On a muggy Sunday afternoon in June of 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Neon, Bulan, Vicco, Viper, Daisy, Defiance — tiny coal and timber towns with sonorous names popped up around each bend before giving way to the Cumberland Mountains. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about "hard times" that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. "In order to experience an economic depression firsthand, I visited eastern Kentucky and made photos and field recordings for six weeks in 1959," he recalled.1 "The United States was quite prosperous at that point, but east Kentucky wasn't and I had heard about that. . . . And I said, 'Maybe I can find some music about the depression, experience the depression, and understand it more and maybe photograph it, maybe record music.'"2
Map used by Cohen to navigate Kentucky, 1959.
John Cohen, Two girls walking, Vicco, KY, 1959.
Later in the day, Cohen began to wonder whether his trip was in vain. He had exhausted every name on his search list of banjo players and he had no desire to return to the hot boarding house room along the railroad tracks of Hazard. Earlier, he had visited an eighty-five-year-old fiddler, Wade Woods, but Woods could barely play anymore. On a whim, Cohen took the first dirt road that led off the main highway to see what or who might turn up. Turning off the hardtop, he crossed over a little bridge and stream and entered a lumber-mill village called Daisy. He approached a couple of small houses and, at the first one, asked some children standing out front, "Any banjo players around here?"
"Over there in that house," they replied.
Cohen pulled up and recognized a young man named Odabe Halcomb he had recorded the night before at a nearby roadhouse.
"What are you doing here?" Halcomb asked, surprised to see this outsider on his doorstep.
"Well, I'm looking for music," Cohen said.
Halcomb turned to his adopted aunt, and Cohen asked her to play a banjo tune. Mary Jane Halcomb played a couple of songs including, "Charles Guiteau," about assassin of President James A. Garfield. Suddenly she announced, "Here comes Rossie!"
|John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.|
A wiry and weathered man, aged forty-seven, Roscoe Halcomb walked toward the house.3 A manual laborer and former miner, Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow in Daisy. After some cursory introductions, Halcomb played a song for Cohen called "Across the Rocky Mountain." "My hair stood up on end," Cohen later remembered. "I couldn't tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde." The combination of pulse-like rhythm, coupled with the high, tight singing, and the insistent droning notes of the guitar had its effect. "It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I'd ever experienced . . . not the song itself but they way he sang it was just astounding. And I said, 'Can I come back and hear you some more?'"4
Roscoe Halcomb allowed Cohen to visit him at home on a number of occasions to record, photograph, and film him. Cohen produced a remarkable documentary, The High Lonesome Sound, not only of Halcomb and his music, but also of the social, economic, and cultural life of Daisy and Perry County. Cohen's work undermined stereotypes by portraying Appalachian people differently than the typical "hillbilly" caricatures that circulated on television, in movies, cartoons, and popular magazines during the 1950s and 1960s. Cohen countered these images through documentary realism, depicting the diversity and vitality of eastern Kentucky's cultural life while revealing the poverty that an exploitative mining economy created.
A sympathetic interpreter, Cohen still controlled the means of representation. He acknowledged that subjective desires and motives dominated the documentarian's objective conceits. Documentary workers revealed and described, but also framed and selected. "Although I had come to Kentucky to document what I heard," Cohen later reflected, "inevitably the undertaking required me to become an editor. I was put in the position of determining . . . how [Roscoe] was presented, and photographed. Like it or not, my task was to shape Roscoe's image. I was uneasy with this situation, but then again, there were few alternatives." Cohen was neither a social scientist diagnosing the causes of poverty, nor a journalist writing or filming an exposé for a national outlet. He arrived before Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962) focused the nation's attention on Appalachia as one pocket of poverty in a nation of affluence and before Harry Caudill published the groundbreaking and controversial book Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963). Cohen also visited the region eight years before a man named Hobart Ison shot and killed a Canadian filmmaker named Hugh O'Connor as he filmed a coal miner sitting on the porch of the home he rented from Ison in Jeremiah, Kentucky, just down the road from Daisy. Ultimately, Cohen came to observe an economic depression and the music and culture of the Mountain South that possessed his heart and mind.5
John Cohen's documentary work strived to produce a humane picture of Appalachia, but it also created a new romantic mythology that depicted Roscoe Halcomb as a visionary folk musician who, according to Cohen (writing in the mid-1960s), represented "a vanishing breed of people who have held onto their traditions despite mass culture."6 Cohen said his band-mate in the New Lost City Ramblers, Mike Seeger, referred to Halcomb's "outlook" as "Medieval." Mythologizing an Appalachian musician's supposed premodern purity was nothing new.7 Generations of folklorists, song collectors, and writers had portrayed Appalachia as a rural and isolated idyll that preserved and protected the last vestiges of pure Anglo-Saxon culture from corrosive forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Cohen's descriptions of Halcomb at times evoked similar myths about the Appalachian folk created by writers like Will Wallace Harney and William Goodell Frost in the late nineteenth century, song collectors like Cecil Sharp in the 1910s, and by members of the Popular Front in the 1930s like Charles and Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie who championed and mythologized another Kentucky balladeer and mining strike organizer named Aunt Molly Jackson. Most importantly, though, Cohen combined elements of these old myths with new insights provided by modern art and thought, specifically abstract expressionism and existential philosophy. Throughout the 1960s, Halcomb became the face of authentic, noncommercial, white folk music — someone who channeled Appalachian tradition and an avant-garde energy into his art. He became a muse for Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and other young middle- and upper-class Americans who looked South for their musical roots and artistic inspiration.8
|New Lost City Ramblers, Out Standing In Their Field, Vol. II 1963-1973|
Halcomb emerged as a solitary and creative genius, a characterization that echoed the modernist cultural context Cohen imbibed while living in New York among the Beats and abstract expressionist artists. Halcomb's art seemed to display for Cohen the same force, dynamism, and vitality of artists like Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg. The emotional intensity of Halcomb's music also resonated deeply with Cohen and his peers, creating a legendary reputation for Halcomb. His hard life in the Kentucky mountains heightened his authenticity as folk musician; the sorrow and anguish that hovered over every song seemed to emanate from actual experiences rather than abstract lyrics or mournful melodies. Roscoe Halcomb, the man and his music, soon came to symbolize for Cohen and his peers in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, the uncompromising polar opposite of popular culture circulating on the airwaves and in the magazines of urban and suburban America. If every aspect of 1950s American culture seemed a cheap imitation, then Halcomb and eastern Kentucky seemed like an authentic people and place apart.9 They may have had access to modern conveniences such as radio, television, and record players, but, for many folk revivalists, their seeming isolation and poverty mitigated these corrupting influences and preserved vestiges of raw folk expression.10
Halcomb's admirers romanticized his apparent isolation not only from urban America and popular culture, but also from his own community in Perry County, Kentucky. "He was so much of the mountains and their culture," wrote Mike Michaels, a participant in the folk revival from Chicago who knew and visited Halcomb in the 1960s, "but the artist within him that had created such unique music ultimately set him apart from his family and neighbors." Another folk revivalist, Jon Pankake, highlighted similar contradictions within Halcomb's music itself which he described as "at once so archaic and so abstractly avant-garde . . ." "the exhultation [sic] of despair . . ." "the most moving, profound, and disturbing of any country singer in America." His image as a torchbearer of Appalachian tradition relied in part upon emphasizing his roots in the poor and, apparently, isolated hollows of eastern Kentucky while his image as creative genius and avant-gardist required his depiction as separate from the people and places that comprised the region. What made him unique necessarily made him isolated. Through photographs, films, and appearances at folk music festivals, Halcomb became the image of the solitary existential hero who expressed life's dilemmas in anguished, uncompromising music.
This essay examines the thought and documentary work of folk revivalist John Cohen. It explores motivations and preconceptions that brought him to eastern Kentucky, the relationships he had there with musicians such as Roscoe Halcomb, and the influential documentary images and recordings he produced. First, I examine Mountain Music of Kentucky (1960), the first record to feature Cohen's recordings, his photography, and Halcomb's image. Cohen's 1959 photographs evoke the elegant realism of Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s and 1940s, combined with the psychological depth of Robert Frank's photographs from the 1950s, and Helen Levitt's poetic and candid images of everyday life in Spanish Harlem during the 1940s.
|Map of sites that Cohen documented, 1959-1963. (Base Map Data: US Census Bureau).|
Next, I explore Cohen's first attempt at documentary film. Realizing that he could convey a wider experience of life in eastern Kentucky with film than through photography and sound recordings alone, Cohen returned to Kentucky in 1962 to make a documentary about Halcomb's Perry County milieu called The High Lonesome Sound: Kentucky Mountain Music (1963). Although Cohen had never used a motion picture camera and had little knowledge of the history of documentary film, The High Lonesome Sound expressed his response to the music and culture of Appalachian Kentucky and captured the tension between the realist and romantic motives intrinsic to documentary work during this time: "I wanted to make a visual statement encompassing both documentary and subjective ideas, to find a way to integrate feeling with seeing. I was often torn between a need to document (describe) [Cohen's parenthesis] what was in front of me and the desire to follow intuitive visual impulses. This set up an internal dialog, a debate between conceptual and creative thinking. I walked the line between these ideas all my life."11
I conclude with a look at Halcomb's relative fame, and after the film, his continued struggle to survive amid the poverty of eastern Kentucky and his failing health. Halcomb never sought wide recognition. More than anything, he simply wanted to make a living for himself and his family. Work, not music, primarily defined him. Halcomb enjoyed the opportunities to perform and to make friends outside of Appalachia, but the legend that grew around him, during and after his life, obscured the hardships and pain that he endured.
Cohen's Musical and Artistic Awakening
In 1948, at the age of sixteen, John Cohen first heard Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads at summer camp at a site called Turkey Point, north of New York City. The music entranced him. Guthrie's ballads and other albums of old songs and fiddle tunes sparked not only Cohen's fascination with old-time music, but also his rebellion against mainstream culture.12 At the same camp, Cohen also got an introduction to Kentucky mountain music and learned how to both build and begin to play a banjo. Woody Wachtell, a camp counselor, had been to Kentucky with Margot Mayo, founder of the American Square Dance Group, whose uncle, Rufus Crisp, was a banjo player from Allen, Kentucky. Crisp had recorded for the Library of Congress during the 1940s and '50s. Wachtell and Mayo made recordings of Crisp who, in turn, taught Wachtell about the banjo. Wachtell, as Cohen remembered, "conveyed such joy with his music . . . it was astounding to me . . . it had the feeling that it was something that I could do." Cohen also listened to music collected by John and Alan Lomax in the southern mountains while attending camp. A record called Mountain Frolic gave Cohen his first glimpse into the world of old-time music and string bands. When Cohen returned to his suburban high school in the fall, familiar with sounds from Appalachia, and interested in playing the guitar and banjo, he began to feel alienated from his peers. "I was the only person — the only person — playing a guitar in high school," he recalled, "and the only one singing these kinds of songs . . . which didn't make me special . . . it made me seem weird, you know, strange."13
Cohen's sense of alienation persisted when he attended Williams College in 1950. Fraternities dominated the school's social scene and he met no one who shared his fascination with folk music. He found solace playing the banjo in his room and listening repeatedly to the Library of Congress recordings in the school's library. At night, he tuned his radio to WWVA and listened to country music broadcasted many miles to the south. The sounds seemed alien, but deepened his fascination for Appalachian music. "The songs spoke of Honky Tonk life and cheating wives and husbands on the one hand, and of the longing for home, farm and tradition, on the other." Enraptured, Cohen spent his first summer after college hitchhiking south to experience the music firsthand. When one of his rides stopped for gas somewhere in Virginia late at night, Cohen noticed the bugs swarming around the station's lights as a radio outside blared Flatt and Scruggs. He had heard Flatt and Scruggs before, but never so close to the source. They hit him hard.14
Fed up with the preppy culture of Williams, Cohen transferred to the art school at Yale in 1951 and fell in with a group of students and professors who played a profound role in shaping his career. Cohen found Tom Paley, a mathematics graduate student, who shared his passion for southern folk music. Cohen, Paley, and other enthusiasts started hosting and promoting "hootenannies" in 1952 and 1953. Early on, the "hoots" attracted only a few art and graduate students, but word spread and the next thing Cohen knew "two or three hundred students were showing up to sing with us on Friday nights."15
Playing hoots and meeting other musicians occurred alongside Cohen's formal education. He studied painting with Josef Albers and photography with the Swiss artist Herbert Matter who introduced him to another Swiss photographer "in retreat from the Swiss bourgeois life," Robert Frank.16 After graduating from Yale, Cohen moved to New York City and, for a short time, lived next door to Frank on the lower East Side at 32 3rd Ave. In 1957, before his book The Americans was published, Frank showed Cohen a stack of photographs he shot during his travels across the country. The floor was strewn with prints. Frank's photographs captivated Cohen and showed him another way of seeing his surroundings. While the FSA photographers revealed the roots of poverty and social patterns, Frank focused more on the interiority of American life — the "hollowness and corrosion" that lurked beneath the sheen of mainstream middle-class society. Cohen believed Frank's photographs evoked a visceral and subjective response that focused on emotion and feeling. "They hit me," Cohen recalled. "It was no longer FSA, it was no longer news, and it wasn't art either, you know, it wasn't [Edward] Weston."17
Cohen's friendship allowed him to work on the set of Frank's 1959 experimental film about Beat culture, Pull My Daisy, which was based on a script by Jack Kerouac. Cohen served as the set photographer, taking stills of the filming. The cast Frank assembled comprised a 'who's who' list of New York's Beat scene during the 1950s: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, David Amram, and Peter Orlovsky. Though Cohen recalled that Frank had an idea of structure, ultimately, "improvisation seemed to dominate the production." Cohen marveled at the way Frank carefully composed images in the camera rather than dominate the production. "Frank's images," Cohen recalled, "caught the feel of loft living and the crazy openness of the Beat poets. In this setting the kitchen sink, the refrigerator, and even the cockroaches took on grimy meaning."18
|Still from Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy (1959).|
Frank's composed images and evocation of the "feel" and material attributes of Beat life influenced Cohen's understanding of documentary as a means to portray both an objective reality and subjective feeling and emotional response. This tension between the need to document and describe and the desire to follow what Cohen called "intuitive visual impulses" defined his documentary vision. Ultimately, Cohen rejected any pretension to cool detachment but, rather, embraced Frank's example of documentary as art, a mode of expression in which subjectivity and interiority guided composition. Observing Frank's filming on the set of Pull My Daisy in 1959 would provide Cohen with a model when he began his own documentary filmmaking in Kentucky.
