Ron Cohen’s love of folk music began early when as a teen he listened to his older brother’s collection of folk music records, gaining an appreciation and respect for that music form and one artist in particular – Woody Guthrie.
“By the time I was in college which was 1958 I was buying Woody Guthrie albums,” recalls Cohen who lives in Miller. “There wasn’t much of his stuff out. About that time he was in the hospital and very very ill. He was alive but not visible. And he hadn’t recorded since the 1940s.”
But Guthrie’s works were honored then by two popular folk artists – Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger -- that Cohen considers to be Guthrie’s surrogates because they helped keep his name in front of the public during that time.
“Guthrie was a prolific artist and writer,” says Cohen. “He wrote essays and also a fictional autobiography called Bound for Glory which was published in 1943. When Bob Dylan went to college in Minneapolis, he met these guys who the book. He read it and was hooked on Woody. He was a major influence on Dylan and so the next year he went to New York City and met him. Dylan used to talk about him and Seeger performed some of his works which helped people get to know about him.”
Cohen would go on to study history, earning his doctorate and teaching at Indiana University Northwest as well as co-founding and co-directing the Calumet Regional Archives. Now retired, he holds the title of Professor Emeritus from IUNorthwest. Through the years he has remained interested in folk music, writing books on the subject. In 2001 Cohen was a Grammy Awards nominee for the five-CD folk treasure, Best of Broadside 1962-1988: Anthem of the American Underground, which he co-produced and wrote the historical essay for the 89-track collection representing 25 years of major historical events in the country as reflected by folk artists during that time period.
Coinciding with the celebration of Woody Guthrie’s centennial year (he would have been 100 if he hadn’t died a long protracted death from Huntington’s Disease, back in 1967 at the age of 55), Cohen has written Woody Guthrie: Writing America's Songs (Routledge Historical Americans 2012; $26.95) in his honor. The well-researched biography tells Guthrie’s story using primary documents such as letters and autobiographical excerpts as well as reflections by Pete Seeger.
Much of the material Cohen used came from many of the published works about Guthrie but he also had access to the Woody Guthrie Archives which were in originally in New York City and next year will be in Tulsa, Oklahoma though Woody Guthrie Publications, the company that licenses all his work, will remain in New York. The archives were a treasure trove of around 3000 lyrics written by Guthrie.
“Many of the 3000 hadn’t been recorded,” says Cohen. “Guthrie didn’t write music, he just wrote lyrics so all these songs didn’t have music and hadn’t been recorded.”
The archives also revealed new songs covering a myriad of subject matter.
“Woody wrote a song about Ingrid Bergman,” says Cohen. “He also wrote songs about the Jewish culture like Hanukah. He was steeped in the Jewish culture. He spent a lot of time with his mother-in-law Aliza Greenblatt who was a famous American Yiddish poet He learned Yiddish. Woody absorbed everything thing. He was an artistical and intellectual sponge.”
According to Cohen, in the 1940s, Guthrie was known for his children’s songs.
“His daughter died in a fire which really crushed him, so he recorded children’s songs,” says Cohen. “It was also a song, “This Land is Your Land,” that children sang at camp that helped make him famous.”
“I’ve been writing about folk music for a long time and he was in the center of everything,” says Cohen who has three more books about folk music scheduled to be published next year. “He was a creative genius, an influence on everybody as an entertainer, songwriter and political activist. Woody is still with us in his songs and his writing.”