Remembering The High Lonesome

Roscoe Holcomb, Daisy, Kentucky, 1959 by John Cohen

In the seven months since we began The Art of The Rural, the work of John Cohen has returned again and again to inform the artists and discussions in these pages. I was reminded once more of his experiences in Madison County, with Dillard Chandler, last week when discussing the insider/outsider tension at the heart of our nation’s reckoning with Mountaintop Removal. Cut along the lines of this binary is another dichotomy that’s just as slippery, one that (in the aforementioned post) Ashley Judd has been set between: the over-arching friction between “rural” and “urban.” To see the distance between these two terms as set-in-stone, or of an easy-to-define textbook nature, is to misapprehend the fluidity of each classification. As mentioned last week, rural America (however it is defined) is in a process of radical and emphatic change. 
So much of Mr. Cohen’s work is a moving example of this give and take–and should remind those of us living in rural America (or among the rural diaspora) that the dialogue between rural and urban, “insider” and “outsider,” has produced so much of the intellectual and artistic material that best characterizes American life. We owe a great debt to Mr. Cohen for understanding this from an early age, and for making a life’s mission out of preserving and celebrating that beauty. Regardless of the obstacles along the way, he repeatedly ventured from the city into Appalachia; in an age before the internet, he established a remarkable camaraderie, a common ground, with the folks he met and the singers he recorded and filmed. Without doubt, if this artist had not made the leap of faith from the city into these hollows, we very well may have lost these voices. 
I’d like to include some links below that may be of interest both to those who know and love his work, but also for those who may not have come across John Cohen before. First, here’s Remembering The High Lonesome, a 2003 documentary film by Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld. Here’s their introduction:
Remembering the High Lonesome is the story of the making of a classic documentary film. It is also a profile of filmmaker, photographer, artist, and musician John Cohen. Through interviews, as well as Cohen’s own photographs and scenes from his classic film The High Lonesome Sound: Kentucky Mountain Music, filmmaker Tom Davenport focuses on Cohen’s journey to rural Kentucky in the 1950s to document the lives of the people there and his “discovery” of the musician Roscoe Holcomb. Remembering the High Lonesome also examines the birth of a new artistic ethic and counterculture through John Cohen’s involvement with the Beat Generation, abstract expressionist painters, and the Folk Music Revival, and explores the role of an outsider documenting the life and arts of an Appalachian community.
The full documentary is available for view, absolutely free, from the amazing Folkstreams website right here. Here’s a trailer, followed by a clip from The High Lonesome Sound of the brilliant banjo player Roscoe Holcolmb:
The High Lonesome Sound Revisited is a fine companion piece to this documentary–it’s a 2009 lecture Mr. Cohen presented at The Library of Congress that tells the story of both his field recording and movie-making, while also considering the impact these projects had on the development of documentary filmmaking and ethnographic research. Follow this link to a high-quality video of Mr. Cohen’s talk.
In an effort linked to his song-gathering, Mr. Cohen also performed with the legendary folk group The New Lost City Ramblers during those watershed years of the late 1950’s when America was rediscovering the value of its traditional music. Here’s two links to documentaries that help tell the story of these musicians’ impact on the course of American music. The first clip is from Play On, John: A Life In Music, a film by Rick King featured on The Smithsonian Channel; the second is from Always Been A Rambler, a film by Yasha Aginsky and The Arhoolie Foundation.
More of Mr. Cohen’s photography, music and film are on display at his official website (also highly recommended: his book of photographs There Is No Eye). You can follow these links to also learn more about the heady milieu John Cohen was a part of in the late 1950’s in New York City (Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Alan Ginsberg) and how his work helped to influence those conversations that happened hundreds of miles from the towns where Mr. Cohen drew his inspiration.