A Transcription of Remembering
Shot on Mini-DV, with
sections of John Cohen's 16 mm film
"The High Lonesome Sound" inserted.
Film opens with a close shot of a
Japanese top painted with the face of
John Cohen sets up the top and spins
John Cohen:I thought that this was just a toy
or a top. And then years later, I asked
a Japanese student of mine at art
school, "What does it mean?" And she
told me that when it finally settles
down, it tells you which way to go.
John Cohen starts CD player. The
music is from a performance of "Colored
Aristocracy" (Folkways FA
Narrator (Tom Davenport): The
artist, photographer, and filmmaker
John Cohen lives in Putnam Valley, New
York. Born in 1932 and raised in the
suburbs of Long Island, he studied Fine
Arts at Yale University. led him to Peru, where
he began documenting the music and
culture of the people of the high
Andes. In the 1950s, while still a
student at Yale, he formed the New
Lost City Ramblers with
John Cohen goes up the steps into
his darkroom. He removes the cover from
his photo enlarger.
John Cohen: My interest was
in the traditional, in the source, in
the homeplace, in the roots of these
things. So that was what led me and the
Ramblers to going to the source of the
music. It was a matter of finding
something out and documenting, or maybe
preserving, what was moving to us.
America was quite prosperous at that
time (1959), but Appalachia wasn't. And
so I thought, "I can go visit there and
see what life was like in a Depression
and maybe get some songs that we could
use in our album of songs about the
Depression." So that's when I went down
there. I said, "If I can travel alone
through the Andes, I ought to be able
to travel alone through
John Cohen sits down in his dark
room with his 35mm black and white
contact sheets from his first trip to
These are the pictures when I first
went there in 1959, and this is the
contact sheet right here that has that
picture of Roscoe Holcomb that has been
used on the cover of books and in
newspapers and all the magazines. It's
just come to stand for Appalachia. And
there are Roscoe's hands.
And I was looking at this recently
and I noticed back here and I said,
"Wait a second. There is something on
the back of this contact sheet." And
I'd forgotten that this was here. And
there are three more wonderful pictures
of Roscoe in that same place, and this
is the one I am going to use on the
cover of that .
I've told this story a lot of times
but it keeps growing in my mind. You
see, I bought an old car when I went
down there. I went first by bus, bought
an old car. It broke down. Some guy
said, "I'll give you a better car." It
broke down even worse. And so I spent a
lot of time in gas stations in Eastern
Kentucky around Hazard.
And while I was waiting for them to
fix the car, I'd say, "Any banjo
players around here? " And I would make
a list of the names. And then that was
what my agenda was. I'd go visit those
I was living in a little rooming
house near Hazard, and it was hot and
it was terrible. And it was a Sunday
afternoon, and I had driven about 23
miles up to the end of Leatherwood.
There was an old fiddler 85 years old,
and his name was Wade Woods. And I went
up to record him. And he couldn't play
anymore. He fiddled and he smiled and
we talked. That didn't work out.
Now I had no more names on my list.
I'd used them all up. And it was Sunday
afternoon. And it was hot like 100
degrees, and I didn't want to go back
into Hazard into that little room. I
had no place else to go. I said, "I am
going to take the first dirt road that
leads off of this road." And that is
what I did. And I crossed over a little
railroad bridge and there were a couple
of little houses and there were some
kids there. And I said, "Any banjo
players around here?"
"Over there in that house."
And there was this guy Odabe who I'd
recorded the night before in a bar.
"What are you doing here?"
I said, "Well, I'm looking for
"Well, Mary Jane, come play a
His stepmother played some tunes on
the banjo, and he said, "Here comes
I said, "Who's that?"
And this little guy walks in, and he
played me this song " Across the Rocky
Mountain", and my hair stood up on end.
It was the most moving, touching,
dynamic, powerful song I'd ever…
not the song itself but the way he sang
it was just astounding. And I said,
"Can I come back and hear you some
Roscoe Holcomb performs
Still Pictures of view outside John
Cohen's New York City studio window
I was living in New York in the
midst of the and the
. And ,
the great still photographer, lived
next door to me. That was my frame
of reference. I would take a walk
out to the Folklore Center. That was
where I met Harry Smith who did the
and that is where I
This was the way I put the world
together in those days.
John Cohen shows a photograph of
Beat Generation artists and poets.
This is ,
and my neighbor ,
shoveling some food in his mouth. We
call it the . People say to me, "Did
you hang out with those guys?"
I said, "For the 125th of second
that I took the picture, yeah".
John Cohen photograph of Bob
Each was out on a limb doing their
own music, their own pursuit, playing
their own songs, not just listening to
records or dancing to it. They were
inventing things. This was before the
counterculture. This was the first sign
of a big change in America.
