A segment of Appalachian bluegrass culture came alive at the Center for Documentary Studies Wednesday night.
Using fragments of original footage from the 1960s and 1970s, documentary filmmaker John Cohen captures the music and culture surrounding American bluegrass singer, banjo player and guitarist Roscoe Holcomb, The 2010 film, “Roscoe Holcomb: the Man from Daisy Kentucky,” is comprised of outtakes from two of Cohen’s previous films about the musician, “The High Lonesome Sound” from 1963 and “Musical Holdouts” from 1975.
“There’s something very profound [about the music],” said Cohen, who is also a musician and photographer. “It goes beyond everything else that I know. It’s got bluegrass, it’s got old-time, it’s got blues, it’s got church music, but there’s something else about it that transcends all that.... That’s kind of plagued me all my life or ever since 1959 when I met Roscoe.”
Cohen said he worked with the footage in new ways because digital technology was not available when he was making his earlier films. When he discovered this old footage of the musician that he had forgotten about, Cohen was inspired to make a new film.
CDS hosted a screening of the film Wednesday. Cohen formerly served as the Lehman Brady visiting joint chair professor in documentary studies and American studies at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The film also featured footage of Holcomb’s relatives and other famed musicians of the time, including American bluegrass musician Bill Monroe. Much of the footage of musical performances was accompanied by clog dancers.
CDS Director Tom Rankin noted Cohen’s ability to transcend boundaries of time in his work and weave together various media.
“[Cohen captures] that whole idea of seeing the counter intuitive,” Rankin said. “That’s at the base of what John has always done.”
After a question and answer session with the audience. Cohen screened another film, the three-minute-long “MaryJane’s Story,” which featured Holcomb’s cousin MaryJane and her passion for quilting. Cohen said he was struck by the beauty of the quilts hanging up on laundry lines in eastern Kentucky when the first frost came in 1962.
“The relationship between the music and the visual... worked for me,” he said.
He added that the color of the quilts was striking in contrast to the harsh living conditions he identified in the region, where strip coal mining was a common practice. In the film, Holcomb said he spent much of his life mining, as well as working in construction and the soy mills.
Some audience members were struck by the rustic nature of Cohen’s footage.
“It was gorgeous and gritty and very real,” said Steven Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and long-time friend of Cohen. “It’s very raw, the music is very raw, the emotions are very raw.”
Joel Wanek, a first-year master’s candidate in the Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, said it is interesting that much of the footage came from outtakes.
“It was pretty amazing,” Wanek said. “At one point, he thought [the footage] wasn’t worth seeing.... 50 years must make it more meaningful.”
Although bluegrass—a genre of music to which Cohen has devoted much of his energy—does not have a particularly large following, it is nonetheless powerful, he said.
“It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s not a mass movement, but it’s got enough.”