During the late 1950s, Cohen also worked in New York as a photojournalist. As he remembers, the life of a freelance photographer during this period was frustrating and uncertain. He and other photographers responded by creating an informal organization of independent photographers that held meetings at Cohen's loft. Members included Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, among others. Cohen's assignments were mostly dull and unsatisfying, although he did get an eight-page spread in Esquire for a photo essay on motorcyclists at a rally. Life also paid him for his photographs of the Beats taken on the set of Pull My Daisy. Cohen used the money he had made from Life to finance his first trip to Kentucky during the late spring and summer of 1959. Cohen hoped his trip would help establish an independent means of making a living, one that fulfilled creative desires rather than stifling them, as he described, "I had to make my own means of working independently."19
John Cohen in the Folk Revival
|George Pickow, New Lost City Ramblers, circa 1960.|
Cohen's idea for a Kentucky trip also came from his involvement with an old-time music group he formed in 1958 in New York City with Tom Paley, his friend from Yale, and Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger's younger half-brother. The three called themselves the New Lost City Ramblers. Cohen's simultaneous participation in the burgeoning folk-revival scene and the Beat and abstract expressionist worlds made him a unique figure in the late 1950s underground. He bridged both worlds in a way almost no one else did. Like Beat poetry and abstract expressionism, folk music for Cohen represented an antidote to mainstream culture. Cohen wanted the group to transcend entertainment and give their audience a deeper appreciation for the roots, people, and culture of the music they played.20
The three musicians also bonded over a mutual obsession with Harry Smith's seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, which came out on Folkways Records in 1952. The collection's powerful combination of creative packaging, Smith's humorous annotations, and the haunting sounds of a distant folk geography seduced all three. Southern music provided a vicarious connection to a rural idyll very different from Long Island or Greenwich Village. When Cohen and his friends listened to the Anthology's songs they heard the "voices of people from the rural tradition" facing their own anxieties and singing about them in their own style. The revivalists projected thoughts, emotions, and concerns onto the psyches of rural folk singers who, they believed, shared their internal anxieties. They used the language of existentialist philosophy prevalent in the literature and art of the 1950s' American underground and intelligentsia to construct their image of the folk performers on the Anthology, such as the Carter Family or Dock Boggs, who, they believed, shared their sense of alienation from modern America. Roscoe Halcomb in particular became the embodiment of this existential hero.21
Peter Feldman, John Cohen
When Cohen and the Ramblers reproduced the sounds and emotions of the old songs in their performances, they hoped to convey the same power and authenticity they discovered when listening to old 78s and LPs. "There are certain qualities which we demand from the music," Cohen wrote in Sing Out! magazine in 1961; "a sense of immediacy, of personal involvement, a sense of tradition as well as appreciation for that which carries things to a point where they can go no further — a feeling of 'way out,' a rejection of compromise for commercial or artistic reasons, an obsession with the song material . . ."22 Cohen's desire for immediacy, experience, and transcendence — a "feeling of 'way out'"— guided not only his relationship to traditional or old-time music but also shaped his documentary work and the nature of his eventual portrayal of Roscoe Halcomb. Cohen drew from the same aesthetic and emotional well when playing old-time music or making photographs and films about musicians and their cultures.
Two years earlier in the pages of Sing Out! Cohen responded to charges leveled by Alan Lomax, the most important folk music collector of the era, who had accused "citybillies" and "folkniks" of not understanding the real emotion of rural singers in their efforts to play authentic folk music. Cohen countered that Lomax assumed an elitist position that characterized him as a "holy ghost" sent from on high to reveal the gospel of true folk music. Cohen portrayed Lomax as out-of-date and unaware of the new ideas that characterized the folk revival in the United States. While Lomax had been out of the country collecting folk music across Europe (and avoiding the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings), he missed folk music's shift in emphasis from what Cohen characterized as "social reform or world-wide reform" to a movement "focused more on a search for real and human values."23
Just as there was a shift in documentary photography during the mid-twentieth century from producing photographs that exposed injustice and championed social reform to a perspective more explicitly focused on subjective experience, Cohen's acknowledgement of the folk revival's existential search signaled a similar transformation that he believed Lomax did not appreciate. The Old Left and Popular Front politics that Lomax adopted while growing up during the New Deal and beginning his important work as a collector and concert organizer during the 1930s had lost their relevance. Cohen looked back to the New Deal era for aesthetic, not political, inspiration. The New Deal and Depression, he believed, were a time when people did search for values, when people did have a cause to fight for, something which defined their place in society. In his own search for values, Cohen used the past to give meaning to an uncertain and seemingly nihilistic present. His quest also pushed him to do more than learn and practice the music of old-time musicians. He felt he needed to go where they lived, to photograph and film their lives, and to experience and embrace their culture.24
Recalling the New Left's rejection of top-down leadership and authority during the 1960s, Cohen argued that he and his peers in the folk revival were not "looking for someone to lead us" because they were "looking within themselves." There was no particular "truth," no law or formula that defined folk expression. "The emotional content/ of folk songs is a different thing to different people," Cohen argued, "and it is hard to say that there is a single, correct way to emotional content/." Echoing an old refrain in the romantic tradition, truth, according to Cohen, was "available to anyone who will seek it — and there will be eventually be as many ideas of truth as there are people pursuing it . . . There is no truth except that which we make for ourselves."25 Depression songs and eastern Kentucky, where an actual economic depression was ongoing, provided Cohen and others with a vital experience that counteracted the aesthetic and emotional landscape of 1950s suburbia. Writing in the liner notes to the Ramblers' Songs of the Depression, Cohen argued, "there is an element in young people today which feels a yearning for the thirties as a desire to have a clear and humane cause to fight for." Early Ramblers concerts even advertised themselves with the Blue Eagle of the NRA and the slogan, "I am lost. Take me back to 1932."26
NRA (National Recovery Administration) Blue Eagle Poster. This New Deal program from the 1930s was popular with workers.
Fan card from the New Lost City Ramblers 1960 concert tour featuring their own NRA eagle. Courtesy of John Cohen.
It was also during the 1930s that John Lomax and others recorded some of the haunting songs Cohen listened to while in college. The Great Depression was an incubator of authentic music according to folk music fans. The urge to depart the 1950s for the 1930s sprung from the revivalists' appreciation of the artistic and aesthetic images of the decade, as transmitted through FSA photographs, field recordings, and Harry Smith's Anthology, instead of nostalgia for the Old Left or New Deal liberalism. Cohen imbued the leftist idea of a political cause with both aesthetic and psychological concerns.
Writing for Mademoiselle magazine in 1960, Susan Montgomery wondered what lurked at heart of the folk revival: "Why American college students should want to express the ideas and emotions of the downtrodden and the heartbroken, of garage mechanics and mill workers and miners and backwards farmers. . . ." She noted that young middle-class folk revivalists were "desperately hungry for a small, safe taste of an unslick underground world." Folk music for them represented a "slight loosening of the inhibitions, a tentative step in the direction of the open road, the knapsack, the hostel." In a "brutal and threatening" world clouded by prospects of nuclear war and a culture littered with consumerism and slick popular music, folk music provided an experience that broke through the deadening influences of middle-class upbringings. Some of the most intense revivalists, those most committed to embracing and understanding the roots, styles, and aesthetics of American folk music, maintained a level of interest and commitment that extended beyond participating in group folk sings, festivals, or hootenannies. These young adults diligently learned their instruments and the significance of the songs they sang, becoming, as John Cohen acknowledged, the "best city folk musicians." These same people, Montgomery observed, often wished "they'd come from the Kentucky mountains or (depending on the music they play) that they had been born Negroes. . . . The sounds and emotions these students sing so furiously are eventually incorporated into their consciences. They are, in a sense, bedeviled people who, even though they are fine musicians, should be counted among the casualties of contemporary American life." The folk revival, according to Montgomery, functioned as a religious movement led by idealists and romantics like John Cohen — "seekers, value hunters and extremists who are willing to go all the way for something they believe in . . ."27
In 1959, Cohen recalled being "disgusted with the city, grey dirt and second-hand folk music, curious about Kentucky mountains, Elizabethan-like ballads, dulcimers, fierce banjo-playing, hillbilly music, bloody Harlan, mining songs, depressions and striking miners." He said one purpose of his Kentucky trip was to establish respectful relationships between city and country musicians. "If the city wants and needs folk music in its soul," he wrote about his trip in 1960, "then its exchange with country musicians must be a two-way affair. If we feel a desire towards their outlook on music, we must be willing to understand their way of life and to respect them as people who have something to offer in their way."28
Cohen was certainly not the only person to mythologize the Kentucky mountains as a bastion of authentic folk music, and he was not the only person making field recordings in the area in 1959. Despite jokes that young folk song collectors were overrunning the Appalachians with recording studios dragging behind them, there were actually only a few folk song collectors working during this time. Cohen, his bandmate Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler, a former Swarthmore student and friend of the Seeger family came to the southern mountains. The only other visible collector in Kentucky that year was Cohen's nominal nemesis, Alan Lomax, who visited the southeastern part of the state in early September, well after Cohen had returned to New York City.29 Cohen recalled speaking to Lomax in February during the "Folk Song '59" festival that Lomax organized at Carnegie Hall. Cohen mentioned to Lomax his intention to travel to Kentucky to record and photograph musicians. Lomax sensed a competitor and tried to dissuade the naïve Cohen with the cautionary tales of a seasoned folk song collector who had recorded musicians in the Kentucky mountains during the 1930s and early 1940s. "Oh, well you're going to places where they don't have electricity," he warned, telling of carrying heavy batteries up steep hills.30
But Lomax was also hardly the first song collector in Kentucky. Long before he and Cohen arrived in 1959, folklorists and amateur collectors traveled there in the early twentieth century. Most notable was the Englishman Cecil Sharp, who had hoped to find the Elizabethan ballads preserved by years of isolation from modern industrial society.31 The romanticism expressed by these early collectors differed from Cohen's. The ballad collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kept ears attuned for Child ballads, supposed vestiges of old English lineage. Cohen went to Kentucky in part because of its mining culture, which he believed produced the closest thing he would ever get to a setting reminiscent of the 1930s. In 1959, "while the rest of America was busy and prosperous," Cohen wrote, "Kentucky was experiencing a depression caused by troubles in the coal mines." He hoped to find songs sung by miners that would tap into the pathos of a recent past when rural Americans struggled nobly in the face of deprivation and hardship and produced emotionally resonant music. Unlike earlier collectors, Cohen also saw fieldwork as a personal quest for meaning, not a folkloric, literary, or academic safari. "The opportunity to visit traditional artists in their homes was seen as a privilege," Cohen recalled, "an activity of reaching out, a dynamic process that might bring meaning and music to one's own life."32
During the late 1950s, the young folk singer Jean Ritchie from Viper in Perry County contributed to Cohen's and the folk revival's romantic imaginings of the mountains. Ritchie left Kentucky in the early 1950s to live in New York City and get involved with the burgeoning folk scene. Young revivalists like Cohen loved her early recordings for Folkways, which colored their perceptions of the mythical mountains. In February 1959, Robert Shelton, who covered the American folk music scene for the New York Times, declared Ritchie "one of the finest authentic traditional folk singers we have in the United States today. She is the heir of a tradition that goes back to the pioneers who settled the Kentucky Cumberlands. Her forebears lived in isolated areas where customs were tenacious and songs were passed on from one generation to the next." In 1955, Oxford University Press published Ritchie's memoirs and family history in Singing Family of the Cumberlands. In 1959, the Riverside label released an LP by the same title on which Ritchie used excerpts from the book to tell stories about growing up in Kentucky. "Her tales are unaffected, often poetic recollections of a community that was slow moving but often quickened by the vitality of human contact," Shelton wrote. "Here was the sort of family living, except for its material poverty, that the sloganeers of 'togetherness' and The Saturday Evening Post cover artists might dream about."33
George Pickow, Jean Ritchie and Oscar Brand at WNYC in New York City, 1947.
George Pickow, Jean Ritchie and Roscoe Halcomb, early 1960s.
Cohen's first encounter with Ritchie's songs came over the radio waves on a program hosted by Oscar Brand in the early 1950s. Cohen's father had purchased a wire recorder for him, and he would make recordings of Brand's show and send them to his brother who attended college at University of California, Berkeley. Ritchie provided Cohen with images of Kentucky that differed from those presented by Merle Travis, a popular country singer and songwriter also from Kentucky who sang about the exploitation of miners. Later, Cohen got to know Jean Ritchie when the New Lost City Ramblers shared bills at clubs in the Village, at Izzy Young's folklore center, Carnegie Hall, and other venues. Ritchie was a distant cousin of Roscoe Halcomb who lived just below Viper in Daisy. She remembered Halcomb as one of the "'good old boys'" whom she occasionally saw "making music at square dances and set-runnings around the community." Ritchie drew upon family and community connections to provide Cohen with a list of names and contacts in Perry County.34
John Cohen in Kentucky, 1959
During the late 1950s, Pikeville had a population of about six thousand people and, according to anthropologist Allen Batteau who studied the region during the 1960s, was a "commercial outpost in the midst of a mountain wilderness. After a hundred miles of travel through baffling curves and folded hills, through villages like Dwale and Ivel and Betsy Lane, in Pikeville one could find the latest styles and fashions of the American economy." Pikeville's signs of middle-class consumerism and commercialism did not fit with Cohen's image of Kentucky as a land ripe with "Elizabethan-like ballads . . . fierce banjo-playing . . . mining songs . . . and depressions . . ." He left for another commercial center, Hazard, about thirty miles away, partly because it was close to the Ritchie family's village of Viper where he had contacts. Cohen passed the first days of his trip establishing supportive connections.35
In 1959 Cohen did not have a reference source like Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which came out in 1963. Instead, he relied on W.J. Cash's 1941 The Mind of the South, a book that was hardly relevant to life in Appalachia. Cash's reading of southern history had taught how plantation owners tried to establish a Herrenvolk democracy that reinforced racial divisions and mitigated class conflict between white planters and yeoman farmers. Cohen looked out at the economically depressed mountains searching for things that reinforced and added to his analysis. He recalled driving with old-time musician Willie Chapman over to Hyden in neighboring Leslie County. On the way they passed a burning coal truck by the side of the road, a possible casualty of an effort to organize workers who ran the ramps and tipples where truck miners brought their coal. When they passed by later that day and the truck was still on fire, Chapman suggested to Cohen that nobody wanted to intervene because they would probably get shot. "So then you realize," Cohen recollected, “that it was much more than meets the eye, or anything you looked at had a lot about it . . . ." Photographing provided Cohen with a way to make sense of what he saw, to give structure and meaning to a place that was confounding his preconceptions.36
|Downtown Hazard, Kentucky, late 1950s from www.hazardkentucky.com.|
Before he started photographing, Cohen spent a few days walking the streets of Hazard, observing and thinking about how he wanted to represent the region. He considered the "depressions" that drew him to Appalachia, "mining people vs. farming people, religious music vs. dance music." He knew he wanted to avoid the "obvious," what he had seen in photographs and what he knew people like the editors at Life expected to see: hillbillies amid squalor. He avoided stereotypical pictures, but chided himself later, knowing that by rejecting these "good" images, he also "kicked out the possibility of sale" for his photographs. Nevertheless, as Cohen wrote his friend Ross Grosman in a letter from Kentucky in 1959, "this leaves me with a strange sense of freedom in relation to what I finally do produce — for it can come from a more personal or profound part of myself." For Cohen, documentary expression and the "seeking out of ideas, feelings, situations etc. to photograph" depended on a "very subjective sequence of following whims and hunches — which are not logical immediately." If they seemed logical, Cohen purposefully avoided them. The friction between the "logical" and "literary," or the reality Cohen witnessed versus the one he imagined, provided the creative tension he felt was necessary to produce beautiful photographs.37
John Cohen, Two men on porch, Premium, KY, 1959.
