A Vision Shared
By Raoul Hernandez
"I'm lost in the pines, where the sun never shines.
AUGUST 18, 1997: On the road less traveled, fate and chance walk hand in hand. The path of least resistance bustles, crowded, leading nowhere, but if you follow that voice inside, the one telling you to be a pilot instead of a lawyer, a geologist instead of a housewife, then the trail you blaze might just lead to the doorstep of your true calling. Better still, on this journey of self-discovery, chances are you'll cross paths with someone who's headed your same direction but from a different approach. Chance? Fate? Tough to say. In the pines, where the sun never shines, it's hard to tell. The only thing you can be sure of is that when you emerge, you'll be going "Home Sweet Home," just like the chain-gang dirge says.
Dick Connette entered those pines one day, deep in the heart of New York City. He was walking down the street, according to the liner notes of Last Forever, "idly singing `Skip to My Lou,' and suddenly [I] found myself transfixed by the tune's blithe desperation: `Flies in the sugar bowl... crows in the cornfield... what'll I do?' The resolution, `Skip to my lou, my darling,' made no sense at all, unless you were dancing, which was probably the point. It was a simple song I had sung as a child, but at that moment it was practically a revelation."
This probably happens a lot to your average avant-garde composer, but that doesn't mean it won't change your life. It changed Connette's, certainly. After 10 years in Chicago, and another handful in Boston at Harvard, Connette returned to the city of his birth in 1974, renting a basement apartment in SoHo. It was a good time and place to be young, smart, and creative, and Connette flourished in the world of performance art, modern dance, videos, experimental film -- the whole lot. By the middle of the next decade, however, '86-87 -- obviously -- the times, they had a-changed. He had grown less interested in writing music in support of other kinds of media, and more interested in writing music in support of Dick Connette.
"The music that I had been writing was entirely structurally based," says Connette. "Some of it could have been written out on graph paper, and in fact was written out on graph paper. And then something happened around the mid-Eighties when I began to feel stale, began to feel like I was losing touch with what made me want to start writing music to begin with."
Ah yes, losing touch. No one ever lost touch in the Eighties. And what generally happens when an artist/musician loses touch? They sit down, dig down deep into the earth, and grab a hold of some roots. "For years, I've been going to New Orleans for the Jazz & Heritage Festival," says Connette. "I love this music. It had nothing to do with structure or graph paper. I loved the brass band stuff. I thought, `Okay, you love this. Do something with it.'"
He did. He took it back to his laboratory, and, applying those Music History courses taught at Harvard, classes in electronic music, those years of private piano and composition lessons, he came up with, well, something with the head of a Wild Magnolias tune and the body of a cyborg. "I put [the song] through a whole bunch of filters and delays, looped it, and constructed some short, percussive pieces upon which I layered a saxophone trio. I began getting involved with sounds and feelings that meant something to me."
With his "revelation" coming soon after, Connette was off and running, leaping back in time to the Twenties and Thirties when musicologists like Alan Lomax were combing the swamps and backwoods of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia to make field recordings of the forgotten rural folk. Folk music. Connette had found the pines, alright, and one thing seemed obvious to him. He was no folk musician.
So he went back to the laboratory and started making companions for his Wild Magnolias tune. Instead of using lots of guitars, banjos, and fiddles, he employed the spinet ("very similar to a harpsichord"), a hammer dulcimer ("a wooden box with a string stretched across it"), and the harmonium ("like a little organ").
"And the violin, of course, is a fiddle," he adds. "There's no getting around that. That's the one crossover."
Like the fabled Dr. Moreau, Connette suddenly found himself with a lot of weird creatures on his hands: traditional folk songs -- as well as some of his own Library of Congress-inspired tunes -- all gussied up in non-traditional instrumentation and trussed by rigid, composed arrangements. What the hell kind of music was it? Not even its creator was entirely sure, but Connette knew he needed someone to sing it. No use in putting an ad in the paper, better to beat the bushes, call some friends. On approximately call number 10, out sprang John Cohen, an art professor at New York State University and founding member of a folk institution for nearly 40 years, the New Lost City Ramblers.
"So, I called John, described the project to him, and gave him a couple of examples of the kinds of singers that we both would know that would give him a sense of what I was looking for. He said, `Well, I could think of one or two people, but from what I'm getting from you, it sounds like my daughter would be good for this.'
"When he said this, a father recommending his daughter is like no recommendation at all. I said, `Well, that's great, but can you think of somebody else? Do you know Rory Block? How 'bout Heady West?' He said, `No, I think my daughter is right for this.' Finally, I gave up, and said, `Look, lemme send you a tape of some of the stuff I've been working on. Stop volunteering your daughter for this material you've never even heard.' So I sent him a tape, he listened to it fast, and got right back to me. `Now that I've heard the tape, I'm convinced my daughter is right for this project.'
"Now, I'm slow, but if you tell me something enough times, finally I'll pay attention. And I began to think to myself, `Maybe his daughter is right for the project.'"
