Cohen's musical and artistic interests took him on multiple occasions to Peru and to Appalachia. For all I know, the Andean highlands have remained the sameˇthe pictures range from 1956 to 1977, and it's hard to spot any major cultural shifts over the span, just the changing styles of secondhand first-world clothes worn by the men. If you also remove the violins and the brass instruments, the culture appears little altered from the pre-Columbian mists, but that may be in part because Cohen's focus, other than music, is on facesˇwhich are astoundingˇand handloom weaving. His Appalachia, on the other hand, is manifestly the same place documented by the Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s: the same cabins decorated with feed-store calendars and massive, scarred Victorian furniture. Poor people were thin then, and they wore clothes very much like the Peruvians': noble shipwrecked hats and suit coats as serious as framed certificates. Only the famous musicians (Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe) look like citizens of the New Frontier. Possibly the most striking subject in the book is the indomitable Roscoe Holcomb, an oak tree of a man, with a long, grave faceˇWilliam S. Burroughs if he'd gone to divinity schoolˇwho lives in a house up a dirt track that might have been built by his ancestors and holds his banjo in hands permanently tattooed with work grime.
Holcomb does get serious competition from Andrea Quispe Chura of Q'eros, Peru, a wildly beautiful woman whose facial planes suggest some kind of radical geometry, and from Woody Guthrie, face like a Puritan judge, hairstyle a cloud of ringlets cantilevered onto an otherwise buzz-cut scalp. The sculptor Mary Frank, then married to Robert, is the incarnation of beatnik glamour, all abundant features and hair and huge eyes and no makeup needed, ever. Gregory Corso, the street urchin, mugs in every picture and turns it into sketch comedy; Jack Kerouac appears on the verge of tears or tantrum in his pictures and hauls in canned thunder and organ arpeggios. Someone kisses Grace Hartigan on the forehead, and she laughs with such pure happiness you want to cut out her face and keep it in your wallet. Bob Dylan, worried and smoking and leaning against the wall with his hand in his hair, makes you wonder how you missed the early Godard movie from which the shot had to have been taken.
One amazing picture distills East Tenth Street, 1959, into a diorama: Upstairs is a gallery opening, with bright track lighting and sheer curtains, while downstairs is a bar, with sad hunched men resting on their elbows amid the usual lies ("restaurant," the window alleges; "come in, friend!" urges a bartending shill in a beer ad). Two pictures document the 1957 appearance of a British skiffle group at the Folklore Center on Macdougal Streetˇ"They had just come off a ship and we didn't realize how much they announced the Rock 'n' Roll approach and style," Cohen writes, but they don't look anything like the Fab Four; they look like punks. One picture shows everything that future punks hated about the folk revival: two nice young college men wearing sport coats and dark trousers capering on a YMCA stage with their guitars held at perky angles. Below the stage, two babies are crawlingˇthose are the future punks.
The dimpled, up-with-people niceness of the folk revival is the aspect of the phenomenon that actually got beamed into suburban homes, and it would take years for the next generation to get over its disgust and appreciate the complexity of that time. It is foreign most of all because of its lost optimism. Back in 1961 and surrounding years young people believed that ideas mattered, that individual and collective actions could change the world, that voices raised in harmony could change minds. Now that we have been disabused by subsequent events, we may be wiser, but not by much.
Luc Sante's books include Walker Evans (Phaidon, 2002) and The Factory of Facts (Pantheon, 1998).