Q&A with legendary David Bennett Cohen, an original member of the '60's rock band, Country Joe and the Fish

"I want my music to affect people in a positive way. Take them out of their suffering and impart joy in their lives. Make them reflect. Help them achieve what Buddhism terms, Human Revolution. Of course, this is a goal that I strive for. And every gig is new. Every audience an opportunity."

David Bennett Cohen: A Music Buddha

David Bennett Cohen has been a professional musician for more than 50 years. Best known for his innovative keyboard playing as an original member of the '60's rock band, Country Joe and the Fish, he is an equally accomplished guitar player who has been involved in numerous music scenes throughout his varied career. David began his musical education at the age of seven, studying classical piano for seven years. While studying the piano, he began to teach himself the guitar, beginning at the age of nine. When he was 14, he heard boogie-woogie piano for the first time and was hooked. Since then, he has explored many different styles of Blues and popular music. He was fortunate enough to have heard Otis Spann, Professor Longhair, Meade Lux Lewis and other masters of the genre perform live. In addition to Country Joe and the Fish, over the years, he has played and/or recorded with The Blues Project, Mick Taylor, The Luther Tucker Blues Band, Elvin Bishop, Hubert Sumlin, Melvin Van Peebles, Happy and Artie Traum, Arlen Roth, Eric Anderson, David Blue, Tim Hardin, Norton Buffalo, Jerry Miller, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Buddy Miles, Canned Hear, John Cippolina, Huey Lewis, Michael Bloomfield, Bob Weir, John Kahn, Johnnie Johnson, Jimmy Vivino, Jay Owens, Debbie Davies, Byther Smith, Bobby Kyle, Bill Perry, Rocky Lawrence, Johnny B. Gayden, Sandra Feva and others.                              (David Bennett Cohen / Photo © by Joseph A. Rosen)

 As a solo performer, he has shared the bill with Country Joe McDonald, Kenny Rankin, Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, Jerry Garcia, Leo Kottke, Rufus Thomas, Meatloaf, Booker T., The Roches, Kingfish, J. Giles and Magic Dick and many others. He played on Broadway and toured in the hit show, RENT, doubling on keyboards and guitars. David has recorded numerous Blues piano and organ instructional products for Homespun Tapes, including DVD’s, audio and video tapes, and book/CD packages. He has a network of students around the world who have learned from these products, as well as numerous students who have studied with him privately, some of which have gone on to have musical careers of their own, including Peter Cincotti, Dave Keyes and others. He is one of those rare musicians who consistently plays to great acclaim and enjoys the challenge of teaching what he knows, as well. In spite of his busy schedule, David still finds time for private piano and guitar students. His professional approach, attitude and musicianship enhance any project that he is associated with.

Interview by Michael Limnios                         Photos © by Joseph  A. Rosen

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

The music and the lifestyle of the ‘60s was Peace and Love. That concept resonated with me then and still does.

My concept of the Blues is that it comes from profound suffering and yet it has the power to transform that suffering into joy. I believe that my Buddhist practice says it rather beautifully - Turning poison into medicine. 

Whenever I play, I try to touch people’s lives and help to make that transformation. 

How do you describe your music philosophy? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Ah, philosophy of music. Like my answer to below question. Plus, what follows...

You need both technique and soul to be a complete musician. Without technique, you cannot play what you hear. Without soul, you cannot hear it. Let me elaborate. 

I know many musicians who can play a lot of notes. Almost as if they’re getting paid by the note… Most times, I find that boring. And then there are musicians, particularly guitarists, who insist on taking 10 or even 20 choruses of a song as their solos. I feel that if you can’t say what you want to say in 2 or 3 choruses of a song, that you need to go back and look at your philosophy of music. I think that your music should tell a story, be that in a solo, a song, an instrumental or a whole set. A beginning, middle and end. 

If you’re playing in a group, you MUST listen! The best music is a conversation.  Therefore, it has to allow all participants to express themselves. Playing ensemble is a prerequisite. For example, your solo should be appropriate to the rest of the music, and if someone else is soloing, you must learn to support. Don’t get in the way!

"I miss the Roots guys.  I was so fortunate to grow up in NYC. Izzy Young used to put on concerts at the Folklore Center on MacDougal St in Greenwich Village. I got to hear and know people like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins. I heard Professor Longhair, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker and so many others." (David Bennett Cohen / Photo © by Joseph A. Rosen)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

  1. When I was a teenager, involved in the Washington Square Folk scene, the people I met then really shaped my musical philosophy. The number of people who influenced me back then are too many to recount. Tom Paley taught me the importance of being in tune. Paul Prestopino taught me the importance of taste.  Pete Seeger.  Dave Van Rock. Izzy Young. It was a musical and philosophical education! 
  2. So many gigs over so many years.  Monterey Pop was a highlight of my performing. The best gig I’ve ever played.  Put on by musicians, for musicians. As we used to say, it was a gathering of the tribes.But it was more that the music, although that was central. It was also about the Hippie community. 

