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John Cohen and the Voyager Record

New Lost City Ramblers
The New Lost City Ramblers: John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz

Voyager Record
NASA technicians bolting the Voyager LP to the spacecraft

 

It has finally, really dawned on me.

The Voyager Record is a timecapsule, designed by Carl Sagan and friends, in the form of a long-playing phonograph record. Identical copies were bolted to the side of NASA's two Voyager Spacecraft, which are now drifting in interstellar space. And this record contains a field recording made in Peru by John Cohen, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers.

Here at The Celestial Monochord, that's one heck of a revelation. Let me think about this.

The Voyager Record (and the soundtrack to the Cosmos TV series, which borrowed heavily from it) was my first exposure to all sorts of music — not just Blind Willie Johnson, but also Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven string quartets, and a variety of non-Western musics like the Javanese gamelan and Japanese shakuhachi.

More often than you might think, 25 years later, the thought of the Voyager Record still occasionally overwhelms me with grief and wonder. It must be the strangest episode in the history of the US Government — for one thing, it was partly the result of Sagan's stunning, awe-inspiring innocence. The record is Carl Sagan's quixotic love letter to Planet Earth — Earth, which filled him with a grief and wonder of his own. To Sagan, the record expressed Earth's "cosmic loneliness."

And somehow, he arranged for this document to roar into interstellar space, riding like a stowaway aboard the federal government's Cold War nuclear missile technology.

———

When the Voyager Record was launched, Carl Sagan saw it as a fitting tribute to the recently-deceased inventor of the LP, Peter Goldmark.

Sagan had become a young Ph.D. in 1960, about six months before Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village. His generation passionately loved the long-playing record, and they soon came to define themselves and their worldview through the LP.

They studied LP's — such as Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper — with a reverence and creativity that previous generations reserved for The Bible. The social movements that defined the 60's and 70's were shaped and held together, to no small degree, by the LP format. It was The People's Format, an invention that invented a generation.

So, by 1977, it wasn't a big stretch for Sagan to envision a total summation of Planet Earth encoded into the grooves of an LP. But what should this record say? What would be its argument?

Above all, the Voyager Record is a global anthology. An anthology, because it juxtaposes diverse music, images, voices and sounds. And global, because it sees itself as unconstrained by national boundaries. Its varied elements belong together in a common space simply because they're all the work of Earthlings.

The argument of the Voyager Record (at least for its human audience) is its humanism, set against the Cold War. It tries to show, by means of an outlandish and beautiful thought-experiment, that the differences separating us are trivial when viewed from a "cosmic perspective," as Sagan liked to say. In the all-consuming milieu of the Cold War, now difficult to recall, that could be a very forceful vision.

It's often said that the peace and environmental movements were deeply inspired by NASA's photos of Earth taken from space. On the other hand, NASA was one of the USA's primary Cold War weapons. The display of those photos also scored points in the Space Race.

The Voyager Record inherited both poles of this irony. It was Carl Sagan's ambition to resolve the contradiction in favor of peace.


———

That ambition had roots, of course.

The intensely humanistic Alan Lomax served as an advisor to the Voyager project — it was Lomax who recommended to Sagan's group the inclusion of John Cohen's 1964 recording of a young Peruvian woman's wedding song.

Lomax himself had recorded folk musicians in many countries, partly to get out of the country during McCarthy's red-baiting and to find a way around the blacklist. This episode, like the Voyager LP, is clear case of the Cold War leading directly to "world music." Indeed, in a vivid echo of Sagan's project, Lomax would later dream of a Global Jukebox representing all of human culture through one portal.

And then there was Moe Asch's Folkways Records, for which The New Lost City Ramblers recorded exclusively. Back in the 1930's, Asch proposed "a complete acoustic record of the human lifeworld" (as Robert Cantwell put it). He came closer to fulfilling that dream than you might expect, as a little time with the Folkways catalog will show. The Folkways vision first formed in a spirit of resistance to the early stages of WWII and the Holocaust — and, as such, it was endorsed by Albert Einstein (as I've described before). Asch's company certainly became the most critical record label of the Folk Revival, a movement whose reason for being was the disillusionment of America's children in the post-WWII, Cold War environment (see Cantwell's brilliant book).

Asch and Lomax (both of whom vigorously pioneered the anthologizing potential of the LP) were the inventors of the Voyager Record's very spirit. Sagan and NASA — by reframing Asch and Lomax's vision in the contexts of the Cold War and the Cosmos — each appropriated the vision for their mutually contradictory, competing purposes.


———-

I will close with a few startling anecdotes about John Cohen — not so much to fit his life into the thesis above, but to show you that the guy actually makes sense, standing there on the corner of such mighty intersections.

Besides having co-founded The New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, and having made many recordings and award-winning documentaries about Andean culture, Cohen is also famous as the guy who coined the phrase "high lonesome sound." In Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg provides a good summary:

John Cohen ... contributed to the interest in bluegrass with his photography and through a short documentary film whose title has become closely associated with the music. In February 1963, when Cohen chose The High Lonesome Sound for his movie about Kentucky mountain music, he was seeking words to describe the high, intense quality of the singing which had impressed him during his research in the region ... The film included footage of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in a free concert at the 1962 Coal Carnival, on the courthouse steps in Hazard, Kentucky. It was the first documentary film to include bluegrass and marks the beginning of the association of Bill Monroe with the term "high lonesome sound."
This John Cohen is also the same John Cohen who Bob Dylan addresses in his liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited. In them, Dylan refers to Cohen's rooftop where Cohen had taken perhaps the first photos of Dylan in New York. I once read that this rooftop was demolished to make room for construction of the World Trade Center. Here's the passage [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]:
you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo.
This is also the same John Cohen who provided what was, for many years, the only available interview with Harry Smith, eccentric editor of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music.

And finally, it appears that the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band" is about John Cohen and The New Lost City Ramblers.

 

Editor's Note: One of many reasons it's been so long since I've posted is that I'm working on an experimental news blog on The New Lost City Ramblers — The New Lost Times. Let me know if you think I should keep going or quit.

 


Community Radio

Whalegirl

t-shirt designed by Saelee Oh

available from Lemonade Maid

 

Yesterday, on my morning commute, I was listening to KFAI, a community radio station in Minneapolis — not the local NPR station, mind you, but a real hippy-blues Hmong-issues reggae-ass CD-skipping community station.

The show was The FUBAR Omniverse, which is hosted by someone named Blanche and often features spacy art-house Brian Eno ambient I-don't-know-what. But yesterday, being the week of the pledge drive, Blanche was reminiscing about old times.

She recalled the time, many years ago, that she played a 17th-century whaling sea shanty on the radio. She immediately got an angry phone call from a concerned listener who objected that The FUBAR Omniverse was "encouraging whaling." Blanche wondered aloud whether the governments of Japan and Norway were listening to The FUBAR Omniverse ... and if so, what the ominous consequences might be.

In fairness, I do recall, around that time, the Mississippi River down by the Federal Building being mobbed with frenzied KFAI listener-members waving make-shift harpoons, their eyes wild with blubber-lust. They must've heard that song.

And so, anyway ... before we get our first nastygram, The Celestial Monochord strongly supports buying CD's of sea shanties, being nice to whales, and giving money to community radio.