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“Music is the celebration of the hard life here in eastern Kentucky. It is not an escape.”
In this talk, John Cohen will review the steps which led to the making of his film The High Lonesome Sound (1962), a documentary about eastern Kentucky mountain music. The High Lonesome Sound remains in continuous circulation over forty-five years after it first appeared. Cohen’s unique vision in creating the film has affected the way all subsequent folk music documentaries have been made. Sing Out Magazine called it “the best folk music film...the only film that can stand on its own two feet, independent of the viewer’s interest in folk music,” while Rolling Stone noted that Cohen’s “black and white images are stunning in their simplicity and evocative power.” Almost all university folklore students have been exposed to this film, as have many folk and bluegrass fans. In fact, Cohen’s title for the film was adopted by music fans as a common, generic description of Bluegrass singing.
In producing this unprecedented film, Cohen drew upon his background in documentary-style photography, art, anthropology, field recording, independent filmmaking, folklore, and Appalachian traditional music. He was a musician with the seminal old-time group, The New Lost City Ramblers, and a co-founder of the Friends of Old Time Music, whose mission was to bring attention to great traditional musicians who had been overlooked by the folk music movement at that time. There were already diverse images of Kentucky music in popular culture, ranging from moonshiner stereotypes, to Merle Travis and Jean Ritchie, as well as numerous Library of Congress field recordings from the 1930s. However, most people were completely unaware of the many down-home musicians who held on to their own back-porch, local ways.
Cohen will discuss how he built his film around the musical and social elements of eastern Kentucky, placing traditional music within a broad setting of coal mines, fundamentalist church services, home music and popular music. The Kentucky musician Roscoe Holcomb is at the center of the film, and the film shows his individual world and the factors which shaped his musical style. Holcomb’s music emerges from hard living in hard times. As the film notes, “Roscoe Holcomb is an unemployed construction worker who is no different from his neighbors...no work and no desire to leave the mountains.”
Although Holcomb had recorded his music several times before The High Lonesome Sound, it was after his appearance in the film that he gained notoriety for his haunting, falsetto singing and his unique playing on guitar, banjo, and harmonica. Eventually, with Cohen’s help, he visited many folk festivals and released several albums of his music. Before he passed away in 1981, he became a significant influence on Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Stanley Brothers. This modest but distinguished career on the folk and popular music scene was sparked by The High Lonesome Sound.
As an independent film production, The High Lonesome Sound had no grants, and there were no proposals or commitments to a script. The film evolved while it was being made, and there were no fixed or structured scenes. Although the film has the look of a documentary, it points up the importance of personal vision in filmmaking. Non-logical, lyrical editing combined with deep feeling for the people, their songs and their situation, creates a visual poetry that parallels the music. The film’s lack of clearly stated purpose confronts viewers, inviting them to construct their own interpretations. Cohen will also explain the unique technical factors that affected the making of this film in an era before portable synchronized sound was a possibility, and show how these technical limitations contributed creatively to the shape of the film.
Although nobody in the film ever uses the word “folk,” the film, and John Cohen’s work more generally, is dedicated to the continuing power of what the Library of Congress calls “folklore.” At the time of the film, the proscribed academic definition of folklore needed to be challenged, and many constraints needed to be lifted. Cohen needed to establish a more contemporary way of looking at traditional cultures, and of hearing traditional music, all of which contributed a measure of urgency to the making of the film. Cohen will discuss this urgency in the context of the state of documentary filmmaking and the concerns of folklore studies in the early 1960s.
John Cohen, filmmaker
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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