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Cultural Historian Harvey G. Cohen

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DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson. On Profiles, we talk with notable artists, scholars, writers and public figures and get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Harvey G. Cohen…


…who is a senior lecturer in cultural and creative industries at King's College in London where he teaches about the history and business of popular music and film in the U.S. and U.K., the history of museums and the publishing industry, the business issues facing cultural industries and American and African-American history. His 2010 book, Duke Ellington's America, was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post. It won a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Award and received significant coverage in The New Yorker, New York Times, Mojo Magazine, BBC, NPR and many other media outlets. His most recent book, Who's in the Money: The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood's New Deal, outlines the history of the Warner Brothers movie musicals during 1933 and their political, historical and cultural connections on and off screen with the newly-elected U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is currently at work on a new project that engages many of these interests. Harvey Cohen, thank you for being with us today on Profiles.

HARVEY G COHEN: Hey, well, thanks for asking me along there, David.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. It's great to be talking with you today. And I want to start out by asking you, because I think it ties into some of the work that you have pursued as an adult, about your experiences growing up in Los Angeles. How did that shape who you are today?

HARVEY G COHEN: Oh, it's shaped me a whole bunch, like I guess is true for anybody. But I grew up in East L.A., Monterey Park, actually. And, you know, I was really blessed to have the kind of a life as a kid that as I grew up and became an historian, I realized that not a lot of people in America have. And that is I grew up in this very diverse community. I mean, if I had to estimate the demographics, it was probably like a third Mexican, a third - Mexican-American, I should say - a third Asian-American and then, you know, Caucasians like me. And I just, you know, I grew up with, you know, Mexican-American friends. My two best friends were Mexican-American and Asian-American, you know, when I was like 5. And so I had this kind of idea growing up of diversity in America. And that's what seemed normal to me. And maybe that's why, you know, so much of African-American history appeals to me so much, because I really wanted to understand this racism that I didn't really know about at all growing up. And this whole story about - I mean, I think it's just the greatest story, really in American history - is how African-Americans become full citizens under the founding documents. And, you know, one of the ways - the main way that I do this - and I feel like 30, 40 years ago, historians weren't doing this, but maybe they are a little bit more now - but as a historian, I'm always trying to stress that historians need to look more at music and film as important historical documents in their writing that tells you a lot about the community or the country. And that's really one of my missions in my books, you know, both the books about music and about film. And I think, yeah. It's just a really great resource. And I hope my books, you know, prove that adage, you know. And, also, I was really lucky to live in Los Angeles growing up because it was such a great music scene and so eclectic, you know? I mean, when I was really young, you had just amazing music in Los Angeles, the kind of punk and new wave scenes. These bands like, I don't know, X and the Plimsouls and the Blasters and - well, you know these bands, David.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah, it was a great scene. Yeah, a great time.

HARVEY G COHEN: And they were really fast and sweaty and kind of violent, or at least the crowd was violent (laughter) sometimes. But, you know, the very best bands of that scene were also based on really great songwriting. And a lot of these artists - who I still follow and some of them I know actually - they went on to different kinds of music. And they went on to refine their songwriting as time went by. And they were working - they still work in different genres. And I always kind of looked up to them, and it kind of grew inside of me this love of, you know, music that's very eclectic, you know. The subject of my first book, Mr. Duke Ellington, he says something or he said something (laughter). I'm referring to him in the present tense. Well, to me, sometimes he is...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, you lived with that book for 10 years, right?


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So it probably felt like he was...


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...Very present to you.

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. I still feel like sometimes he's with me. But anyway, Duke Ellington used to say - and he was very diplomatic, you know - and he used to say there's two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind. And what I think he was saying and the way that I've tried to live my life, you know, based on Duke's words there is that if it makes your heart beat faster, if it makes your feet move, it's great, you know. If it moves you, it's great. It doesn't matter if it's punk or classical or jazz or, you know, any genre, country. I love the best of all these genres, and I especially love really great songwriting. And so that was a lot of what attracted me to Duke Ellington and other artists that I obsessively follow and write about. And I think you could extend that to my fascination with Hollywood as well. And I did some work in the film industry, mostly temp jobs. And I was very involved in the music industry in Los Angeles. And I think that knowledge of the business and songwriting and publishing that I gained in those years, I hope that that informs, you know, my books about the music and its history. And I hope it makes my books a little bit different and more well-rounded maybe than some other works.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What were you doing in the music industry? What kind of jobs did you work in the music industry?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, mainly at that time I was a songwriter and still am. I always felt like that's what I did best. And the last band I had was the one that did the best. And that was mostly because we had this amazing gospel-style singer named Gloria. And yeah, we played a lot of, you know, pretty famous places around California, you know, the Whiskey A Go Go and Cal Berkeley. But I also temped in publishing companies, management companies, kind of A&R. And I temped at Warner Brothers for a few months, you know, the record label. But I also temped actually at the studio as well. And hopefully that a little bit informed, you know, my new book, Who's in the Money, which is about Hollywood in 1933.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What was the name of your band?

HARVEY G COHEN: (Laughter) You know, it was really before - just slightly before the Internet, you know, in the mid '90s, so you won't find anything on it, I don't think. Although, you know, the bass player for that band, a close friend of mine named Vic, he keeps threatening to put stuff...


