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For more on this generation's search for authenticity and an experience to break through the confines of contemporary middle class culture see Doug Rossinow's study of the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement, The Politics of Authenticity New York: Columbia University Press, In , Cohen recalled being "disgusted with the city, grey dirt and second-hand folk music, curious about Kentucky mountains, Elizabethan-like ballads, dulcimers, fierce banjo-playing, hillbilly music, bloody Harlan, mining songs, depressions and striking miners. If we feel a desire towards their outlook on music, we must be willing to understand their way of life and to respect them as people who have something to offer in their way.
Cohen was certainly not the only person to mythologize the Kentucky mountains as a bastion of authentic folk music, and he was not the only person making field recordings in the area in Despite jokes that young folk song collectors were overrunning the Appalachians with recording studios dragging behind them, there were actually only a few folk song collectors working during this time.
Cohen, his bandmate Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler , a former Swarthmore student and friend of the Seeger family came to the southern mountains. The only other visible collector in Kentucky that year was Cohen's nominal nemesis, Alan Lomax, who visited the southeastern part of the state in early September, well after Cohen had returned to New York City.
Cohen mentioned to Lomax his intention to travel to Kentucky to record and photograph musicians. But Lomax was also hardly the first song collector in Kentucky.
Long before he and Cohen arrived in , folklorists and amateur collectors traveled there in the early twentieth century. Most notable was the Englishman Cecil Sharp , who had hoped to find the Elizabethan ballads preserved by years of isolation from modern industrial society. The romanticism expressed by these early collectors differed from Cohen's.
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The ballad collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kept ears attuned for Child ballads , supposed vestiges of old English lineage. Cohen went to Kentucky in part because of its mining culture, which he believed produced the closest thing he would ever get to a setting reminiscent of the s. In , "while the rest of America was busy and prosperous," Cohen wrote, "Kentucky was experiencing a depression caused by troubles in the coal mines.
Unlike earlier collectors, Cohen also saw fieldwork as a personal quest for meaning, not a folkloric, literary, or academic safari. During the late s, the young folk singer Jean Ritchie from Viper in Perry County contributed to Cohen's and the folk revival's romantic imaginings of the mountains. Ritchie left Kentucky in the early s to live in New York City and get involved with the burgeoning folk scene. Young revivalists like Cohen loved her early recordings for Folkways, which colored their perceptions of the mythical mountains.
In February , Robert Shelton, who covered the American folk music scene for the New York Times , declared Ritchie "one of the finest authentic traditional folk singers we have in the United States today. She is the heir of a tradition that goes back to the pioneers who settled the Kentucky Cumberlands. Her forebears lived in isolated areas where customs were tenacious and songs were passed on from one generation to the next.
In , the Riverside label released an LP by the same title on which Ritchie used excerpts from the book to tell stories about growing up in Kentucky. Cohen's first encounter with Ritchie's songs came over the radio waves on a program hosted by Oscar Brand in the early s. Cohen's father had purchased a wire recorder for him, and he would make recordings of Brand's show and send them to his brother who attended college at University of California, Berkeley.
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