New Lost City Ramblers,
Newport, 1965
Photo by David Gahr

Roscoe Holcomb, 1959

Fiddle and harp, Tupe, Peru, 1957

There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs
Recordings of musicians photographed by John Cohen

November 2001
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
SFW CD 40091

Various artists; 23 tracks, including 7 previously unissued; produced by John Cohen. [more]


John Cohen helped form the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, and has performed and recorded with them ever since. Their approach, which is based on rural home music, is known as "old time" or "Appalachian," and their campaign for this music placed them in the spotlight at the Newport Folk Festival (1959), as well as in many concert tours, club appearances and recordings. Comprised of Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz (who replaced Tom Paley in 1962) the NLCR changed the direction of the folk music revival, steering it away from commercialized acts like the Kingston Trio, and towards the performance of traditional music in authentic styles. It has been said that the Ramblers introduced the idea that city musicians could play and sing in the traditional styles, and in this way they opened a path for many other musicians to follow. The NLCR influenced well known musicians including Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Ry Cooder, and started a revival of interest in old time fiddle bands. There are now hundreds of fiddle bands who actively play this music, as well as festivals, radio shows and recordings and fiddle conventions where this music is performed.

John Cohen made a series of documentary field recordings of traditional musicians in their home settings. These include recordings in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as in the highlands of Peru. He discovered the great Kentucky singer Roscoe Holcomb, and has issued many recordings of him. His first film was about Holcomb's music, and he created the term "The High Lonesome Sound" to describe it. Subsequently, the term became the generic name for bluegrass singing, and it has been used in countless music contexts ever since.

In 1961 Cohen founded the Friends Of Old Time Music with Ralph Rinzler & Israel Young. FOTM presented the first New York concerts of Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Gus Cannon, Joseph Spence , Hobart Smith, Almeda Riddle, Bessie Jones, and others.

Cohen plays guitar, banjo, and mandolin. In addition to his work with the NLCR, he recorded and toured with the Putnam String County Band (with Jay & Lyn Ungar, and Abby Newton), and made a solo record, Stories The Crow Told Me, for Acoustic Disc in 1998. His banjo playing features a range of styles including frailing, two and three finger picking, and he uses many distinctive tunings for the five string banjo.

In 2001, he helped produce and wrote extensive notes for two recordings for the Alan Lomax portrait series, "Texas Gladden" and "Hobart Smith." He wrote liner notes for Jerry Garcia & David Grisman: Shady Grove as well as many music articles for Sing Out! Magazine. He has also published interviews with Bob Dylan, Harry Smith, Roscoe Holcomb, Dillard Chandler, Roger McGuinn, Pat Conte, and John Hartford.

In 2006,  he formed the “Velocity Ramblers” with Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), Pat Conte, Walker Shepard, Sam Shepard, and Betty Berkin to play a creative mix of original songs, traditional Appalachian banjo and fiddle tunes, blues, Harry Smith Anthology covers, political love songs, freak-folk, ancient pop and psychedelic music.

Read some of John Cohen's album notes.