In addition to his own music, John made documentary field recordings of traditional musicians in their home settings. His field recordings — made in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as in South America — brought the sounds and songs of a hyper-local context into a global listenership. For instance, he discovered the great Kentucky singer Roscoe Holcomb, who was the subject of countless recordings and films. Alongside this fascination with Appalachian music, John became enraptured with the sounds and textiles of the Peruvian highlands.
For John’s MFA thesis at Yale, he initiated an unprecedented study - wandering across isolated regions of Peru for six months, gathering information from the Indians about how they made their textiles. During this time, he also made a collection of the ethnographic textiles from Q'ero for the American Museum of Natural History.
A lifelong fascination with Peru fueled his many returns. In addition to countless photographs, John made several films and many albums of traditional music. His research around Andean textiles and music has been featured at the American Museum of Natural History, at the ethnomusicology department at Wesleyan University, at the Brown University Haffenrefer Museum, and at conferences on Andean archaeology and ethnohistory. He constructed and supervised the recording of ancient pre-Columbian Peruvian musical instruments for the permanent installation in the Andean hall at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1999, after years of collecting and travel, he donated a large collection of Peruvian textiles to the Textile Museum in Washington DC which led to the publication of the book, Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles.
photo: John Cohen with Julie Illanes, by Alicia Benevites
“When I started to actively pursue music, it was a many-sided involvement: I photographed it, performed it, presented it, recorded it, and made films about it…I was seeking music that was still in direct touch with its roots.”
field recordings: Appalachians
John Cohen spent years traveling through the Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia in search of new sounds.
In June 1959, John Cohen wandered the winding mountain roads of eastern Kentucky searching for old-time musicians. Cohen had come to Kentucky from New York City to find songs about "hard times" that would fill out the repertoire of his old-time music group, the New Lost City Ramblers. There, he met Roscoe Holcomb (Halcomb) who allowed Cohen to visit him at home on a number of occasions to record, photograph, and film. What ensued over many decades was a relationship with Holcomb and a host of other musicians that resulted in influential recordings, tours, films, and photographs. John's relationship with Moe Asch at Folkways Records helped bring these artists broader exposure to new audiences.
other work from Appalachia
Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road: When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass, powerHouse Books (2019)
The High & Lonesome Sound: The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb, Steidl (2012)
The High Lonesome Sound (1963)
The End Of An Old Song (1970)
Musical Holdouts (1976)
Sara & Maybelle: The Carter Family (1981)
Fifty Miles from Times Square (1981)
Post Industrial Fiddle (1982)
friends of old time music
the historic concerts that introduced traditional music to city audiences
In 1961 John Cohen, Ralph Rinzler and Israel Young formed the Friends of Old Time Music, and over the next four years they presented fourteen concerts--mostly in New York City--by an older generation of musicians, alongside younger performers. The series inspired a new generation of folk musicians, and the organization lay the groundwork for the Chicago Folk Festival, Newport Folk Festival, and later the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. John produced the posters himself, combining the old type-faces of 19th century broadsides with his visual art training. In 2006, Peter Siegel released a collection of 55 tracks he had recorded at the original concerts, assembled as a box set on Smithsonian Folkways.
field recordings: Peru
John first travelled to Peru at the suggestion of Anni Albers, and his initial work there led to his thesis on Andean textiles. The music, dance, and beauty of the land and people kept him coming back his whole life.
John, along with various family and colleagues, visited many isolated regions of Peru and Bolivia with camera, portable Nagra tape recorder, and film and video equipment. Q'ero, high in the remote Andes, was a special draw for him, and he maintained personal relationships with families there for generations. A version of his film, Q'eros: The Shape of Survival was broadcast on PBS' NOVA, and his recording of a young Q'ero woman singing Song of Marriage is included on the Golden Record aboard the Voyager Spacecraft. John and Chris Strachwitz acquired the back catalogue and masters from Discos Smith (Peru) and released four volumes of Andean Huayno music on Arhoolie Records.
Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles by Ann Pollard Rowe and John Cohen (2002)
Co-published by The Textile Museum, Washington, DC and Merrell Publishers, London
28 x 23 cm, 160 pages, 130 illustrations
Q'ero is an isolated indigenous community in southern Peru, on the eastern slope of the Andes. In this harsh environment, a rich and complex textile tradition, the chief artistic expression of the Q'ero people, has endured from pre-Hispanic times. Woven from the hair of local alpacas, the colorful shawls, ponchos, bags, and other textiles produced are worn daily and form part of the rituals and ceremonies of Q'ero. Examining the textile traditions that are distinctive to Q'ero within those of the Cuzco area in general, Hidden Threads of Peru combines ethnography, anecdote, and textile art to offer fascinating new insights into a culture that can trace its traditions back to the Inca empire. The Q'ero people themselves discuss the significance of the fabrics they make and the nature of their Andean life, while photographs taken from the early twentieth century to the present day illustrate the daily life and rituals of the Q'ero people, as well as-in sumptuous full color-the textiles themselves, revealing the evolution and range of patterns over a one-hundred-year period.
Past Present Peru: Photos, Music, Films by John Cohen (2010)
published by Steidl London
John Cohen cultivated a sixty-year long fascination with the people, cultures and landscape of Peru. Cohen took his first photographs in Peru in 1956 and has returned many times since to continue documenting, adding musical and film recordings to his still images. Cohen's photographs, stored for years in boxes in a barn near his home, and the music, today archived at the Smithsonian Institute, have not been published in their entirety until now.
Past Present Peru combines photographs, textiles, music and film in an ambitious book object. The photographs are for Cohen a fragmented collection of visual insights, a record of deepening awareness that depicts the diversity of Peruvian life including religious festivals, potato farming, and the recent introduction of hydroelectricity. The textiles, reproduced in luscious colour, embody pre-Columbian craft traditions more than 5,000 years old. Cohen began recording music in Peru in 1964, using a portable tape recorder to capture performances wherever he could: at festivals, in villagers homes, even waiting at a bus stop. Cohens films are about a sense of things that weren't expressed in words, and are themselves a unique historical record.
The unifying thread between the different media of Past Present Peru is Cohen’s own writing – anecdotal, precise, historically informed – words that capture the past and present of Peru, and anticipate its future.
work from Peru
Hidden Threads of Peru: Q'ero Textiles, published by Hugh Merrell (2002)
"Music of Q'eros," Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, The Americas
The Inca Conquest of AM Radio: Peru's Huayno Music, manuscript (unpublished)
The Peruvian Four-Salvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions, Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA (2014)
Q'ero Textiles, Textile Museum, Washington, DC (2002)
"Contemporary Weaving of the Peruvian Indians," MFA Thesis, Yale University (1957) - unpublished copies at Yale, American Museum of Natural History's Junius Bird Archive, and the Textile Museum, Washington, DC
"Q'eros: a Study in Survival," Natural History Magazine (1957)
Peruvian Weaving: A Continuous Warp for 5000 Years
Q'eros: The Shape of Survival
Mountain Music of Peru
Choqela: Only Interpretation
Dancing with the Incas
Carnival in Q'eros
photo: John Cohen at Ayacucho Festival, by Chris Strachwitz