Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

A World Made By God and By Hand

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

A World Made By God and By Hand

A Review of “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg” by Kathryn Freeman
Review written by Eli Smith.  This article will appear in print form in the forthcoming issue of “The Quiet American.”

To view selected Ogg photos in high resolution CLICK HERE, and visit The Photography of Coley Ogg facebook page.  To purchase “Ogg Land” CLICK HERE.

C.I. “Pa” Ogg (1855-1950) was the main photographer in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he is only today starting to receive his due.  “Ogg Land: The Rediscovered Photographs of C.I. Ogg,” lovingly compiled by his great granddaughter Kathryn Freeman, offers an amazing look into the old ways of the mountain frontier.

In her introduction, Kathryn Freeman writes, “In the summer of 1992 I made a promise to my mother that I would try to create a book of my great grandfather’s old photos, I set out to learn all that I could about the man that was our beloved “Pa Ogg.”  After two decades of searching, my knowledge and archive have grown considerably… Pa Ogg’s work tells the story of Appalachia’s dramatic transformation from a farming economy to an industrial one.  His photographs were widely published, from the late 19th century, right up to the present, but nearly always unattributed.  He was an early photographer lost to history, a documentarian who made ‘art.’  The work is old, but it depicts a way of living that is far older than the photos themselves.”

As the fertile lands of Virginia and other states to the East became settled and accounted for, poor homesteaders, in search of their own stake, were forced to make the dangerous passage through the Cumberland Gap and other mountain passes to claim rugged land deep in the Appalachian interior.  Many were soldiers in the revolutionary war that received homestead land grants in return for their service in Washington’s army.  This book of photographs records the original mountaineer way of life in its final era.

This first volume of Pa Ogg’s work focuses on his beautiful documentation of the natural world and truly rural way of life in E. Kentucky from when he started making photographs around 1880 through the early 20th century.  Ogg’s photographic record preserves the reality of subsistence farming and hunting that had existed for 100 or even 200 years in the mountains, but was soon to be obliterated as people were convinced or coerced into a turn towards a coal mining economy, which now forms the basis of the region’s identity.

C.I. Ogg was unable to read or write, and was known to be modest man who did not like to “sign” his (more…)

Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Notes On “Inside Llewyn Davis”
(If you have not seen the movie, be warned there are spoilers below)

The Coen Brothers’ new film,  “Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961 and is very loosely based on or inspired by the autobiography of the great folk singer Dave van Ronk.  I’ve been following the film closely because my band the Down Hill Strugglers has a song on the soundtrack album.  I also produce the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Washington Square Park Folk Festival and work at the Jalopy Theatre, the current home for folk music in New York City, and have always had an interest in the history of folk music in this place.

Now that the film is out in theaters and getting lots of press, people associated with the world of folk music here in New York have become very interested and are scrutinizing it because it is the first film to represent us and a seminal time in our history on the big screen.  I was born in Greenwich Village in 1982, so I certainly was not there in 1961, but everyone who I know who was there has serious criticisms of the depiction of that time and place as represented in the movie, regardless of whether they like the story and the film itself.  I think these criticisms are best made in Terri Thal’s (Dave van Ronk’s first wife, also his manager) article that was recently published in the Village Voice (at:

However, there are a few things going on in “Inside Llewyn Davis” that I haven’t seen discussed or really made plain anywhere so far.  One important point is that in the film the Llewyn Davis character (actor Oscar Isaac) sings nearly all traditional songs (all but one, which was written to be very traditional-like) and that even more than his dour personality and ill-luck, seems to doom his career and chances of earning a living as a musician.  The songs he sings are arranged and performed in a 60’s folk-like style but his repertoire, which in the film he tries hard not to compromise, is a meaningful and traditionally based one.  Here is a quote from Anthony Lane’s review in the New Yorker magazine (at:
), which I think misses the point:

“And here’s the thing, the masterstroke of the movie: Llewyn is very good, but he’s not great. The Coens could have made a film about a genius, just waiting to be dug up like a diamond. Indeed, in the closing minutes we see and hear the young Dylan at the back of a room. But Llewyn is a semiprecious stone, and that is the half-tragedy of his life.”

