John Cohen started to make films in 1962 in order to bring music and images together. Filmmaking provided a way to present traditional musicians in their home setting, to reveal the environment in which music happens, and suggest how music functions within its community. His earliest films were about Appalachian music in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. He later surveyed a wide spectrum of American music, from the Carolina Sea Islands to the Oklahoma plains to the streets of Berkeley, California. In all of his films, Cohen examines the outlook of people at the lower end of the social structure who are known as "folk" in academic language and the language of the upper classes - a term never used by the people themselves (and therefore never in Cohen’s films). 

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John Cohen’s contribution to music filmography reaches into Britain, Greece, and especially the Andes of South America, where a series of films explores the isolated community of Q'eros, its survival strategies, textiles, rituals and festivals. His first documentary film in Peru, Q'eros: The Shape of Survival, was shown on PBS NOVA in 1979. In 1990 he made a film about Peruvian Huayno music, which is the popular music of the Andean people that combines Inca musical scales and rhythms with Spanish instruments, often performed on commercial records and popular radio shows throughout Peru. Subsequently he made the film Peruvian Weaving, A Continuous Warp-for 5,000 Years. With a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1983 and 1984 he produced the film Mountain Music of Peru, followed by Choqela: Only Interpretation. In 1988-89 with a Fulbright Fellowship, he made Carnival in Q'eros and Dancing with The Incas (which was shown on BBC TV). 

His films are distributed by the University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning. They are in the collections of many universities, colleges and libraries across America. Thousands of his prints and videos are in circulation.

“I had reached the place where the music alone didn’t communicate what I felt, and the still photographs by themselves couldn’t convey what I felt, and I was carrying around a growing frustration that I might never communicate what I had to say, so I made films about music, and that was a challenge so great and transformative that it became my main effort for the next twenty years…”

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The High Lonesome Sound (1963)

Songs of church-goers, miners, and farmers of eastern Kentucky express the joys and sorrows of life among the rural poor. This classic film evocatively illustrates how music and religion help Appalachians maintain their dignity and traditions in the face of change and hardship. The film features the noted Appalachian banjo picker Roscoe Holcomb and places him firmly in the context of the land and the people with whom he spent his life.

30 min.
B&W

Available on Folkstreams

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The End of an Old Song (1969)

Filmed in the mountains of North Carolina, this documentary revisits the region where English folklorist Cecil Sharp collected British ballads in the early 1900s. It contrasts the nature of the ballad singers with the presence of the jukebox; although the lyrical tradition has changed, the singing style continues. Features Dillard Chandler, who sings with rare intensity and style.

27 min.

B&W

Available on Folkstreams

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Musical Holdouts (1976)

This classic, entertaining survey of American traditional music presents varied individuals and groups who have not become part of the "melting pot" of American society. From front porch banjo pickers in Appalachia and the Bluegrass Festival circuit to black children on the Carolina sea islands, cowboys, and Cheyenne and Comanche Indians - all have retained their cultural identities despite pressures from the mass media and popular culture.

47 min.

Color

Available on Folkstreams

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Q’eros: The Shape of Survival (1979)

An acclaimed depiction of the way of life of the Q'eros Indians of Peru, who have lived in the Andes for more than 3,000 years. Their economy is
nearly self-sufficient and their location, at 14,000 feet, is well adapted for
their alpacas (raised for wool) their llamas (beasts of burden). The Q'eros
employ the same agricultural methods, play the same panpipes and flutes, and weave cloth using the same patterns as those described by Spanish chroniclers in the 16th century. The film presents Q'eros music in its shepherd and religious functions and weaving as an integral part of family life.

53 min.

Color

Available on Berkeley Media

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Peruvian Weaving: A Continuous Warp for 5000 Years (1980)

This film examines warp pattern weaving in Peru, an ancient Andean Indian tradition handed down from woman to woman for some 5,000 years. Featured are a detailed demonstration of the warp pattern technique on back-strap and four-stake looms by Indian weavers and an interview with Dr. Junius Bird, of the American Museum of Natural History, who discusses this weaving tradition and analyzes significant examples.

25 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Fifty Miles from Times Square (1981)

A colorful portrait of life in Putnam County, New York, with its "old-time fiddlers, farmers, commuters, and hippies," where an earlier, more traditional, relaxed style of life continues.

43 min.

Color

Sample at Square Dance History Project

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Sara & Maybelle: of the Original Carter Family (1981)

A rare filmed performance of two members of the original Carter family, whose recordings helped found the country music industry. Here Sara and Maybelle demonstrate their famous guitar picking and harmony singing on "Sweet Fern" and "Solid Gone."

10 min.

B&W

Available on Alexander Street

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Post Industrial Fiddle (1982)

This deceptively simple but profound film explores the importance of music-making in the life of a pulp mill worker in rural Maine. His "Down East" fiddling style is homemade music, influenced largely by local traditions. The film suggests that music is important as an individual creative act, as one piece of a complex lifestyle, and as one of the elements through which people communicate and sustain friendship.

23 min.

Color

Available on Folkstreams

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Gypsies Sing Long Ballads (1982)

Scotland's Gypsies have lived outside mainstream society for more than 500 years. Although some of the "Travelling People" still live by the sides of roads, most live today in houses and are under pressure to abandon their culture. This film celebrates their traditional music, especially the long unaccompanied British ballads that date back hundreds of years and have been handed down by memory through the generations.

