As a founding member (with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley) of the New Lost City Ramblers in the mid 1950s, John Cohen helped bridge the gap between the young urban folk singers of the 1960s Folk Revival and the last authentic performers of the Appalachian folk tradition. His photographs, film documentaries, and field recordings (High Atmosphere and Mountain Music of Kentucky are two of the best Appalachian field collections ever assembled) have been instrumental in the preservation and revitalization of this music, and with Stories the Crow Told Me, his first true solo record released in 1998, Cohen, in essence, gave us field recordings of himself re-imaging this traditional material.
Not that he modernizes the songs. What makes Stories so striking is that he does the opposite, entering the songs as if he were sitting on some porch in a Kentucky holler with a banjo and a guitar, and the end result is a little bit like a one-man Harry Smith anthology. Cohen's cracked and keening "high lonesome" singing style sounds properly unhinged as he tackles Dock Boggs' "Danville Girl," Clarence Ashley's "Dark Holler," and Kelly Harrell's "My Name Is John Johanna," and his recreations of these songs both pay homage to the source versions and give them added clarity. Bob Dylan fans will recognize in "Chitlin Cookin' Time in Cheatham County" the source melody for Dylan's "Blind Wille McTell," and where the latter song is ominous and mysterious, "Chitlin Cookin' Time" is goofy and joyous, all with the exact same melody. Cohen's frustrated and frail vocal on the Harlan County union song "Which Side Are You On" is dramatically perfect, conveying the struggle and desperation inherent in the drive to unionize mine workers in Kentucky. Cohen's banjo playing on Stories is also superb, ranging from frailing techniques to two- and three-finger picking styles that give these songs immediacy and brightness. David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Sue Draheim add string band touches on some of the dance numbers, but the sound is always wonderfully ragged and wild. Stories the Crow Told Me was a refreshingly casual record, not so much a redefinition of Appalachian music as an attempt to enter it fully and completely. Cohen did it so well that the album sounds exactly like some great, lost Alan Lomax field tape, and although by definition what Cohen did was a facsimile, it sounds so much like the real deal that it hardly matters.