The character Llewyn Davis is in fact “great” by the standards of the music in the film, but he’s not a genius or not worthy because he’s not churning out his own hits and chooses to sing great old rural songs.  Llewyn’s musical style is very similar to that of his friends Jim and Jean in the film who are making it commercially, as I say the only real difference is that he does not write any of his own songs and the ones he does sing are sad morbid old songs and ballads, as so many great traditionals are.  His character sings in a way that is rather ungussied up but with the earnest and angsty quality which came out of 60’s folk music style and continues on today.  In real life there was significant difference between Dave van Ronk’s music and the real Jim and Jean’s music, although they both represented a 60’s style.  Van Ronk’s style was very individual and gritty, inspired by his interest in early Jazz and blues music, where as Jim and Jean’s was more generic “Folk” music of the time, although well played.

At one (anti-)climactic point in the film, Llewyn Davis sings a beautiful old ballad called “The Death of Queen Jane” which must be meaningful for him at that time given the context of the plot.  Davis has just found out that he has a child he didn’t know about because an ex-girlfriend carried her pregnancy to term.  He sings the song, which is about the Queen of England who dies in child-birth, but brings her baby into the world alive, as an audition for the Albert “Bud” Grossman promoter character in order to try to get a good gig or management, but Grossman replies, “I don’t see much money here.”  Is the song too sad, disturbing or hard to follow?  Is it too unoriginal?  Probably all of those things!  Llewyn Davis did not write the song, it is hundreds of years old and comes from a different place, but it strikes me as the viewer that the song must be very meaningful to him at that time in the film.  We are left wishing Llewyn had sung something more up, less sad, maybe original so that he could have gotten the gig, but instead he sang something that was pretty out there and maybe truer to where he was at than some song he could have tried to write…

Llewyn Davis’ repertoire as taken partly from the repertoire of Dave van Ronk and presented in the movie is very interesting and with further examination into its sources shows in a nutshell many of the strands that came together to make the folk music world of that time and place.  Davis’ music is related to my own field of “Old Time” music not so much in terms of his style in the film, but definitely in terms of several of his songs; “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (also known as “Been All Around This World) is a great banjo song originally field recorded by folklorists who located traditional banjo players Rufus Crisp and Justis Begley in Kentucky, and also recorded in a popular version by Kentucky banjoist Grandpa Jones.  How did it get to the Village?  Which was Dave van Ronk’s source?  I don’t know.  Rufus Crisp, a possible source for “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” was also one of our sources for the song “The Roving Gambler” which my band recorded for the film’s soundtrack album.  Crisp was one of the very first Southern traditional banjo players to inform the playing and repertoire of New York musicians through his Library of Congress field recordings and visits by Pete Seeger, Stu Jamieson and others.  “The Death of Queen Jane” is a medieval English ballad collected by venerated folklorist Francis James Child and published in his seminal books of balladry.  The film gives scant coverage to rural folk songs in a rural “old time” style, and no coverage to blues music that was being learned and played in the Village at that time.   Only the woman who plays autoharp and sings a Carter Family song badly gives any nod to the presence of old time music, which was being played by a number of people at the time, including the New Lost City Ramblers. (more…)

Doc Watson Family Milestones

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Doc Watson’s daughter Nancy, Roy Andrade and others are producing an incredible 4 CD box set of recordings of Doc Watson and his family including Gaither Carlton.  They need your support right now to produce it, with less than 2 days to go on their fund drive: Click Here for the Kickstarter link.

This is a very important collection, which promises to be incredibly powerful, affecting and informative.

Here is a message about it from Jody Stecher followed by a short film about the production of the material and box set itself.  Amazing!

