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

"Blues is not nostalgia, Blues is History, and Blues is Truth."

Andy Cohen: On The Roots Road Again

Andy Cohen is a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist who has been described as "a walking, talking folk-blues-roots music encyclopedia." He grew up in a home with a piano and lots of Dixieland Jazz records. During the Sixties Folk Revival, he got hooked on the music of Big Bill Broonzy and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. When Andy was 16, he heard South Carolina's Rev. Gary Davis perform and the effect on him was profound. He has devoted his life to studying, performing, and promoting the blues of the southeastern states. Andy has played with many of the major blues players of the 20th century, including Rev. Gary Davis, John Jackson, Phil Wiggins, John Cephas, Hank Duncan, Honeyboy Edwards, Mad Dog Lester, Big Joe Duskin, Howard Armstrong, Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, John Dee Holeman, Larry Johnson, Eugene Powell, Johnnie Shines, Jim Brewer, Rev. Dan Smith, and many others. He's hung out with even more. Andy has helped to support a number of his mentors -- organizing festivals and gigs for them, and writing about and paying homage to them. As well, he's taught the tradition to a couple of dozen players who are now professionals.           Andy Cohen, Photo by Rick Carr

Andy Cohen has more than a dozen recordings to his credit, including Oh Glory, How Happy I Am: The Sacred Songs of Rev. Gary Davis and Andrew M. Cohen: Dolceola Favorites. An enthusiastic proponent of the dolceola, Andy says he "never leaves home without it." Described by some as a "miniature piano," the dolceola has a keyboard, but the strings are struck with wooden mallets. Along the way, Andy earned a Master's Degree in anthropology. His passions come together in his essay on "The Hands of Blues Guitarists," published in Ramblin' On My Mind: New Perspectives On the Blues, edited by David Evans (2008). Brand new album ROAD BE KIND (2015) by Earwig, reflects Andy’s life over many years on the road, folkin’ around with the blues. A masterful acoustic guitarist, folklorist, and genuine troubadour, Andy never ceases to impress with his expert knowledge and high level of playing traditional blues, folk and true Americana music. This new album offers, in addition to traditional songs, several written by old friends whose voices he wants to keep alive, plus, as a special treat, his self-penned “Five And Ten Cent Blues,” the song Andy says sets the tone of his life and is his personal favorite.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues & folk culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I am creeping up on my three score and ten, and I have leaned on African American music for all kinds of things, my whole life, from a kid. Corey Harris very sensibly makes the point that ‘Blues’ as such is the culture of African Americans, and while white folks may play and sing it well, be committed to it and promote it as their heart’s desire, they will never be able to do more than express the blues. They can’t ‘live’ it any more than a middle class suburbanite could instantly become an Eskimo. With my little Masters in Anthropology, I agree with that completely. I am a student of a foreign culture in which I have some close friends and some major identification, but I am what I am.

How do you describe Andy Cohen sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Pianistic. Piano, especially Ragtime piano, was my first instrument. The way I play the guitar, borrowing heavily from the likes of Rev. Davis, is orchestral, several coordinated parts at once- melody, rhythm, harmony, percussive effects. I have a sort of specialty of end-to-end runs on the fingerboard, just because I like to show off. But when I’m playing seriously, I leave the gymnastics to the side and concentrate on the beauty of the music itself.

"My hope for this music is that it will be claimed in toto by the descendants of those who created it out of less than nothing." (PHOTO: 'Road Be Kind' by Eric Johnson, 2015 Earwig Music)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Roots/Folk/Blues researches and experiments?

When I was coming up, the Blues were not a new thing for me. My dad, a labor lawyer, liked blues and jazz, as well as folk music, show music and all manner of classical material.  I didn’t go for that so much, personally. But I thrilled to be able to play the older popular music of his day, my several Uncles’ day, and the Old Guys’ day. My own explorations- motivated by seeing Rev. Davis, learning Big Bill’s material and meeting and working with Jim Brewer in Chicago, was focused on getting whatever music work I could for the Old Guys. My job was to get them gigs, take them there, and learn from them even as I took them around.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Probably getting to know Jim Brewer. The way the Blues World is constructed, it is an attempt to promote the founders, get them a living, popularize the music more broadly, add to it if possible, and generally to work its mechanisms according to a higher social standard, such that the Old Ones’ music is preserved ‘in the air’ at the same time that all participants, white, African American, Japanese, American Indian blues players, all get a shot. It ain’t perfect, but those seem to me to be the implicit ground rules. The best advice I ever got was from an Anthro prof I had at University of Illinois, Bill Ringle. He told me that my music had great integrity (I was all of nineteen) and that I should ply it and never abandon it.