John Cohen, Two women, Premium, KY, 1959.
Cohen was keenly aware of the potential for trouble with local authorities and residents as he roamed with a camera and a recording machine. He sensed friendliness at times from the locals but wondered about how much of it was façade. "On one hand," he said, "when you get to a new place everything is exciting but at the same time everything is potentially dangerous." Cohen visited the sheriff's office in Hazard and told them, "If you see this weird guy walking around with a camera, it's me! If they pull me in, you know, it's me." He compared himself to Alan Lomax who traveled the country making recordings of strangers. While Lomax could use his association with the Library of Congress to lend credibility, Cohen had only a loose connection with the Ritchies and the UMW. "I expected and encountered an unmistakable sense of mistrust from many quarters."38
He remembered reading an article in Life magazine about how federal revenuers disguised as folk song collectors scoured the Appalachians after Prohibition hoping to dupe unsuspecting bootleggers and moonshiners. One of the first musicians he recorded, Bill Cornett, told him that folk song collectors were suspect. Cornett possessed a unique banjo style replete with odd phrasings and tunings. He had established himself as a local hero by singing "The Old-Age Pension Blues" on the floor of the Kentucky legislature. Once, while playing at the National Folk Festival, Cornett was told to keep an eye out for suspicious folklorists who would steal his music and copyright it in their own names. When Cohen arrived at Cornett's house for the first time he brought along two familiar UMW officials. Cornett sang "vigorously" on his porch for Cohen who described him as a "terrific performer, his rich musical ideas pouring out from the first moment he started playing for us." Yet, Cohen "felt his apprehension" about playing for a suspicious "outsider." Cornett said he was wary of collectors and, consequently, declared ownership of each song after he finished singing. "He was a confident person," Cohen recalled, "yet seemed gruff and abrupt about the music he knew so well. He had little doubt about its importance and that he was preserving and passing on something precious and vital."39
Cohen tried to understand where musicians' apprehensions came from and why they existed. Something larger than folk music, rooted in the long history of exploitation of the region, fueled the doubts and fears. "Suspicion starts with a feeling of being different from the mainstream culture," Cohen later asserted, "and comes down to a power struggle over who controls the means of representation." But what first attracted Cohen to Kentucky was its seeming difference. Instead of exploiting stereotypes, Cohen used this sense of difference to heighten his aesthetic experience of the musicians, their music, and their region. Kentucky mountain people, he wrote, "have been made to feel as if their own way is inadequate in the face of the sophisticated luxuries which bombard them from the national advertisements — and they know the stereotype which the national press has given of them, as ignorant, primitive and barefoot, and they resent it."40
Cohen's awareness mixed with his own preconceptions to produce an image of eastern Kentucky that was humane, yet still mythic. Towards the end of his 1959 trip, he wrote again to his friend Ross Grosman about the impressions and ideas that shaped this documentary vision, revealing the tension between his desire to depict reality and a tendency toward romanticism. "It has been a hard time here in Kentucky and I just don't know how much I have accomplished." He particularly wondered about how the ideas and impressions "communicated on film." On the one hand, he felt a "certain spirit of this region is akin to Shakespeare's England, with motivations coming from a sense of gallantry + duty primarily. People here are rugged individuals." On the other, he witnessed a less idealized reality: "But still, there is something which isn't yet clear — which I can't get with. Although there is real + warm love within families — there is something extremely opposite that — which manifests itself in feuds, shootings, cuttings, etc."41 Domestic violence and murder occurred everywhere, but in Appalachia such acts became stereotypical "feuds" or signs of a deviant and primitive culture in the minds of the many Americans who knew little about the region. Cohen never associated eastern Kentucky with deviance or attributed violence to social pathologies. Instead, the cognitive dissonance caused by seeing 'Merry England'-in-Kentucky alongside explicit talk of familial violence only deepened the region's allure and mystery for Cohen, just as Roscoe Halcomb's apparent combination of the traditional and the avant-garde heightened the power and artistry of his music.
|John Cohen, Odabe Halcomb, with banjo, and Mary Jane Halcomb, Daisy, KY, 1959.|
These regional contradictions played out in person one day when Cohen drove with two brothers, both banjo players (aged sixty-eight and seventy-one), some seventy miles "out over wild mountain country," he wrote at the time, "to a section of these mountains . . . which is generally feared by people in Hazard – (who also have a fearful enough reputation themselves.)." Their destination was the home of an old fiddler whom Cohen wanted to photograph and record. "The music we made (I taped) was just exactly the greatest type which I've only heard before in the Library of Congress." And, yet, while he was among the fiddler's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, he also overheard talk "about local murders, brothers killing brothers, wives killed by husbands, violent automobile accidents, snipings at coal operators, dirty dealing in coal contracting, moonshining, illegal hunting, etc." He also sensed the home held an "arsenal of guns" — and "all the while we were making all that nice old music."
The dissonance produced by the pleasant "old-time music" and the talk of murder, by the scene of a mother nursing her baby daughter and the whispers of fratricide, intoxicated and bewildered Cohen. Here he was in what looked like a particularly remote locale in Appalachia, recording seemingly ancient fiddle music while a television flickered in the corner of the house. "This was no log cabin," Cohen assured his northern friend. But when Cohen wanted to capture these visual impressions of Appalachia, his request to make photographs, unlike his request to record music, "was vehemently denied." Someone there had "something particular to fear" and the passionate refusal to allow photography filled Cohen with fear. Nothing else happened that day, he wrote, "but this is the atmosphere in which things operate once you leave your warm bed." The air of violence and suspicion wafted among more seemingly quaint and traditional scenes and sounds. The mixture created a place that seemed like no other in America, and that was susceptible to romanticizing.42
Portraying Roscoe Holcomb
Cohen's documentation of the life and music of Roscoe Halcomb provides a compelling example of his fascination for Appalachia's seemingly conflicted culture. Here he found a place and people he saw as unique and mysterious because of the coexistence of traditional rural values alongside modern poverty produced by the mining industry. Cohen's work demonstrates how sound recording, photography, and film could present a dignified, respectful, and admiring portrait of a poor, middle-aged man from Appalachia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, because of the humanity and artistry of his work, Cohen also created a romantic narrative that portrayed the poverty Halcomb faced not as a product of an exploitative economy but as an aesthetic quality authenticating his music and validating its emotional force. Through Cohen's lens and microphone, poverty becomes not a burden but a precondition for beauty, a signifier of pure, powerful folk expression, of authenticity. Halcomb consented to documentation and exposure not because he wanted recognition for his music but because he believed Cohen truly appreciated it and that the younger musician might help him get a job.
|Still of Roscoe Holcomb playing guitar on his front porch from The High Lonesome Sound.|
When Cohen met Halcomb for the first time in June of 1959, he saw "a little, wiry person, stooped from hard physical work, coughing from asthma, black lung, and too much smoking." He was also quiet, gentle, unassuming and melancholic. After hearing him play "Across the Rocky Mountain," Cohen said Halcomb "seemed gigantic and full of inner strength." Cohen acknowledged his "Appalachian posture," his "hard life," and his "broken health," but these features, along with his conflicted relationship with old and new ways in the mountains "all gave an edge to his music." Something "heroic and transcendent" emanated from his voice. His singing "had a power that went straight to the listener's core." Cohen recalled, "His spiritual concern was beautiful and always present, revealed with a sharp, cutting expression of pain." The poverty Halcomb faced each day shaped the man and his music, but he never dwelled on it. Cohen, however, emphasized the poverty in Halcomb's life, not as a personal burden that took a toll on his physical and mental well-being, though Cohen certainly recognized this, but as an abstract force that gave the older musician's music its power, its "edge."43
|John Cohen, Men praying at Old Regular
Baptist Church, Jeff, KY, 1959.
In 1959, poverty was only one of Halcomb's many worries. Cohen sensed tension in his home. "His old ways were in conflict with the rest of the household. He was tolerated, but there was little feeling for his music, which was met with indifference or scorn." Earlier in his life he played with a small country band, but in 1959 if Halcomb played music, he played it alone, or occasionally with the older members of his family such as Mary Jane Halcomb and his adopted nephew Odabe Halcomb or with his old friend, Lee-boy Sexton. The children in his home (his wife Ethel's from a previous marriage to a miner who died in an accident) preferred to listen to rock n' roll music on the radio rather than the old ballads and blues Halcomb played on guitar or banjo. "It's not music," he said of rock n' roll in 1962, "it don't suit me . . . well the young generation can't hardly tell the difference no how cause they never heared nothing else much but that — but since this old music started back they're beginning to learn different."44
The tensions and conflicts that defined Halcomb also had roots in social and economic changes affecting eastern Kentucky during the mid-twentieth century. "Roscoe was right in the center of conflicting Appalachian values," Cohen observed. Born in 1912, the agrarian world of Halcomb's youth gave way to one dominated by the mining and timber industries. "I was raised up when there were very few coal mines," Halcomb told Cohen, and "we made our living mostly in farming." He was also raised in the Old Regular Baptist church singing slow, somber, lined-out hymns. But as the Pentecostal-Holiness sect spread throughout the Appalachian region in the early twentieth century, he turned away from the Baptists who believed musical instruments were sinful and, instead, started playing guitar and banjo at a local Holiness church. Nevertheless, Halcomb still sang the Old Regular Baptist hymns at concert performances and alone at home "rekindling feelings, reliving lost pleasures, and immersing self and sentiments in days gone by," Cohen noted.45
When Cohen first met Halcomb, he admitted he "had no idea what he was about." "I only knew that he usually worked at construction jobs and that the way he sang his songs had a great effect on me. Now, after almost forty years, I have come to realize I was hearing a man confronting the dilemma of his own existence." Cohen's trip to Kentucky also allowed him to confront his own existential struggles. Going to Appalachia resembled a pilgrimage, a search for meaning, values, and traditions missing from his own life in New York City. The region's apparent isolation and poverty, Cohen believed, nurtured music that combined tradition with powerful expressions of sorrow. It also sustained what he saw as folk customs that seemed like true expressions of a rural and traditional way of life he never knew in New York. In the summer, tomatoes and corn came fresh from the garden, in the fall at the first frost, Cohen noticed, "across the porches of East Kentucky, beautiful, bright-patterned, handmade patchwork quilts would appear, hanging out to be aired after summer in musty storage chests." He characterized what he saw as more than quaint tradition. The scene equaled "a visual experience" at the "Museum of Modern Art . . . the country version of contemporary aesthetics." Like Halcomb's music, eastern Kentucky's material culture seemed to blend the traditional and avant-garde. Cohen said in the late 1990s that these rural traditions and cultural expressions "never felt like 'folk art' or 'Americana,'" but at the time they signified to him a regional vitality and authenticity, attracting the "value hunter" Susan Montgomery identified in her 1960 article. "That part of Kentucky may be out of phase with the rest of the country," Cohen wrote in 1960, "but it can work well for itself right there. Those people have ways of doing things and attitudes which we in the city feel missing in ourselves — which is probably one of the big reasons we get so much from their songs."46
Mountain Music of Kentucky
|Still from The Beverly Hillbillies.|
Albert Votaw argued that "the city's toughest integration problem has nothing to do with Negroes" but, rather, "it involves a small army of white Protestant, Early American migrants from the South — who are usually proud, poor, primitive, and fast with a knife." At about the same time, television shows such as The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Beverly Hillbillies played a significant role in shaping public perceptions and stereotypes about southern mountain people. Historically, middle-class economic interests had used the hillbilly image to "denigrate working-class southern whites (whether from the mountains or not) and to define the benefits of advanced civilization through negative counterexample . . .," argues historian Anthony Harkin. Since Cohen and his peers questioned and challenged the supposed benefits of modern civilization, Appalachia, to them, did not seem deviant or a land of hillbillies but instead a bastion of authenticity, a retreat from the commercialism of contemporary mass culture. And yet, while folk song collectors like Cohen longed to leave the city for the mountains, many in the mountains yearned for middle-class comfort and a steady city job.47
Public responses to the 1960 Mountain Music of Kentucky release quickly revealed to Cohen the power that documentary and other media images carried. Folklorist D.K. Wilgus recognized the effort as one of the first to respectfully represent Kentucky folk music and life. "John Cohen's collection of Mountain Music of Kentucky is another raid on our resources by a 'furriner,'" Wilgus wrote, "but put away your long rifles, boys. We couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic interpreter than Cohen." An Appalachian journal, Mountain Life and Work, expressed similar sentiments by quickly assuring readers that Cohen's record was not another stereotyping of the region’s people and culture. "Anyone who is touchy about the subject of mountain people and music, as talked about or misconstrued by outsiders, will thank Mr. Cohen for a sympathetic, 'whole,' treatment of the music and people he met at Hazard and nearby," the reviewer wrote.48
Cohen introduced the recordings and photographs on Mountain Music of Kentucky with liner notes about the singers and the variety of music that existed in eastern Kentucky in 1959. He took some pride in presenting singers from all walks of life — farmers, coal miners, construction workers, a disc jockey, a housewife, a politician, a banker, a horse trainer — and music from a range of styles and backgrounds. Listeners heard Child ballads alongside more recent banjo and guitar tunes, some influenced by the blues. He also provided selections from the main religious traditions in the Kentucky mountains — the Old Regular Baptists who sang lined-out hymns in their slow solemn manner and the Holiness church who preferred "a style similar to popular Hillbilly music" that combined "guitars, banjos, cymbals, hand clapping, shouting" with "wild harmony." Along with the diversity of styles, Cohen also noted a diversity of motives. For Willie Chapman, a retired miner and a banjoist who played "Little Birdie" and "Jaw Bone," music was an important way "to keep active" in his old age. For Lee Sexton, a coal miner and a five-string banjo player who performed "Fox Chase" and "St. Louis Blues," playing at square dances was a "social role he maintains." But for Roscoe Halcomb, Cohen wrote in his liner notes, "music has become a deeper means towards a lonely and passionate artistic expression." Halcomb's contributions to the compilation included "Wayfaring Stranger" on banjo and "East Virginia Blues" and "Across the Rocky Mountain" on guitar, and he stands as the obvious star of the record.49 Robert Shelton, writing for the New York Times, believed Halcomb particularly deserved "to be heard in person at some of the big Eastern folk festivals" — as he eventually would. A San Francisco Chronicle reviewer declared Mountain Music of Kentucky "one of the greatest records in the entire literature of American folk song” and Halcomb as "a true genius of the white blues and Anglo-American ballad."50
After returning from Kentucky, Cohen tried to donate his tapes to the Library of Congress but given his anonymity as a folk song collector, he was initially turned away. Crushed, Cohen went back to New York and contacted Moe Asch, head of Folkways, and asked if he would release the recordings and reprint the photographs. Asch gave him a $200 budget for music editing, notes, photographs, cover design and type setting, along with instructions to "pay the artists." Cohen searched for a vivid typeface for the cover, choosing one resembling that featured on Walker Evans's 1938 collection American Photographs, which he greatly admired. Like Agee's and Evans's collaborative Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was reissued the same year, Cohen wanted to include documentary photographs alongside information about the artists and a socioeconomic description of the Kentucky mountains. Cohen's booklet that accompanied the LP constituted an early example of independent, self-published photography. It circulated his work to an audience beyond the New York art world. The complete control Asch allowed "for the material, the documentation, and the interpretation along with the visual representation" established a "pattern of independence and setting values," Cohen said, "that made it difficult" for him to "ever work in any other fashion."51
Cohen also wrote an "Introduction to the Photographs," part of which he later read during the opening scenes of his film The High Lonesome Sound: "Hazard, Kentucky in 1959 is an area reminiscent of the Depression of the 1930s. People there say that these are the worst times they have ever seen. They see no prospects for the better ahead of them." He describes labor tensions in the local mines and mentions other means of making a living. His photographs try to present a cross-section of life in this particular area of eastern Kentucky and reveal the paradoxes of a place he was confronting for the first time. Photographs of an agrarian world clash with images of soot-darkened miners who wear grave and tired expressions.
