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  • Finding the Avant-Garde in the Old-Time:John Cohen in the American Folk Revival
  • Brian Jones (bio)

In the summer of 1959, forty-seven-year-old Roscoe Holcomb1 of Daisy, Kentucky, worked construction in the nearby town of Hazard. He recalled,

I come in from work one evening, poured concrete about all day. A little fellow was setting there on the porch with one of my first cousins and wanted me to play [him a song].… I said, "My hands are sore from pouring that concrete, and I'm tired." [He said,] "Well, you can play one." … Anyhow, when I got started, he said, "Wait, wait,"—he had one of those old crank-up tape recorders—said, "Care for me to tape that?"2

The man on the porch was John Cohen, a New York–based photographer, painter, and folk-revivalist who had come to Kentucky to make field recordings and find material for his old-time country band, the New Lost City Ramblers. Cohen returned nearly every day for the next three weeks to record music and take photographs. Holcomb remembered, "If he wasn't there at the house whenever I come in from work, it wouldn't be but a few minutes and he'd be there.… I didn't expect anything to come of it, but a year later I got a copy of the record and a check in the mail.… He'd went back and cut a record."3

This encounter—which for Holcomb amounted to a simple interchange with an unannounced visitor—for Cohen was something of an epiphany. Just a few months before traveling to Kentucky, Cohen had [End Page 402] expressed his goals in promoting traditional music: "There is a side of us all which goes about trying to make the world over in our own image. There is another side—where one searches to encounter his own image in the world." It seems he found this image in Roscoe Holcomb. He wrote, "At the first song he sang for me, with his guitar tuned like a banjo and his intense, fine voice, I was deeply moved, for I knew this was what I had been searching for—something that went right to my inner being, speaking directly to me." In retrospect, Cohen explained, "Roscoe has become the embodiment of what I believe in."4

What, exactly, was this remarkable quality that Cohen found in Roscoe Holcomb? Cohen described Holcomb's music as possessing an artistic power, a sense of timelessness that conjured an archaic Gregorian modality while also maintaining the immediacy of contemporary art. He remembered, "I was hearing the avant-garde and the ancient, sitting in the middle of eastern Kentucky." This observation—which betrays a modernist's sense of universality—seems fitting in view of Cohen's background in New York. Since graduating art school at Yale in 1957, he had lived in a loft on Third Avenue in Lower Manhattan, part of a dynamic community of downtown artists, poets, and musicians. He attended gallery openings with abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline, photographed artists at the Cedar Bar, visited the Artist's Club, and attended some of the earliest Happenings by Red Grooms and Claes Oldenburg. He became acquainted with the Beat poets while photographing Robert Frank's production of the film Pull My Daisy featuring Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Actively engaged in the folk scene, he photographed Woody Guthrie, wrote articles for the folk magazine Sing Out!, and cofounded the New Lost City Ramblers. In spite of the apparent dissimilarity among these interests, Cohen saw an aesthetic unity, claiming he found essentially the "same thing" in all of them.5

The New York art scene thus provided an aesthetic paradigm for Cohen's perception of traditional music. He wrote, "I met Roscoe Holcomb in Kentucky and his singing cut into me. Around the same time I was hanging out with Beat poets and Abstract Expressionist painters in New York. They and Roscoe had the same effect on me. They didn't seem so different from each other, out there wailing and putting their worlds together in unexpected ways."6 Cohen actively spread his enthusiasm for...


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