Q&A with virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist Andy Cohen, a walking, talking folk-blues-roots music encyclopedia

"I am happy that there is a cultural revival movement among young Black Americans that wants to reclaim their cylinder and 78 heritage, as Irish, Appalachian, Jewish, Chicano, German, East European, Mongol, Asian and African people have been able to do. Traditional music is a visible and audible sign of health in a culture. If it is vibrant, it all acts together to bring solidarity to the communities the music serves."

Andy Cohen: Going Back To The Roots

Andy Cohen is a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist who has been described as "a walking, talking folk-blues-roots music encyclopedia." Andy Cohen grew up in a house with a piano and a lot of Dixieland Jazz records, amplified after a while by a cornet that his dad got him. At about fifteen, he got bitten by the Folk Music bug, and soon got to hear records by Big Bill Broonzy and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, both of which reminded him of the music he grew up to. At sixteen, he saw Reverend Gary Davis, and his course was set. He knew he had it in him to follow, study, perform and promote the music of the southeast quadrant, America’s great musical fountainhead. Although he’s done other things, a certain amount of writing and physical labor from dishwashing and railroading to archeology, playing the old tunes is what he does best. In 2012, Andy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Autoharp Gathering.

(Andy Cohen at Blind Blake's Gravesite, Milwaukee, WI / Photo by Eric Johnson)

Andy Cohen is a blues musician who, when he’s not on the road touring, resides in Memphis Tennessee. Playing mostly Southeastern music that was on 78’s, this includes blues, gospel, country dance music, fiddle tunes, monologues, ballads, classic rags, ditties, country songs and boogies. Andy Cohen’s new albums “Tryin' To Get Home” and “Small But Mighty” by Earwig Music Company will be release on November 20th. It's the usual assortment of blues numbers, fingerbusters, a couple of piano pieces, a few more recent songs and a topical rewrite of Death Don't Have No Mercy aimed at keeping your children out of school until the plague dies down. Small But Mighty is for smart aleck kids and their smart aleck parents. It's a similar collection to the grownup record, but scaled for growing people. We don't talk baby talk to our kids.

Interview by Michael Limnios              Andy Cohen, Interview 2015 @ Blues.gr

How has the Blues and Folk Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I would say that the Blues and Traditional Music people of the world, along with songwriters from their sundry traditions, seek to establish a baseline I don't see it as counterculture at all. It is the original cultures these songs and tunes came from, a little bit of the culture, enough to get inside the door and begin to identify with it, any of those cultures. We are continuing the words of the grandfathers, because we think they hold wisdom for our own day. The culture that wishes to preserve all that and extend it, is decidedly not the Establishment culture that would bulldoze it in favor of common denominator easy listening. I like the old-time music because it takes effort and imagination to contend with it. Simply isn't the same thing as easy, but the issues raised in the old songs are ones that still plague us today. We are the culture 'THEY' are the counterculture.

Where does your creative drive come from? How do you want your music and songs to affect people?

That's two separate questions. For the first one, I haven't a clue. I think of myself as slothful and indolent, but somehow, with a lot of effort on the part of other people who put up with me, we get stuff out there and it holds its own...

How do I want people to be affected? Well first, I want them to like it enough to pay attention to the details. Second, of course, I'd like them to buy it so that Michael Frank (Earwig) and I can live lives of sybaritic excess. But third, and most importantly, I want them to see the characters in the songs the way they see themselves and their neighbors. The old songs describe mechanical times, steam times, when people died from cut fingers and diseases, they didn't have names for. I want modern folks to understand that.

"That the journey is wound around many other journeys you take at the same time, but as it's a constant, it acts as a guidepost. I've been playing music for 71 years, more and more actively as time goes on. If I couldn't do that, I would be sweeping floors or stuck in an office somewhere, but I have the freedom that I took, and worked, as much as possible without taking anything I didn't earn." (Andy Cohen / Photo by Eric Johnson)

How started the thought of “Small But Mighty”? What was the hardest part of writing Songs For Growing People?

I always read and sang to my daughter Moira when she was little. We had festivals full of people in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night when she was a kid, and she thought everybody lived like that. She came up with the title. I was going to call it 'Songs for Smartass Kids', but she knew better.

