Andy Cohen: Kent State to Memphis, Going Out of the Road, & Avalon to Nitta Yuma For Bo

Andy Cohen: Kent State to Memphis, Going Out on the Road, & Avalon to Nitta Yuma For Bo
Part 1 by Ted Joy - (Akron, OH) Beacon Journal - May 22, 1994.
Part 2 by T. DeWayne Moore, director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund


It's the crack of dawn for folk singer Andy Cohen — a quarter past nine for the rest of us — and he's just crawled out of bed and groped his way to his second home, Brady's Cafe next to the Kent State University campus. He orders a plate of extra-greasy eggs and searches for his personal coffee mug, an ugly brown thing with "My Old Kentucky Home" inscribed on its side. He notes that he bought it for only a buck-and-a-half at Goodwill. 

After filling the cup with high-octane, steaming black coffee, he climbs the stairs to the balcony and settles into a creaky chair at a graffiti-covered table. He picks the eggs apart almost daintily, simultaneously lighting up the first of many cigarettes. Cohen is an interesting-looking guy. His eyes still twinkle and he grins disarmingly at unexpected moments. A little on the short side, he dresses with a sort of Salvation Army panache.

Read a John Dos Passos novel about the Greenwich Village bohemians of the 1920s and you could readily see him fitting right in. Read a Jack Kerouac novel about the beatniks of the 1950s and the same thing. Read about the hippies —well, you get the idea.

In short, Andy Cohen is the Eternal Hipster. In all of the good senses of the term and few of the bad.
"The clock's running out," he announces. "This fellow I know. Produced my last recording. Just a year or two older than me. He died last year. Cancer. Terrible. And other things too. I'm finally finishing my master's degree. Cultural anthropology. About the old blues singers of the Piedmont."
Cohen speaks in a soft voice, one you often have to strain to hear. It's both nasal and deep at the same time. Sometimes he talks in long, convoluted sentences that sound like a badly written article in an academic journal. Other times he talks like a slightly watered-down version of George Bush — a comparison that most likely would mortify his ultra-liberal sensibilities. Still, undeniably, there is a sort of charisma to Cohen when he talks. And, even more so, when he sings.

For the first time in seventeen years — since he first came to Kent — he wasn't at the annual Kent State Folk Festival. Instead, this February he was in Boston with musicians from all over the country for the National Folk Alliance. "Networking," he exclaims, "Trying to figure out how to make a living out of their music. I've been doing it (singing) for 25 years and I'm not doing it (making it pay off) yet. Neither is anyone else." Kent's folk festival has always been a subject near and dear to his heart. For three or four years in the mid and late-1980s he ran it. Since then, he's been a major behind-the-scenes influence. 

(Lansing, MI) State
Journal, Oct 27, 1994.
"I'm going back to being a musician full-time," Cohen insisted, "and I've got to make a living at it." Thus Boston, and after Boston--the road, specifically a tour for the better part of a month throughout the Midwest. Home for a couple of weeks. Back on tour in the South and the Southeast. Somewhere in between he planned to squeeze in enough time to record a couple of albums: one of children's songs he's written himself and the other of the music of the old-time bluesman, the Rev. Gary Davis. "I learned most of what I know from Rev. Gary," Cohen admitted, certainly "most of what I know about music" and also most of what I know "about life, too." 

According to Cohen, he grew up "a red diaper baby," the son of a labor lawyer in a small factory town in Massachusetts. Both his father and mother were supported the platform of Communist Party, but they stopped a bit short of official party membership.[1] 
"We always had music playing in the house. Jazz. Classical. That kind of stuff, too. By people like the Weavers. Of course, at the time I thought they were real folk singers. They weren't. They were interpreters. Like me." 
"Then I heard Gary (Davis) play. He was an old black country minister. And a number of things began to make sense to me. Really make sense. They slammed together in such a way that they haven't come apart yet. That was when I was in college. Out at the University of......If you saw the Rev. Gary Davis play and sing and preach the way he did, you could not help but reject any notion that imposed less than fully human status on black people. We are all of the same species. Different sizes and shapes and colors. But still the same underlying people." 
Reverend Gary Davis
(late 1950s)
Cohen stops to light another cigarette, to gulp some more coffee. 
"Rev. Gary's playing is the pinnacle of country blues and country dance music. It's black country music. Not white. It's highly elaborated. It's systematic. It should be treated as if it were classical music. That's what I try to do. I try to present clean, accurate readings of what I consider to be America's classic music." 
Cohen explains that he'll always be a re-creator — not a creator — of the blues. His status as a white, middle-class, college-educated male assures that distinction. 
"I can't have the blues. Because I'm one of those sustained by this society. Not broken down by it," he says. "My wife has a good job. I've never had one. Always menial work. Janitor. Dishwasher. Assistant junior copy boy at the Chicago Sun Times. I sharpened Mike Royko's pencils. And Roger Ebert's. The only job I've ever had to use my brains for was when I worked as a field archaeologist for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. We excavated the Gateway site in downtown Cleveland." 

