Once upon a time, there was a young white guy with a Masters in Anthro-pology from Kent State University in Ohio who decided that a typical 9-5 existence wasn’t going to be his thing. I can see his poor momma’s teary eyes now as she saw her bright-eyed college boy let his promising career prospects dwindle when he broke the news that he was going to write his master’s thesis on “How blues musicians use their thumb.” “Yeah mom, and then I am going to be a professional bluesman to play the music of poor black folks from down South.” No really, that was fifty years ago and he is still at it, stronger than ever. Meet Andy Cohen, a Massachusetts transplant Piedmont picker down in Tennessee who carries on the old traditions in a beautiful way. The Memphis resident is the real deal, who in many ways embodies the history of the blues as carried on by the baby-boomer generation. If you want to understand the acoustic blues experience, the transition of the from pre-war blues (WWII, that is) to the 1960s blues revival on to modern day acoustic blues, Earwig artist Cohen is a perfect testimonial.
Like so many young white college kids in the 1960s and 70s, Andy Cohen, listened to the old country masters like Big Bill Broonzy, Gary Davis and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and all the greats from the golden era. He comes from a musical household and played piano as a kid, so by the time the blues-bug bit him, he was ready. Inspired, he picked up the guitar in college and since then he went down that long and lonesome road to eek out a hard living as an acoustic bluesman. Over the last five decades he traversed that tough road to pick the guitar. Fortunately, he has learned a thing or two about playing, by now he has ascended as one of the great contemporary preservationists of the Piedmont tradition, the East Coast fingerpicking style which is soaked in Ragtime and for which Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, John Cephas and John Jackson are well known.
Cohen is quite a colorful character and a real musicologist. He lived the life and paid his dues, by and by. He worked as lead boy for a series of blind bluesman, including Jim Brewer, Rev. Dan Smith, Brother Daniel Womack and Rev. Davis. He apprenticed with some of the best and got to know a virtual who-is-who of the 60s bluesmen, including our common friend , the late great John Jackson, one of the kindest, sweetest men who ever lived.
Andy Cohen is currently involved in organizing music festivals, active in the Folk Alliance (USA) and helps run a family musical instrument business. He teaches guitar, gigs six months out of the year and somehow makes a living with the blues.
All good. One thing is for sure, the boy can play. There are few people around today who had a chance to pick it all up from the old generations, get this good at it and continue to cherish and preserve the old traditions. Andy Cohen is simply a gem and a musical treasure who is unassuming and modest, but one of the best pickers on the scene. Today, he is a living master in his own right, and while not famous or internationally successful, he ranks right up there with the very best in the genre, and as far as promoting the music, few can carry his guitar case.
Watch the clip below of him playing Scott Joplin’s rag “Slow Drag” and see for yourself.