Folk Master

For three decades Dr. Robert Cogswell has kept the rhythm of Tennessee's folk culture

In 1959, Robert Cogswell made a discovery that changed his life. He was 9 years old, and his family had just moved to Shelbyville, Tenn. "I turned on the radio," Cogswell says, "and there was Flatt & Scruggs. It was all over with. It was just, 'Yeah!' My mother was from western North Carolina and came from the hillbilly side of the family, but she was basically a product of Appalachian missionary work. She was aghast when I started listening to Flatt and Scruggs. She said, 'You're undoing what it took our family three generations to get out of.' And I just said, 'That's your problem.'"

 
That same feisty attitude and love for disregarded music, arts, and culture has remained a hallmark of "Roby" Cogswell's make-up. It's served him well for the last 30 years in his position as director of the Folklife Program for the Tennessee Arts Commission. He's worked as an archivist, documentarian, public advocate, and educator for a large variety of Tennessee folk arts and culture, including basket-making in Cannon County, African-American gospel groups across the state, boat-building traditions of Reelfoot Lake, crafts in the Choctaw community of Lauderdale County, music and dance in Nashville's Lao community, and many other projects across the state. "I've spent almost all of my career interviewing, documenting, and photographing," Cogswell says, "finding out about people, what they do, and how that reflects a deeper sense of place – music, crafts or something else." Chatting with him in the living room of his Lockeland Springs home, it's quickly evident that he is opinionated and outspoken with a sharp sense of humor, and despite his claim of being a curmudgeon, his interest and compassion for people is plainly evident. It's a lively mix for any person, but especially for someone trained as an academic who has made his living in state government for three decades. "Folklore is a pretty tough call for a livelihood outside of academia," Cogswell says. "I'm pretty close to holding the record. I've hung onto the cliff face for 30 years."
 
Born in New Orleans, Cogswell experienced the sometimes transient life of being a "preacher's kid" during his early years. Leaving the Big Easy for St. Louis, his parents eventually settled in Shelbyville, where he discovered his destiny through the sound of bluegrass. "Flatt & Scruggs had a radio program on at a quarter to six in the morning," he says, "and I had a radio tuned in so that Earl Scruggs' banjo roll would wake me up every day. My parents didn't care about the music at all, but I was just crazy about it. I liked WLAC, too, and listened to a lot of black music, but I always sort of hated pop music. I didn't even like the Beatles." Although bluegrass had already progressed far from its original folk roots, and in fact, was a form of popular music, it still served as a gateway for Cogswell. It opened his eyes to American culture that lay outside the mainstream of pop-chart hits and the acceptance of "proper" society. There were cultural treasures to be found all around him, and more importantly, there were real people to meet and learn from. While visiting his grandfather in North Carolina he first discovered how approachable his heroes could be. "I was 14 years old," Cogswell says, "and was just getting interested in guitar. My grandfather saw a picture of Doc Watson in something that I had and immediately took me over to meet him. 'Doc,' he said, 'my grandson is crazy about you!' Doc handed me his old, 1940s Martin D-18 guitar and my knees were knockin'. I just made a complete fool out of myself." After high school, Cogswell attended Vanderbilt University on a scholarship program, majoring in English and anthropology. But his most passionate studies were far from the stately and cultured buildings of the Vandy campus. They were across the river in East Nashville.
 
