John Cohen's Passionate Pursuit, From Kentucky To Peru
LIANE HANSEN, host:
For more than half a century, John Cohen has photographed the likes of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. He's made films about Jack Kerouac, recorded rural musicians, and made plenty of his own music. He's a co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers, a string band that set the standard for authenticity in the 1950s folk boom. And at the age of 78, Cohen is still at it.
Karen Michel visited him at his home in upstate New York, and sent this profile.
KAREN MICHEL: There's a big pile of timber ready for cutting into firewood, just outside of John Cohen's snug, wood-heated home, about an hour north of New York City.
Mr. JOHN COHEN (Musician, Photographer, Filmmaker): I can live up here in Putnam County, New York, on an old farm - like I'm supposed to.
MICHEL: One of the seminal figures in the 1950s folk revival, Cohen grew up in New York City.
Mr. COHEN: So I have a hunch - and it's just a hunch - that Im hungry to find out all those things that I didnt have access to.
This, apparently, was a smoke house...
MICHEL: It's here, in what Cohen calls his inner sanctum, that he keeps the relics and results of his more than 50 years of exploring the stories and lives of others - as a still photographer, filmmaker and sound recordist.
Mr. COHEN: A very low...
MICHEL: In 1954, while still a student at Yale, Cohen went to Peru knowing only two words of Quechua - the name of an unusual singer, popular at the time.
Mr. COHEN: Yma Sumac, which means how beautiful. So imagine the scenario. Im walking across a plain and there's a woman sitting there outside of her little house, weaving. And I walked up to her, pointed at what she's doing, I say yma sumac. Suddenly she's smiling, and I sit down with her. And then I point to different parts of the loom and say, yma, yma, yma, sutiki - how is it called? And she'd tell me, and I'd write this down.
So there was already a back and forth of me interested in what she was doing. And I was not doing this as a technique. I was there to find out.
MICHEL: Three years later, he headed for Kentucky, where he met banjoist and singer Roscoe Holcomb.
(Soundbite of banjo music)
Mr. ROSCOE HOLCOMB (Banjoist and Singer): This is Roscoe Holcomb. And the title of this song is "The Stingy Woman Blues." I made it myself.
(Singing) Stingy woman, come sit down on my knee...
MICHEL: Holcomb became the subject of a classic Cohen film, "The High Lonesome Sound." Sometime after he finished it, Cohen took the film back to the village of Daisy.
Mr. COHEN: Getting a projector, telling the community, showing the film, and very curious to hear what the people's comments were. Hey, look, Aunt Jane painted her porch. It wasnt painted back then. That was the only comment I got after all that political correctness.
Mr. HOLCOMB: (Singing) The more you cry, woman, the further that you drive me away.
MICHEL: Between visits to Kentucky and Peru, Cohen lived in a downtown New York City apartment, next door to photographer Robert Frank. When Frank shot the iconic beat film "Pull My Daisy," Cohen took the stills. When young Bob Dylan came to Greenwich Village, Cohen took his photos, too, on the roof of the building.
And there's a famous shot of Woody Guthrie, curly hair sprouting from the top of his narrow head, framed by the hulking backs of two acoustic guitarists. That picture was the image used for a show of Cohen's still photos, films and music, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1997.
Mr. COHEN: This picture of Woody Guthrie, I had taken him out from Greystone State Institution, where he was - you know, he had problems. They didnt know that he had Huntington's Chorea. But the haircut that he has in that is an institutional haircut. They give it to prisoners anywhere, mental patients, it's just government issue. So Lyle Lovett or leave it - took it.
Thats a good identity. I mean, how many people - how many Johnny Cashes and - all have found their identity with the prisoners, the outcasts and all that, and the music of those people?
MICHEL: That music - or some of it - is also Cohen's music. A banjo player since high school, he began learning the music of the old-timers while he was at Yale. And soon after, he formed the New Lost City Ramblers.
(Soundbite of song, "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?")
THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS (Folk Band): (Singing) There once was a time when everything was cheap. But now, prices nearly puts a man to sleep. When we pay our grocery bill, we just feel like a making our will. Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?
Mr. COHEN: In the very first notes that I wrote for the very first New Lost City Ramblers album, I said: There's a side of ourselves that goes out trying to change the world into our own image. And there's another side of ourselves that goes out trying to find our image in the outside world. And I think it's that second one that's kind of forced me to become who I am.
(Soundbite of song, "Old Age Pension Check")
THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS: (Singing) When that old age pension check comes to our door, we won't have to dread the poorhouse anymore. Oh, we're old and bent and gray. Good times will be back to stay when our old age pension check comes to our door.
MICHEL: It's through the Ramblers that Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, was exposed to Cohen's multifaceted work.
Professor TOM RANKIN (Director, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University): One of the things you can really see from John Cohen is, you don't have to see yourself as limited. You don't have to pigeonhole yourself. And you can follow that - kind of almost naive passion of interest, and do most anything. And you can be a participant, and you can be an observer.
Mr. COHEN: I'm an artist rather than a documentarian or something.
MICHEL: But not long ago, back in his barn, Cohen sort of put the lie to that. Rummaging around, he found footage for his most recent film, a follow-up on Roscoe Holcomb.
Mr. COHEN: About 20 years ago, I made my last film in Peru. And I said: I've done 15 films; that's enough. And then I remembered - out in the barn, I had all this footage that didn't make its way into my very first film, which was back in 1962. And I went out to the barn - I still have my old editing machine - and found some beautiful music, and some devastating stories from Roscoe about how hard his life was. And that's what gave me the impetus to make the new movie.
MICHEL: That film is just out on DVD, along with the original Holcomb documentary. There's also "John Cohen, Past, Present, Peru: A Collection of CDs, DVDs, Photos and Text," and a new book about the New Lost City Ramblers.
Mr. COHEN: I'm mean, Im 78 years old, and I didn't expect to have this much attention come to my work. And I'm very happy that it's happening. And I'd like people to see it - because it should be seen.
MICHEL: For NPR News, Im Karen Michel.
(Soundbite of banjo music)
HANSEN: You can see a slideshow of John Cohen's photos, including that shot of Woody Guthrie, at our website, NPRMusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.
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