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Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road

When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass

Published by powerHouse Books
Distributed by Simon & Schuster



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About The Book

Speed Bumps on a Dirt Roadis a living document of country music's founding fathers and mothers. John Cohen photographed musicians, at home, backstage at public events, from the wings at fiddlers' conventions, out in country music parks, and in the studio for live radio show performances and recording sessions.

Back in 1961 it was still possible to know a few of America's original country musicians from the '20s and '30s. Renowned and celebrated musician and artist John Cohen came of age at the confluence of old time and early bluegrass music, the historic intersection of traditional and folk music. Cohen traveled the country playing music, recording, and documenting what was to be a generation of musicians who would influence American music and culture for decades to come.

Traveling between the Union Grove fiddlers' convention to the Grand Ole Opry to a coal celebration in Hazard, Kentucky, Cohen made historic photographs of performers like Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, the country's very first all-bluegrass show, and a bluegrass bar in Baltimore, among much more.Speed Bumps on a Dirt Roadpresents old time music as the root of country music.

Includes photographs of: Flatt & Scruggs, fiddler "Eck" Robertsonin Amarillo, Texas, Doc Watson, bluegrass fiddler "Tex" Logan, the Stanley Brothers at Sunset Park, Sara and Maybelle of the Carter Family, and Cousin Emmy, Alice & Hazel, and a dulcimer in a parking lot.

About The Author

John Cohen was born in 1932 in New York City's Sunnyside, Queens and now lives in Putnam Valley, New York. A 1957 Yale School of Art alumnus, Cohen studied with Josef Albers. Cohen was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers with whom he toured and recorded from 1958-2008, making 20 albums. Cohen was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2001 and made nine field recordings of traditional music including Roscoe Holcomb and High Atmosphere and also served as a music consultant for T Bone Burnett's Cold Mountain. Cohen's photographs are in collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Corcoran Museum and National Gallery in Washington D.C., as well as The Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The author of many books, Cohen's photography publications include There Is No Eye and Young Bob, both published by powerHouse Books, as well as Past Present Peru, Cheap Rents, Here & Gone, and Walking In The Light, all published by Steidl. Cohen was a professor emeritus of photography at SUNY Purchase College from 1972-1996 and a prolific filmmaker of 17 music documentaries including: The High Lonesome Sound, End of an Old Song, Musical Holdouts, Mountain Music of Peru, and Pericles In America, among others.

Product Details

  • Publisher: powerHouse Books (September 10, 2019)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781576879269

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Raves and Reviews

"Like a good country song, John Cohen's photos tell a powerful story-illuminating the emotions and experiences of Americans who too often felt left out and looked down upon. This is photography as documentary, and photography as art."

– Ken Burns Director/producer, Country Music, 2019

"A surprise one might find in these intimate photographs-is that photographs of people playing are far more interesting than photographs of people singing. That, John Cohen shows us, is because there you can see people reflecting, making choices, confronting doubts, thinking it all over. The way people in these pages hold their instruments tells you as much as any words could say."

– Greil Marcus Author, cultural critic, Rolling Stone contributor

“John Cohen is an artist to the very core, understanding the documentary moment and the power of using his own creative imagination—as a musician and photographer—to translate all that moves him. Looking at his work reminds us of the deep value of passionate ears and eyes, of being there as both a participant and observer, of the power of seeing and hearing the truest chords of time and place. These photographs seem to render an earlier America when new music emerges from the old tradition. Magically, however, this is a timeless America, a visual road map of sounds, locales, and creations that is as present as it is past.”

– Tom Rankin Director, MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Art, Art History, and Visual Studies Duke University

“John’s images appear as divinely inspired visions, steeped in skill yet brimming with heart. John Cohen is the consummate roving correspondent in a musical world filled with characters who are fiercely unrepentant cultural outsiders or “musical holdouts,” as he has termed them. The people seen here in Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road are of mythic proportions, remnants of a vanquished age.”