“Milestones” is the most moving and stirring collection of recorded music I have heard in a decade. I co-wrote the liner notes with Roy. “Milestones” is a book of Watson Family photo collages, assembled with scissors and glue over a 10 year period by Doc Watson’s daughter Nancy. And it’s four CDs of music.  The recordings are extraordinary musically but also historically as they comprise a major document of a local musical tradition that was made from within the tradition itself. Some of the music was recorded by Nancy as a girl. Her familiarity to the musicians she recorded gave her access to a side of the singers and players that a folklorist or “collector” from “outside” would be unlikely to ever see or hear.  This includes gentle loving renditions of beautiful traditional songs and tunes by her grandfather Gaither Carlton, sacred songs recorded at home prayer meetings and at Mount Paran Church, (more…)

Interview with John Cohen and Eli Smith

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Hello everybody,

Here’s an interview with John Cohen and myself for the No Depression roots music magazine about our recent album “Old Man Below” by the Dust Busters out on the Smithsonian Folkways label.  The interview was done by Chris Mateer who has the excellent Uprooted Music Revue blog site:

The Dust Busters and John Cohen (of The New Lost City Ramblers) recently released their new album, Old Man Below, on the legendary Smithsonian Folkwayslabel. I am thrilled to present this interview with John Cohen and Eli Smith (of The Dust Busters) regarding their friendship, admiration for old time music, and musical collaboration together.

Eli, before we dig into The Dust Busters’ work with John Cohen, I’d like to ask you if you can you discuss your own personal musical history with the work of The New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen?

Eli Smith: I’ve been very appreciative of the New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen’s work in particular as a musician, field recordist, photographer and film maker for years.

I first became acquainted with the New Lost City Ramblers’ and John Cohen’s work when I was first starting out as a musician and fan of folk, blues and old time music back in high school in the late 1990’s. I loved the sound of the New Lost City Ramblers, thought and still think they are an incredible band and I also greatly appreciated the information about their sources for their music.

The Ramblers led me back to the original recorded sources of the music and those recordings have in turn become the core of my favorite music. I also greatly appreciate the field work that each of the Ramblers, of most particular note: John Cohen’s work in recording and making known Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, Frank Proffitt and so many others.

Can you discuss what drew you to this genre of music initially and what keeps it fresh to you?

John: I first got involved with old time music in 1948 when I first heard re-issues of 1920s string band recordings. It was music that excited me, and music I could perform, or learn to play it. It still excites me today, and the challenges I felt in 1948 are still with me.

There is a quality of music contained in the old stuff that is lost in today’s music scene (it  has  been lost throughout the Folksong movement and revival.) It’s lost quality is what fed the New Lost City Ramblers for 50 years, and continues to feed me  today.

Eli: I liked music since I was a kid and I started playing guitar when I was quite young. However, it was not until my high school era when I heard old time music and authentic American folk music that I really cared about music specifically. I had heard music on the radio and television, my parent’s listened to some music around the house, but I didn’t care about any of it too much. I thought it was my fault that I couldn’t like any of that plastic garbage you hear everywhere.

Music is very close to the human soul, and when I heard old folk music that really spoke to me it hit me real hard. The music gave me a clarity in my mind that I required, and it was a lot of fun! And if you listened to the words you could learn a lot about some gritty subjects, about getting through life, and one can connect with people and history that you don’t hear about or get to feel anywhere else.

You met and toured together before the release of Old Man Below. I’d like to dig into your back story including how you met, hit it off, and what led up to your collaboration.

… Read More At:

Farewell to Doc Watson (1923-2012)

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Arthel “Doc” Watson has died at the age of 89.  Doc along with Pete Seeger are to my mind the most important folk singers and folk popularizers of the later 20th century.  Doc Watson was a consummate old time string band musician, best known for his guitar picking, but also a great banjo, harmonica and mandolin player and a wonderful singer.

Doc spent his early years playing regionally near his home in Western North Carolina.  Then with the help of several New York musician/folklorist/enthusiasts Doc, already nearing 40 years old in the early 1960’s, emerged full blown on the national scene.   Although he disliked being away from home he toured very hard for years, all the more difficult because he was blind.  In terms of his style, repertoire and generation, Doc was a very interesting mix, bridging the territory between regional “authentic” traditional musician and self conscious “folk singer” putting his take on folk and other songs.   Doc won fans everywhere that he played, won the National Medal of Arts in 1997 and was a great inspiration for many musicians.

Doc’s guitar work was rooted in the old time guitar picking of Riley Puckett, the Delmore Brothers and others, but he took it to an even more impressive level of musicianship.  His artistry and technical virtuosity on the acoustic guitar may never be equaled.  I was lucky to see him in concert a number of times and several of his albums are among my very favorites.