He stops to think about what he's been saying, lights another cigarette, and looks at his empty coffee cup with something approaching disgust.
"In terms of material wealth I am richer than almost everyone in history has been. "I have a house where my name is on the mortgage and where it's always warm in the winter and I don't have to miss a meal and I have toys to play with. I am a very fortunate..., person." 
He pauses before the word "person," almost saying "man" instead. But in his usual politically correct way, he stops himself. He drifts off for a moment and then returns:
"It's not just that Gary was given to be able to throw off creative sparks. He did it every day. Every single day! Eight hours a day! He worked and worked and worked. He did very little else but play music and teach other people to play music. "It's time for me to try that. I've been a student here for the last nine years. Now it's time to move on. Time is running out."
In 1979, Cohen's first album, Shuffle Rag, was released on the June Appal label, the audio recording arm of a non-profit media organization called Appalshop, which began in 1969 as a project of the United States government's War on Poverty and established itself as a filmmaking hub "to document, disseminate, and revitalize" the lasting traditions and cultural diversity that exists in Appalachia.

Cohen rediscovered Walter & Ethel Phelps
 in Asheville, NC in the 1970s;
Asheville Citizen Times, Feb 20, 2000. 

Having travelled and performed with many amazing, yet underappreciated, blues singers, Andy Cohen's repertoire contains in upwards of 1,000 different blues songs.



Cohen managed to conduct an extensive amount of research in Ohio, but he does not consider himself a "qualified" ethnomusicologist. He listened to a mountain of old recordings and studied many monographs, such as David Evans' Big Road Blues, Jeff Todd Titan's Early Downhome Blues, Kip Lornell and Charles K. Wolfe's Leadbelly, Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, and the Memphis author Robert Gordon's Can't Be Satisfied about Muddy Waters as well as his earlier work, It Came From Memphis, which contains a chapter on the Memphis County Blues Society of the late 1960s. He learned much more over the years too from his experiences on the road with older African American blues musicians. When he was around such musicians as Walter and Ethel Phelps in the 1970s & 80s, his primary interest was getting them work," he said. For many years, Cohen served as a booking agent for long-forgotten blues musicians such as the late "Blind" Jim Brewer, a Delta bluesman who had played on Maxwell Street in Chicago. "He and I were both great fans of Big Bill Broonzy, so we started hanging out together and I started bringing him around the country with me." Later, Cohen paid the same favor to Dan Smith, a harmonica player from Alabama, and Daniel Womack, a blind blues musician from Richmond.

Cohen has released numerous recordings since his first contributions on an album showcasing the best of The Detroit Folk Scene in 1970. All of them are listed HERE. In 2006, Cohen arranged for musicians from the Ozarks Folk Center to attend the Folk Alliance Convention.
The Greenwood Commonwealth, July 5, 2002.

In 2002, Cohen was once again "lured" back into serving as a festival director, after he participated, along with his wife Larkin Bryant Cohen, in the dedication of John Hurt Museum in Avalon, Mississippi. He organized and performed at successful benefit concerts for the nascent institution, and he also worked for a time as director of the Mississippi John Hurt Festival. In addition, he has penned reviews and other texts for Sing Out!, an academic journal devoted to diversity in traditional and contemporary folk music. In the main, however, Cohen makes a living performing songs from the blues traditions of the 1920s to the 1940s, to which he set his mind in the mid-1990s. 