|Cohen, Perry County, Kentucky, 1959.|
In one photograph, a farmer plows a field with a mule while a train passes behind. Although the railroad arrived in Perry County more than forty years earlier, the juxtaposition of train and horse signifies the intrusion of the industrial capitalist age upon the region's agricultural heritage. The train transports the coal cut out of local mountains to US industrial centers, leaving behind exploited people and land. In another image, children stand inside the doorway of their home, blocked from the porch by three battered planks while a broom rests against the door. The photograph conveys entrapment in poverty, passed to a new generation. Another photo shows that the movie Hard Man is being screened at the theatre in the town of Neon. Kentucky folklorist, D. K. Wilgus, who claimed the state "couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic interpreter than Cohen," praised the liner notes for "insight, sympathy, and analysis" and the photographs that "dramatically pointed out depressed conditions." Cohen, wrote Wilgus, "presents the core without the peeling."52
The core of the record is not only Halcomb's music but his image. He does not appear in any of Cohen's small photographs contained in the booklet, but a photograph of him graces the record's cover, the same photograph that the New York Times printed with its review of Mountain Music of Kentucky. Halcomb became the new face of Kentucky mountain music as well as the face of the region's poverty, a force that Cohen believed gave the music its power. The former politician "Banjo" Bill Cornett, the housewife Martha Hall, the miner Lee Sexton, the farmer Granville Bowlin, the horse trainer Willie Chapman, the disc jockey George Davis – none of them possessed Halcomb's combination of intense, emotional singing with the hard-worn physical expression of poverty.
As the sound and image of Halcomb began to circulate, he came to "symbolize an ideal of the folk song revival," according to Cohen, "a bed-rock 'roots' musician free from adulteration by the commercial recording and academic worlds. He had a backwoods 'purity' sustained by isolation, and if I hadn't found him and recorded him, he would never have looked outside his home community for listeners."53 Cohen's "discovery" certainly granted Halcomb notoriety he would not have otherwise received, but the exposure created an image that reinforced the romantic myths many folk revivalists held about folk music and folk musicians. Halcomb shared poverty and "backwoods purity" with some of the other singers on the record. But what gave his music its unique power and emotional force, its credibility, was his ability to express the psychological toll of poor mountain living not through direct and explicit lyrics about economic depressions, mining conditions, strikes, and poverty but through a quavering high-pitched voice that channeled the pathos and emotion of old traditional ballads and blues and revitalized them with his own feelings of anguish. Stylistically, his voice drew from the Old Regular Baptist hymn singing, the blues, and old-time "country," the same forces which gave rise to Bluegrass. Even if Halcomb did not mention the sources of his pain, his emotion seemed a personal response to his condition, certified by his image on the record's cover. For consumers who equated apparent isolation and poverty with powerful music, the photograph of Halcomb standing with his banjo in front of a deteriorating wooden shack near his house only heightened the authenticity. Producing Mountain Music of Kentucky, Cohen enjoyed a level of independent creative control he relished and would never relinquish. Appearing on the record, Halcomb relinquished creative control of his music and image, something he would never regain.
|Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, Kentucky, 1959. This is the photograph that appears on the cover of the Mountain Music of Kentucky LP from 1960.|
Halcomb's wife, Ethel, objected to Cohen's depiction of her husband and her home. She resented that the shed was shown rather than her nice white house, Roscoe Halcomb said. "Why do the people around here object to the photograph of your shed on the record cover?" Cohen asked him two years after the record was released. "The people, when you take these old things . . .," Halcomb replied, "you see, we live in these old mountains here and we've been raised up pretty rough and a lot of them does the best they can do and they take it as if you take the worst you can find to make a picture to take back to New York to show the people. That's the way a lot of them feel about it. Course it don't matter with me."54 Although Halcomb said the image did not matter to him, he was not in a position to protest. He wanted Cohen's cooperation and to call into question the ethics or motives behind Cohen's work would upset their amicable relationship. Many eastern Kentuckians felt resentment about their media portrayals, especially during the 1960s as the country tried to address persistent poverty in an "affluent society." Some believed they were being shamed for not fitting the white middle-class ideal of mainstream American culture.55
Soon after the record's release, Halcomb's image began to circulate widely, appearing not only on the cover of the album but in the New York Times on April 24, 1960 where Robert Shelton reviewed Mountain Music of Kentucky and described the singers as being "rooted in the earth" with the "lusty propulsion of their music reflect[ing] it."56 What Halcomb's wife and others in the Kentucky mountains found offensive or exploitative, the New York art world to which Cohen belonged during the late 1950s and 1960s found beautiful and poetic. In the fall of 1959, the Image Gallery exhibited Cohen's Kentucky photographs and Jacob Deshin reviewed the exhibition for the Times. "The dreary world of a Harlan County [Perry County], Kentucky community down on its luck is the major theme of John Cohen's one-man exhibition . . .," Deshin wrote. "Suggesting the documentary approach of the early Thirties, when photographers were faced with similar material, the pictures are reminiscent of work in that period, but with a difference. Mr. Cohen adds the poetic touch and the vision of the artist that have become associated with his photography."57
The distinction between Cohen's work and 1930s photography that Deshin alludes to here is tied to the influence of such photographers as Robert Frank and Helen Levitt on Cohen's vision and his seemingly more apolitical motives compared to Farm Security Administration photographers working for the Roosevelt administration. Cohen's search was for beauty, not propaganda, but the unintended consequences of his photographs were no less persuasive. Perhaps in response to Ethel Halcomb, Cohen shot another photograph of Halcomb in 1964, again holding his banjo, but this time dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a fedora. The shot is close up and presents the musician as the larger-than-life figure many in the folk revival imagined. Having established Halcomb's rural Kentucky roots, Cohen perhaps felt compelled to temper the image of a poor, aging musician with a photograph that represented eastern Kentuckians' desire to seem less like caricatures to the eyes of outsiders.
Mythologizing Roscoe Halcomb
By 1961, Mountain Music of Kentucky had sold only 362 copies nationwide, despite enthusiastic reviews from national publications. This meant paltry compensation for the singers, which Cohen regretted. "I'm glad the money we sent you came in handy," Cohen wrote to Halcomb after the record sold some copies, "I only wish I could've sent more." While sales were slow, Cohen told Halcomb that the "record is serving as a calling card and people are hearing it. The New York Times published your photograph and said you were a singer who should be heard at folk festivals." As a way to capitalize on the revival's fascination with Halcomb and possibly generate more income for him, Cohen brought him to a festival at the University of Chicago in February of 1961. The festival's "key words," according to the Times' Robert Shelton, "were tap-roots, tradition, authenticity, and non-commercial." Those who bought Halcomb's records believed he embodied all these attributes.58
|Royalties statement for Mountain Music of Kentucky, 1961.|
In many ways, Cohen and his peers projected themselves onto Halcomb. Cohen's portrayal of Halcomb as a solitary, romantic, creative artist mirrored in many ways his own existence and resonated with participants in the revival. When he first heard Halcomb sing, he believed he had found someone in the mountains who shared a need for personal expression. "At the first song he sang for me, with his guitar tuned like a banjo and his intense, fine voice, I knew this was what I had been searching for — something that went right to my inner being, speaking directly to me. It bridged any cultural differences between us . . . his sentiment was profound and not at all detached . . ."59
Cohen could erase the "cultural differences" because Halcomb powerfully expressed the loneliness and alienation that Cohen sometimes experienced as a young man. But what made Halcomb's music authentic and powerful for Cohen was not only its emotional force, but its alien origins a world away from urban and suburban New York. If Halcomb's musical emotion seemed to erase cultural difference, the particular Appalachian poverty that seemed to fuel his emotion reinforced this difference and contributed to the mythic image which Cohen's work spread.
Other revivalists who heard Halcomb's music in the coming years also created a romantic image. John Pankake and Paul Nelson, who attended Halcomb's first public concert at the University of Chicago in 1961, mythologized him because of his difference from them in terms of geography, class, and culture. "Roscoe is a man's man," they wrote in 1961 for the Little Sandy Review, "who returns your handshake firmly and looks you straight in the eye when he speaks to you." Their description of Halcomb then continues to highlight his physical appearance, presence, and poetic language.
He is slender and soft-spoken — yet tough enough to have endured a hard life in the Kentucky coal mines. . . . His feeling for people and his complete immersion in life give his conversation a sensitive, almost visionary quality. There is really only one topic of conversation with him and that is the meaning of human experience. His every word is a reflection of his thoughtfulness and deep insight. . . . He speaks of the people of his region with the poeticism of a good writer, and he knows and understands their poverty, their violence and their loneliness. . . . We watched him walk away wondering if we had talked to a great man — or to a man who only seemed so because he had miraculously come to us from a time and place before the race of Americans had fallen."6060
|Album cover (1960).|
Poverty, violence, and semi-isolation in eastern Kentucky certified Halcomb as the real thing. His poeticism and focus on "the meaning of human experience" seemed to represent qualities and ideals that Pankake, Nelson, and Cohen's generation desired. And, yet, they recognized their place among the "fallen" race of Americans — those who participated in and benefited from modernity no matter how much they tried to reject or escape it. If folklorists of an earlier generation, such as Cecil Sharp, romanticized Appalachian folk singers as Elizabethan relics, members of the folk revival revered Halcomb for his seeming imperviousness to popular culture and his resemblance, in his lonely quest to maintain a meaningful life in a meaningless society, to the existential hero of literature.
