The Old-Time Herald Volume 13, Number 10

Feature
John Cohen and Peruvian “Old-Time” Music
By Daniel Fleck
John Cohen

 

W

hen 24-year-old John Cohen first traveled to the Peruvian Andes in 1956, his intention was not to document the traditional music of the indigenous population. The future member of the New Lost city Ramblers was a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied painting and photography. Cohen had developed an interest in the region through a New World archaeology course. For the course, he had researched and produced a paper on pre-Columbian textiles, particularly the celebrated fabrics of the ancient Paracas culture of what is today Peru. Viewing a 2,000-year-old Paracas textile at the Brooklyn Museum was a revelatory experience. At that point, Cohen decided that in order to discover the answers to his most pressing questions about the fabrics and the culture they derived from, he had to travel to Peru for direct consultation with the descendants of their weavers – the Indians of the Peruvian Andes. He says, “I found myself in a conversation with weavers who had lived 2,000 years ago, and had no way to get answers, so I traveled to Peru to study with their descendants.”

Prior to this, Cohen had some experience in “the field,” observing cultures different from his own. From an early age, he had been “attracted to this possibility of having an inside view without being part of the action,” and drawn to traditional styles of music like African American spirituals and his mother’s Russian folksongs. In 1951, he hitchhiked through Virginia and North Carolina to experience firsthand the traditional Appalachian music he had grown so fond of. Like other youths in post-War America, Cohen had grown disillusioned with the perceived superficiality of American mass culture (“it was so boring and oppressive to me,” he says) and yearned for a more authentic cultural experience, of which traditional music became a part. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, early commercial recordings of Southern fiddlers and “hillbilly” bands, and collections of Library of Congress field recordings became an integral part of his “private rebellion against middle-class life” and sent him “looking for a larger world outside the suburbs.” Cohen and others of his generation had developed a cultural radicalism that was, in a sense, deeply conservative, as it looked nostalgically toward an older, simpler way of life, manner of music-making, and set of values. (“Sometimes the most radical thing you can do is to go backwards,” remarked Cohen to a Pickin’ magazine interviewer in the mid-1970s.) However, he was somewhat disappointed by his first trip through Appalachia, finding modern bluegrass to be the predominant musical form, and being rebuffed by the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

 


 

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