Are there any memories from John Jackson, Honeyboy Edwards, and Etta Baker which you’d like to share with us?

John Jackson was among other things a ‘coin shooter’. He had a radar device that found metal in the ground, and he would visit different Civil War battlefields and look for artifacts. I didn’t argue with him when he told me that made him an archaeologist (technically he would have been a pot-looter, the bane of archaeologists because they disturb the physical context of the material and render it useless for analysis. I just encouraged him to think beyond his own time.)

Honeyboy was a trip. His stories, his no-nonsense approach to his music work and his attachment to his neighborhood were what I took from him. As for Etta, I think she said the wisest thing I ever heard. At one point she was backstage at the Cuyahoga Valley Festival, hobbling around on a bad ankle that never got fixed, about to open for no less than McCoy Tyner.  She turned to me and said, ’It isn’t written in the Book that Etta Baker is supposed to have an easy time of it.’ I guess that pretty much goes for everybody, me included.

"Blues stood the music world on its head at a time when that very thing was badly needed." (Photo: Andy Cohen)

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

In 1971, when I was working with a co-op full of folkies in Saratoga, I made an offhand prediction, that some middle class, educated African American twenty-somethings were going to pick up on the old music and learn to cherish it as I did. For whatever reason, my prediction turned out right: Corey Harris, Dom Flemons, Don Vappie, Tony Thomas, Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Cedric Watson, Kaia Kater-Hurst, Eric Freeman, Larry Johnson, the Ebony Hillbillies, Hubby Jenkins, Josh White Junior, Jerron Paxton and many others I don’t know so much about, have taken up this mantle, combining preservation with innovation and recombination, in a way that warms the cockles of this old anthropologist’s heart. I am proud to be associated with all of them, as they take this burden very seriously and do kid’s shows all over the place when they play out. My hope for this music is that it will be claimed in toto by the descendants of those who created it out of less than nothing.

Which memory from Rev. Gary Davis, Big Joe Duskin, Elizabeth Cotten, and Johnnie Shines makes you smile?

Too many to count. From Rev. Davis, just being around him for the short times I was, where I could watch him play and interact with him. Big Joe was a hoot, a great performer, interesting conversationalist, piano tech extraordinaire and all around raconteur. I traveled with him one time from Cincinnati to Winnipeg and back for a week long gig at a hotel. We just talked and talked for hours on that drive. One story about Mrs. Cotten: I adapted a piece, Spanish Flangdang, off an early record of Jackie Washington’s (Johnny Landron, not the Canadian jazz guy), and I played it for her at a festival in Binghamton where she was. Her response was,’ That ain’t none o’ mine!’. I had so changed it that she all but didn’t recognize it.  I still play the piece, and I still ascribe it to her, her protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Johnny Shines I met at the John Henry folk festival, which had a few white people on staff but whose performers were all Black, Native American or Poor White. Following that experience, I was given control of some unspent money at UNC Asheville where I was going at the time. I hired Glenn Ohrlin, Tracy Schwarz and Johnny, all at different times, to play at the university and then a few days later, at Asheville Junction, the coffeehouse that I ran in the Allen Center. He stayed with me for a week, played all my guitars, and we played pinochle. Lots of pinochle. Now, I grew up playing pinochle, and I’m an okay player, nothing special. He was so good, he never even bothered to set his hand up in suits, just played the cards from where they sat in his hand. It was worth losing a few bucks, just to see how good he was at it. And it was from him that I learned the technique of endearing myself to old bluesmen: Let them beat you playing cards! Then you’ll always be welcome company!

"The best advice I ever got was from an Anthro prof I had at University of Illinois, Bill Ringle. He told me that my music had great integrity (I was all of nineteen) and that I should ply it and never abandon it." (PHOTO: Andy Cohen, hamming with his Dulceola, The Lake County Folk Club)

You are also known as Dolceola player. Would you tell a little bit about that? What are the secrets of?