The Greenwood Commonwealth, February 17, 2003.
This author met him first through social media after the aforementioned Memphis author Robert Gordon contacted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund about locating and marking the grave of Memphis songster Frank Stokes. Cohen not only performed excellent renditions of his songs, but he also served as the local authority on the leader of the Beale Street Sheiks. Unfortunately, we did not begin our correspondence until the after the announcement of the late June dedication, an event he could not attend. Much like his friend Bob Bovee, "his heart is buried in asphalt, in the stuff that takes him to one more bar, so he can strum his guitar, play his harmonica, [and] sing the old songs." That did not stop us from engaging, from time to time, in scholarly discussions about everything from acculturation to cultural appropriation to the social construction of race and authenticity. And it was immediately evident that Cohen had by no means left academic study in his wake to go on the road. Taking on almost all of the big ideas and concepts that tend to upset the ways some music enthusiasts see the world. he drew on his personal experiences to inform the cogent analysis that always popped up beside that reconstructed skull of a Denisovan.

I made the drive up to Memphis in January 2017, and I finally met the experienced musician in person at the home of Martha Kelly. Cohen had arranged the intimate performance space for a cowboy from Minnesota named Bob Bovee. Before he delivered a masterful performance of blues, folk, and hillbilly tunes, Cohen got the opportunity to relay, what has since seemed to be, one of his favorite introductions: "Bob comes by his music honestly, from his family." Both men had, indeed, been brought up to appreciate the cultural traditions of their ancestors as well as those of others found on record, and many others, still, found out on the road.

In June, Manard's just
got to Know Why...
It was a good night for the audience as well, which included this one guy who was the straight-up truth, Tony Manard, even if he did bill himself on his cards as a "teller of tales," who I recently learned is set to release an album in June. Unlike Detective Joe Friday from the 1960s TV show Dragnet, Manard is not focused on the facts so much and contends it's more important to Know Why. Or, he may still be kicking himself for never engaging the beautiful, "thin and delicate, half Palestinian and half Puerto Rican" amateur manicurist named Rosa in conversation during one of their many nail-filing sessions on the dreaded vo-tech bus he rode in high school each time his '66 Chevelle "broke down" and "forced" him to listen to her complaints about her boyfriend. Since he does not "know why" he remained silent during the sessions, it might be suggested that he conduct an interview. If I could track down Delta Arts Project founder K. Shalong after more than 30 years and several name changes, well, let's just say, the truth is out there...






Artist rendering of Bo Carter with
his steel-bodied National guitar

Not long after that very cool, magical night, we managed to raise the required funds to protect the abandoned Nitta Yuma Cemetery in Sharkey County, Mississippi and at long last mark the grave of Armenter Chatmon, better known as Bo Carter. In fact, we plan to do just that on July 29, 2017.

Andy Cohen is coming to Nitta Yuma on July 29th to help us dedicate the marker for Bo Carter. He might "present clean, accurate readings" of what he considers to be "America's classic music." In full Salvation Army gusto, he may carry a fully-loaded 44-caliber repertoire and bring the hokum thunder down on Nitta Yuma. Either way, we will be happy to just be around that "interesting-looking guy," who some have described as a little on the short side, always with a twinkle in his eyes, perhaps even wearing one of those disarming grins as he arrives...



This short video offers a history of our campaign to honor Bo Carter...


NOTES

[1] Harvey Klehr, in his 1984 book The Heyday of American Communism, traces the most popular era of communism in America, but he limits his research to Soviet sources, finds no other influences on the Communist Party in America, revives the old argument that Soviets dominated the Party, and concludes that it was an overall failure.
     Mark Naison, however, in his 1983 book Communists in Harlem During the Depression, traces the complex relationship between labor radicals, the Communist International, and political leaders in the black community; Robin D.G. Kelley, in her 1990 book Hammer and Hoe, uncovered the black communists in Alabama during the 1930s; and Michael Denning, in his 1997 book The Cultural Front, suggests that the cultural front of the 1930s continued to inform and influence the next several generations and opened up the dominant culture to the experiences and ideals of the American working class. Justifying his re-examination with an explication of the major ideas that gave it power, Denning argues that the combined influence of organized labor, New Deal liberalism, the growing class consciousness of second-generation immigrants, and the rise of mass communication allowed for the dissemination of Popular Front ideals—socially democratic, anti-fascist, and pro-worker.

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