knowing what he’s gonna do first?”
ND: So how were the cuts on the CD collection connected, and selected? Was there some overall notion?
JC: It was to be a trip — from incredible vocal moves [Doc Watson, Muddy Waters, Carter Stanley] back to Scotland for a ballad that was almost medieval; then I jumped to Alice and Hazel doing bluegrass, and old-time instrumental music, and then switched right to the sound of David Amram, a neighbor of mine, doing his jazz thing, evoking the ’50s and the Beats. A journey.
ND: When you grabbed these pictures in the first place, what did you want them to do?
JC: My ideas about photography were formed at a time when there weren’t even any galleries, and I didn’t want to work for the magazines or advertising people. I tried, and it didn’t feel good to me. But I used Life magazine money to finance my first trip to Kentucky. So who was I photographing for? There was no market, so it was pretty much…for me!