In 1961 Halcomb also made his first trip to New York City to record for Cohen a follow-up to his appearance on Mountain Music of Kentucky. The new record, The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward, a split-release with a Virginia fiddler, "was made . . . when he was here in person to present his music to the city people," Cohen wrote in the liner notes. "On one hand, Roscoe had been wrenched out of his own ordinary background and thrown into the nervousness which seems to particularize the city," he said, "and which brought out this same quality in him." Of course, Halcomb was a worried man back in Kentucky. His physical decline from long years of manual labor left him unemployed, poor, and unsure as to how he would provide for his family. Cohen emphasized the centrality of work and manual labor in his life. For Halcomb, work was more important than music. Few, if any, of Cohen's compatriots in the folk revival could claim a blue collar background, but Cohen still believed he and his peers felt "something of ourselves . . . in his music . . . qualities and ideas inherent in this music, seldom stated but strongly evident, which give direction and meaning. . ."61
Cohen also portrayed Halcomb for the first time in terms of the primitive. He emphasized his art's "simplicity," "directness," and its "care" and "honesty which are found in the works of true primitive painters," but in the same breath he argued that Halcomb transcended the primitive and folk art in general. Halcomb's music was a sophisticated and dynamic example of creativity with a parallel "in classical western art, and deserves similar critical consideration." Cohen, a modernist, represented Halcomb as both primitive and avant-garde, folk and high artist, a simple man who worked with his hands and "close to the land," someone whose music's "lack of refinements" and "errors" produced an "artistic statement" full of "brutal reality."62 Robert Shelton argued that "young collectors" like Cohen continued to find in the "Southern Highlands a bottomless reservoir for music and for the whole ambiance of romanticized rural life that so often embellishes the interest of the music."63
|Peter Feldman, Roscoe Halcomb at a folk festival, 1963.|
New recordings and folk festival appearances exposed Halcomb to a larger audience, but Cohen still thought they fell short of conveying the complexity and depth of Halcomb's life and the social and economic forces that helped shape his music. In 1961 he traveled again to Kentucky, picking up Halcomb for the Chicago Folk Festival. Driving through the eastern Kentucky landscape, he thought he needed a more immediate and powerful way to present Halcomb's home and music to an audience fascinated by both. On this trip he wondered about the "tensions, contradictions and beliefs" that made the man. By themselves, listening to Halcomb's music and seeing Cohen's photographs of Kentucky musicians and the mining and agricultural worlds of Perry County could not communicate "the feeling of having these things happen at the same time." Cohen decided to "make a movie to bring sound and image together, to try to capture some of the music, culture and countryside."64
John Cohen's knowledge of documentary film at this time was limited. As a child he had seen Robert Flaherty's seminal 1922 depiction of Eskimo life, Nanook of the North. He had also seen The River, a 1938 film Pare Lorentz made for the Farm Security Administration that showed the social and economic importance of the Mississippi River to America and the ecological effects of wasteful farming and logging practices. The other documentary film Cohen recalled seeing before making his own in Kentucky was Helen Levitt's 1941 In the Street, a collaborative effort with James Agee. The film's unobtrusive and poetic depiction of daily life in Spanish Harlem bore all the hallmarks of Levitt's photography through the fleeting theatricality of children playing in the streets. The photographers had a mutual respect for one another: Cohen was familiar with Levitt's work even before In the Street, and Levitt appreciated Cohen's photography. Once, when a friend visited Cohen's apartment, he noticed a photograph taken by Cohen in Peru and told him that Levitt had this same photograph on her mantel.65
Once Cohen decided he wanted to make a film, he needed an assistant. He asked Levitt if she knew anyone who might be interested. She sent Cohen a young man about his age named Joel Agee, the son of her friend James Agee, who grew up in Germany but was now living in the United States looking for direction. Agee, like his father, was interested in filmmaking but had never ventured into the North American interior. Neither he nor Cohen knew the first thing about operating a movie camera when they borrowed one from Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David, pioneered direct cinema in the United States. Cohen had worked on the set of Robert Frank's experimental film Pull My Daisy, but only as a set photographer. Before Cohen and Agee left for their six-week filming expedition in Perry County, Kentucky, they decided to practice operating the camera, a 16mm Arriflex. They went on top of a neighboring building with the intention of filming the roofs of the Village, birds, and whatever else caught their eyes. But before they began, a friend of Cohen's, dropped by and wanted them to hear some new songs he had written, so they ended up making a three-minute film of Bob Dylan.66
|John Cohen, Joel Agee at a Holiness church, Daisy, KY, 1962.|
In August 1962 Cohen and Agee left New York City for Perry County. Though Agee "grew up with" Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Cohen had read it when it was reissued in 1960, neither of them thought much about the parallels between their trip and the one Walker Evans and James Agee made in the summer of 1936 to Hale County, Alabama. Joel Agee has said that he never focused on the analogy "very strenuously" and that "there was no project" to do something similar to his father. Cohen contrasted their foray by saying that they did not have "the perspective of the people as social — in a social setting." For Cohen, "it was more about the task of getting the film made and what we would do tomorrow and who we were going to meet tonight and getting to understand and really liking Roscoe." This lack of a social "perspective" had more to do with a predominant concern with aesthetics rather than politics. Cohen never ignored the unique, complex social and economic forces affecting eastern Kentucky. He wrote about the ongoing depression and labor struggles in his liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky. If Cohen lacked social "perspective" it was because he searched the economic depression for aesthetic reasons, for the powerful music and art poverty supposedly produced. It is no surprise that he described eastern Kentucky's depression in 1959 and 1960 as "basically a silent affair with tensions felt but seldom seen." He saw the "vacant" and "ghost-town like mining communities," he knew why they were there and he photographed them, not as exhibits for social analysis but as an artist hoping to capture the look and feel of a place very different from his own. As Cohen later acknowledged, he did not want to "use" the rural places he visited as "examples" or as propaganda. "I didn't want to point out, 'Look at the poverty here' or 'Look at what the capitalist system has done.'"67
Cohen's acknowledgement of these felt tensions and their musical and visual embodiment in Roscoe Halcomb and the eastern Kentucky landscape reveals the potential of documentary expression to transform poverty into poetry, human misery into high art. Cohen's purpose was not to expose the poverty and exploitation of Kentucky mountain people, but to acknowledge and celebrate their music and culture. His work by no means celebrates poverty, but it does emphasize art produced in conditions of poverty as an aesthetic rather than a political phenomenon.
Cohen's and Agee's aesthetic interests flowed from different sources. Cohen marveled at Agee's response to Kentucky since Agee had never seen the interior of America. Agee wondered about Cohen's fascination for rough, mountain living. The killing of animals (chickens and turtles) for food startled Agee, and he felt bewildered by Cohen's lack of revulsion. Cohen told Agee: "we'll make a man of action of you." According to Agee, "That was his fantasy for himself, going South with a banjo." If Agee winced at the sight of their "dinner still half alive mangled and fluttering in the bushes," he believed Cohen thought he was "ignorant of the inseparable beauty and cruelty of life." Cohen did not say this outright, but Agee felt their "talk took place in the nimbus of some such meaning." While Cohen embraced and encouraged Agee to read Issac Babel's short story about a young Jew conscripted into a Red Army detachment of Cossacks who had to prove his grit with violent acts, Agee responded with the poetry of William Butler Yeats and in particular a line from "The Second Coming" that reads: ". . . and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned." Agee imagined the image coming to Yeats from the common practice in the English countryside of drowning kittens with a sack weighted with stones. Cohen disagreed and told Agee the poem was not about pity, its point of view was "cosmic, not human," it was the "icy lake, not the kittens. And that's something country people know in their bones." Agee, flustered with anger, managed with "an air of philosophic dispassion," to tell Cohen he "didn't believe in the virtue of blood and cathartic violence."68
The disagreement between Agee and Cohen over the meaning of violence at the hands of locals who killed animals for food represented aesthetic and philosophical tensions simmering just below the surface. For Cohen, the violence, perhaps, represented the vestiges of "the old pioneer spirit" he detected in the eastern Kentucky mountains during his first visit in 1959. Three years later, the bloody act of a man killing a turtle in front of the two served as a vivid confirmation of this persistent spirit for Cohen, while Agee saw it as nothing more than brutality.
Despite disagreements and tensions, Cohen and Agee lived peacefully together in a rented little house in the timber village of Daisy, a place, Agee remembered as consisting of "some twenty wooden houses scattered in a valley among rugged hills." Roscoe Halcomb lived at the very end of the hollow. Agee's first impressions of Halcomb were of a man with a "long, haggard face . . . looking old in his early sixties, with thin sad lips and creased cheeks, deep-set puzzled pale blue eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed hat . . ." They spent their days shooting footage at coal mines, churches, roadhouses, train yards, and in the homes of local residents including Halcomb's. For the most part, Cohen shot most of the film except for some scenes at the Shepherd family’s house, at the train yards, and in the streets of Hazard. "I was unaware of film grammar," Cohen recalled, "which was very fortunate because I didn't shoot cutaways, I didn't think of close-ups versus this and that. None of that training, none of that vocabulary, therefore none of that framework to work against. I was just trying to get the sound and picture together in a strange way."69
Because Cohen's camera did not allow for synchronized sound, he had to film and record separately, which occasionally created a feeling of artificiality for him and, especially, for Roscoe Halcomb. When Cohen first arrived at Halcomb's house, he recorded "Across the Rocky Mountain," then played it back for Halcomb to sing with while he filmed. Cohen stood on top of a long table with the camera set on a tripod as Halcomb sat playing on the porch. The scene was contrived and unnatural. For Halcomb, playing music was a personal, emotional experience and the awkward recording process felt like manipulation. "I don't feel like singing anymore," he told Cohen after recording "Across the Rocky Mountain." "And he didn't feel like singing for the next five weeks," Cohen recalled.70
The High Lonesome Sound
|John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb's hands, Daisy, KY, 1959.|
The artificial feeling of being filmed played a role in Halcomb's resistance to performing for Cohen, but there were more pressing problems in the summer of 1962. Halcomb was unable to work. More so than music, work gave meaning to his life. His body had suffered the consequences of years spent working in the coal mines and on construction jobs — hard labor, as he said. He loved to work, but that summer he was unable. "I don't know what's gonna happen," he told Cohen. "I thought I was getting better but it was just a thought. If I's to get a job I couldn't hold it — be more worries. Man just as soon have his brains shot out as to be in that condition, the way I feel. I don't know whether you know how I feel or not, but it's rough. It's a rough life . . ." Sometimes the depression that would fall over Halcomb during periods of idleness prevented him from playing music. "I like it [music] and I don't like it; I love to hear it and I love to play sometimes but after so long a time I get burnt out with it. Long as I'm able to work and do, it ain't so bad — been used to it all my life. When I can't do nothing it worries me and you don't feel like playing anymore."71
Kentucky mountain music may have been the film's ostensible focus, but Halcomb's presence, though limited, provided its human face. His interior monologues early in the film and his singing of an Old Regular Baptist hymn at its conclusion give the documentary its emotional and psychological power. Cohen crafted the film to reveal Halcomb not simply as a singer of ballads and blues but as a person who lived in a particular part of Kentucky, who deeply felt and was largely shaped by the region's social, economic, and emotional pressures, and whose music was an intensely personal expression of pain and alienation. With The High Lonesome Sound, Cohen created a romantic figure by portraying Halcomb as the introspective and solitary creative genius maintaining his unique, seemingly avant-garde and "untamed" (to quote Bob Dylan) musical style in the face of daunting pressures and obstacles, ranging from poverty to indifference. The film is both a paean and an elegy to Halcomb.72
|Opening clip of Roscoe. From The High Lonesome Sound (1963). Courtesy of John Cohen. Distributed through Berkeley Media LLC and Shanachie Entertainment.|
Cohen also balanced his voice-over narration with Halcomb's voice, describing in his own words his life and the role music plays in it. Following some opening scenes of a baptism at a nearby river, the focus turns to Halcomb who Cohen shows sitting in his front porch swing. "This is Roscoe Holcomb," Cohen narrates, "an unemployed construction worker who's no one different from his neighbors. He is faced with the same problems that they are — no work and no desire to move out of the mountains." Unlike prior folklore films or documentary representations of folk singers, Cohen establishes the social and economic context in which Halcomb lived before even mentioning his music. He is immediately portrayed as similar to his neighbors in terms of class, but soon distinguishes himself with insights into his music and life. Halcomb's class standing as well as his poverty almost disappears because the film emphasizes his uniqueness as a musician.
After focusing on Halcomb's face, Cohen meditates on a spider web stretching across porch frames, then on a lone cornstalk, and two butterflies fluttering nearby. Then viewers enter the private order and simplicity of home and bedroom. Dresses hang against a wall adorned with a picture of Jesus. Two neatly made beds are separated by a table supporting an electric lamp beside a window covered with lace curtains. These are not the images of squalor and of sunken and rotting homes Harry Caudill described in Night Comes to the Cumberlands and the national media depicted in popular magazines and television documentaries. The Halcombs may be poor but they maintain a dignity. When the camera returns to Halcomb's face, he reflects on the spirituality of music in a voice-over while he's pictured sitting silent and forlorn on his porch: "You know music — it's spiritual. . . It draws the attention of the whole human race."
|Clip of Roscoe at home. From The High Lonesome Sound (1963). Courtesy of John Cohen. Distributed through Berkeley Media LLC and Shanachie Entertainment.|
The technological limitations of Cohen's equipment meant that he could not get Halcomb's recorded monologue in sync with the filming. Consequently, the scene focuses on Halcomb's face which wears a pensive expression as he stares out from his porch into the hollow below. The lack of synchronization allows for a deeper probing into Halcomb's interior life, revealing more of his personality. Viewers see him seemingly at ease and indifferent to Cohen's camera. The scene lacks any sense of being staged. This early image, combined with Halcomb's monologue, produced an emotional effect Cohen never intended. "I was pleased it worked so well," he later recalled, "and when I showed my film to other people they said, 'Look. That can work. You can do it that way.'" Cohen's technical naivety and restrictions ultimately made the scene more powerful than if Halcomb's voice and image had been synchronized.73
The High Lonesome Sound captured a range of musical styles. It showed the distinct religious experiences of Kentucky mountain people by depicting Old Regular Baptist and Holiness services. And it revealed the influx of modernity into the mountains with scenes of mechanized coal mines, pop music playing on Halcomb's radio, and Bill Monroe's band playing bluegrass in downtown Hazard. Nevertheless, it was not enough to provide a representative overview of a place's folk traditions. In Cohen's documentary work, the search for the authentic and moving aesthetic experience was paramount. Roscoe Halcomb himself formed the heart of the film.
|Clip of Roscoe singing "The Wandering Boy." From The High Lonesome Sound (1963). Courtesy of John Cohen. Distributed through Berkeley Media LLC and Shanachie Entertainment.|
The High Lonesome Sound closes with Halcomb's image and voice, providing a somber parting shot of a "worried" man caught between a faded past and uncertain present. Halcomb sits alone with thoughts and memories and his Baptist hymn book. He sings "The Wandering Boy" in the lined-out, Old Regular Baptist manner in which his family raised him. The scene begins in silence as the camera pans across the exterior of Halcomb's house and then towards a distant mountain, ominous in the day's dimming light. It then shifts to the interior of the house where Halcomb sits alone. He begins reading and singing from the hymnal and then, towards the end of the scene, slouches on the couch, his face bisected by shadows as he stares off in reverie. His singing of "The Wandering Boy" continues in the background, adding poignancy to the scene. The song's themes of longing for a lost mother and yearning for home make it particularly personal for both Halcomb, who lived at home with his mother until he was in his mid-forties, and for Cohen, whose mother's death in his early twenties prompted his own search in the wider world for meaning:
"As I've traveled this wide world over
Friends I've found wherever I roam
But to me there's none like mother
None like mother dear at home
They may treat me very kindly
And bid me welcome everywhere
But it just only reminds me
Of a loving mother's care."
