John Cohen's is a familiar name. Lead musician of the famous folk band The New Lost City Ramblers and photographer of fame, John Cohen is perhaps best known for his photographs of musicians like Bob Dylan and the Beat Poets. The High & Lonesome Sound shows a different side of his work, his documentary photographs of folk music icon Roscoe Holcomb.
Roscoe Holcomb was living in East Kentucky when Cohen discovered him. It was 1959 and Kentucky was, unlike most of America, in the grips of an economic depression. Holcomb had spent his life working regionally at hard labor jobs. In his own words, "I worked construction most all my life. I worked in the coalmines some� got my back broke� I was not much account after that." This blas� attitude is a strange trademark of Holcomb's. Despite the beauty of his signing and the mastery of his banjo playing, in his words and in Cohen's photos Holcomb retains a tacit down to earth mien.
The High & Lonesome Sound explores more than just Holcomb's musical talent and legacy; it is an in depth look into the late fifties in Eastern Kentucky. Towns like Defiance, Neon, Viper, Sodom, and Low Gap are documented by Cohen's camera. What we see is a region mired in poverty that is, despite all, buoyed up by music. Entire families share with Cohen their gift for folk music and many photographs are given over to this topic. Another theme is labor. Cohen makes us privy to the hard toiling life of coal miners. These photographs are unexpected and well outside of convention. Some workers have strangely angelic faces, others play tunes on the banjo and all seem uniquely happy. Happy? Well, free of misery. The workers in these photos share simple lives, brotherhood and, of course, the music that binds them to one another.
Workers in the fields, crowds gathered around town centers (for none other than folk music legend Bill Monroe) and churches also figure heavily in this book. The photographs are evocative of Walker Evans' famous pictures of the American Great Depression, but Cohen, (perhaps he brings the best out in people) doesn't capture too many frowns. Desperation would seem to be a qualifying feature of these photos, but it isn't. The labor is plain, the living hard, but also made plain is that these are photographs of people who get a lot out of life, out of their country lives and families.
But Roscoe Holcomb is the star of this book. Roscoe Holcomb with his nondescript working clothes and William Burroughs-esque face. Holcomb with his thick glasses and thinning hair. Playing his banjo before church congregations and tuning his guitar in his living room amongst all his children. Holcomb has a bearing and a face that are magnetic. His presence in these photographs is almost ghostly as if he was the culmination of the idea of a type of man. Roscoe Holcomb seems to embody the Appalachians, folk music and a tough life.
The book itself is incredibly well crafted. Steidl is never a publisher to disappoint. From the binding of the book to the quality of the photographs Steidl has little competition. Supplemental to this volume is a DVD containing two films by John Cohen about Roscoe Holcomb and one CD of Holcomb's music. The book has plentiful and illuminating texts from letters by Holcomb to John Cohen, quotes from the musician and ephemera from his life and times.
photo-eye was fortunate to host an artist talk and book signing for John Cohen on The High & Lonesome Sound. Audio from that talk can be heard here.—Christopher J. Johnson
Christopher J. Johnson is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry. He is an arts writer for the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque.