Student Showcase: The High Lonesome Avant-Garde—Spiritual Fascinations With Roscoe Holcomb

brock stuessi remixes john cohen remixes roscoe holcomb.

In my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar, students complete multimedia projects based on original research. Brock Stuessi grew interested in how New Lost City Rambler Cohen moved between the avant-garde art scene in New York City and his documentary work in the rural South, particularly in and around the mountains of Kentucky. After reading the latest scholarship by Josh GuthmanScott L. Matthews, Amanda Petrusich, Mike Sell, and Brian Jones (no, not that Brian Jones, although he was a folk revivalist too in his way), Brock set to creating a remix of Cohen’s groundbreaking documentary film, The High Lonesome Sound (1963) only using the words and images of others. His argument, his position, as he explains, strives to be found in how he assembled and organized his primary and secondary source materials into a new digital creation—a remix that is its own artistic and interpretive entity.

The resulting final project is among the most daring I have seen in the course. Brock’s project takes digital history far from conventional historical analysis to a more embedded, implied, suggestive, creative format. Making use of the remix capacities of digital media, in which an interpreter can “touch” the artifacts themselves in new ways, reformulating them as an act of analyzing them, he does so in an experiment that tries to honor the collisions of secular avant-garde art practices in Cohen’s downtown New York City and the spiritual activities of Primitive Baptist life in Roscoe Holcomb’s rural Kentucky mountains, where Cohen traveled with a camera in the early 1960s. This weird collision demands weird experiments to make sense of it. As Brock puts it:

My project aims to connect the spiritual climate and yearning of the avant-garde art world and the folk revival. Our explorations in the digital humanities during this quarter have led me to continually question and meditate on the material qualities of a variety of media. My remixing of John Cohen’s The High and Lonesome Sound aims to illuminate spiritual connections through collection, presentation, and association, tactics we see throughout a study of mediation in the folk revival.

Brock’s final project turns to digital remix approaches to seek out mood and feeling in the pentecostal spiritual traditions that informed influential folk musicians such as Roscoe Holcomb, who in turn inspired folk revivalists such as Cohen, who himself sensed connections between these rural religious practices and certain urges and urgencies in the avant-garde art of the postwar decades. Here is a project that offers eerie entrance into the act of mediation itself, whether it be musical mediations of tradition, traditional mediation of music, filmic mediations that seek to document the folk, or digital “re”-mediations of past representations of folk culture. Indeed, Brock’s project made me think about the ways in which history is a mediating form as well, a vessel through which we pour the past, altering its shape and even its meaning as we do so.

As Brock writes:

For the visuals, I limited myself to John Cohen’s original film, reediting it to fit the audio scape I created. The result is a research project which manifests in a more impressionistic way, through the arrangement of artifacts, rather than a more didactic presentation. This arrangement places the media up front, and the scholar/presenter in the shadows behind, much like the work of Harry Smith and others who mediated the folk revival.  It is my hope that by brining the historical, the scholarly, and the artistic together we, as researchers, are better able to get at the deeper questions within cultural historiography.

Brock’s project makes the digital an opportunity for historians to consider form itself more intently. How do we carry—mediate—the past into the present, into the future? When we go digital, what do we wish to hold on to in the form of historical narrative that emerged in nineteenth century European universities? Are there new tactics and approaches that the digital presents, or that it demands? Do they reveal new understanding even as they submerge historical argument in modes of expression and representation with which historians are not as familiar or practiced in using?

In the striking juxtapositions and re-flowings of Brock’s remix, history arrives in confusing new form. It does leave me thinking one thing: perhaps source materials themselves contain intriguing guidance for how to ground ourselves in the brave, new wireless context of digital history. After all, both postwar avant-garde sensibilities and rural pentecostal church ones already engaged with questions of a world swirling with meaning (and potential meaninglessness). These cultural practices from the past were already involved in processing a material reality that felt like it refused to be pinned down, a place where spiritual yearnings combined with secular situations to produce greater sensitivity to the more slippery, fluid qualities of gleaning significance from experience, understanding from observation, comprehension from mystery. By tackling them digitally, Brock’s project made me consider them not as source materials to be slotted into a static methodology, but rather as robust resources for thinking about historical methodology itself.

Which is to say, more broadly, that as digital historians, we might discover our methodological grounding in the topics of our inquiry themselves. Digital technologies become a catalyst not for leaving past ways of making meaning behind, but for returning to them with vigor and intensity. The remixed displacement of the artifact might, potentially, place us more fully into the past whose traces it represents. Within the remediation, deeper, more tantalizing avenues back to the mediated moment itself and its historical import? Maybe.

What we certainly get here is the potency of surprising linkages brought out through digital recomposition. It dramatizes how a participant in the postwar New York artistic avant garde turned to the rural hinterland for what to him seemed to be a more sophisticated take on spirituality than he could find in the big city. But it sweeps others into its remix too, from Kerouac to the latest scholars of culture and history. Brock has created an assemblage, a hybrid, a combination of elements. It works by emphasizing juxtaposition, connections, contrasts, overlaps, divergences, associations, and indications.

Brock’s audio explanation and final video remix project:

      The-High-and-Lonesome-Avant-Garde-Podcast

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