Here is an obituary from the New York Times:

I recommend checking out some of his early work:

Doc Watson [Doc’s first album]

Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962

The Watson Family
[Doc Watson performs live with Clarence Ashley and band – early 1960’s]

And some great live material:

Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City

Doc Watson at Gerdes Folk City  [Great material from Doc’s first solos shows in NYC, 1962-’63 – recorded and released by Peter K. Siegel at Henry Street Folklore .]

Bill Monroe and Doc Watson: Live Recordings 1963-1980 [Great album of duets with Bill Monroe!]

Friends of Old Time Music box set

Doc Watson on Pete Seeger’s 60’s TV show “Rainbow Quest.”

[photo by John Cohen 1961]

Here is a link to audio from the collection at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC – the first recording of Doc Watson, at age 18 in 1941 singing “Precious Jewel” at the Boone Fiddlers Convention.  Field recorded by W. Amos Abrams.


Joe Thompson (1918-2012)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

[Photo by E. Smith, June 2010.]

On Monday February 20th, Joe Thompson passed away at the age of 93.  He was considered to be the last living traditionally schooled African-American fiddler.

On a beautiful day in early June of 2010 my band The Dust Busters paid a visit to the home of Joe and Polly Thompson.  Joe Thompson lived outside of Mebane, NC.  He started playing fiddle at 5 years old, way back in 1923.  Joe was a World War II veteran and was long retired from his job at a furniture factory.  He continued to play music until very recently at home and at gigs including taking his music to Carnegie Hall in New York City, the National Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the International Music Festival in Brisbane, Australia.  In 2007 Joe Thompson was honored with the National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops have spent a lot of time with Joe and have learned a lot from him.  They continue to present many of his tunes in their performances.  Joe Thompson was a wonderful man and a very fine musician and singer, the likes of whom we will not see again.

His recordings are available.  Here are a few:

Joe Thompson: Family Tradition
Black Banjo Songsters of N Carolina & Virginia
Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson

Click Here for the recording and interview I did with Joe Thompson in June of 2010 when we visited him at his home.

Here is a link to a nice obituary:
Joe Thompson, 1918-2012: County treasure, irreplaceable artist left lasting legacy

And clips from a film made about Joe:

Music and Historical Memory

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

A new article by Mat Callahan, author of “The Trouble with Music:

“Music can remember what History forgets.  Attesting to this fact is a great body of music commemorating people and events often ignored or obscured by prevailing historical accounts.  This is not confined to ballads or folk songs of the past but is the subject of contemporary compositions as well.”

Music and Historical Memory

Music and memory have always been inseparable.  After all, Memory is the name of the Goddess who was Mother of the Muses.  The Muses, according to the poet Hesiod, “were nine like-minded daughters, whose one thought is singing, and whose hearts are free from care…who delight with song… telling of things that are, that will be and that were with voices joined in harmony.”  They called on Hesiod to sing their praises but they did so with a challenge: “You rustic shepherd, shame: bellies you are, not men!  We know enough to make up lies which are convincing, but we also have the skill, when we’ve a mind, to speak the truth.”[i]

That the nine muses were the daughters of Memory and not another Goddess is explained by the fact that their number corresponds to the gestation period of human beings.  Memory lay with Zeus nine nights to produce nine daughters and in the marvelous mathematics of myth our story begins with the renewal of human life upon this earth.  Memory serves unfolding and rebirth, not the mere storage of information.

This interpretation is supported further by the fact that Memory was the protectress of Eleuther’s Hills-Eleuther meaning freedom in Greek.  What greater gift could there be than to rejuvenate our bodies while freeing our imaginations? Therefore, the Greeks of Hesiod’s time thought memory should be (more…)

Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Just a word to let everyone know that John Cohen’s new film, “Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky” is out now!  It has been released by Shanachie Video and is available for purchase by CLICKING HERE.

The film has been packaged by Shanachie as “The Legacy of Roscoe Holcomb.”  The DVD includes John’s new film about Roscoe as well as his classic 1962 film about Holcomb, “The High Lonesome Sound.” You get both!

“Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky” recently premiered at the Margaret Meade Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History together with a retrospective of John’s work and also just won the award for Best Documentary Short at the Woodstock Film Festival.

