In his search for traditional mountain music, John Cohen came to Kentucky in 1959 in an old car that kept breaking down.
"Every gas station I'd go to, I'd ask, 'Any banjo players around here?,' and they'd say, 'What are you doing here?'" Cohen, 80, recalls. "I'd say, 'I'm looking for banjo players,' and somebody always knew somebody, so I'd go visit them."
Those meetings led to about 450 recordings of Appalachian musicians that were released by the Smithsonian Folkways label. Cohen also took a lot of pictures. They will be on display at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital's West Gallery and Atrium starting this week. The exhibit, High Lonesome Sound, will kick off Friday with a reception and performance featuring Cohen, who's also a musician, and Lexington native and musician Ben Sollee.
The event is part of the annual Bale Boone Symposium by UK's Gaines Center for the Humanities, which this year focuses on arts in healing.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
One of the signatures of the hospital is its artwork. The pieces by Kentucky artists, in particular, give the exhibitions a strong sense of place. That is implicit in the title of Cohen's exhibit.
The phrase "high lonesome sound" has become a common descriptor for Bluegrass and Appalachian music since Cohen coined the term in the mid-20th century as the title of his movie about traditional musicians, featuring singer and banjo player Roscoe Holcomb, who hailed from Daisy.
"I had to find a name for the film," Cohen recalls. "I was looking for a name that would not only describe the setting but would be something that people from Kentucky would understand. I noticed people would talk about a lonesome sound, and then there was the trail of the lonesome pines. And Roscoe sang so very high, and I put them together.
"Then it became the sort of generic name for Bluegrass ... it became public domain. I like that a lot."
Cohen studied photography at Yale University, pursuing it at a time when there was only one gallery in New York City devoted to photography and a lot of debate as to whether photography qualified as art.
"There was no place to show such work, unless you were doing a story for a magazine or an advertisement, and I was going neither of those things," Cohen says. "So the photographs I took for this series were just to satisfy my own curiosity, which in retrospect is really interesting because they look so good now. They were made out of my desire to make good images of something that was very interesting to me and that I'm finding out about."
The exhibit shows a number of musicians as well as life in 1950s Appalachia, from church services to coal miners' children playing.
Cohen says this will be the first time the photos have been exhibited in Kentucky. He has kept tabs on Kentucky over the years, watching it change in some ways and stay the same in others. He just came through about a month ago with three younger musicians with whom he plays banjo to give them a sense of the roots of the music they are playing.
"It's one thing to play the tunes," Cohen says, "but to have the feeling of the people and the place is extraordinary."