John Cohen’s Reflections on Making The End of an Old Song
John Cohen (when interviewed by Tom Davenport for Remembering the High Lonesome) told the following story about his relationship with Dillard Chandler.
With Dillard Chandler, I would go up to his cabin and I would film him walking in and then I would put on a tape recorder and we would record conversations. It was almost like a confessional. He was telling me things like, "I just sing old love songs."
And I'd say, "What was the last time you were in love?"
And he gave me this answer. He said, "Well, I ain't been in love for 10 or 15 years. There ain't much to that. When I want a woman, I go to town and fetch one up and bring her out here a couple of nights and send her back and that's that."
Wow. To have that on film and on tape is very powerful. And when I edited the film with that wonderful photographer Helen Levitt, she and I worked on the editing for about a year. She wanted to know everything she could about these people, and when she came to that piece of footage—tape, really, because it was voiceover—I said we should put it in.
She said, "Oh no, that's too revealing. You have to protect him."
I said, "You're right."
But then I thought and thought about it. I said look, the Lomax definition—everyone's definition—of ballad singers is that the ballad singer is just telling an old story and is detached and unemotional. They are stoic, they are stony faced, and they are not putting anything of themselves into it. That is the nature of Appalachian music.
And I wasn't finding that. These people are singing from the soul, if there is a soul. So I thought, "Here is an opportunity to show a ballad singer talking about his own interior life, his love life and his isolation and all that and the way he functions in that society. I think I want to go listen to that footage again."
So I left here and went out to the barn and went to my table and I was holding that piece of tape in my hand. It was a transfer tape, and on it was Dillard Chandler saying those things. At that moment, my wife yells to me, "John, there's a phone call from Dillard Chandler in North Carolina."
He doesn't read or write. He doesn't have electricity. But he was at someone's house at that moment. "Hi, John."
"How are you? Well we were just planting some tomatoes and taters and wondering how you was a-doin'."
"It's (the film) coming along fine."
Now you talk about magic or synchronicity and spirits communicating. We were 1000 miles apart. At that very moment when I am holding his most revealing thought in my hand, he is calling me up. I said there is something going on here. I put it in the film. I took a chance.
And a number of years later, I went down to North Carolina. I brought the film and got a little building. I invited the community one person at a time. I had to get a projector from the library. It was so much work in organizing just so they could see the film that I had forgotten what was in the film.
Dillard didn't come to the screening. I didn't think he would because he is a very shy guy. But all these people [came] who knew him. I am suddenly realizing that he is going to say this stuff and they are going to hear and this is going to be very strange. And I was really going through a lot inside.
And that moment comes on and Dillard says, "Yeah, I ain't been in love for fifteen years. and when I want a woman, I go and get one." And someone in the audience says "That's right, Dillard. That's right. Tell like it is, Dillard."
And all over the audience, people were saying things like that. And the next ballad came on, and everyone sang with the ballad. And for the whole rest of the film, every time a ballad came on, they all knew it. Every time these unaccompanied ballads are sung by a solitary person on the porch, the whole community is singing along with it. It will never happen again. It only happened once. But this is truly magic stuff. This has nothing to do with theory.