30 min.
Color

Available on Alexander Street

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The Ballad and the Source (1983)

The tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing is very old and still cherished in Great Britain, though only a few traditional singers are still alive. This is a sensitive musical portrait of Walter Pardon, perhaps the finest living traditional English ballad singer.

16 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Mountain Music of Peru (1984)

This classic documentary portrait of the centuries-old music of the Andes demonstrates its importance in preserving the cultural identity of the impoverished native peoples. The musical thread that runs through the Andes extends back past the ancient culture of the Incas, and it is strong enough to have successfully resisted both the Spanish conquest and the forces of modern Western culture. This musical journey travels from small towns and remote mountain villages to the capital city of Lima, showing how Peru's popular music connects even the most isolated people.

60 min.
Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Choqela: Only Interpretation (1987)

This provocative and profound film documents the Choqela ceremony, an agricultural ritual and song of the Aymara Indians of Peru. By offering several different translations of the proceedings, the film acknowledges the problems of interpretation as an inherent dilemma of anthropology.

12 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Pericles in America (1988)

This musical portrait of immigrant clarinetist Pericles Halkias and the Epirot-Greek community explores the aspirations and ambivalences of Greek-Americans. Moving between Queens, New York and northern Greece, it presents the traditional music of Epirus, showing how the music unites the Epirot community around the world. The film defines America not as a melting pot, but rather as a place to make a better living. The Epirots who earn their living here have their hearts planted firmly in the mountains of Greece.

70 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Carnival in Q'eros: Where the Mountains Meet the Jungle (1991)

This groundbreaking documentary shows the remarkable Carnival celebrations -- never before seen by outsiders -- of a remote community of Indians high in the Peruvian Andes. Their culture offers important clues into the Inca past and the roots of Andean cultures. The Q'eros play flutes and sing to their alpacas in a ritual to promote the animals' fertility. The film shows how the music evolves from individual, to family, to ayllu, to community, a structure of spiritual activity distinct from the structure of kinship. The Q'eros sing and play separately from each other, producing a heterophonic sound without rhythmic beat, harmony, or counterpoint -- a "chaotic" sound texture that exemplifies a key connection between the culture of the Andes and that of the Amazon jungle. The film also focuses on the protracted negotiations by which the Indians were compensated for their participation in the project.

32 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Dancing with the Incas (1992)

This extraordinary film documents the most popular music of the Andes -- Huayno music -- and explores the lives of three Huayno musicians in a contemporary Peru torn between the military and the Shining Path guerrillas. The film shows how ancient Incan music passed down through the centuries has a contemporary life of its own in the cities of Peru. Lima on Sundays is alive with Huayno music, in which one hears authentic Inca melodies performed on every conceivable type of instrument. In the moody lyrics, the musings of oppressed people assume an existential and timeless quality even when a carnival atmosphere prevails. This is one of the few ethnographic films that deals with complex issues of cultural mixture. Rather than focusing on a single community or ethnic group, the film investigates a broad cultural region and illustrates what happens to it as it confronts the commercial traditions and demands of the West.

58 min.

Color

Available on Alexander Street

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Visions of Mary Frank (2014)

John Cohen- filmmaker, photographer, musician, ethnographer- visits with his friend Mary Frank in her Chelsea studio, talking about her life and her art.

55 min. Color

Watch it on Youtube

films  

screenings & awards

awards & festivals

  • PBS Nova

  • BBC Rhythms of the World

  • Margaret Mead Film Festival

  • San Francisco Film Festival award

  • Native American Film Festival (NYC)

  • San Antonio Film Festival, prize

  • VITAS Festival UCLA, first prize

  • Bilan Ethnographic Film Festival, Paris, first prize ethnomusicology film

  • London Film Festival

  • Nyon International Film Festival (Switzerland)

  • Festival dei Popoli (Florence)

  • National Educational Film Festival

  • Chicago Latino Film Festival

  • Latin American Film Festivals, Pueblos Indiginas in Mexico and Peru

 

screenings

 

  • Museum of Modern Art

  • Whitney Museum

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • National Gallery, Washington DC

  • Anthology Film Archive, NYC

  • American Museum of the Moving Image

retrospective film showing

 

  • Rhode Island School of Design

  • National Film Theater, London

  • The Collective for Living Cinema, NYC

  • Ethnomusicology Film Festival, Indiana University

  • The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


filmmaking grants
 

  • John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship

  • Fulbright Fellowship

  • National Endowment for the Arts Fellow (Media, Folk Arts)

  • New York State Council for the Arts grant

  • American Film Institute, Independent Filmmakers Award

  • US/UK Bicentennial Exchange Fellowship

  • Ford Foundation (Peru)

  • Laura Boulton Foundation for Ethnomusicology

  • NY Council for the Humanities

  • NYSCA Folk Arts

"From the standpoint of pure film, John Cohen's The High Lonesome Sound is the best folk music film I have yet seen. It is the only film that can stand on its own two feet, independent of the viewer's interest in folk music. [The filmmaker and editor)]are well aware of the possibilities of their medium and have structured each scene in a logical, common sense, yet highly artistic manner.... A genteel and a rollicking church service are balanced against each other (with some incisive camera work on children and the American flag in the more emotional service). The film is a real achievement, both as a film and as a serious study of a folksinger and his region."

- Sing Out! Magazine (Paul Nelson)