While Halcomb's singing of "The Wandering Boy" was the film's finale, it was not the last scene Cohen and Agee shot in Kentucky. On a muggy, overcast Sunday morning in September, Cohen returned to Daisy from the Little Zion Old Regular Baptist church in Jeff where, after five Sundays of being told no, the congregation (to which Jean Ritchie's mother belonged) finally allowed him to document their church service. Back in Daisy, Cohen and Agee packed their Volkswagen and prepared to head back to New York after six weeks in eastern Kentucky.
|Clip of Roscoe, Odabe, and Mary Jane. From The High Lonesome Sound (1963). Courtesy of John Cohen. Distributed through Berkeley Media LLC and Shanachie Entertainment.|
The Baptist church had not been alone in denying Cohen free reign. Roscoe Halcomb, while he permitted Cohen to film him around the house and sitting on his porch, had refused to be filmed playing music after the first encounter with Cohen's camera and recording machine when he played and then replayed "Across the Rocky Mountain." On this Sunday morning as Cohen and Agee packed their car, Roscoe, Odabe, and Mary Jane Halcomb sat on their porch watching these two young men stow their equipment and bags. And then, without request, Roscoe picked up his banjo and started "playing up a storm" while Odabe and his aunt Mary Jane danced along together on the porch. "And I just dived into the car and grabbed the camera," Cohen recalled, "and no sound."74
Cohen thought their impromptu performance conveyed multiple messages: "This is what you missed, or this is what you came for." Or, perhaps, "This is what we wanted you to get, but we couldn't find a way for you to get it," or, "This is what we really do. Bye." It happened so quickly that Cohen did not think about the reasons as he filmed. But the scene, and the Halcombs' motivation to perform as a parting shot, highlights the conflicted relationship between documentarian and documented. Were the Halcombs revealing the reality of their lives, or were they performing what they knew Cohen and Agee were after? While Cohen and Agee may have spent the past five weeks walking around with cameras and recorders, the Halcombs still exerted some control over their image.75
Cohen also thought that the Halcombs' performance signaled a sigh of relief that he and Agee were leaving "because we were chasing around with [Roscoe] so much," while also suggesting a way to assuage any guilt Halcomb felt for refusing to play music for almost the entirety of their visit. "I'm not sure if guilt is the word," Cohen recalled, "as much as the fact that he agreed that we were making a film and that he hadn't come through."76 Well after Cohen completed The High Lonesome Sound, he reflected on these tacit understandings of obligation. Cohen says he always informed the subjects of his films in advance about what he wanted to do and then asked about their wishes. "The concerns for the people who are in the film are very important. . . If you're really open, then I think people will edit themselves."77 For weeks, Roscoe Halcomb effectively edited himself by refusing to perform music while being filmed. On that Sunday morning, as Cohen and Agee prepared to leave, perhaps he felt like he got the final word.78
The Film's Reception
|Entrance to Old Black Gold Mine, Perry County, Kentucky, late 1950s from www.hazardkentucky.com.|
Bigelow's descriptions of eastern Kentucky, like many other media accounts during the 1960s, focused on conventional images of poverty in the region instead of foregrounding the mining industry's exploitative practices. By focusing on unpainted shacks and isolated hollows, Bigelow reinforces the idea of Appalachian difference from the rest of America. The region becomes again an aberration, a place left behind by modernity and in need of government help to bring it in line with mainstream America. Like Cohen's depiction of Halcomb in front of his own unpainted shack instead of his wife's nice white home, Bigelow's descriptions seem to confirm Appalachia as a place in, but not of, America. In both cases, the true causes of poverty are traded for symbolic images that certify the region as a strange place apart.
Earlier in that summer of 1963, Halcomb wrote a letter to Cohen that provided glimpses of the desperation he and others faced.
Hi John. How are you fine I hope . . . this leaves me OK. I have been working in the garden as I haven't got no other work to do. I lost my job an I don't know where I will find a nothern' at. Well John, I got a letter from Peat Seeger. He said he really like the way I played and sang. John I have been getting letters from just about everywhere. . . . I sure glad to hear that I hope to get more pretty soon if I don't I will have to leave here to find work. . . . So try to get some more work for us — very far I have to go somewhere to find some work. . . . from your old friend, little Rascal Halcomb.80
Letters from Pete Seeger and other fans materially meant nothing unless there was a prospect for employment, a way to provide for his family. Halcomb traveled and performed nationally and, later, internationally, for the money, not the fame.
Around the same time, during a New Lost City Ramblers tour, Cohen premiered The High Lonesome Sound at a UCLA documentary film class taught by Colin Young. It made a strong impression. One of the students, James Blue, went on to make documentaries for UNESCO. The film also impressed David and Judith MacDougall, who were also in the class and who later pioneered a new form of visual ethnography called observational cinema, which functioned as the ethnographic equivalent of cinema vérité. L.A.'s Ash Grove club, where the Ramblers played, retained a copy of the film, and Cohen later learned from Paul Rothschild, an A&R man for Elektra Records, that Jim Morrison of The Doors viewed it there on many occasions while a film student at UCLA. Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers also saw The High Lonesome Sound at Ash Grove and later told Cohen: "Oh, is that the kind of film you make? Well, come to my place in the Georgia Islands. It's exactly the same, exactly the same." "Marvelous," Cohen replied.81
Cohen returned to Hazard, Kentucky to present the film at the local library. When the showing ended, the only response Cohen heard was about how Aunt Mary Jane had since painted her house. Paul Nelson, who reviewed The High Lonesome Sound for Sing Out!, was the rare critic who Cohen felt understood the film. "From the standpoint of pure film," Nelson declared, "John Cohen's 'The High Lonesome Sound' is the best folk music film I have yet seen. It is the only film that can stand on its own two feet, independently of the viewer's interest in folk music." Nelson acknowledged Halcomb as the documentary's "hero" and applauded Cohen's ability to integrate his story into a larger picture of the place. "John Cohen's film is a real achievement," Nelson concluded, "both as a film and as a serious study of a folksinger and his region. Highly recommended."82
Eight years after its release, Rolling Stone reviewed The High Lonesome Sound alongside Cohen's 1967 documentary about North Carolina singer Dillard Chandler, The End of an Old Song. Reviewer Michael Goodwin praised the film for portraying Roscoe Halcomb "firmly in the context of the land and the people with which he had spent his life." Though Goodwin thought the technique was "a little awkward," its "deep compassion and thoughtful insight more than made up for its cinematic failings." The most revealing part of the review, however, was Goodwin's belief that both films presented a view of "a way of life that has changed hardly at all while the rest of America has been rushing headlong into the future, destroying the land and heritage with equal alacrity." Goodwin perceived the film with a familiar romantic sensibility, imagining Appalachia as a static culture outside of time and at a healthy remove from the rest of modern America. Recognizing that much of Appalachia had experienced modernization along with environmental devastation would have ruined the illusion of cultural difference and replaced romanticism with familiarity.83
Six years after the Rolling Stone review, Keith Cunningham assessed The High Lonesome Sound and its cultural impact throughout the preceding decade for the Journal of American Folklore. "Such a great variety of folklore related films is being produced now," he wrote, "that it is difficult even to remember, much less explain, the excitement generated by the film. It became a combination eucharist and shibboleth, and Rolling Stone loved it. It is still widely praised and fondly remembered by many folklorists who can agree on little else." What made the film so appealing, Cunningham thought, was Cohen's keen sense of "verisimilitude" that echoed the "Flaherty tradition," though Cohen more consciously worked without a script and "photographed everything he saw." The High Lonesome Sound was a watershed documentary for folklorists because it overturned the model for folk music films. Cunningham compared it to To Hear Your Banjo Play (1947), produced by Irving Lerner and Willard Van Dyke with dialogue by Alan Lomax. That film featured wonderful footage of Woody Guthrie and Texas Gladden but, in Cunningham's words, "it was marred by its tight structure." By contrast, Cohen's film transcended simple depictions of folk musicians playing their instruments. Most viewers, Cunningham believed, remembered the striking visual images of a close-up of spider web at Roscoe Halcomb's house, dogs playing in the morning mist, a room with old newspapers covering the walls, a young girl holding a kitten in her living room, and the extreme close-ups of Halcomb himself. Cohen's untrained style also gave the film an "intense amateurish quality which only adds to its impact."84
|Still from opening credits of To Hear Your Banjo Play (1947).|
While Cunningham thought The High Lonesome Sound's realism and its "comprehensiveness" makes it "a good and useful film," he believed what makes it a "great film is its great theme." The film endured and remained vital because it shared a kinship with "Sandburg's poetry, Steinbeck's fiction, Agee's reporting, Evans' photography, Benton's murals, and Dorson's loving description of J. D. Suggs. Through its images, the music it records, and its narration ('Music is the celebration of life') the film speaks subliminally, as do all the works mentioned above, of the awe-inspiring dignity, beauty, and art of the common man in the face of adversity and hardship." Hardship, here, becomes a mere obstacle — something to fight nobly against, much as Cohen and his peers imagined life during the Great Depression. Replacing the caricatures of the "hillbilly" that festered in popular culture during 1950s and 1960s and the old associations of Appalachian folk singers as pure Anglo-Saxon relics was a new romantic focus on the interior life and existential struggles of a singular male hero whose passionate but sad music sprung not solely from isolation but from a search for the meaning of life.85
The year after The High Lonesome Sound was released, Roscoe Halcomb remained in Daisy, his health declining along with prospects for steady employment. "Well John I am Having it Pritry tuff," Halcomb wrote to Cohen in December 1964. "I only git 7 Days work a month[.] You know that isn't much[.] I Had Been very Sick[.] I only Way 116 lbs[.]" Still, Halcomb said, "I can sing like a Bird ho ho." Some time during the same year, Halcomb wrote to Cohen about his predicament and his hope that performing at a folk festival might bring some relief: "This finds me OK. Ethel is some better. John, g[e]t all the work you can for me. . . . Came home, things were looking very bad around here so when you send my ticket send a little extra money for food and I will make it up to you. John, do you want me to bring my guitar? Answer real soon. From your friend, Roscoe." No matter how ill Halcomb got he wanted to play and sing so that he could support himself and his family.86
|Album cover for The High Lonesome Sound (1965).|
By 1965, Roscoe's music had appeared on three Folkways records, including Mountain Music of Kentucky (1960), The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward (1962), and The High Lonesome Sound (1965). Since meeting John Cohen in 1959, Halcomb had made occasional appearances at folk festivals — in California at the Berkeley festival, at UCLA, at Ash Grove, and at the Monterrey Festival. He performed at the University of Chicago and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, at Cornell and Brandeis Universities, and the City College of New York. He appeared at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and performed for the Friends of Old Time Music in New York. "During all of these trips," Cohen wrote in 1964, "no attempt has been made to give him any idea that he could make a living as a folksinger, although the large audiences have greeted him most receptively. It is my feeling that we in the city are given a rare privilege to hear and meet and know this man, but there is no call for him to change his life or his relationship to his home community on our account, and to do so would be misleading and wrong." Cohen's reflections on Halcomb's folk festival performances seem at once respectful and bluntly realistic. The dim prospect of earning a living as a folk-festival performer seemed a moot issue to Cohen; for Halcomb it meant much more. He did not leave Kentucky for Berkeley and Cornell just to receive a warm reception.87
|Roscoe Halcomb and John Cohen at the Berkeley Folk Festival, Berkeley, CA, 1962.|
In 1966, Pete Seeger, who was John Cohen's brother-in-law, invited Halcomb to appear on his television show Rainbow Quest, a short-lived series that ran for about a year on a few stations in the northeast. Halcomb had received fan letters from Seeger but he had never appeared on television. Rainbow Quest featured folk musicians and revivalists performing songs in a range of genres. Guests included The New Lost City Ramblers; bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGee, and Sonny Terry; bluegrass brothers Ralph and Carter Stanley; and country musician Johnny Cash. Before Halcomb made his appearance, Seeger played some banjo tunes including "John Hardy." As a boy growing up in New England, Seeger first imagined the South when singing Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" with his family. The South was a "distant, romantic place," Seeger remembered, "like the far West or the islands of the Caribbean." On the episode of Rainbow Quest on which Halcomb appeared, Seeger spoke about his impressions of Appalachia: "I learnt this style of banjo picking more than in any other place from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. It was a wild rough place when I first saw it and I'll never forget it. . . . And it seemed to me the musical section of the nation, where you couldn't knock on a door without finding somebody who made music and knew one of their old ballads, like this one." Nevertheless, he acknowledged, "this is a tough part of the world."88
Once Seeger finished talking and playing, he introduced Halcomb. "Instead of me singing these songs, I think you really ought to meet someone who really knows them well. He's got a high lonesome sound in his voice and when my brother-in-law, John Cohen, decided more people should know about this singer, he went down to Kentucky and made a movie of him and he called his movie, The High Lonesome Sound." Halcomb appears on the set dressed in a coat and tie and wearing a fedora, hardly the image associated with a banjo-playing man from the mountains. He begins "Little Birdie," staring straight ahead, or at the ground, but never towards Seeger, who either leans back in his chair bemused with arms behind his head, or sits hunched over, intently staring at Halcomb's technique. Halcomb eventually plays "Graveyard Blues" and "Across the Rocky Mountain" on guitar and "Little Gray Mule" on banjo. He appears nervous and uneasy throughout. Coughing repeatedly, he tells Seeger about his personal trials. Halcomb says he works construction but is no longer able due to a hurt back. "Older I gets the worser I get and can't do no work hardly." His fingers seem just as lively, Seeger replies.89 There is no record of what Halcomb received for his performance. He no doubt felt honored, but exposure, praise, or mountain/city cross-cultural dialogue never seemed to matter. When Seeger wrote to him in the summer of 1963, Halcomb's only concern was making a living during a bleak time.
|Still from 1966 Rainbow Quest episode.|
John Cohen was frank with Halcomb about his ability to earn a living as a performing folk singer and remained acutely sensitive and respectful about making Halcomb comfortable in performance settings so distant from home. Having felt the powerful effect of Halcomb's music, Cohen offered other folk revivalists — "we in the city"— the "privilege to hear, meet, and know this man." Whether or not Halcomb could stay financially afloat as a folk musician seemed beside the point. "As I see it," Cohen reflected in the mid-1970s, "the underlying question is whether one views music and local traditions as either commodities or spiritual achievements. Since my first drive through eastern Kentucky, I have viewed traditional culture as a hidden spiritual resource, and my only aim throughout has been to share it with others, an enterprise which is its own reward."90
The reward for Roscoe Halcomb was adoration from critics and music enthusiasts, and from the audiences in auditoriums and festival grounds respectfully listening to the music of a poor, working man from Daisy, Kentucky. Halcomb performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, on the same bill with Bob Dylan, who made his famous debut as an electric guitarist that weekend. Like Cohen, music for Halcomb was spiritual. If it was Cohen's privilege to hear, meet, and know Halcomb, it was also his privilege to document, spread and shape Halcomb's spiritual resource — his music, his image, his identity — into items for archival collection and for sale. This privilege extended from Cohen's position in a privileged class, an "urban elite" identified by his contemporary Ralph Rinzler, who were "separated from the idealized peasantry by education, social position, and economic resources."91 Cohen remained a close, respectful friend for Halcomb, never possessing the slightest inclination towards exploiting or using him and his music for other than good intentions. But the process of doing documentary work — of spreading alternative sounds and images through popular culture as a way to break through the perceived sterility of that culture — can leave the documented, the Roscoe Halcombs, wondering why they remain as poor as they were before their "discovery."
Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways, who supported Cohen's production of Halcomb's records, also recognized Roscoe's predicament. As Peter Goldsmith notes, Asch and Halcomb developed a "respect and fondness for another." Asch would ask about Halcomb's well being and hand him a ten or twenty-dollar bill when he saw him — an acknowledgment of the paltry return Folkways received from his, and most of the label's, records, and a demonstration of Asch's "usual paternalistic style." In 1965, after the release of his third Folkways record, Halcomb wrote to Asch. "Hello Moses, how is the boy? Fine I hope. This leaves me not feeling too good; have a very bad cold. Moses I would like to have about 20 records 'the hi an lonesome sound' if you'd care to send them to me I hope this isn't asking you too much, Moses. I haven't got the money now but will settle with you when I come up for the concert."92
In March 1966, Halcomb left the United States for the first time to perform in Europe for three weeks with Ralph and Carter Stanley. Halcomb occasionally shared the stage with Ralph Stanley and the two would sing together from the Baptist hymnal. After Halcomb returned from the tour, the Department of Economic Security in Hazard cut the public assistance money that was his only source of income. "John, they want to know how much my expenses was so they can take it from what I made for they can't read the bills," Halcomb wrote to Cohen in April 1966. "Even what you tell them they will take out of what I made…"93
Soon, the agency contacted Cohen asking for documentation of the income Halcomb made for touring Europe. "Dear Sir, Mr. Roscoe Holcomb is a recipient of public assistance with this agency and it is necessary for us to know how much income he has for the year 1965-66. He states he received $750 for a personal appearance in Germany in March but paid his own expenses from this amount. Would you please furnish us with the amount of money he received, the amount of his expenses, tax deductions. Any information you can furnish will be greatly appreciated. Enclosed is a form signed by Holcomb [sic] giving us authority to inquire about his financial affairs."94
Out of work and out of money, Halcomb found himself facing complete deprivation. Cohen knew this, and left New York for Kentucky to plead with the Department of Economic Security to restore Halcomb's income, "but they didn't listen," he recalled. "In fact, someone in that office tried to convince me that Roscoe wasn't a good singer, and offered to take me to someone who was a 'better musician.'" Cohen left more certain than ever, that "Roscoe's music wasn't much appreciated in this locale." Nearly a year later in March 1967, Halcomb wrote Cohen a letter updating him on his continued hard life. "I would like to talk to you about other things as well and . . . John you no how people are about me around here — they still trying to give me a hard time — but it is hard to keep a good man down."95
In July 1972 Cohen went back to Daisy, Kentucky to record Halcomb at his home for what would be his final visit. When Cohen arrived, Halcomb said, "I should have told you that I have a cold, and not to come." Cohen described Halcomb as "anxious and uncertain about his future both in work and in health." The year prior he learned he had emphysema from his years of working in the saw mills and mines. More recently, he was in frequent pain, beset with stomach ulcers and on a strict diet mandated by his doctors.96
Six years later, Halcomb summoned the energy to travel to New York by bus and perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on May 7, 1978, at an event sponsored by the famous flutist Paula Prentiss. His final song was an Old Regular Baptist hymn. These old hymns often made him choke up on stage leaving the audience sitting in stunned silence before breaking into applause. On this night, Halcomb once again could not finish the hymn. In Cohen's words, "a spasm of coughing" forced him from the stage, leaving behind another stunned and silent audience. "Everybody felt deep into the song," Cohen recalled, "and that was his last performance. He had the songbook in his hand."97
Halcomb returned to eastern Kentucky where he died in 1981. John Cohen wrote the obituary for Sing Out!, the folk revival magazine that had spread the word about Halcomb in 1960. "He confirmed our belief that such a profoundly moving musician could grow and exist in America apart from the commercial art and music which surrounds us. His homemade music conveyed a precise clarity which reached people far beyond his home in eastern Kentucky. Roscoe's very closeness to his local tradition was the recognizable feature which permitted so many to understand the value and expressiveness of his, or any, regional sound. . . . He expressed for us our love of traditional art, the painfulness of life and the glory of music that comes from such a source. He enriched our lives and we will miss him."98
|Closeup of Roscoe Holcomb playing guitar
from The High Lonesome Sound.
Cohen listed the characteristics he and others found in Halcomb during the 1960s: profound emotional depth, separation from popular culture, grounded in tradition, and personal pain as a precondition for powerful music. Halcomb and his music enriched many lives during his time, and after his death. How much was his life enriched by being documented and mythologized? He received praise from the vanguard of American culture and earned international acclaim, but died poor in Daisy. He traveled widely, not for self-promotion or to enrich young, middle-class lives, but to try to earn a living. He often returned home from these trips poorer than he left.
Cohen did not grapple with many of the ethical dilemmas intrinsic to doing documentary work when he first visited eastern Kentucky in 1959. He acknowledged he was a spy, a characterization that James Agee also copped to in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men some twenty years earlier. "Spying, intruding, poking my camera into the lives of people," Cohen admitted in the pages of Sing Out! in 1960, "getting farmers and miners to give their music into my tape recorder — and I couldn't promise them anything in return except my interest which they had done pretty well without until then. (If it wasn't for the fact that something worthwhile might come out of this, something that will cause people to look with open eyes — and open their hearts to sounds other than those they already know — then I would never want to put myself in such a situation.)"99 Cohen justified his trip with motives that transcended his personal emotional and aesthetic needs and fulfilled a more altruistic and communal purpose. A half-century later, we know Cohen's hopes were confirmed: his work opened eyes, ears, hearts, and continues to draw people from all over the world into the life and music of Roscoe Halcomb and the changing culture of southern Appalachia.
Long after his first Kentucky trip, Cohen delved deeper into the ethical quandaries and said he had "always wondered about the implicit arrogance of any collector's stance, for in this role you have no choice but to be part confidence man, part academic, part spy. . . . In the most self-critical light, collecting music from innocent informants is an exploitative act — taking from them to serve a function such as a term paper, or credits toward a degree, writing a book, or producing a record" — or in Cohen's case, filling out an old-time music group's repertoire and satisfying personal, emotional, and aesthetic desires.100 Cohen attempted to resolve the tension between the documentarian as exploiter and appreciator, and perhaps placate his conscience, by understanding songs, people, and places not as things or objects to be collected, catalogued, and torn from their human sources but, rather, as more ethereal and "spiritual" traces. This interpretation allowed him to see his documentary work not as cultural theft but as a cultural gift to audiences who might be similarly moved by the people and the music. In turn, these audiences would develop an appreciation and respect for people and places about which they previously knew little. One of Cohen's teachers told him, "To distribute material goods is to divide them, while to distribute spiritual goods is to multiply them." He applied this guiding notion while documenting music and society in Kentucky.
Looking back on his work, Cohen finds a mixture of pride and confusion. His body of photographs, films, and recordings revealed a wealth of artistic and musical vitality in the hollows and hills of Appalachia, but doing documentary work did not give him a clean break from the people and places he visited. His work still resonates and provokes, from the classroom to the mountains. "And in the South in recent years," he said, "there's been a very confusing — to me confusing — resentment that I was down there before some of them were born. 'What right do you have to make The High Lonesome Sound? You're an outsider.'" To these criticisms, Cohen replies, "Nobody was interested in documenting that music back then. So I did it. If I hadn't found [Roscoe Halcomb] where I had found him, he would have never been recorded. No one was interested in him, and he wasn't interested in coming out. No one was interested in coming to listen. He didn't want to go make records or anything."101
About the Author
Scott Matthews is an Assistant Professor of History at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. He completed his dissertation, Up Against the World Like It Is': Documentary Expression in the South, 1925 - 1965, in May 2008 at the University of Virginia. Currently, Matthews is working on an essay about SNCC photography during the civil rights movement, and he is planning a larger Roscoe Halcomb project that relates Halcomb's life to larger social, economic, and cultural changes affecting Appalachia and urban/suburban America.
- 1. Ronald Cohen, ed. "Wasn't That a Time!": Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival(Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995): 38.
- 2. John Cohen, interview by the author, Putnam Valley, New York, September 1-2, 2006. Hereafter cited as Cohen Interview.
- 3. Halcomb's name appears as "Roscoe Holcomb" on the Folkways records he recorded for John Cohen. I learned of another spelling of his name while visiting Halcomb's friends and relatives in his native Perry County, Kentucky during the summer of 2006. His nephew took me to his gravesite where I saw his name spelled "Rosco Halcomb" on his tombstone. In his letters to John Cohen, Halcomb would also spell his name "Roscoe" or "Rascal." The variety of spellings is due in part to Halcomb's handwriting. The spelling of his correct last nam — Halcomb —is not in question. The Halcomb name is prevalent in that part of Kentucky. In the 1920 census, when he would have been seven years old, he is listed as Rossie Halcomb. Cohen kept his last name as Holcomb for presentation purposes, believing that Roscoe Holcomb looked and sounded better than Roscoe Halcomb. Throughout this essay, I will refer to Halcomb in the way that he most often addressed his letters to Cohen: Roscoe Halcomb.
- 4. Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld, Remembering the High Lonesome (2003), film from Folkstreams, http://www.folkstreams.net/film,42; "Transcript to Remembering the High Lonesome," Folkstreams, http://www.folkstreams.net/context,92, 2-3.
- 5. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962); Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963); John Cohen liner notes in Roscoe Holcomb: An Untamed Sense of Control (Smithsonian Folkways CD 41044, 2003): 8-9.
- 6. When I use the word "romantic" or "romanticism" in this essay, I am taking my definition from Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre who argue in Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, that "Romanticism represents a critique of modernity, that is, of modern capitalist civilization, in the name of values and ideals drawn from the past (the precapitalist, premodern past)." Romanticism in their view represents a "modern critique of modernity." The implication is that "even as Romantics rebel against modernity, they cannot fail to be profoundly shaped by their time. . . . Far from conveying an outsider's view, far from being a critique rooted in some elsewhere, the Romantic view constitutes modernity's self-criticism." Further, romanticism means "to flee bourgeois society," to leave cities or modern conveniences or jobs behind for the seeming purity of rural areas, trading the modern for the "exotic," "abandoning the centers of capitalist development for some 'elsewhere' that keeps a more primitive past alive in the present." Romanticism also represents an effort to patch together the "modern fragmentation" of folk cultures. The documentary form, whether in writing, photography, film, or sound recording provides a way to preserve aspects and images of folk culture before they disappear. Consequently, documentary expression in the South has, at times, resembled an ethnographic salvage project that tries to give coherence and meaning to a way of life constantly on the brink of extinction. See Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre, translated by Catherine Porter, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 17-24.
- 7. The creation of Roscoe Halcomb's image provides a perfect example of what historian Benjamin Filene refers to as the "cult of authenticity" surrounding roots musicians during the twentieth century; see Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). As the title suggests, Filene's book is about how a diverse cross-section of folklorists, musicians, record executives, and other Americans remembered the country's musical past, how they transmitted these memories, and the role they played in American cultural life. Though he does not address Cohen or Halcomb, his chapter on the relationship between Leadbelly and John and Alan Lomax provides an interesting comparison with valuable insights. The Lomaxes, according to Filene, promoted Leadbelly as a symbol of "actual folk," and created a "cult of authenticity" and a "web of criteria for determining what a 'true' folk singer looked and sounded like and a set of assumptions about the importance of being a 'true' folk singer." (49). Though not directly influenced by the Lomaxes, Cohen's own promotion of Halcomb fits into the broader cultural trend identified by Filene. As "isolated cultures became harder to define and locate in industrialized America, the notions of musical purity and primitivism took on enhanced value . . ." (3). One thing that distinguishes Cohen from the Lomaxes is Cohen's independence from any institutional affiliation like the Library of Congress. He always worked as an independent artist or musician and conducted documentary work on his own terms, even though he promoted Halcomb by getting him record deals with Folkways Records, which then circulated his image and music to consumers.
- 8. According to W.K. McNeil, Will Wallace Harney's 1873 article, "A Strange Land and a Peculiar People," is significant "not so much for the material he reports but in his characterization of Appalachia as a place in, but not of, America." William Goodell Frost's 1899 article for the Atlantic Monthly titled "Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains," reinforced the idea of Appalachian distinctiveness and homogeneity for a new generation. Frost believed Appalachia had finally awoken from a "Rip Van Winkle sleep" and needed the guidance of northern missionaries to bring progress to the region while sustaining unique cultural customs. Both articles are collected in W.K. McNeil, Appalachian Images in Folk and Popular Culture (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995). For more on the construction of the image of the Appalachian folk during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries see Henry Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the America Consciousness, 1870–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978); David Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983); Allen W. Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990); Jane S. Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940(University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
- 9. For more on the "folk" and authenticity see Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997); Gene Bluestein, Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994); Filene, Romancing the Folk; Becker, Shared Traditions.
- 10. The myth of Appalachia as an isolated region in America has deep roots that reach back into the nineteenth century. Henry Shapiro and Allen Batteau among others have demonstrated how fiction writers beginning in the 1870s created the enduring myth of isolation and "otherness." As Shapiro notes, isolation was never just a "descriptive characteristic" but also a way to refer to "a state of mind, an undesirable provincialism resulting from a lack of contact between mountaineers and outsiders" (77). Other Appalachian historians have in recent years produced probing histories that undermine ideas of the region's social and economic isolation from the rest of America. Ronald L. Lewis has reviewed recent scholarship on Appalachian history and discovered "little empirical evidence for the proposition that Appalachian culture was the product of continuing frontier isolation." See Ronald L. Lewis, "Beyond Isolation and Homogeneity: Diversity and the History of Appalachia," in Dwight B. Billings, et al, eds., Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 21-43; Dwight B. Billings, Mary Beth Pudup, and Altina L. Waller, "Taking Exception with Exceptionalism: The Emergence and Transformation of Historical Studies of Appalachia," in Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, and Altina Waller (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 3. For the cultural and literary origins of the myth of isolation see, Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind; Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine; Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia; McNeill, ed., Appalachian Images in Folk and Popular Culture.
- 11. John Cohen, There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs (New York: Powerhouse Books, 2001): 15.
- 12. Cohen interview; Cohen, There Is No Eye, 22.
- 13. Cohen interview.
- 14. Cohen interview; John Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," in Allen Tullos, ed., Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South (Southern Exposure, Vol. 5, Nos. 2-3, 1977): 115; Cohen, There Is No Eye, 24.
- 15. Susan Montgomery, "The Folk Furor," Mademoiselle (December 1960): 100.
- 16. Cohen interview; Cohen, There Is No Eye, 82.
- 17. Cohen interview; Cohen, There Is No Eye, 82-83. For the distinction between Frank and FSA photographer Walker Evans, see William Stott, "Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and the Landscape of Disassociation," Arts Canada 31 (December 1974) and Leslie Baier, "Visions of Fascination and Despair: The Relationship Between Walker Evans and Robert Frank," Art Journal Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 55-63; Tod Papageorge, Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1981); John Bromfield, "The Americans' and the Americans," Afterimage Vol. 8, No. 1/2 (Summer 1980): 8-15.
- 18. Cohen interview; Cohen, There Is No Eye, 106.