Also, a very nice piece about John Cohen and the new film just aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition: CHECK IT OUT

Here’s a synopsis that I wrote for the program guide of the Woodstock Film Festival:

“John Cohen explores the life, philosophy and music of Eastern Kentucky banjo player, coal miner and construction worker Roscoe Holcomb. Holcomb has been injured on the job and forced into early retirement. He discusses his life and music and plays a number of traditional songs from his region. Using intimate footage of Holcomb at home as well as footage of his family, community and region, Cohen presents a remarkable and visually beautiful portrait of Roscoe Holcomb, a man who despite economic hardship and changing times has maintained a powerful and authentic personal music and philosophy.”

John used old footage from the early 60’s that he couldn’t use for “The High Lonesome Sound” because the technology didn’t exist at that time to put the film footage and audio into sync.  But now that is possible and was accomplished in expert fashion.  For this new film John also used really awesome color footage that he took of Holcomb and his family in the 197o’s.  It’s a beautiful film and a wonderful tribute to Roscoe Holcomb.

[Roscoe Holcomb with John Cohen, 1964]

Recent  reviews of the  film “Roscoe Holcomb: from Daisy, Kentucky.”

Lomax’s Southern Journey Reissued!

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

“People were saying that Southern folk song was dead, that the land that had produced American jazz, the blues, the spirituals, the mountain ballads and the work songs had gone sterile.” –Alan Lomax, 1960.

Happily, Alan Lomax’s 1959-1960 field recordings from the American South have been reissued on stunning LPs by Mississippi Records out of Portland, OR.  The reissue was currated by Down Home Radio friend Nathan Salsburg over at the Alan Lomax Archive/Association for Cultural Equity.  For more information, check out the blog entry at Root Hog Or Die, and be sure to check out Nathan’s awesome online radio show of the same name at

Here’s a bit of what Nathan had to say about the reissue.  Read more on his blog entry at

“Without delving into the twists and turns of the most highly specialized folkloric record business or indulging in musings about its current strange renaissance and the stranger counter-cultural moment from whence it comes, I’m pleased to say that the season of my tenth year with Alan Lomax’s archive also marks the release of five new LPs commemorating Lomax’s most famous field-recording trip: what he called his “Southern Journey” of 1959 and 1960. Production for a commemorative series began exactly a year ago, after I met Eric Isaacson of Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records – one of the principals in the unlikely vanguard of the vernacular music LP resurgence – at a panel discussion put on as part of Asheville’s fine Harvest Records’ fifth anniversary festival. While Harvest was turning five, the Southern Journey turned 50, yet there was not a whisper regarding it anywhere (outside of a season-long tribute series in Belgium, put on by the noble Herman Hulsens and the Ancienne Belgique). Adding insult to injury was the fact that not a single release of Southern Journey material was currently in print…” READ MORE

Thank You for Your Support

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Down Home Radio Continues!

Hello everybody,

Well the fund drive has been a success!  Thank you thank thank you thank you to all of you who donated to the program.  I am very much looking forward to bringing you many more fun, interesting and educational episodes of Down Home Radio in 2010.  The money raised through your donations will be put towards the purchase of new equipment to replace stuff that is getting to be pretty broken as well as to upgrade equipment and software and give me as your host and the program’s producer some compensation for the time it takes to make every episode of Down Home Radio that you see here on the website.

Of course it is still possible to donate to Down Home Radio.  If you are a fan of the show and haven’t yet donated, and I know there are many such people out there, its not too late!  No donation is too small, $25 dollars and up gets you one of the premiums, but $5 or $10 dollars gets you my everlasting gratitude and the promise of more great episodes of Down Home Radio on a much more regular basis.  See below for details.

That said there has been a really great show of support for the program, both in the United States and from our friends in Europe and Canada.  That in itself has been inspiring as many of you who donated also wrote into the program to express your appreciation for the show.  Thank you.

Down Home Radio can now continue into 2010 as I get back to work doing interviews, spinning records, digging out archival treasures, digitizing LPs and being your source for “the greatest hits of the 1920’s, 30’s and today!”

Keep in touch,