Musician John Cohen, also a photographer, penned his quasi-memoir SPEED BUMPS ON A DIRT ROAD shortly before his passing in 2019
John Cohen’s Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road is a journey back in time to trace the evolutionary steps of old-time and bluegrass music, with occasional recognition of the contributions of gospel, ballad, jazz, folk, and country music. Mr. Cohen has a unique background as a member of bluegrass bands for decades (he was a founding member of New Lost City Ramblers), as an inveterate photographer with an eye for reality, and as a friend and fellow professional to hundreds of musicians along the way, he presents an important contribution to the preservation of the history of this musical legacy.
This book will be an important memory and treasured revelation for many in music – the book is about the images and the story of bluegrass. One must envy those who played with the author and with other bluegrass bands in the 1960s who now are presented with these images. For anyone who wants to know where today’s music had its roots, turning these pages will tell many stories. And for those who appreciate the work of a gifted photographer, there is much to slow down and savor before you turn the page.
The final 24 pages of the book are personal recollections of the author reflecting on memories, conversations, and circumstances of the 150 photographs that are the heart of the book. It is essential reading and a well-told tale of those changing times in music. The history-telling and the personal recollections about the musical weaving in those pages are irreplaceable, in this writer’s view.
Most notable is Mr. Cohen’s style of photography. All images are in black-and-white. There is no photographic posing, but rather an in-the-moment style that captures individuals conversing, practicing, playing for crowds, being together. You too may conclude that some of the most interesting images have been taken from behind the players, looking down on the crowds in the street, at the fairground, or in the dance hall. In photographing both halves of the dynamic, the photographer has truly represented a place and time, and in turn places us in that moment.
The full-page photographs that tend to catch one’s eye and to create a thoughtful pause are the beauty of this book. Some of this reviewer’s favorite images, in addition to the ones captioned in this review include: a pensive Sam McGee, an old-time music player in a duo with his brother Kirk looking off to his left in a quiet moment – almost a portrait (1961); Roscoe Holcomb, inspiration for the high lonesome sound, with cigarette in hand, standing in front of his mountain shack in Daisy, Kentucky with his wife Ethel (1959);
a young Doc Watson sitting and singing into a microphone in an apparent makeshift recording studio, accompanied by Gaither Carlton on fiddle (1961); a dressing room sign at a bluegrass venue in Pennsylvania reading: “Special note to all entertainers – No Profanity (not even Hell or Damn)” (1961); a bemused Pete Seeger watching Cousin Emmy cut up on the stage during her solo set (1966); a 12-year-old young lady in Converse sneakers sitting on a stool having a banjo jam with John Cohen, the author (2018).
Reading the names of past (and current) bluegrass and old-time music players mentioned in this book can easily lead to some amateur research about their lives, their history, and their contributions. The images in this book are best seen in an armchair at a quiet time, where there is space for appreciation and thought. This is an especially good book for fans of bluegrass, country, and folk music, and for anyone who loves photography.
About the Author:
Owen Crankshaw is a semi-retired environmental scientist (still consulting) who spends his life engaged in books, music, art, and good film. He and his wife turned off their TV fifteen years ago.
He currently works part-time as a consultant for the federal government to help ensure the safety of the population from airborne contaminants As an environmental scientist, he sees grave danger in the deregulation of environmental law that is in process.
Owen lives on ten acres of land in North Carolina and loves hiking in the woods with his wife and dog.