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 New Lost City Ramblers performance of "Colored Aristocracy" (Folkways FA 2396).
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. An interest in textiles 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 Mike Seeger and Tom Paley.
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.
John Cohen sits down in his dark room with his 35mm black and white contact sheets from his first trip to Appalachia.
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 new CD of Roscoe's music.
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 people.
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 music".
"Well, Mary Jane, come play a tune."
His stepmother played some tunes on
the banjo, and he said, "Here comes
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 more?"
Roscoe Holcomb performs "Across the Rocky Mountain".
I was living in New York in the midst of the abstract expressionist painters and the Beat Generation poets. And Robert Frank, 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 Folkways Anthology and that is where I met Bob Dylan. This was the way I put the world together in those days.
John Cohen shows a photograph of Beat Generation artists and poets.
I said, "For the 125th of second that I took the picture, yeah".
John Cohen photograph of Bob Dylan.
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.
I showed you those books, the record from my Mountain Music of Kentucky, 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 first film.
My only training had been watching Robert Frank make Pull My Daisy, 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 Joel Agee. He was sent to me by Helen Levitt, who was a great photographer. And Joel's father 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.
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.
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 Bill Monroe." 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 me.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene of the Shepherd family and home.
Probably as a kid, I was very moved by the FSA photographs, 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 me.
I was reading Harry Caudill'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 it.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene
where young people dance along to a
live band in a roadhouse.
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 Tri-x 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 that moment.
"The High Lonesome Sound" scene with Roscoe Holcomb hoeing corn and a young girl dancing to the radio.
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.
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 book of my old photographs. I'm making a small version of it right now.
Here's Appalachian… Wade Ward and Charlie Higgins, banjo and fiddle… 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 Carolina Sea Islands.
If a young photographer went out to photograph now, they'd be so conscious of every aspect of the cultural, anthropological, sociological, commodity market. I wasn't burdened with that.
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 in it.
But when I showed that in New York the first time to a selected group of people including Alan Lomax and the head of Vanguard Records 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 handed there?"
I said, "What are you talking about?"
"The black dog struggling with the white dog."
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 interesting.
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 valley…"
What I was saying wasn't lost on me. It was lost on them, but I heard what I was saying. Kaboom-ch!
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 El Greco, singing, "Oh Lord!"
Then when the women started going off… I edited the women going off. I had a chance to do that. Pat Jaffee (the editor) was away that day. And I just built that thing from… bigger and bigger and louder and stronger.
This used to belong to Al Maysles. When he went to Russia, he took this thing. Then Robert Frank had it for a while. And then Danny Lyons 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. They weren't, but that was my conceit.
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 editing system.
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 anymore.
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 about it."
"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 leave.
I said, "Nobody was interested in documenting that music back then. So I did it."
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 themselves.
John Cohen (voiceover): 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 together.
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 cars.
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 life.