– Marty Stuart CMA, ACMA, and Grammy Award-winning Nashville musician

“There’s something magical about the strength, complexity, longevity, persistence, the stubbornness, the sadness, and the joy of country music and the people that make it. Country music is a music for everyone, created by everyone and if you look hard enough the real stuff continues to be made today. This is the country music you don’t see on TV, you don’t hear on the radio; this is the kind of music and culture that has weathered through thick and thin, musicians unmoved by trends, those inspired to create through adversity and hardship, unfettered by labels like “hillbilly,” “old”, or “uncool.” These are musicians less interested in the “industry” and more interested in the experience of music- making in its purest, most raw form. Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road depicts the lives of a diverse people, form not only on the stage but behind the scenes where music was made for the simple joy of creating, the joy of a shared experience, and the joy of community. This is a music and culture that goes against the grain, this is old time music, bluegrass music; It’s country music created with a different set of parameters than most popular music made today.

Not only does Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road offer insights into the intimate parts of music making as experienced through one of America’s most prolific and impactful artists and scholars (John Cohen) but it also give us deeper understanding of something I have so often thought about - the convergence of old time country music and bluegrass music. Today, these two worlds seem so far apart, but through John’s work it is made abundantly clear that this in fact wasn’t always the case. What Cohen instinctually captured at this important time in our music history illustrates a symbiotic relationship between subcultures, celebrating music making and expression without genre barriers; serving as a gentle reminder that these walls are in fact imagined. Though I may have not yet been on this planet to experience these beautiful moments in time, I along with a whole new generation of fans, scholars and musicians alike are are grateful John had the foresight to see understand these nuances and the good people making this underrepresented music. There is much to be learned from the experiences and brief moments illustrated within these pages. What a gift. Believe it or not these places, the people and this music does still in fact still exist in todays’ America, albeit it may be a little harder to find. But if you look a little closer you’ll find country music whirling from a creaky old stage, in a dank bar, in a sweat fueled jam at fiddlers convention, a front porch with friends and neighbors, or from a small country church somewhere off the beaten path. Speed Bumps On a Dirt Road reminds us this music is undoubtedly still alive and continues to inspire and to evolve.”

– Kris Truelsen Radio Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music

Speed Bumps On A Dirt Road: When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass is a historic publication for both photography and music. John Cohen’s brilliant black and white photographs capture iconic portraits of Appalachian musicians Roscoe Holcomb, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley at home, and on stage at the Galax Fiddlers Convention, Union Grove, Oak Ridge Festival, and Carnegie Hall. Cohen also chronicles the discovery of these artists in the 60s by aspiring folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger, Bess Lomax, Alice Gerrard, and himself. An accomplished musician who has filmed, recorded, and photographed old time and bluegrass musicians for over 70 years, this work is a powerful reflection on a lifetime devoted to music. The book is a treasure that music and photography lovers will treasure

Walker Evans would be so very proud to see these amazing photographs published with such care.”

– William Ferris Folklorist, Professor UNC, former head NEH, filmmaker

"But what’s so powerful about Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road is that it carries us back to the moment when a young man’s wide-eyed love of traditional music put him on an epic quest—fortunately, he’s brought us along for the ride.

– Garden & Gun

"In the late 1950s and early ’60s, photographer and musician Cohen documented the lives of bluegrass and folk musicians, and displays them in this beautiful and candid debut collection of 140 black-and-white photos. Cohen traveled from rural North Carolina and Virginia to Nashville, moving from traditional log cabins and front porches to fiddler’s conventions, music parks, and the backstage of the Grand Ole Opry. His photographs capture, for example, Mr. and Mrs. John Sams surrounded by their children and grandchildren, sitting on the front porch of their home in Combs, Ky., as Mrs. Sams sings a gospel song while strumming her guitar. There are snapshots of musicians gathered at a land auction in Galax, Va., where Wade Ward, Charlie Higgins, and Dale Poe played songs on fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Cohen’s photos feature familiar bluegrass musicians such as Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, and old-time musicians who were popular in the 1930s and ’40s, such as Sara and Maybelle Carter. The most spellbinding shots capture audience members, many of whom appear enthralled with the music. Cohen’s moving photos serve as a time capsule of what was once a remote, regional music genre."

– Publishers Weekly

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