For years, the Dusty Road Tavern stood at the bottom of the Woodland Street Bridge. Located directly across the street from the National Casket Company, "The Roads" both tempted and intimidated visitors with its signage proclaiming, "World Famous Dusty Road – Jam Sessions – Instruments Furnished – Truckers Welcome." Operated by Bobby Green, a short, take-no-shit scrapper, former boxer and sometimes bass player, the Dusty Road became the focal point for Nashville's bluegrass scene in the late 1960s. "The sidemen from the Opry would all come down there on Saturday nights after their shows were over at the Ryman," Cogswell says. "Us thumpers would be there at the beginning of the night and before long you'd be playing with Vic Jordan, Roland White and Vassar Clements. Incredible players from everywhere, both big names and unknowns, would show up there. I actually won over crusty old Bobby Green. He labeled me a hippie at first and didn't want anything to do with me, but I was sort of a Lester Flatt repertoire specialist. Those guys wanted to hear that, and I could fill the bill." Unfortunately, the bluegrass scene at the Dusty Road only lasted for a few years. "About '73 or '74, Bobby died and his wife married a guy that hated bluegrass," Cogswell says. Despite the banishment of bluegrass, the Dusty Road continued as a country music bar under various owners, eventually relocating to the other side of the river after the original location was demolished in 1991 to make way for the Juvenile Justice Center. The Nashville bluegrass scene survived, with several regulars from the Dusty Road scene founding the Station Inn in 1974, but for Cogswell, it was time to travel on. His interest in folk culture led to Indiana University where he secured his Master's and PhD in folklore, and to a teaching position at the University of Louisville. "I taught for two years at the U of L and got my craw full of academics," Cogswell says. "I decided I had to find something else to do." It was then that opportunity called. "In 1984," Cogswell says, "Tennessee was slated to be the featured state of the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklore. The State had signed this contract with the Smithsonian, but no one in state government really spoke their language as far as doing festivals and having a background in traditional culture." The opportunity to work in a position that emphasized real-world field work, without being tied up in the Gordian knot of academia was a perfect fit for Cogswell, and the fact that it meant returning to his "home state" made it all the better. "I really liked getting back to Tennessee," he says. "When I was a kid, every Tennessee student took sixth grade Tennessee geography and history and in some ways that was the most valuable schooling I ever had in my life. Tennessee is an amazing state, 95 counties is a big turf and I've learned something new every week on the job. In the big picture, I like to think I'm more of a 'professional Tennessean' than folklorist."
 
It's been a satisfying and challenging career for Cogswell. Part of the challenge, however, is the slippery nature of defining exactly what folklore is. The basic definition is traditional customs, tales, sayings, music, dances, or art forms preserved among any group of people sharing a common cultural bond. But when folk culture is adopted by the mainstream, does it cease to be folk culture? When searching for true "folk arts," traditional Appalachian basket-weaving may seem like an obvious example, but is it still truly a folk art when it is taught in formalized classes with a written textbook? "The folk thing is very problematic," Cogswell says. "If you talk to 10 people about, 'What is folklore?' you're going to get 10 different answers. I've had to deal with that problem when it applied to the arts. There are so many trained artists claiming they are folk artists now. And yet, when I'm looking for traditional artists I hear, 'We don't have that around here, you have to go to the mountains.' Then sure enough, I find a broom maker less than a mile from where I was told that." Cogswell sees his job as not only finding and documenting the cultural traditions of Tennessee, but also helping people discover the value of what they have in their own backyards. "The influence and effects of 'sanctioned culture' really do have some onerous consequences for a lot of people," he says. "It creates a schizophrenic attitude about their own culture. One of my favorite lines is that in Tennessee, one of our major industries is feeling ashamed of ourselves. Many times folk traditions are carried on by the people on the wrong side of tracks – not the people at the country club or the ones running the courthouse. I see counties that have some incredible traditions and it's, 'No, no, no we don't want that as the image for our county.' That dynamic is replicated over and over again." It's also important to remember that folk culture is not a static thing. Old traditions may die out or change along with creating new traditions. Population shifts, economics, and the influence of popular culture all have their effect on folk traditions. "In recent years," Cogswell says, "I've dealt with many immigrant groups. We've documented traditions that they have brought with them. (Folk studies) remains relevant but boy, has folk culture changed a lot." Of course, the best known folk tradition of Tennessee is music, but distinguishing true folk traditions from popular music is an especially tricky task. It's been that way since the 1920s, when New York City record executives figured out that hillbilly music and country blues were marketable commodities. There's a long history of "traditional" folk tunes becoming million-selling hits and popular songs being absorbed and transformed by folk culture, but in the 21st Century with almost instantaneous access to the entire history of recorded music, is there any true folk tradition left? Some might think that the rediscovery of old-time string bands and country blues by "hip," younger artists is a sign of a thriving folk culture. Cogswell takes a different view. "I guess I'm kind of becoming a crusty geezer myself," he says. "What is it they say? If you can't figure out who the old folks are then it's you. But these kids are just learning songs from old recordings. Where do these mp3s come from? Do they just appear out of the air? They're learning the music but not the context and culture of where it came from."
 
