Musical Holdouts - Review by Garry W. Barrow 1986

Musical Holdouts - Review by Garry W. Barrow 1986

Reviewed Work: Musical Holdouts by John Cohen

Review by: Garry W. Barrow

Source: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1986), pp. 304-306

Musical Holdouts. Produced and directed by John Cohen Rd. 1, Tompkins Corners, Putnam Valley, NY 10579. 16mm, Color, 47 minutes. 1976.

In title frames at the beginning of Musical Holdouts, John Cohen declares that the obiective of his film is to celebrate the music of diverse isolated groups in America. The separate identity of each group, he asserts, can be heard in its music. What follows is an eclectic survey of musical identities in a series of ten segments of varying length, each dealing with a different group and its music, or with presumably representative individual performers. As it shifts its focus across the United States in a general east-to-west movement, Cohen's film also shifts across several categories of American musical behavior: from singing games to fiddle tunes to cowboy song to tribal anthem; from traditional to popular to revivalist; from Afro-American to Anglo-American to Native American; and from identities based on ethnicity and region to those based on occupation and even ideology. The film sustains and develops its central concern with the relationship of music and identity while touching upon several related themes. Optimistic that these groups and their musics will survive, Cohen nevertheless recognizes the threat which mass media and modern mainstream culture pose to the separate identities of these groups. His film considers continuity and change with equal interest, often capturing adaptation in progress.

There is no narration. Each segment begins with a caption identifying place, performers and event. Sometimes Cohen lets the music speak for itself, but the most satisfying segments combine brief but telling remarks from the performers with footage of performances. Such is the first segment, which focuses on Mrs. Janie Hunter and her family on John's Island, South Carolina. Excellent footage of the Hunter children exhibiting their musical and kinesic talents in playing ring games is interwoven with comments from Mrs. Hunter who, like a veteran informant, extols the values of these "get-together family games" that she learned from her parents and taught to her children. Cohen makes some subtle observations on tradition, mass media and cultural dynamics through his montage and use of image.

The second and third segments, dealing with "old-time" Anglo-American music, are less ambitious. These are also the only two segments in which the subjects say nothing. First, the Payne brothers are shown playing two tunes on the porch of their home in Jonesboro, Tennessee. But if brevity in this segment leaves one unsatisfied, it makes the following one all the more moving. For this segment, Cohen returned to Daisy, Kentucky to film Roscoe Holcomb once again. Holcomb was the central figure in Cohen's early film High Lonesome Sound. This time, with the camera focused steadily on Holcomb and his banjo, Cohen gives us valuable documentation of Holcomb's idiosyncratic vocal and instrumental technique. The deep sigh that Holcomb breathes after finishing this strenuous performance is a poignant glimpse of the musician's declining health. Knowledge of Cohen's ongoing relationship with Holcomb and of Holcomb's imminent death give this segment special value.

The fourth and fifth segments share a concern with economic survival.

We see bluegrass master Ralph Stanley onstage and off, playing music and talking about the establishment of bluegrass as a viable style with popular appeal despite the lack of support in the mass media. The segment featuring Arkansas cowboy and musician Glen Ohrlin also relates music to economics and social change. Ohrlin, a former rodeo rider, performs "I Want to Be a Marlboro Cowboy," a humorous reflection of the very real displacement of his lifestyle and an ironic commentary on commercialism and the mass media image of the cowboy.

The next three segments all deal with Native American traditions of music and dance, and give new twists to several themes. In documentary style, Cohen shows us four men from four different tribes singing and drumming together in the studio of an Andarka, Oklahoma radio station.

Cohen's passive and apparently unobtrusive camera captures and succinctly conveys the wonderful paradox that these Native Americans are expressing and promoting their distinctive cultural identity by exploiting the mass media of the dominant culture, thus subverting a potential agent of acculturation to their own ends. In this and the following two segments, one dealing with tribal song and family tradition and the other with ceremonial dance at a Cheyenne homecoming, Cohen is at his best, letting the themes inherent in his subject come forth of themselves through the camera and the microphone, and through judicious and subtle editing. Cohen also seems to have a knack for catching the right moments.

In the last two segments of Musical Holdouts, Cohen turns first to musical nomads of the counterculture, following some musicians from the streets of Berkeley to a communal camp in the woods near Auberry, California. In thus expanding routine notions of groupness, Cohen presents persuasive evidence of the universal processes linking music, identity and culture. The final segment of the film takes this music/identity postulate one step further, as it shows us the Highwood String Band on stage. However, no audience is shown, perhaps because the group that identifies with this music includes Cohen himself and many of those who will see this film. The end of the film thus brings the viewer to consider his or her own musical identity.

Musical Holdouts is the realization of an idea that first came to Cohen twenty years ago. On the surface a well-made miscellany about America's musics outside the mainstream, Musical Holdouts is, on a deeper level, a subtle and insightful primer on musical and cultural pluralism in the contemporary United States. Perhaps by his statement in the opening titles that the film "only celebrates the existence" of these various musical identities, Cohen means to exempt his work from anticipated criticisms concerning the varying "thickness" of ethnographic information offered by the different segments. But considering the wide scope of the film, Cohen's disclaimer seems overly modest. Overall the film is quite rich, revealing issues and meanings with a skillful exploitation of the potential of the medium.

By: Garry W. Barrow, Indiana University