- 19. Cohen, There Is No Eye, 82 and 118; Cohen interview; Blake Eskin, "His Worst Critic Proved Wrong," New York Times, November 18, 2001: 38.
- 20. Jon Pankake, "The New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years, 1958-1962," liner notes to The Early Years, 1958-1962, perf. The New Lost City Ramblers (Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW 40036, 1991).
- 21. Gura, "Southern Roots and Branches," 62-63; Goldsmith, Making People's Music, 259. For more on popular and critical reception of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music during its release in 1952 and its reissue in 1997, see, Katherine Skinner, "'Must Be Born Again': Resurrecting the Anthology of American Folk Music," Popular Music, Vol. 25, No.1 (2006): 57-75.
- 22. John Cohen, "The Revival," part of a symposium titled "Folk Music Today," Sing Out!, vol. 11, no. 1 (Feb – March 1961): 23.
- 23. John Cohen, "In Defense of City Folksingers," Sing Out! vol. 9, no. 1 (Summer 1959): 32-33.
- 24. For more on the different contexts, politics and aesthetics of twentieth century folk music revivals in America, see Robert Cantwell, "When We Were Good: Class and Culture in the Folk Revival," in Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined, Neil Rosenberg, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Ron Eyerman and Scott Baretta, "From the 30s to the 60s: The Folk Music Revival in the United States," Theory and Society Vol. 25, No. 4 (August 1996): 521-522. For more on twentieth century folk revivals in the United States see Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and America Society, 1940-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Philip F. Gura, "Southern Roots and Branches: Forty Years of the New Lost City Ramblers," Southern Cultures vol. 6, no. 4 (Winter 2000); Ray Lankford, Folk Music U.S.A.: The Changing Voice of Protest (Schirmer Books, 2005); Robbie Lieberman, My Song Is My Weapon: People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005); Neil Rosenberg, ed. Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); Dick Weissman, Which Side Are You On?: The Inside History of the Folk Revival in America (Continuum, 2005).
- 25. Cohen, "In Defense of City Folksingers," 32-33. On romanticism's rejection of universal truths and absolutes see Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999): 138, 140, 146-147. "What Romanticism did," according to Berlin, "was to undermine the notion that in matters of value, politics, morals, aesthetics there are such things as objective criteria which operate between human beings. . . . The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true – all this we owe to the romantics" (140,146).
- 26. Jens Lund and R. Serge Denisoff, "The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contradictions," Journal of American Folklore, vol. 84, no. 334 (Oct. – Dec., 1971): 400. Robert Cantwell, a historian of the folk revival, has placed its participants in historical context, showing how their yearnings and cultural expressions sprang from the particular "psychosocial and economic setting of postwar America." Folk revivalists, those born towards the end of the depression to around the late 1940s (Cohen is on the older end of this time frame), "grew up in a reality perplexingly divided by the intermingling of an emerging mass society and a decaying industrial culture." New technologies, new familial structures, new networks of communication, new neighborhoods, and new forms of entertainment erased the world in which their parents had grown up where, for many, a sense of community and belonging revolved around ethnic identity, work, or small town and rural life. The 1930s and the Depression seemed like another country, a more authentic place, a place where the struggle for survival sharpened experience. The behemoths of bureaucratization, conformity, and consumerism threatened to crush the search for an unmediated life. Robert Cantwell, "When We Were Good: Class and Culture in the Folk Revival," 45-47; see also Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996): 328-337.
- 27. Montgomery, "Folk Furor," 99 and 118. For more on this generation's search for authenticity and an experience to break through the confines of contemporary middle class culture see Doug Rossinow's study of the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement, The Politics of Authenticity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
- 28. John Cohen, "Field-Trip – Kentucky," Sing Out!, vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1960): 13.
- 29. Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," 116.
- 30. Cohen interview.
- 31. See for example, Josephine McGill, Folk Songs of the Kentucky Mountains: Twenty Traditional Ballads and Other English Folk-Songs (New York: Boosey & Co., 1917); Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway, Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs (Boston: Oliver Ditson, Co., 1920); Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (London: Oxford University Press, 1932. For a historical overview of these early collectors see Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine and Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and the Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).
- 32. Cohen, There Is No Eye, 120; Cohen, ed., "Wasn't That a Time!", 26; Cohen, "Field Trip — Kentucky," 13.
- 33. Robert Shelton, "From Old Kentucky," New York Times, February 1, 1959: X17.
- 34. Cohen interview; Jean Ritchie, e-mail correspondence with the author, October 19, 2006. For an overview of Kentucky's folk and country music history see Charles K. Wolfe, Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982).
- 35. Cohen interview; Allen W. Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990), 175-176. Batteau says a "trip to Pikeville, Kentucky, in 1959 was an expedition into the heart of darkest Appalachia." Leaving from Huntington, West Virginia, a traveler passed "ramshackle cabins, swinging footbridges extending to similar cabins on the other side, abandoned carcasses of Fords and Chevrolets, piles of garbage on the riverbank, and black-faced coal-diggers crawling out of dog-hole mines. . . ." (176) His source for this description is unclear.
- 36. Cohen interview; Henry C. Mayer, "Coal Mining," in John E. Kleber, ed. The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 210.
- 37. John Cohen to Ross Grosman, June 1959. Letter in John Cohen's possession, photocopy made by author, January 2008.
- 38. Cohen interview; Cohen to Ross Grosman; Cohen, "Field Trip — Kentucky," 13; Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian Folkways CD 40077, 1996), 24.
- 39. John Cohen, "The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett," liner notes to The Lost Recordings of Banjo Bill Cornett (2005), Field Recorders' Collective, http://www.fieldrecorder.com/docs/notes/cornett_cohen.htm; Cohen, liner notes, Mountain Music of Kentucky, 26.
- 40. Cohen, "Field Trip — Kentucky," 13.
- 41. John Cohen to Ross Grosman, second letter, June 1959. Letter in John Cohen's posession, copy provided for author.
- 42. Cohen to Grosman, second letter; Cohen interview.
- 43. Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky CD, 29; John Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound (Smithsonian Folkways CD 40079, 1998), 2.
- 44. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 3-4 and 10; "Interview with Roscoe by John Cohen," taped in 1962 in Daisy, Kentucky. Transcript appears with the Folkways LP, Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound (Folkways Records, Album No. FA 2368, 1965).
- 45. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 3, 4, 6; "Interview with Roscoe Holcomb," 1.
- 46. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 1; Cohen, "Field Trip — Kentucky," 13, 16.
- 47. Anthony Harkin, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4 and 171-176. See also, J.W. Williamson, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Kathleen M. Blee and Dwight B. Billings, "Where 'Bloodshed Is a Pastime': Mountain Feuds and Appalachian Stereotyping" and Sandra L. Ballard, "Where Did Hillbillies Come From? Tracing Sources of Comic Hillbilly Fool Literature," in Back Talk from Appalachia, 119-137 and 138-149; Horace Newcomb, "Appalachia on Television: Region as Symbol in American Popular Culture," Appalachian Journal 7 (Autumn-Winter 1979-80): 155-164.
- 48. D.K.Wilgus, "On the Record," Kentucky Folklore Record, Vol. 6, No. 3 (July – September 1960): 96; Mountain Life and Work: Magazine of the Southern Mountains, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Fall 1960): 51.
- 49. Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky (Folkways Records Album FA 2317, 1960), 1-4.
- 50. Robert Shelton, "Art of Folk Song in Festival Form," New York Times, April 24, 1960: X14; Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky CD, 34.
- 51. Cohen interview; Cohen, ed., “Wasn't That A Time,” 38-39.
- 52. Wilgus, "On the Record," 97.
- 53. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 8.
- 54. "Interview with Roscoe Holcomb," by John Cohen, April 1964, printed and released with the Folkways LP, Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound LP, 2; Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 12.
- 55. The culmination of a decade of controversy over outside representations of Appalachia and its poverty occurred in 1967 with the murder of Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O'Connor by Hobart Ison in Jeremiah, Kentucky — just down the road and one county over from Daisy. For more on the murder and its legacy see Calvin Trillin, "U.S. JOURNAL: JEREMIAH, KY. A STRANGER WITH A CAMERA.," New Yorker, April 12, 1969. The Hobart Ison case is also explored in more depth in a documentary film also titled Stranger With a Camera (2000) produced by Elizabeth Barrett of Appalshop. Another Appalshop film that addresses the historically negative or derogatory images outsiders have associated with Appalachia is, Strangers and Kin (1984) by Herb E. Smith.
- 56. Shelton, "Art of Folk Song in Festival Form."
- 57. Jacob Deshin, "The Shows Are On: Five One-Man Exhibits Among Season's First," New York Times, October 25, 1959: X21.
- 58. John Cohen to Roscoe Halcomb. Letter in Cohen's possession, photocopy made by author, September 2006; Robert Shelton, "Students Import Folk Art to Chicago," New York Times, February 12, 1961: 11.
- 59. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 2.
- 60. Quoted in Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 12.
- 61. Robert Shelton, "Bountiful Area: Southern Highlands a Bottomless Well for Recordings of Folk Music," New York Times, June 2, 1963: I26.
- 62. John Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward (Folkways Album No. 2363, 1962): 1 & 2.
- 63. Robert Shelton, "Bountiful Area: Southern Highlands a Bottomless Well for Recordings of Folk Music."
- 64. Cohen interview.; "A Transcript of Remembering the High Lonesome Sound"; Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," 117.
- 65. Cohen interview.
- 66. Cohen interview; Joel Agee, "Killing a Turtle," Doubletake 6 (Summer 1996): 64.
- 67. Cohen interview; Joel Agee, interviewed by author, Brooklyn, New York, September 3, 2006; Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky CD, 5; "A Transcription of Remembering the High Lonesome Sound," 5.
- 68. Agee, "Killing a Turtle," 65-66.
- 69. Cohen interview; Agee, "Killing a Turtle," 64. During their stay in eastern Kentucky during the late summer of 1962, a young man from Chicago named Mike Michaels, who knew Cohen from the folk scene, visited Cohen and Agee in Daisy. Michaels had driven with his cousin Mike Sigel to Appalachia to visit musicians he had met while attending folk festivals, including Hobart Smith of Virginia and Roscoe Halcomb. Michaels first heard Halcomb's music when he bought Mountain Music of Kentucky soon after Folkways released it. On the record, Halcomb "made [his guitar] drive and whine in a way I have never heard before or since," he remembers. Michaels ate dinner with Cohen and Agee at Halcomb's home and remembered the interior being "furnished with a few basics," the "rooms small and spare." Michaels returned to eastern Kentucky the following summer and got to know Halcomb a little better. "At one point while driving around," Michaels remembers, "I felt compelled to ask Roscoe some rather 'folkloristic' type questions about his background. Rather than saying anything directly insulting, Roscoe had the decency to talk about another northern visitor who asked these kind of questions, which he felt were so much hogwash. I got the point and put a lid on my attempt to become a 'scholar.'" See, Mike Michaels, "Stranger in a Strange Land," No Depression, No. 41 (September-October 2002): 101, 105-107.
- 70. Cohen interview; Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," 117.
- 71. John Cohen interview with Roscoe Halcomb in liner notes to, Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound LP, 2. Though the liner notes indicate the interview was recorded in April of 1964, the interview itself took place between Cohen and Halcomb in Kentucky in the summer of 1962 and then appeared three years later in the liner notes to The High Lonesome Sound LP.
- 72. In a 1968 interview John Cohen conducted with Bob Dylan in Sing Out!, Dylan referred to Halcomb as having an "untamed sense of control." This description later became the title of a CD of Halcomb's music released on Smithsonian Folkways and referred to throughout this article. John Cohen, "Conversations with Bob Dylan," Sing Out!, Vol. 18, No. 4 (October-November 1968): 6-23, 67.
- 73. Cohen interview.
- 74. "A Transcription of Remembering the High Lonesome Sound," 8; Cohen interview.
- 75. Cohen interview.
- 76. Cohen interview.
- 77. Sharon R. Sherman, Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 232.
- 78. Cohen interview.
- 79. Homer Bigart, "Kentucky Miners: A Grim Winter," New York Times, October 20, 1963: 1.
- 80. Quoted in Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: An Untamed Sense of Control (Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40144, 2003): 10.
- 81. Cohen interview; Judith Shulevitz, "Are These Movies On Their Way To Extinction?" New York Times, September 22, 1991, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEED61031F931A1575AC0A967958260
- 82. Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," 117; Paul Nelson, "Folk Music Film-Making," Sing Out! An excerpt of Nelson's review can be found here: http://www.johncohenworks.com/films/reviews.html. I heard the story about Cohen's return visit to Hazard to show the film during a residency he spent at the University of Virginia during the spring 2007 semester and, specifically, at a screening of the The High Lonesome Sound at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville.
- 83. Michael Goodwin, "Films," Rolling Stone, March 18, 1971.
- 84. Keith K. Cunningham, "The High Lonesome Sound," Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 90, No. 356 (April-June, 1977): 250-251.
- 85. Ibid, 251.
- 86. Cohen interview; Roscoe Halcomb to John Cohen, second letter, December 11, 1964. Read to author by Cohen during first visit; photocopied by author during second visit.
- 87. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound LP, 5; Fred W. Luigart, Jr., "Roscoe Holcomb's Other World: Perry Folk Musician Finds Wide Audience," Louisville Courier-Journal, September 17, 1962.
- 88. Rainbow Quest, Shanachie DVD 606, "Johnny Cash and Roscoe Holcomb." See also: http://shanachie.com/ and William R. Ferris, Michael K. Honey, and Pete Seeger, "Pete Seeger, San Francisco, 1989," Southern Cultures, vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 7.
- 89. Rainbow Quest, DVD 606.
- 90. Cohen, "A Visitor's Recollections," 117.
- 91. Quoted in Eyerman and Barretta, "From the 30s to the 60s," 501.
- 92. Goldsmith, Making People's Music, 265-266.
- 93. Quoted in Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: An Untamed Sense of Control, 8.
- 94. Cohen interview. Letter in possession of John Cohen which he read to me during the interview.
- 95. Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: An Untamed Sense of Control, 8.
- 96. John Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: Close to Home (Folkways Album No. FA 2374, 1975): 1.
- 97. Cohen interview; Cohen, liner notes to Roscoe Holcomb: The High Lonesome Sound CD, 8.
- 98. John Cohen, "Roscoe Holcomb (1913 – 1981)," Sing Out!, Vol. 29, No. 1 (January/February 1983), 41.
- 99. "Field Trip — Kentucky," 13.
- 100. Cohen, liner notes to Mountain Music of Kentucky CD, 24 and 16; Cohen interview.
- 101. "A Transcription of Remembering the High Lonesome Sound," 8-9.