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John's love of music permeated every realm of his life. His contribution to the world of music far surpasses any singular project or instrument. In 1958, he helped form the New Lost City Ramblers, a band known for their "old time" Appalachian repertoire and that changed the direction of folk music forever.  The Ramblers - John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tom Paley (who was later replaced by Tracy Schwarz) revived popular interest in traditional fiddle bands.  

In their forty years on stage, The New Lost City Ramblers brought a fresh, aggressively vernacular repertoire of spunky songs while introducing to the city the full array of country instrumental techniques. Their music influenced well known musicians including Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Ry Cooder.

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As a player of guitar, banjo, and mandolin, John Cohen also recorded and toured with the Putnam String County Band and made a solo record called Stories The Crow Told Me. His banjo playing featured a range of styles including frailing, two and three finger picking, and many distinctive tunings for the five-string banjo.

John recorded and produced the work of other musicians, making dozens of albums for Smithsonian Folkways. In 1961 he founded the Friends Of Old Time Music with Ralph Rinzler & Israel Young who presented the first New York concerts of countless old time musicians. He wrote for Sing Out! Magazine and produced extensive liner notes for many fellow musicians. His music-related collection - which includes extensive field and studio recordings as well as photographs and films - is now housed by the Library of Congress.

image: John at Yale Norfolk in 1958 with Ninon and Bernard Chaet

a life in music

NLCR recordings

The New Lost City Ramblers received Grammy nominations for two of their more than 25 recordings.

“We made it possible for urban-based musicians to step out of the demands of the music business and look out into America to get in touch with the genuine energy, drive and craziness out there.”




  • New Lost City Ramblers (1958) FA 2396

  • New Lost City Ramblers, Volume 2 (1959) FA 2397

  • New Lost City Ramblers, Volume 3 (1961) FA 2398

  • New Lost City Ramblers, Volume 4 (1961) FA 2399

  • New Lost City Ramblers, Volume 5 (1962, released 1963) FA 2395

  • Old Timey Songs for Children (1959, originally a 10" disc) FC 7064

  • Songs from the Depression (1959) FH 5264

  • Tom Paley, John Cohen and Mike Seeger Sing Songs of the New Lost City Ramblers (1961) FA 2494

  • American Moonshine and Prohibition (1962) FH 5263

  • Gone to the Country (1963) FA 2491

  • String Band Instrumentals (1964) FA 2492

  • Rural Delivery Number One (1965) FA 2496

  • Remembrance of Things to Come (1966) FTS 31035

  • Modern Times (1968) FTS 31027

  • Cousin Emmy with the New Lost City Ramblers (1968) FTS 31015

  • On the Great Divide (1973) FTS 31041

  • The New Lost City Ramblers (1961, a 7" disc) EPC 602

  • Earth is Earth (1961, a 7"disc) FF 869

  • Radio Special #1 (1963, a 7" disc) EPC 603

Smithsonian Folkways


  • The New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years, 1958-1962. SF 40036

  • The New Lost City Ramblers: Volume II, 1963-1973, Out Standing in Their Field. SF 40040

  • There Ain't No Way Out (1997) . SF 40098 




  • New Lost City Ramblers: 40 Years of Concert Recordings, 2001. Rounder 821 610 481-2

Flying Fish

  • 20 years - Concert Performances (1978, 2 LP set). Flying Fish 102 20th Anniversary Concert, with Elizabeth Cotten, Highwoods String Band, Pete Seeger & the Green Grass Cloggers. (1978) Grammy Nominee. Flying Fish 090




  • The New Lost City Ramblers & Friends (1963-5, released 1994) with Cousin Emmy, Maybelle Carter, Eck Robertson, Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs and Sam & Kirk McGee. 77011-2

stories the crow told me.jpg

solo album on Acoustic Disc

In 2006, John Cohen released a solo album, Stories the Crow Told Me, featuring guest artists David Grisman, Jody Stecher and Sue Draheim.


"John Cohen's genius lies in his persistent devotion to the rawest, densest, and most playful shades of old-time music. Forty years ago he helped found the seminal New Lost City Ramblers--a band that continues to perform today--and began his life's work of documenting and mastering string-band music, especially the banjo. In the process he has exposed a whole new generation to old-time country played as it is meant to be--with passion, wit, and skill. Accompanied by David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Sue Draheim, Cohen offers his first solo album, a smattering of familiar tunes such as "Cannonball," "Which Side Are You On?" and "Danville Girl." His voice cackles and cracks, and if not an easy listen, the songs reveal a secret history of American music. Fans of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and contemporary bluegrass will recognize melodies and lyrics across this album, and perhaps hear in Cohen's banjo and moan a deep connection to acoustic music of all kinds."

--Roy Kasten


other recordings

John Cohen recorded and performed with numerous projects through the years, including the Putnam String County Band, The Dustbusters, and The Downhill Strugglers, and as a guest musician with Last Forever, Peter Stampfel, and on Patti Smith's cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit

writing about music

album notes


  • Jerry Garcia & David Grisman "Shady Grove" (Acoustic Disc ACD 21)

  • Texas Gladden, Alan Lomax portrait series (Rounder 11661 1900-2)

  • Hobart Smith, Alan Lomax portrait series (Rounder 11661 1799-2)

  • Harry Smith Anthology Volume 4 (Revenant 211)

  • Mountain Music of Kentucky (SF CD 40077)

  • Roscoe Holcomb : The High Lonesome Sound (SF CD 40079)

  • High Atmosphere (Rounder CD 0028)

  • Old Love Songs and Ballads (from North Carolina) (Folkways FA 2309)

  • Dillard Chandler : The End Of An Old Song (Folkways FA 2418)

  • The Old Time Banjo Project (Electra LP)

  • The Old Time String Band Project (Electra LP)

  • Kathy & Carol (Electra LP)

  • New Lost City Ramblers (in all LPs & CDs)

selected articles


  • "Adapted and Arranged in the Public Domain" in New Lost City Ramblers Songbook

  • "Naming The High Lonesome Sound" in Bluegrass Unlimited

  • "The Folksong Revival: An Overview" in Wasn't That A Time: Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Song Revival, Scarecrow Press, 1995

  • "The New York Scene" in Wasn't That A Time: Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Song Revival, Scarecrow Press, 1995

  • "A Visitor's Recollections" in Southern Exposure: Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South, Chapel Hill, 1977

  • "Joan Baez" in Sing Out! Magazine

  • "The Musical Interchange" in Sing Out! Magazine

  • "John Cohen's Column" in The Little Sandy Review

  • "Fiddling Eck Robertson" in Sing Out! Magazine

full-length interview in Sing Out! magazine


  • Bob Dylan

  • Harry Smith *

  • Roscoe Holcomb

  • Dillard Chandler

  • Roger McGuinn

  • John Hartford

  • Pat Conte

*The Harry Smith interview [Sing Out!, April & July 1969] has been reprinted in American Magus (Inanout Press 1996), in Think of the Soul Speaking, and in Gadfly Magazine (Jan. 2000). It has been quoted in the Greil Marcus book Invisible Republic (Holt 1997), and in Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good. (Harvard Univ. Press 1996).

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