With heavy heart we share the passing of John Cohen. He was 87 years old and yesterday left this world peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends at his long time home in Putnam Valley, NY.
John's life was a colorful and vibrant textile of people, music, art, and creativity. By profession, he was a world-renowned musician, celebrated photographer and filmmaker, and a professor of visual arts. As a key figure in American folk music he explored its history and tradition in Appalachia and performed old time music for over 60 years, including as recently as two weekends ago. His book Speed Bumps on a Dirt Road: When Old Time Music Met Bluegrass was just released last week. John had also been an active participant in New York City’s downtown art scene in the late 1950s and early 60s and at the time made some of the most iconic photographs of a young Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and many other key figures of that era. At the same time, he was an early documentarian of the threatened culture of Peru’s Andean people. Research scholars as well as creative figures such as Ken Burns (for his Country Music documentary now showing on PBS) and the Coen Brothers regularly called upon his authoritative knowledge in all of these different fields.
John had a fundamental interest in people and their cultural communities. Whether it was a brief encounter or an immersive study, he observed, asked questions and listened intently. With words, images, and notes he brought the past to the present, recounting stories of the famous and the almost forgotten he had met along his journey.
John Cohen was The Real Deal. With remarkable accomplishments on so many levels John was often asked how he defined himself. He would simply state that he was An Artist. He refused to compromise his creative integrity or capitulate to anything in which he did not have full conviction. He was sharp as a tack and stubborn as a mule. He was witty and wise with a mind like a steel trap. It was a constant challenge to keep up with all he was doing at any given time and, happily, John remained a vibrant, authentic and unstoppable force till the very end.
The void created by John’s absence will be immense. However, it is already populated by a twinkling and growing constellation of the many younger talents he has mentored, performed with, granted interviews to, edited books alongside, shared stories with or simply inspired. This was always his ultimate plan.
Thank you, John Cohen, for affording me the privilege of knowing you. I will miss you terribly.