It wasn't hard at all, actually. Of the ones I wrote, I wrote them years ago, when I lived up in Ohio and Moira was little. Now she's a civil rights lawyer, following in my dad's footsteps. He was a labor lawyer. We are both very concerned about children, about them eating, not being in cages, and getting the love, attention and education that they need.

Why do you think that the Pre-War music and songs continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it's the BEST! Musically and lyrically, working class peoples' music is succinct, follows local musical rules and conventions that everybody around there understands in their bones, it tells stories and conveys points of view not often heard from. And because the nutcases like me and a million others, more or less, who follow it, see it all as primal literature, not just as bunch of songs by so many individuals. There is something very pure about those 78s. What the players lacked in formal education, they more than made up for in musical sophistication and human insight.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would even out the gigs. I think it's idiotic that the pyramidal structure of the music industry, which divides about the same as the rest of the economy, should be dominated by a few superstars while thousands of thoroughly professional musicians, entertainers, writers, continually scratch. If we are workers, 'artisans' sd Dave Bromberg puts it, why can't a whole lot more of us make an artisan-worthy living on a continual basis, rather than be subject to the same system we're trying to mitigate in the first place. Okay. let's say whoever has a #1 hit today is inherently better than me. Is that person three or four million times as deserving of support? Maybe not. Rather, I've always wanted to see thousands of gigs across the country, set up in such a way that they each held their own and could accommodate both house singers and travelers, and make the distinctions as minimal as possible, rather than the sharp pointed pyramid we seem to be stuck with.

"I would say that the Blues and Traditional Music people of the world, along with songwriters from their sundry traditions, seek to establish a baseline I don't see it as counterculture at all. It is the original cultures these songs and tunes came from, a little bit of the culture, enough to get inside the door and begin to identify with it, any of those cultures." (Photo: Andy Cohen)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

That the journey is wound around many other journeys you take at the same time, but as it's a constant, it acts as a guidepost. I've been playing music for 71 years, more and more actively as time goes on. If I couldn't do that, I would be sweeping floors or stuck in an office somewhere, but I have the freedom that I took, and worked, as much as possible without taking anything I didn't earn. Being a performer is a public way of participating in a culture that is a blend of things, and consistently getting paid (if moderately) to do it allows me to remain at the practice more or less continuously. But the job itself, learning, meeting, contacting, figuring out, promoting exemplary individuals, booking shows, making some kind of sense of the literature as a whole, is the other seven eighths of the iceberg, just like any other job.

What were the reasons that many Jews people/musicians in 50s-60s started the Folk/Roots/Blues researches?

Jews identify, and are identified with, other peoples who are 'Old Testament' types, particularly Southern Black people, but the Southern White working class is also included in there. The root word for 'Slave', let's remember is 'Slav', what Jewish people in eastern Europe were called, and also, how American immigration law referred to them. There was enough of a natural affinity that while bonds aren't as strong as during the Depression and the bad old days of the early Civil Rights Movement, it's still there. All the practitioners drink from the same ocean, and we love that ocean. I am happy that there is a cultural revival movement among young Black Americans that wants to reclaim their cylinder and 78 heritage, as Irish, Appalachian, Jewish, Chicano, German, East European, Mongol, Asian and African people have been able to do. Traditional music is a visible and audible sign of health in a culture. If it is vibrant, it all acts together to bring solidarity to the communities the music serves.

What would you say characterizes Memphis blues scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits?

Well, we have the Blues Foundation, Beale Street and a lot of tourism that constitutes a largish chunk of the economies of west Tennessee and most of Mississippi. It's not the world but it's not nothing either. A lot of people, labels, techs, scholarship have established themselves from here. and it's a gathering place for the Heavies of the Blues World. It's where the IBC and the BMA's and the KBA's are held, so it acts as one of the major tent poles holding up the broader tent.

"I like the old-time music because it takes effort and imagination to contend with it." (Photo: Andy Cohen)

You play mostly music that was on 78’s era. What stands out most in your mind from that time? How has the music changed most since those days? 

It's what they didn't have: education, voting rights, penicillin, money, all those features of the Culture of Poverty as Oscar Lewis described it. And they turned the whole world upside down anyway, a few hundred sons and daughters of sharecroppers. It all concentrated right here. If they can do it, we can too.

Andy Cohen - Home

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