"Folk music" may be a distinct genre, but gather a group of musicians together in an informal setting for an impromptu jam session and the true folk traditions begin to appear, regardless of the style of music played or choice of material. Playing with other musicians, sharing hot licks and learning songs face to face is where true "folk music" can be found. It's a process that Cogswell has had personal experience with through his "second" career as a rhythm guitar player. "When we moved here in 1984," he says, "I still had a lot of old friends from the old Dusty Roads scene. Most everyone was here to play professionally, but I just wanted to play. I resolved to keep my chops good enough so if I had a chance to play with really good players I wouldn't embarrass myself." That resolution paid off when he got the chance to meet and play with one of his heroes, but the experience went beyond the simple adoration of a fan. "I got to be really close friends with Charlie Collins for the last six years of his life," Cogswell says. "He was one of my idols as a kid in regards to being a rhythm guitar player. He was Roy Acuff's right hand man for 25 years, but he actually started out as a traditional fiddle player. I started running into him at jam sessions, and he was working up new versions of old Howdy Forrester tunes on the fiddle. They were just knuckle busters, some of the most complicated fiddle music that ever came out of this town." "For six years I went over to Charlie's house every Monday night and backed him up on rhythm guitar. We went into the studio a couple of times, but he was never satisfied. I eventually realized the record would never get done, but I didn't care." Cogswell came to appreciate that his relationship with Collins and other older musicians went deeper than just the good times of playing music. He was learning about the culture from which hillbilly music was born. How the hard country life that many of these musicians grew up with informed their music as well their lives. "There was a transposition of a folk culture into the lives of many musicians who until fairly recently fed the beast in Nashville," Cogswell says. "Those kinds of guys really fascinated me. You don't see that in a lot of younger musicians. There are still some that were raised 'country,' but not many."
 
That understanding of how a folk culture can feed into popular culture also led to Cogswell's discovery of the "hidden history" of his adopted neighborhood. Although East Nashville is now hailed around the world as a musician's community, its history and culture as such began much earlier. "I took my job on one week's notice in early October 1984," Cogswell says. "We were pack rats and East Nashville was the only place we could afford a house big enough to put all our junk in. We bought this house from a woman named Lutie Smith. She was the widow of an incredible character named Hershall 'Smitty' Smith. He was a flunky in the Wally Fowler music empire." (Fowler was a major country gospel music promoter in the 1950s and the founder of the Oak Ridge Quartet, which evolved into the Oak Ridge Boys.) "Smith had run ABC Promotions out of the attic in this house. When we moved in, there were Elvis imitator posters on the floor, his diploma from the Fleischman School of Baking in 1947, and two hand-painted carnival banners for some kind of Howdy Doody knock-off doll he once sold. I kept his tax returns for a long time because they were hysterical. The guy was a real character." As time passed, Cogswell discovered more about the presence of the music business in the East Nashville of the 1940s and 50s. "There were several boarding houses that catered specifically to musicians with Ma Upchurch's being the most famous," he says. "[The musical heritage] is in the fabric here in a way that it's not in other parts of town. After World War II, when they started dividing a lot of these houses into apartments, the cachet of this neighborhood declined, but it became affordable housing for musicians. The trailer parks on Dickerson Road were often the first stop for a lot of musicians coming to town." "That realization made me look at city directories in a different way. Sometimes I'll think about an old player, and I'll see if I can find them in the old city directories. Almost always they were in East Nashville. I don't think there are that many people who know what happened here – that it was a musician's bedroom community." To some the history of the East Side as a musician's community might just seem like a bit of interesting trivia, but it runs much deeper than that. Nashville's original establishment as the "Music City" was driven in part by a community of working musicians that came together in one area. Fifty years later, the same dynamic had a hand in creating what is often and inaccurately referred to as the "New Nashville." The true soul of Nashville's music scene isn't in the number of stars that can be spotted in restaurants or how many hits are recorded in Nashville's studios. It's found in jam sessions, casual conversations about music in coffee shops and bars, in the interaction and sharing that goes on between seasoned musicians and those at the beginning of their musical careers. As with Cogswell's first exposure to bluegrass over the tinny speaker of an AM radio, a music fan's discovery of a country blues master through the Internet might light a spark, but it's the face-to-face sharing of traditions that sustain a musical culture. "That's what's really exciting to me about Nashville," Cogswell says. "The informal music scene is of such a high caliber. People from outside Nashville like to trash it as 'Trashville' or 'Cashville' but they don't really understand the depth of the water. Some days I'm driving into work, and I see Buddy Spicher walking down the street. I always pull over and talk to him. You've got to love this neighborhood."