John Cohen, Roscoe Holcomb, and Documentary Expression during the Folk Revival
This chapter explores the field recordings, films, and photographs John Cohen made in eastern Kentucky during the 1950s and 1960s, particularly of the musician Roscoe Holcomb. It discusses Cohen’s connection to the era’s folk music revival and how his documentary work in the region represented both a break with his predecessors and a continuation of the tradition’s dominant themes. Cohen was motivated by personal desire and aesthetic interests rather than reformism or politics. Under the influence of the modern folk revival, Beat culture, Abstract Expressionism, and existentialism, Cohen created a new documentary ethos and methodology. Yet, he also presented Holcomb and southern Appalachia in a familiar manner. In his photographs, on records such as Mountain Music of Kentucky, and in his film, The High Lonesome Sound, they represented pure tradition, symbols of folk authenticity in an increasingly standardized and commercialized America. This chapter also addresses how Holcomb, and some members of his family, challenged Cohen’s vision of their culture and home, and how Holcomb himself, despite his friendship with Cohen, occasionally resisted Cohen’s attempts to represent his private life for a public audience.
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