Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Cohen and Roscoe Holcomb

The Jalopy Theatre and School of Music sits behind a storefront along lower Columbia Street in Brooklyn. Half a block to the south, traffic rumbles its way to the Battery Tunnel. A block or so to the west is the Brooklyn waterfront. Depending on how you define the neighborhood boundaries, the area is either in Red Hook or on the edge of it.

Inside is a glass counter with the stringed instruments Jalopy sells--banjos, ukuleles, mandolins, vintage acoustic and electric guitars--hanging overhead, and a bar with a few beer taps, an espresso machine and a glass case of bottled beer. In a larger brick-walled room in the back, church pews and mismatched wooden folding chairs face a stage framed in red light bulbs. On a recent Saturday night, the musician, folklorist and filmmaker John Cohen was seated on the stage, playing music with the three members of the band the Dust Busters. Cohen is a gray-bearded 78-year-old, while the Dust Busters--Walker Shepard, Craig Judelman and Eli Smith--all look to be in their 20s or 30s. Cohen alternated between banjo and guitar, and the Dust Busters took turns on the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica. Cohen had recently debuted a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky, about a legendary Appalachian musician he had helped discover in the 1960s. And a new book, Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival by Ray Allen, was telling the story of Cohen's old band.

In the 1950s, Cohen was living on Third Avenue, hanging out with and photographing Beat writers, Abstract Expressionist painters and folk musicians. The band he helped found, the New Lost City Ramblers, was one of the folk revival acts that most prized authenticity. They strove not only to play old-time, traditional songs but to play them in the specific, regional styles of the bluesmen and balladeers who originally performed them, putting them at odds with some of the more commercially viable folk groups. "He should have called it 'The New Lost City Ramblers vs. The Folk Music Revival,'" Cohen said of Allen's book.

That fixation on the authentic drove Cohen to Appalachia, where geographic isolation and widespread poverty had preserved a distinct musical culture. "Hazard, Kentucky in 1962 is reminiscent of the Depression of the 1930s," Cohen says in voiceover near the beginning of The High Lonesome Sound, the documentary he shot in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. On the screen in sun-drenched black and white, groups of men crowd the streets of Hazard, talking and smoking as they try to find work.

When he first got to Eastern Kentucky, Cohen asked around at gas stations for the names of banjo players, then drove around searching them out. As he tells filmmakers Tom Davenport and Barry Dornfeld in Remembering the High Lonesome, one day he found himself in the home of a man he met at a local bar, somewhere down a dirt road near a railroad bridge, listening to the man's mother play the banjo. An unassuming man happened by who people referred to as Rossy. When Rossy sat down and played the song Cross the Rocky Mountain, Cohen recalled, "my hair stood up on end."

Rossy was Roscoe Holcomb, a sometime construction worker, coal miner, sawmill worker, subsistence farmer and musician who at the time was around 50. An iconic black and white photo Cohen took shows him standing straight and rail-thin, neatly dressed in glasses, hat and tucked-in button-down shirt, a banjo in his hands. Holcomb considered musical ability to be a gift God had given him; when he first picked up the banjo he had prayed to God for a way to make enough money to get by, and had subsequently learned 400 songs in his first year playing. He was known as both a banjo player and a guitarist, but it was mainly the raw, anguished power of his high-pitched vocals that would haunt Cohen and other listeners.

Holcomb became the central figure in The High Lonesome Sound, a key to exploring Appalachia through music. Music and hardship are the common themes that run though the scenes of the film: Roscoe playing the banjo on a front porch while his shirtless nephew step-dances beside him, a coal miner and his family playing and singing in a house wallpapered with newspapers, people seeking salvation at church services and riverside baptisms, singing hymns and shaking and wailing with the holy spirit. "Music is the celebration of the hard life here in Kentucky," Cohen narrates. "The home music and the church singing are a way of holding on to the old dignity. Music is not an escape. It gives a way of making life possible to go on."

Cohen helped Holcomb achieve a certain degree of fame. He took him on tour through the U.S. and Europe. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton would cite him as an influence on their work. But by the 1970s, he had become sick with asthma and emphysema. In footage Cohen shot from that period, Holcomb mentions his declining health and the fact that he can no longer work. Sitting on his porch, recorded now on color film, he tells Cohen that he has trouble finding the breath to sing. Holcomb gave his last performance in 1978 and died in 1981. Years later, Cohen noticed that young musicians still knew Holcomb's songs, and he decided to edit footage of Holcomb he had shot over the years into a new film, Roscoe Holcomb From Daisy, Kentucky.

In the audience at Jalopy in Brooklyn, men in beards and women in glasses drank beer from Mason jars and from bottles they rested on the hardwood floor. In the back of the room, Jalopy's co-owner Geoff Wiley, a big man with a chest-length beard, worked the sound board. Near the end of their set, Cohen and the Dust Busters were joined by another musician, Peter Stampfel. Cohen introduced the song Buck Creek Girls, saying he had learned it from Banjo Bill Cornett when he met him in Kentucky in 1959. "He recorded a bunch of songs for me, then he refused to play any more because he was afraid I might copy them," Cohen recalled. "I couldn't even understand them."

As he indicated, the song was complicated in timing and rhythm. When it was over, Cohen addressed the audience again. "That was 1, 2, 3, 4," he counted the musicians on stage, "5 versions of Buck Creek Girls."

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