Most fans of old time and early bluegrass music know John Cohen as a musician, and a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, with whom he toured from 1958 until 2008. Their 20 albums of traditional and contemporary music are considered milestones in the progression from true mountain folk music to the new performance style we now know as bluegrass.
John is also noted as a collector and archivist, and his many field recordings are likewise cherished by serious students of the style.
But his latest effort, Speed Bumps On A Dirt Road, showcases his skills in another field, that of documentary photography. Cohen taught photography for many years at SUNY Purchase College in New York, where he remains professor emeritus, and he excels at capturing musicians at just that perfect moment.
The hardcover book offers 224 pages of John’s brilliant images, starting from the late 1950s through to today, including photos of pioneers like Eck Robertson, The Stanley Brothers, Tex Logan, Pete Seeger, Alice Gerrard & Hazel Dickens, and of course Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Its subtitle explains the focus – When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass – for that is exactly what is highlighted across the pages. Each photo gets its own page, with very little explanatory text save identifying information, until the very end where the author’s comments explain each section in some detail.
Those old enough to remember the 1960s will be charmed by these crisp and evocative photos from a bygone era, just as younger fans will be offered the chance to see the music in a different time. Most of the images are candid, capturing artists in performance and in rehearsal, or chatting with friends and audience members in a variety of settings. All are presented in sharp black & white. Others record true folk musicians playing at home or in the outdoors back in the mountains. All represent the beauty of a music that was a gift from the Appalachian communities to the rest of the world.
Laid out in a horizontal, or landscape format, each page is sized 10-7/8 x 8-1/2 inches, using a heavy paper certain to hold up well under many examinations of the photos inside.
Speed Bumps On A Dirt Road is available now, directly from the publishers (Powerhouse Books) for $45, and from many of the popular online resellers.