Sonya Cohen sits in the living room of her Hyde Park home. She's lived in Austin for four years with husband, Reid Cramer, a doctoral student at the LBJ school, and in December, the couple will share space with their first child. And whether it's because she's pregnant, or simply because she's always like this, Cohen is glowing. Her cheeks are pink, her light-colored eyes are bright, and she's smiling. She goes to the wooden cabinet with CDs in it, and from the top produces some postcards: black and white pictures, shot in New York in the Fifties and Sixties -- Ginsberg, Dylan. Beautiful. They're probably in every postcard rack in New York. On the back, they all read the same: "by John Cohen."
"My Pop is a renaissance man," says Cohen, beaming. "An artist, photographer, filmmaker, musician, painter -- just thinker at larger. He grew up in the suburbs of New York as a nice Jewish boy in a nice Jewish suburb (Long Island). His folks did some folk-dancing, folk-singing...
"Eventually, he got himself to art school, started the Yale Hootenannies; infamous to some, these gatherings of people playing music in the Fifties, playing their own music, playing banjos, fiddles, and guitars, and singing songs -- I guess they were big collections of people. And they were memorable -- like a lot of artists would hang out. And it was during `The Beat' world, and he knew Kerouac and Ginsberg. He knew that crowd, the beat crowd..."
"That" crowd including a young folk musician named Mike Seeger, of those Seegers, and when the two hit it off, they started a band: the New Lost City Ramblers. Now, everyone knows being in a band means having an extended family, and for Cohen this meant six other Seeger siblings to contend with, including brother Pete -- already well on his way to becoming a folk music/social activist legend -- and the baby of the Seeger seven, Penny. It was Penny Seeger, of course, somewhere around her 14th birthday, who caught Cohen's eye, and a glance is usually all it takes. That, and four years, as it turns out, after which Penny and Cohen were married.
The year was 1965 and Sonya was born, an event followed closely thereafter by the birth of her brother Rufus. The Cohens were "homesteading" an old junkyard lot in upstate New York, Putnam Valley, a town of 3,000. "They farmed it," explains the first of the Cohen kids. "It was all wood-stove, home-made bread, granola, and tons and tons and tons of musicians passing through. We had this incredible club right near us called the Town Cryer Cafe, and they were just a stop on the folk circuit. And so were we."
If Sonya wasn't sleeping on her bench at the cafe, she was upstairs in her own special bed -- or at home, where just as many road shows passed through. If not there, she could be found up the road at the home of Pete Seeger, her uncle. Actually, "Peter-pop" was more like her grandfather. Penny's mother, Constance de Clyver -- Sonya's grandmother -- had died when the youngest Seeger, Penny, was eight, so she was sent to live with the oldest Seeger, Pete. He was like Penny's father, and Sonya's grandfather.
"Pete is wonderful and warm and cuddly -- great with kids," says Cohen. "He was "Peter-pop," we just did so many great things together -- always singing. Anytime we all got together, which was any occasion, any birthday, any holiday, he always had new songs to teach the entire family..."
Not that her real grandfather, Charles Louis Seeger, wasn't around as well. "He taught me yoga," says Cohen, guessing she was seven or eight when he died at a spry young age of 91. "Very intense guy. Very intense. Spoke in just the most complicated sentences and thoughts. He was a musicologist; I think people credit him with inventing the word `ethnomusicology' -- certainly the field, anyway. He was the father of ethnomusicology. Visiting him was always a bit of, `Whew. What a guy.' You just felt his scholarliness and his vibrance."
And just how long is it before a child begins to understand the legacy they've been born into? "I was embarrassed pretty early on about that," she laughs. "No one else was like me. And I was not a happy child -- in terms of social life outside this realm. This home was pretty cool for a kid; there was a lot of creativity, a lot of music. My mother was a potter. My extended family were potters. That world was really marvelous and full. My school world was where I was real awkward and quiet. The whole affiliation with Pete was a problem in my town."
Seems the small-towners didn't like Communists, something that Pete Seeger had always been outspoken about. Yet if Reagan landing in the White House in 1980 meant anything at all, it meant drastic change, and that decade mark meant the 15-year-old Sonya was about to experience her own "personal blossoming" -- in London.
It was in London, where the family lived for a year on her father's sabbatical, that Sonya discovered her folk music, namely Joan Armatrading and Joni Mitchell; Rufus pursued punk. Quite a turnabout for a couple of kids who, at home, had hungered for anything electric, anything modern, claiming the family's Steeleye Span records as theirs as soon as they found them.
Upon return, Cohen enrolled in Wesleyan and promptly put together a songwriting collective, formed by a group of girlfriends, who were all very serious and "emotional" about their craft. Soon, however, she was in her Twenties and things became a little more stable. She kept singing, taking a trip to India to study Carnatic singing ("a few counties down the continent" from Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn), and later pursuing Bulgarian music ("I was in the mood for harmony after the other"). Eventually, she settled on television and film (today, she's a graphic designer), working on rockumentaries, such asWasn't That a Time, about the Weavers, and A Vision Shared, a tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Not exactly the family business, but close.