John Cohen thumbs through booklet
for CD with John Cohen's early 1959
photos of Appalachia. Audio: Roscoe
Holcomb plays and sings
I showed you those books, the record
from my , and I wasn't
satisfied. Even though you could
hear the music and see the images,
that doesn't really communicate the
feeling of having these things
happen at the same time. And I used
to bring Roscoe Holcomb to
festivals, and people would hear
him. I said, "That's good. They can
see him but they still can't get the
whole feeling." So that desire to
put the music and the images
together is why I decided to make my
Opening sequence and baptism scene in
"The High Lonesome Sound, Kentucky
My only training had been watching
Robert Frank make , which was no training
at all. They even had a script. I
didn't have a tripod.
And the young man who worked with
me, his name was . He
was sent to me by ,
who was a great photographer. And
had written that book called "Let Us
Now Praise Famous Men".
But Joel had been raised in Europe,
so this was his first trip into America
too. He's written stories about the
adventure of us making the film. It's
very interesting. Anyhow, it was just
the two of us. Both interested in film,
interested in the culture. Both
outsiders. And we were there six weeks,
sleeping on the floor of a lumber camp.
We had one air mattress. One night he
got the air mattress, and one night I
got it. I don't know how we did it, but
the film is a kind of a miracle.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene of
Roscoe Holcomb's house and Roscoe
sitting on the porch.
John Cohen (narrating "The High
Lonesome Sound"): "This is Roscoe
Holcomb, 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.
John Cohen (interview): I
went to Roscoe's house. He did one
song, and he said, "I don't feel like
singing." And he didn't feel like
singing for the next five weeks. So
really there is very little of Roscoe
in that film except the little bits
that we have of him. But then he took
us around to other places.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene of Mr.
Shepherd, a miner, coming home.
And we went out on our own, always
returning to his place. Roscoe said,
"There's a little boy up in that
hollow. He plays mandolin as good as
So we went up there. He didn't play
as good as Bill Monroe, but it was a
very musical family. And that was
when I filmed the cow and setting
the dinner table and the wallpaper
which is newspapers and the father
who is a miner coming home and
cleaning up. And there are some
shots of them sitting around
listening to music, and you can see
the guy playing the banjo. The guy
playing the banjo was me. Joel took
the camera. They were listening to
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
of the Shepherd family and
Probably as a kid, I was very moved
by the , which I had seen in
a copy of US Camera. I thought that
there was a depth, reality, and a
truth that was very terrific to
"The High Lonesome Sound" scenes of a
railroad yard and coal miners entering
I was reading 's book Night Comes to
the Cumberlands as a way of
understanding what I was looking at.
I wasn't out there just digging the
music. And I always knew that I
didn't want to use the
culture in the South or in any of
the rural or traditional places that
I'd been. I didn't want to use them
as examples. I didn't want to point
out, "Look at the poverty here" or
"Look at what the capitalist system
has done" or "Look at what the
mining system has done." I just
wanted people to see it, and I just
wanted to present it so that the
people in the cultures themselves
would recognize themselves in
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene with a
crowd in Hazard Courthouse Square
listening to Bill Monroe and his Blue
Grass Boys perform .
On Saturday night, Joel and
myself… Joel Agee and myself
went out to see what else was going on
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
where young people dance along to a
live band in a roadhouse.
We'd go into roadhouses, and I don't
know where I got the chutzpah to say,
"I'd like to film in here for a few
minutes. All I got to do is change one
bulb. Would you mind?"
And that's what I did. I changed the
one bulb to a photo bulb, and I'd film
for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute of
people twist dancing. There's one great
shot where I move from people doing
this, and then it kind of moves down
the room, and there's the band playing.
If you look carefully at the band,
there's a black drummer, and all the
rest of the band is white. And they're
playing twist music.
I knew it was going to be very
low-level light, so I had in the
camera. The next morning, Sunday
morning, on Roscoe's porch, we're
sitting there and I had the camera.
He was out there hoeing the corn,
and his stepdaughter suddenly walks
across the camera and turns on the
radio. And I had the camera going at
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
with Roscoe Holcomb hoeing corn and a
young girl dancing to the
So Joel Agee starts kidding around
with her (demonstrates twist dancing) -
you know, let's dance a little bit. So
the two of them were starting out
there. And she's about 9 or 10 years
old, and she's been looking at the
twist. So she's doing the twist. And
there in the background is Roscoe
hoeing. And there's the little baby
Susie - she was about two years old at
the time. First she's looking at the
twist dancing, then she's looking at
Roscoe hoeing. And she wanders out to
Roscoe. It's a wonderful moment. But it
was Tri-x on a sunny day, and it is
grainy. But it's real.
John Cohen shows his work area and
some of his photos.
I recently had a big computer here.
I had been working for the last year on
this computer. It's not there. It was
for making photo images. I designed a
. I'm making a small
version of it right now.
… and here's a
Peruvian woman planting potatoes. In
my mind, they're… Here's the
other side of that spread…
this is something down in the
If a young photographer went out to
photograph now, they'd be so
conscious of every aspect of the
sociological, commodity market. I
wasn't burdened with that.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene where
two young dogs play by a water
There's one little scene in there. I
went out in the early morning in the
lumber camp where we were sleeping, and
it was foggy. And there was this one
pump for water. Everybody came to this
one pump to get their water. And there
were a couple of dogs out there,
jumping around in the fog and kind of
dancing. And I filmed it. It was
beautiful. I felt I was like… I
was just doing something because it was
beautiful and moving, and the
moment… Everything was right -
the light, the dogs, the
countryside… And that became the
beginning of a sequence with some music
But when I showed that in New York
the first time to a selected group of
and the head of and some other friends.
