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The Outsider

When Southerners began to document their own culture, some resentment developed toward "outsiders" who were among the first to explore the music and traditions of Appalachia. John Cohen was sometimes included in the criticism that filmmakers, record producers, and journalists were perpetuating stereotypes of Appalachian residents as poor and ignorant and engaging in "cultural strip mining," reaping financial gain from the talents of others. In his interviews with Tom Davenport for "Remembering the High Lonesome", John Cohen discussed this subject:

The idea that outsiders come into the South and depict the poverty and get out - that is played over and over again. Journalists fall into the cliché and stereotype.

One of the worst examples that I personally ran into was when I did my Kentucky pictures and I brought them to an editor of Esquire Magazine who was from the South. Harold Hays was his name. I said, "I think these are good pictures. You ought to publish them."

He said, "No. If there was real screaming poverty, if the people were really in the dirt, maybe we would be interested in publishing them."

This is really weird. I was giving him the true picture of what I had seen, and he wasn't interested unless it was in the stereotype. And I learned these lessons so long ago. I know the press does it. They have to make these clichés and make the sound bite and get the image across in 2 seconds to a low-level vision on TV.

I am not interested in that. I won't do it. I don't do that. And yet, I am treated as if I did that.

Now the film that has recently been made, Stranger with a Camera (by Appalshop's Elizabeth Barret — see film's website), about a Canadian filmmaker who was shot because people thought he was depicting them in a bad light. The same people who made that film, asked for all my outs from The High Lonesome Sound. They thought if they had my vision of how I looked at the South, they would have more evidence for their case. From what I understand, they never used any of my footage in their film because they won't find anything in my films that supports their arguments.

This is not a clear-cut case at all, but it is really ideology versus ideology, stereotypes versus press, access to media - it's all kinds of issues like this. It is not what I am interested in. I am interested in music, culture, and people who I find beautiful, exciting and moving, who I find traditional and wonderful. And that is why I show the whole setting where the music comes from. I don't do it to point out some poverty issue. Really, I am not interested. That is not my purpose.

An interesting illustration of the attitude and the friction between the "subject" and the documentarian is an incident that occurred between John Cohen and Doug Wallen in North Carolina. Here is John Cohen's version of the story:

I think you are talking about a record I did back in 1963 before Nagras (high quality reel-to-reel ¼" tape recorder) were available. I had a Tannenburg and my friend Peter Gott lived in Madison County, NC. And he and I went around and made recordings of some of his neighbors— wonderful ballad singers, wonderful! And it came out on a record for Folkways called "Old Love Songs and Ballads from the Big Laurel in North Carolina".

A few years later I went back to visit those people again, and the son (Doug Wallen) of one those people says, "You are making all the money off of that record and keeping it."

I said, "No, very little money was made off this record. Sold 50 copies."

"What do you mean 50 copies? The guy down the road has it! Everyone has it! You are keeping all the money."

"I've got to explain to you, some records sell a lot and some don't sell at all. This didn't sell a lot."

He started in again about keeping all the money.

I said, "I thought I explained what happened."

"Don't call me a liar in my own house. You can't do that."

And he came over and tried to slug me. Some people stopped him and that was the end of that. But how that story got into the hands of editor of Southern Exposure was beyond me because I never repeated the story.

Acknowledgements to: These comments were developed from interviews with John Cohen by Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld. The interviews are on mini-disk in the SFC in Chapel Hill.

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The Sams Family
The Sams Family with guitar and banjo, about 1959. All rights reserved.
 

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