John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival
Abstract: Scott Matthews examines the documentary work John Cohen produced in eastern Kentucky from the late 1950s into the 1960s, particularly the image he created of singer-musician Roscoe Halcomb, who is prominently featured in Cohen's 1963 film The High Lonesome Sound (made in collaboration with Joel Agee). Cohen, a musician, photographer, and member of the group The New Lost City Ramblers, met Halcomb in Eastern Kentucky in 1959, when the area was in the grip of an economic depression. Through sound recordings, photography and film, Cohen spread Halcomb's music and image throughout the folk revival scene of the early 1960s, making him an iconic embodiment of artistic authenticity based in the grinding poverty of Appalachia (and turning his recognized name to Roscoe Holcomb along the way). The article shows how Cohen's representation of the depressed conditions that shaped Halcomb's existence contributed to the power of Halcomb's mythic image during this time. Matthews also explores the differences between the two men's views on the relationship of art, work, poverty, and survival. Based upon several extended interviews with John Cohen as well as other historical materials, the article examines Cohen's friendship with Halcomb and his relationship to Halcomb's personal life and musical career, with special attention to the production and reception of The High Lonesome Sound.
"John Cohen in Eastern Kentucky: Documentary Expression and the Image of Roscoe Halcomb During the Folk Revival" was selected for the 2008 Southern Spaces series "Space, Place, and Appalachia," a collection of innovative, interdisciplinary publications exploring Appalachian geographies through multimedia presentations.