John Cohen, an architect of American folk revival, showcases photography from a rich musical life

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By Mark Guarino

Oct 27, 2014, 9:01pm CDT

“I’m the Zelig of the folk music world,” says John Cohen, laughing. “Always there in the background.”

He is onto something. Cohen played a key role in the folk revival of the late 1950s as a musician, record collector, archivist, photographer and filmmaker. As one-third of the New Lost City Ramblers, the first group of urban musicians who played old-time music of the South to new audiences, he played a role in helping usher relatively unknown figures like the Reverend Gary Davis, Roscoe Holcomb, Frank Proffitt, Elizabeth Cotton, Maybelle Carter, and many others to college audiences where their music was heard, appreciated, and emulated for future generations.

The passion that drove Cohen and the Ramblers during those years made a profound impact on countless emerging folk singers, especially Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, who drew from early century folk songs as source material. Garcia was so enamored of Cohen, he credited him in the the Grateful Dead classic “Uncle John’s Band.”

Cohen formed the Ramblers with Tom Paley and Mike Seeger in New York City. They distinguished themselves from the commercial folk boom represented by groups like The Kingston Trio and The Limeliters by presenting the songs as unvarnished as possible. They were strict traditionalists who strove to create a context to the songs and the ordinary people who originally sang them. Their early records for Folkways represent the depth of that purpose; for many years they accompanied several of the artists they met onstage at folk festivals and clubs around the country, including Newport in Rhode Island and the University of Chicago Folk Festival, which started in 1961.

Besides music, Cohen is also known for his photography and films, which documented these musicians in their environments: country churches, living rooms, coalmines, cotton fields. He was one of the first photographers to shoot Bob Dylan in 1962, and he also successfully documented the emerging art world of 1960s New York, as well as cultural projects in Peru and throughout Appalachia.

On Wednesday, Cohen, 82, will return to the Old Town School of Folk Music, where the Ramblers performed many times since the school’s opening in 1957, to show photographs from “Here and Gone: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie & the 1960s” (Steidl), a new book. He will also perform with the Down Hill Strugglers, an old-time music group with whom he contributed a song to the soundtrack of the recent film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The show is free.

We talked recently via phone from his home in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

The New Lost City Ramblers issued their first record in 1958. Now so many decades later, what do you think is the legacy of that group?

We presented an alternative to the commercialization of this music and not only that, it was something other people could pick up and play and enjoy and go further and further, not toward business, not toward entertainment, but making music and realizing how rich it was. I think the main thing was that we had an idea. We didn’t know we had an idea. We just loved the music and we felt strongly about it and we enjoyed playing it and it just hit a responsive chord all around the country. There was a need for this. Not a big need. But it’s amazing, forty, fifty years later, it’s still going.

When you showed up on the doorstep of people like Roscoe Holcomb, who really had never performed banjo outside the mountains of eastern Kentucky, how did those encounters go? You established relationships with these people and became friends.

I guess you’re right, it was unusual. But I didn’t think it was unusual, it was just something I thought I had to do. I was starting my life and I certainly wasn’t becoming part of any business. I was an artist and photographer and musician and if I wanted to make a living, I wanted to do something that was powerfully interesting to me … We were just as worshipful of these old-time musicians, which we heard on records and the music really got to us.

How did you discover the music? Did you parents play?

My parents were folk dancers. Part of my youthful rebellion was to get away from that and get into old-time music. I heard it on records and it seemed really good and I heard Woody Guthrie at the same time. That was in 1948. It was part of a private rebellion for me, a way to get out of the suburbs. Nobody in high school was listening to any of this stuff. I was only one in high school playing guitar and I was just learning. And my brother played guitar and some played accordion. So it wasn’t totally out of left field. The fact I moved toward country music and away from the standard folk music thing was interesting. Tom Paley was at Yale at the same time I was there and we started going together. He played old hillbilly music as well. And when we met up with Mike Seeger, we had three people interested in the same thing, and really, there were not many people at that time who shared that interest.

You three had natural showmanship too. I’ve heard live recordings of the Ramblers and you really charmed the audience.

We rose to the occasion. [Laughs] We hadn’t planned to be entertaining. Tom was always funny. Once one guy started saying something, the other guy either added or corrected him or made a joke to it. But there were a lot of really interesting experiences, a lot of music, a lot of ideas and stories that we wanted to communicate. So the music wasn’t a matter of sitting in a room and playing, but thinking about ideas about it. That’s why, when going out and collecting from traditional musicians, you felt like you were communicating who they were. You weren’t pushing your own ego. And in a strange way, a lot of our humor was self-deprecating to put it mildly. I remember Mike Seeger saying, “Now we’re going to do an imitation of musicians.” [Laughs]

One of the musicians you performed with in the very early 1960s was Maybelle Carter. You helped introduce college audiences to her music, and the music of The Carter Family.

She always had been Mother Maybelle to us. She was very sweet and like somebody’s mother or grandmother. She was never a star. It was amazing. We had spent almost a year preparing to play with her and for her to make her first appearance in the city, which was at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. We had to go through her managers and work out some things with the club and I made poster to publicize it. And just a week before the opening, the television show “Hootenanny” had hired her daughters and therefore her manger said she’s not coming to the Ash Grove. We were really upset and we let her know that we were upset. And she was upset. And she was on tour for the first time with Johnny Cash. So she went on the television and Johnny Cash sat in with us at the Ash Grove. People looking out for each other.

