L to R: Eli Smith, John Cohen, et al
L to R: Eli Smith, John Cohen, Walker Shepard, Craig Judelman (since replaced by Jackson Lynch)

This Saturday, John Cohen — the octogenarian photographer, filmmaker, musicologist, and Appalachian musician — will perform with old-time string band the Down Hill Strugglers at the community garden at 1825 N. Calvert Street.

This is a chance for Baltimoreans not only to enjoy a pleasant evening of first-rate music, but to commune with a seminal figure of the old-time music revival. Cohen, with his groundbreaking trio the New Lost City Ramblers, empowered urban musicians to attempt traditional styles, a practice so common today I assume all traditional musicians are from the city. 

The old-time scene is lucky it had someone like Cohen paving the way. For despite his enthusiasm for tradition, he is an avant-gardist at heart. He studied art under Josef Albers, and was taken with abstract expressionism. His subsequent work in photography documenting artists from the Beat Generation, the folk revival, as well as the Andes, betrays his connection to the avant-garde for those who would notice.

“I was making photographs about traditional things,” Cohen explains, “but my vision—the form of what I was doing—was absolutely informed by Jackson Pollock and Josef Albers. There’s a photograph I took of a woman in Peru barefoot in the snow planting potatoes, but the form of the photograph is like a Breughel painting.”

The point is, the old-time revival scene could have been dominated  by stuffy, lifeless, French Academy-type snobbery. Instead it had John Cohen’s exuberant, unpretentious attitude setting the standard.

When I ask him about the relative rarity of performing in a community garden, he speaks with enthusiasm of old-time music’s popularity beyond academia. “Old-time music is not really for college kids anymore, and it’s finding new places to be heard,” he says. This thought takes him on a tangent: “In a strange way… I’m driving here with Cece Conway who organized the Black Banjo Conference. From that came the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They’ve become very popular. This music that has been so obscure has suddenly become very, very popular. And the Down Hill Strugglers are from the North and they’re playing all over the South. These people in the South are looking for people to play this music to them.”

Speaking with Cohen on the phone, I couldn’t help but be touched by his enthusiasm. The man is 80 years old praising 20- and 30-something musicians and speaking excitedly about a style of music he’s been promoting for more than 50 years. He’s the kind of person you’d be lucky to spend some time in a garden with, whatever your feelings about old-time music.

Eli Smith, the 31-year-old guitarist and banjo player with the Down Hill Strugglers, shares some of Cohen’s perspective on traditional music. “I’ve never thought about it as just preserving,” he tells me. “That leads to stagnancy and death. I love other kinds of music, and they influence me in an indirect sort of way. I don’t think of it as  mindless reverence for tradition. It’s just as natural and modern as any music.”

John Cohen and the Down Hill Strugglers will play Hidden Harvest at 1825 N. Calvert Street on Saturday, April 13 at 7 p.m. Admission is $5 – 10. View the Facebook event page for more information.