The guy from Vanguard Records came
up to me and said, "Don't you think
your symbolism was kind of heavy
I said, "What are you talking
"The black dog struggling with the
I couldn't believe it. He was
reading this as a civil rights
interaction that I was dealing with
symbolically. And all I was doing was
digging the scene of these two dogs
dancing in the fog. Well, this is
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene inside
The way I got to that church, that
Holiness church, was the same family
where the little boy played the
mandolin… I would hang out there
quite a bit. Then on Wednesday nights,
they would go down to the church
practice. And I was asked to sing at
these things. When I wanted to, I sang
"You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley."
And I was feeling, "You got to walk
that lonesome valley."
The next verse is (singing), "Some
say John he was a Baptist. Some say
John he was a Jew. But the good book,
it tells us that he was a Christian,
too. You got to walk that lonesome
. It was lost
on them, but I heard what I was
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene inside
Pentecostal Church where parishioners
start to feel the spirit.
Too bad it wasn't in sync. But then
again we had a wonderful time
assembling the strongest, most
beautiful shots. There are some times
where you see a woman's hand and you
see a kid playing the same thing. And
there's one man kind of looking up. He
looks like a figure out of ,
singing, "Oh Lord!"
Then when the women started going
off… I edited the women going
off. I had a chance to do that.
was away that day. And I
just built that thing from…
bigger and bigger and louder and
John Cohen shows movie camera.
This used to belong to .
When he went to Russia, he took this
thing. Then Robert Frank had it for
a while. And then
had it for a while, then I've had it
all the rest of the time.
It's a great old camera, and it's
noisy as can be. And what I did with my
first film - because I did The High
Lonesome Sound with this camera - is
that I had this peculiar notion from
anthropology courses that people in
traditional societies did everything
the same way every time. I figured that
if recorded them once on a tape
recorder and then film it later, they
would be in sync.
I was so na´ve - well, I wasn't
na´ve - I was just so gung ho in
my belief in what I was doing in
putting the sound and the image
together that I had never thought about
editing. I had made a rough cut of some
parts of it, then I called Helen Levitt
over to see it and a man named
who was one of the great old men of
the New York film world back
And they looked at, and they said,
"You need a good editor to work with.
And we'd like to help you, but we're
too busy. But there's a young woman,
Pat Jaffee, a former union organizer
who's been helping us on some films. So
she can help you. And she did. And so,
it was between Pat and myself.
John Cohen shows .
And this is my machine. I don't know
if it's going to work now because it's
so cold out here. But we can see if it
makes a hum. (Machine hums.) Magic.
More work to be done, but you know, in
a strange way, I'm a dinosaur. Nobody
uses this kind of equipment
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
showing singing inside the Old Baptist
Every week I went to the Old Baptist
church. And every week, they told me to
come back next week… for five
weeks. And on the sixth week, I said,
"Well, I'm leaving this afternoon. So
if you want me to film, it'll be now if
you want to let me. If not, forget
"Well, all right, you can film."
And that was the last day. And then
when we got home to the old lumber camp
where Joel Agee and myself were
staying, we were packing up the stuff
to put it back in my little Volkswagen.
And at that moment, just across the
aisle there in the next house, there's
Roscoe and Odabe took out the banjo and
guitar and started playing up a storm -
as if saying this is what you missed or
this is what you came for. They had to
wait until then.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
where Roscoe plays banjo while Odabe
dances on the porch.
So, we quick took the camera, got
the wonderful footage of Odabe dancing
on the porch and Roscoe singing and
Mary Jane wandering around. It was a
wonderful bit of footage. That was as
we were packing up the car to
And I know in the South in recent
years, there's been a very confusing -
to me confusing - before some of
them were born. "What right do you
have to make The High Lonesome
Sound? You're an outsider."
I said, "Nobody was interested in
documenting that music back then. So I
If I hadn't found him 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 in to
listen. He didn't want to go make
records or anything.
But the fact that myself, again a
Northerner who was curious about the
world, should meet him and say, "This
really wakes me up. This really says
something to me," when people in the
South weren't interested in
"The High Lonesome Sound" footage
showing Roscoe's house fades into John
Cohen's present home. Roscoe sings
: Why has my film
lasted so many years? I'm just
wondering. I didn't have any
formulas to work off of, so it's
like a dream the way it falls
I think back to the shot of Roscoe
hoeing the weeds and the place where it
happened - East Kentucky with its
broken-down landscape and broken-down
Well, when I first saw this farm
where I live now, just 50 miles from
New York City, it reminded me of some
place that I knew. And the reason I got
to this place is because of making the
film, which also has shaped my