York music scholar wins Library of Congress fellowship

Over the next four months, ethnomusicologist Judith R. Cohen will spend her days in Washington, DC’s Library of Congress poring over the 1952 diaries of Alan Lomax, the legendary field collector of folk music in the 20th century.

For the past 10 years, Cohen, a York lecturer and performer who specializes in Judeo-Spanish Judith R. Cohen in 2009 in Riga, Latvia, where she gave a concertSephardic songs, has been sorting and writing liner notes for Lomax’s Spanish recordings, made in 1952. Now she has received the first Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies from the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center to prepare for publication his fieldwork diary of that year, a treasure trove of notes, photographs, local festival programs and other ephemera. Cohen believes the Spanish diary will be the first full diary of Lomax’s to be published.

Right: Judith R. Cohen in 2009 in Riga, Latvia, where she gave a concert

Cohen travels to Spain to do her own fieldwork and research, and give concerts. While there, when she has time, she visits the villages Lomax recorded in. Half a century later, she has recorded and interviewed many of the same singers and musicians – or their children and grandchildren – Lomax did. This fellowship “is an opportunity to put all that work together,” says Cohen.

Lomax was an American folklorist and ethnomusicologist who recorded thousands of folk songs and interviewed thousands of singers in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy and Spain. In the 1950s, he was based in London where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. He died in 2002, at the age of 86.

Until recently, Lomax’s recordings, films, photographs, manuscripts and research have been housed in the Association for Cultural Equity in New York City, overseen by his daughter, anthropologist Anna Lomax Wood. When Cohen visited the centre around 2000 to research Lomax’s Spanish recordings, Lomax Wood invited her to edit his Spanish collection. The Lomax archive is now housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

As editor of Lomax’s Spanish recordings, Cohen has written detailed notes – often with colleagues in each region of Spain – for CD collections of his recordings of dance tunes and ballads from Spanish regions – Aragón and València, Basque Country, Extremadura, Galicia, Ibiza and Formentera, and Mallorca – during the Franco regime. The CDs and her notes, which sometimes run to 40 and 50 pages, are available on the Association for Cultural Equity website.

Meanwhile, more CDs of Lomax’s Spanish recordings, edited by Cohen, are in the works. One on Asturias is coming out this month. And she’s finished most of the notes and translations for CDs on of his recordings in Murcia, Castilla-Leon, La Mancha, Andalusia and Cantabria.

Cohen grew up in Montreal and became interested in traditional music while hitchhiking through Cartoon of woman the Balkans, Spain and elsewhere in the early 1970s. The English grad returned home and promptly earned an undergraduate degree in music, a master’s degree in medieval studies (her thesis was on women musicians in Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities in medieval Spain), a doctorate in ethnomusicology (her dissertation explored Judeo-Spanish song in Sephardic communities in Toronto and Montreal), and a teaching degree. One of the first scholars to specialize in the traditional music of the Sephardic diaspora (Spanish Jews expelled from Spain in 1492), Cohen traces her own roots not to Spain, but to Ashkenazi Jews from Lithuania and Latvia.

In 1990, Cohen began teaching at York. She has taught music history, Renaissance and medieval ensembles, world music surveys and the world music chorus. She continues to carry out fieldwork in traditional music of Sephardic Jews around the Mediterranean and of Crypto-Jewish communities (Jews who resisted expulsion by hiding their religious identities) along the Portugal-Spain border.

Fluent in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, and adept at several others, Cohen is also an accomplished musician who performs medieval music, as well as traditional Spanish, Portuguese, Sephardic, Balkan, Yiddish and French-Canadian songs. She sings with her daughter, flamenco singer and dancer Tamar Ilana Cohen Adams, and plays traditional hand percussion as well as the vielle (medieval fiddle), the oud (Middle Eastern lute) and recorders.

She has published many articles and book chapters, and recorded several CDs of Sephardic, medieval and related music. This summer, besides her work at the Library of Congress, she will be giving papers and concerts at conferences in Portugal, England, California, Newfoundland and Washington, DC.