I recently played at my 80th birthday celebration at the Bitter End in NYC. I was memorable because I was playing with some of my favorite musicians, doing my material, for an appreciative audience. Plus, we all got paid!  Can’t ask for more than that. 

Let me add that I pretty much enjoy my gigs. The ones that were a problem are really so much easier to remember because they are so few. As my dear friend, Glen Bob Allen said, “Well, nobody got shot, no fights and we got paid - It was a good gig…"

Why do you think that Country Joe & The Fish music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I wonder that myself.  All I can say is that it was music played from the heart. We didn’t really know what we were doing. Making it up as we went along. But that was true of pretty much all the original bands of that era. After all, who ever heard of playing Folk music with electric instruments and drums? 

All the bands were unique, but I think CJF stood out because of Joe’s writing and our interpretation of it. Objectively speaking, the first two albums really defined the band. That’s the lineup that people think of when they think of CJF. We were not only in it for the money. We just wanted to make beautiful music. I think that comes through.

"The music and the lifestyle of the ‘60s was Peace and Love. That concept resonated with me then and still does. My concept of the Blues is that it comes from profound suffering and yet it has the power to transform that suffering into joy. I believe that my Buddhist practice says it rather beautifully - Turning poison into medicine." (Country Joe & The Fish, Golden Gate Park, SF 1967 / Photo © by Jim Marshall)

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

I miss the Roots guys.  I was so fortunate to grow up in NYC. Izzy Young used to put on concerts at the Folklore Center on MacDougal St in Greenwich Village. I got to hear and know people like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins. I heard Professor Longhair, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker and so many others. 

Back then, when we wanted to learn something that we heard, we would play the record over and over until we “heard it in our heads” and then try to duplicate it. Compare it with our friends’ way of playing it. We developed our own styles of playing, which was a just a combination of our various influences. In the process of learning a lick, or a song, if we were lucky and paid attention, we could also absorb the essence of it. 

That seems to be missing from many of today’s players. If you want to learn how to play like Jimi, just go online and get the tablature. One of my former students, a teenager, learned how to play parts of several songs, but never a whole song. Just “cherry picked” the parts he liked. To me, there’s something wrong about that. 

That being said, I see a new generation of Blues players who get it. Many have passed through Big Ed Sullivan’s Blues Jam in NYC, where I play in the House Band. Jason Green. Julian Primeaux. The list goes on… I am encouraged by the younger generation of Blues players. Of course, the music is evolving, changing.  But that’s how it grows. 

What is the impact of music (and your generation's music) on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

There’s an old philosophical saw that asks, “Does Art follow Life, or does Life follow Art?” But my take is that it’s all one. Buddhism calls it “the oneness of life and the environment.” You can pretty much tell the kind of society by its Art and Music. Right now, there is a tremendous amount of confusion in society, and so, much of the music is cacophonous. That’s why I like to go back to my roots and try to keep in my mind just why I am a musician. 

I want my music to affect people in a positive way. Take them out of their suffering and impart joy in their lives. Make them reflect. Help them achieve what Buddhism terms, Human Revolution. Of course, this is a goal that I strive for. And every gig is new. Every audience an opportunity.              (David Bennett Cohen / Photo © by Joseph A. Rosen)

"Ah, the meaning of Life. In Buddhism, we believe that the meaning of life is to find happiness right where and as we are. To take all obstacles as an opportunity to grow. We all have problems. That’s part of life. But, whether or not we suffer because of them is completely up to us. Hope is a choice. The way we achieve our Human Revolution is by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and by helping others achieve their own Human Revolution. It’s a beautiful practice."

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

I have several rules that I tell my students that I’ve developed over the years:

  1. Have a thick skin
  2. Develop good reflexes
  3. Don’t turn down work
  4. Learn to listen.
  5. Piss before you go onstage

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Whoa!  Deep!! 

  1. I understand completely what Coltrane said. It’s something that I strive for.  Even when I’m practicing scales, I try to understand the “why” of it. It’s what I alluded to earlier. 

First and foremost, is the music itself. Whether you make money or not from it should not be what your motive for playing is. Of course, there has to be a balance. You have to be able to make a living at it. But, if it doesn’t come from your heart, it won’t have the impact that you’re aiming for.  

There’s a simplicity and depth to what Coltrane is saying. It encapsulates what I can only call, the correct attitude and relationship to your music. 

Ah, the meaning of Life. In Buddhism, we believe that the meaning of life is to find happiness right where and as we are. To take all obstacles as an opportunity to grow. We all have problems. That’s part of life. But, whether or not we suffer because of them is completely up to us. Hope is a choice. The way we achieve our Human Revolution is by chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and by helping others achieve their own Human Revolution. It’s a beautiful practice.

David Bennett Cohen - Home

 

(David Bennett Cohen / Photo © by Joseph A. Rosen)

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