Along with Ray Skjelfred, who lives on the west coast, I am the only professional Dolceola player. But he doesn’t tour, I do, and I take the instrument with me wherever I go. The Dolceola is a chord zither, made in Toledo, Ohio between 1903 and 1907. In that last year, a big depression hit American manufacturing and the Toledo Symphony Company, located in a soap flake factory in downtown Toledo, went under along with hundreds of thousands of other small businesses across the US. They had made about five thousand instruments, and printed music for them in their own proprietary notation system, just like the other Zither companies- East Boston Phonoharp, Dolgeville-Zimmermann, the Marx-O-Chime Colony, the American Zither company and several others. There are about thirty five or forty Dolceolae left in the world. I have owned seven of them and played or handled twenty one of them. I’ve also tracked small changes in their design that correlate with their serial number sequences, so we can now make a pretty good estimate of when the changes appeared. There’s no secret. If you can play piano, and have a little bit of a theory background, it’s real easy to play and improvise on. It was built by two brothers, David and Leander Boyd, who wanted to make a ‘portable piano, suitable for boat rides, picnics, dances and church functions’, and to serve as a child’s piano for teaching little ones how to play.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Gospel and continue to Folk and Spiritual music?

Blues seems to emerge from Gospel forms, though somewhat altered and musically more diverse. Most early blues players were rural farm types, and would have been familiar with a great many forms of music through direct association from childhood: play-parties, rhymes of all kinds, including rhyming slang, ‘toasts’, children’s games with associated rhymes like Rockin’ Robin (‘Popsicle’), clapping games, ditties, religious music going all the way back to Isaac Watts, whatever was popular in shows and sheet music at a given moment, and a little later, whatever was current in recorded form, cylinder or 78. It seems to have condensed in several places as blues, but without a name until Ma Rainey named it in 1902. Elijah Wald (PC) told me the players would have expressed it as ‘the new style’ or words to that effect, until it acquired enough commercial cachet to encourage particular investment.

The word ‘Folk’ (‘Volk’) is German for peasant. Those who first played blues as Friday night dance music at jukes and country suppers were certainly that. Most of them were sharecroppers, if you look through DG&R, the Blues Who’s Who or the recent Blues Encyclopedia issued under Ed Komara’s inspired direction. So Blues is certainly continuous with all those legitimately labeled Folk forms. With the Great Migration, Blues was transformed along with Gospel music, and the two commercially major forms intermixed freely under urban circumstances. John Cephas and Rev. Dan Smith both told me for a surety that the particular form the music took had little to do with whether a song was a blues song or a gospel song; rather, it was the intentionality of the words that made it one or the other. In general that works, though there are some close cases of Bluesy Holiness and equally close cases of Holy Blues.

"The way I play the guitar, borrowing heavily from the likes of Rev. Davis, is orchestral, several coordinated parts at once- melody, rhythm, harmony, percussive effects." (PHOTO: Dan Randall)

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Blues stood the music world on its head at a time when that very thing was badly needed. Its simplicity, the ineluctable yearning associated with it, the social traps it pointed out, the compromises its players had to make just in order to be able to continue playing it, whether they were pros or semi-pros, its general accessibility in both linguistic and musical terms, accommodating a people who had been educationally shortchanged, helped to bring knowledge of horrid conditions to many consciences on the other side of the Color Line. Blues is not nostalgia, Blues is History, and Blues is Truth.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Bring me back to a street corner in Harlem in 1952, where I could see Rev. Davis playing with Rev. McKinley Peebles (who used to be Sweet Papa Stovepipe when he was a Blueser in the twenties). Let me ride with Daddy Stovepipe in 1877, from Tuxedo Junction (yeah, *that* Tuxedo Junction) to Mexico, where he took up the guitar and learned to be a mariachi. Let me bum with Honeyboy up and down highway 61. Let me set Little Brother Montgomery up with a beer in a barrelhouse by the side of the Southern tracks somewhere between Vicksburg and Memphis. Let me be a fly on the wall in Church Park when the Memphis Jug Band is playing, and Honeyboy and Big Walter just walked in from Shaw, Mississippi and are now sitting in, making two dollars apiece in an hour. Let me sub for Josh White as he takes one or another blind player out to make their daily bread. Put me on a steamboat in 1895…

Andy Cohen - Official website

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