He was also finishing his first marriage and hanging out with June Carter. He was a dedicated, deep artist, there’s no question about it. At first I thought he was a country star. But he was real guy, a real decent man.

How did you get into taking photographs of the same musicians you were performing with?

I was in art school as a painter. I got interested in photography during the time. It was partially because the photography teacher was doing a film about black gospel music in New York. And he wanted to know if anybody at Yale art school knew anything about that kind of music. And the students sent him to me, because I had already made recording of the Reverend Gary Davis. This is way back in early 1950s. I went to work on his film on black music and I took photographs. I got interested in photography around the music. A lot of my photography has been about the setting where music comes from.

Why was the environment of music interesting to you?

I couldn’t help myself. It was what on my mind. I had chance to go to Kentucky, I made little recordings, but I saw things that were so different and so very interesting. And sometimes beautiful and sometimes very wrenching. Folkways issued a record of my Kentucky music and I put a booklet out with lot of my photographs. And that was good, but finally, I said I’m not totally satisfied that people can see my photographs and hear my music and that’s when I thought of start to make movies to bring them both together.

A lot of documenting of American roots music at that time was by enthusiasts like yourself and not necessarily big record companies or even professional archivists. If people like you were not documenting these things we would have lost much of this music.

The old-time music was still around but it was dying out. We gave it a big push just by looking at it and presenting it. That might be a good way to think about what we did. I’m playing with a young band now, the Down Hill Strugglers. They’re wonderful and they have same musical taste and the same idea about music that the Ramblers had, which is really exiting. Since Mike Seeger died and the Ramblers were finished, it was strange for me, empty. But then these guys came by and it was full.

You have a song on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which was set during the folk revival. What did you think of the film?

I liked it. I know lot of people who say it wasn’t that way. But I don’t care, I liked it. What I got from the film was it reminded me of all the anxieties of that period. Not the specifics, but the anxieties. Should you do this or should you do that. Should you go commercial and if you go commercial, then what happens if you give up a regular life. What happens if you lean this way, what happens if you lean that way. All these things. If you go all the way to Chicago to make a hit and change your mind and do something very traditional — those are the kinds of anxieties that I remember tremendously all the time. There were the commercial possibilities all around us and we weren’t taking them.

The folk boom ended because rock ‘n’ roll arrived. How did it affect the Ramblers?

I guess there were less places to play, but it didn’t affect our music at all. So many of the folk music people rightfully switched to a more rock ‘n’ roll sound. And we didn’t. And l think we were appreciated because we didn’t. I know Bob Dylan always appreciated that we didn’t change. We didn’t have to. It wasn’t hard. We had so much invested financially, but we were so interested in making recordings and making new songs and collecting. Why give it up because rock ‘n’ roll came along?

Your new book features photographs you took of Woody Guthrie. How did you meet him?

I first saw him in person in 1950. He was not that far gone yet. He was starting down that path. I had seen him over the years, a little bit here little bit there. What it really came down to his muscles were out of control [due to his suffering from Huntington’s Disease]. There were people who photographed him that way. But I couldn’t bear doing that. I could see a certain dignity and strength that would show up and that’s what I photographed. I didn’t want to look for pity or anything like that. Most of my photographs have some of that spark still with him.

At a later stage, it was very strange. You could go to [the hospital] and say, “I’d like to take Woody Guthrie to New York to take him to a concert.” “Okay! Hey Woody!” There was no great security. I felt I was going to a library and checking out Woody Guthrie.

I sat with him in a big concert at Carnegie Hall. It was in a special box. And Pete Seeger was onstage singing that wonderful [Woody Guthrie] song “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Everybody was singing along with it. But Woody hadn’t meant it to be a song. It was just a poem to him. So he was reciting it as a poem. Hearing him in one ear and then thousands of people singing it as a song in another ear was very touching.

I knew him a little bit earlier. I visited him at record stores, we had some conversations. He was also sort of lost and always was a little bit difficult at first in person. But I was so deeply appreciative of his music. It meant so much to me. That was quite comfortable. And I am blessed in a strange way that I had a similar easygoing relationship with Dylan. It was never a big promotional buddy-buddy kind of thing either.

How did you meet Dylan?

I didn’t know he already knew who I was when he came to New York and he never let on. So that was fun. He was just one of the many interesting characters around Greenwich Village around MacDougal Street. Sing Out! did the first article on him and they asked me to photograph him. So he came to my place. That was in spring, 1962.

There’s always been mutual respect. I’m not central to him but I’ve seen him lot of times over the years and we had good conversations. At some point I had cancer and I had a telegram from him. I thought that was wonderful, very thoughtful.

You were instrumental to discovering so much music that was unknown to urban audiences, but you had to put in the work to find and then bring it to people. Today there’s less chance of that kind of discovery because everything is instantly available via the Internet. How have you seen that change things for younger musicians?

What interesting to me about the Down Hill Strugglers, they go to the same well I went to. They pick out songs that are totally unexpected. I’m interested to see what they are picking up on. And I see them picking up great skills and individual sounds on the fiddle and on the banjo and they are really good. It’s not like they’re looking for something new to get into.

My current question about them is they are burning through so much music so fast. They are going through lots and lots of songs and playing them well. We get a chance to play it once or twice and the next time we get together, they’re playing more different music. So it’s not at all repetitive. After many years with the Ramblers we had certain set of songs we did a lot, but with these guys, I have to hang on.

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