"I never wanted to do music as a profession," explains Cohen, "because I saw all these other people in my family doing it.... There are some members of my family that wanted to be musicians, but they just didn't find their own unique vision, and then they sort of copied. They couldn't make it. And that was a source of frustration and aggravation, and resentment to the members of the family that had made such major marks in folk music.
"For me, there were four stellar role models that described the musical universe. That being: Mike, as just a traditionalist -- a real, traditional, music purist; [my aunt] Peggy, who's a great songwriter; Pete, who did it as a social activity, and then my grandmother, a composer I don't understand. They described the spectrum for me, and I didn't feel like I had a vision. I understood what it took to be so good; you had to have that drive, that vision, that something that makes you stick it out no matter what, which those four really did as artists -- uncompromising. Me, I always thought of myself as wanting to support myself and I got into design work."
That's when her father got a call from some guy named Dick Connette.
In the July 27, Sunday edition of The New York Times, there in the Arts & Leisure section, was an article about Nonesuch Records, a NY-based label known for its avant-garde eclecticism. Having released everything from Henryk Gorecki's wrenching Third Symphony to a recent country album by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Nonesuch is the erudite music fan's Rykodisc -- a label that knows what it likes and doesn't worry about being Interscope.
In the second paragraph of the story, author James Oestreich cites one of the label's newest releases, Last Forever, an album "teeming" with all sorts of American Folk music, from Cajun to Appalachian, "unified only by Mr. Connette's finely focused sensibility and the eloquent storytelling of Sonya Cohen and her superbly inflected vocals." He goes on to call the album "compelling" and "haunting," evoking both a "hominess and exoticism." High praise indeed for an album that was rejected by nearly every label it was sent to except Joe Boyd`s Hannibal label, a Rykodisc imprint.
In fact, it was while Connette and Cohen were courting Boyd in Austin at South by Southwest last year, that someone who used to work at Nonesuch, Danny Kahn, left the Last Forever demos on label president Robert Hurwitz's desk. "By the following Monday, Bob had called Danny and said, `Look, I listened to this five times over the weekend. I love it. I want to put it out,'" recounts Connette.
"I asked him, `Do you think, as is, this fits in with your catalogue?' And he said, `Yes. Yes. I think for what the material is, it's perfectly recorded.' I was thinking more of him than of me. Sonya, well, she's the singer I want to work with, and I can't speak highly enough about her and what she brings to the project. But, she's not a singer the way other people on Nonesuch are singers -- trained classical singers with other types of techniques. I was surprised that, once again, Hurwitz thought, `No, she fits in perfectly with what I want on this label.'"
Not only did Cohen fit perfectly on the label, the release itself -- the recorded debut both for her and its 45-year-old composer -- was her very own branch off the Seeger family tree.
"Precisely," says Cohen. "We did a few years of concerts in New York City. And we had invited everyone. And we managed to get Pete, and his wife, Toshi, and their manager Howard Leventhal to come to one of the concerts. And there's part of the Cajun song (`Wild Goose') that's sung in French, and that part really worked for Pete. His suggestion later was, `Have you ever thought about singing the entire program in French?'"
"What that meant to me was, it's so foreign to him. He didn't relate this at all to his kind of music, to folk music -- in any sense. I think he heard snippets of things, but it didn't make sense. And then Mike Seeger didn't like it that much. I think a lot of people who are traditionalists [may not like it]. It's not traditional, it's arranged. It's composed. It's almost anti-vernacular.
"When I set out to do the music, I was mostly excited, because it was safe for me. It was much safer to do it with this composer. He was holding the reigns. It was his vision, it didn't have to be mine. I didn't have to do any vows with the world that I came from. For a long time, I was just along with. I think now, I've really claimed it; `Oh, I better sing this like I mean it, because it's gonna be played....'
"And that's when it started getting really interesting. Like I would say, `I don't think that's idiomatic. I think, this is the way it would be.' There's this interesting tension now, and it's wonderful tension, where it's my interpretation versus or in conversation with Dick's interpretation of the same material."
A tension that's found on two of the album's most intense cuts, the Huddie Ledbetter/John & Alan Lomax-penned "Ain't Going Down to the Well No More/Poor Lazarus," and a song often associated with Ledbetter, "In the Pines."
"I love `In the Pines,'" purrs Cohen. "It still gives me chills, to listen to it, and to sing it. Yeah. That has a real edge quality to it. There's just a tension in the way it's been arranged, and an eeriness. It's one of those songs, and it's fun to add another version, actually, to put one more onto the pile."
A growing mound it seems.
"There was this big article in The New York Times," says Connette, "about two full pages, and the article was about the song `In the Pines.' Now, the guy had heard Kurt Cobain's version of `In the Pines,' and maybe knew a couple of other versions, and decided to write an article about the song's history. But the centerpiece of it was the Kurt Cobain version. He went through Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, and maybe the Louvin Brothers, and where it came from, and the black tradition and the white tradition, and then he finishes it up -- and this is while I'm working on my version -- by saying, `Now, Kurt Cobain has done his version of `In the Pines' and it's so extraordinary that no one need ever record it again.'
"I was incensed. I don't do this very often, but I wrote the guy a letter. I thought, I know more about this song than this guy does."
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