HARVEY G COHEN: ...On the Internet, which would be cool with me (laughter), but the band - the last band was called Glow.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And what did you do in it? Did you play guitar, sing or just write songs or what did you?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, my vocal abilities are just really average or worse. And so having this amazing singer kind of gospel-style singer out front, you know, it really helped us. And it was a lot better. But I'd write the songs. I'd play guitar or piano. I'd sing harmonies, which I really love. And I did all the business stuff. You know, I was one of those weird artists that, you know, I could - I had a small - I co-owned a small recording studio with a friend of mine where I could be musical and creative, but I still had the mind for business and calling people up and, you know, being professional, which most artists don't have. And I'm not criticizing them for that. They have other gifts, you know. And I'm kind of a freak in that way, I think.


HARVEY G COHEN: I mean, you know, Mick Jagger has that artistic and business thing, but I'm not sure, like, who else really does.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Just you and Mick Jagger? (Laughter).

HARVEY G COHEN: No, I'm not comparing myself to Mick Jagger, you know, who (laughter) - what? - took economics across the street from where I work but back in the early '60s. But, yeah. I was really blessed to grow up in that music scene. And there were some great radio stations. And so, yeah, I just got this multiplicity of music and music from around the world. And I was really lucky on that. And I still love, you know, going to L.A. and hanging with my dad, who I also got a lot of music from.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I was going to ask you, is there an entertainment lineage in your family? And how long had your family been in in Los Angeles? How far back do your L.A. roots go?

HARVEY G COHEN: Wow, that's an interesting question. My great-grandparents on my mother's side, they immigrated, I believe, from Romania, 1880s, 1890s. And like a lot of, you know, Jewish immigrants in that time heading to Brooklyn. They had a candy store (laughter) which, you know, if you read the immigration history books is typical. You know, the immigration history books, which, contrary to some people's opinion, always talk about how much entrepreneurial energy and creativity and economic activity immigrants usually bring to a country, which it seems like Angela Merkel understands these days. But a lot of other politicians don't around the world. But anyway, so they had a candy store. And then I think in the late 1910s they moved to Los Angeles. And my grandma was, you know, a really young girl then and used to work in L.A. and, you know, had, you know, got to meet just through like hanging out in cafes and stuff people like Clara Bow and Fay Wray who she knew fairly well and W.C. Fields near the end of his life. And so I used to hear stories, you know, from her. And both her and my mom really gave me my love of films. And I really wish both of them had been alive for the publication of this book because I think they would have dug it. It includes some films that they introduced to me. And then my dad's side, he came from Chicago in 1950. He had allergies and couldn't handle the snow. And I got a lot of culture from these people. You'll notice my parents and my mom's parents are both the people I dedicate the Duke Ellington book to because I just wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be doing what I do if not for the way they introduced me to all this. And, you know, my dad, he was a '50s rocker. He still is.


HARVEY G COHEN: He's still got...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So that's where you got the musical performer lineage maybe.

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah, maybe so. You know, I mean, he wasn't performing the music, but he loved it. You know, and he had the original 45s. I think he threw them away. He's one of these people that likes to throw everything away. I could wring his neck over that one. But otherwise, I'm a big fan of his. But anyway, he had all the old Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley records, and he introduced me to Johnny Cash. So it was all kinds of ways that I was introduced to things that proved really important later on in my life and just spurned my addiction to music and culture in general.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, in your most recent book, which is titled Who's in the Money: the Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood's New Deal, you talk about some of the things you just mentioned about your parents and your grandparents...


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...And how they kind of put the bug in you for a lot of things, including the Great Depression era musicals. And you focus on three in particular that were made by Warner Brothers in 1933, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Forty-second Street. What caused you to kind of home in on those particular three musicals to kind of tell the story of this book?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, you know, I first saw Footlight Parade, the one of those 1933 trio of Great Depression musicals that I think is the best, I first saw it when I was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara in a class taught by Professor Charles Wolfe. And I recently kind of hooked up with him again and, you know, just thanked him because he really - his showing that film and talking about it really inspired me. And I remember at the time, even though I was a youngin' and not really yet a historian, I thought to myself, “wow, this is a really interesting movie. There's so much going on here.” It's such a more interesting depiction of the Great Depression than we usually see. And it's also crazy entertaining. And Busby Berkeley, the famous choreographer, you know, his musical sequences, I mean, they look like they were done by CGI or something. But as I found out as I researched this, they really were done by, you know, hundreds of stagehands working 14 to 16-hour days, six days a week at the Warner lot in Burbank. And I just also realized as I got older, because I never lost interest in this musical, I also realized that there was a lot going on with the film industry at that time, a lot of roiling of the labor market, a lot of conflicts between the executives like the Warner Brothers, the owners like the Warner Brothers and their workers, including the movie stars, including the craftsman on the set and so forth. And I just got more and more interested. And finally, you know, when Ellington's America was out and I needed another project, I started researching more and realized that a lot of the story just hadn't been told. A lot of the strands hadn't been pulled together like I was seeing the story. And once again, like with Ellington, I was trying to bring up the fact that this is not only enjoyable, great moviemaking that has lasted now for 85 years, but it's also really historically important, and it illustrates a lot of the tensions that were happening behind the scenes in 1933.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah, it's a really - it's a fascinating book and a fascinating year that you have these Busby Berkeley musicals. It's the first year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. There's this sort of new spirit, a new vibe in the air. You know, the country is - America is deep into the depression for, you know, nearly four years at this point. And these musicals represent an interesting kind of - they seem to kind of bring together the grittiness of the Warner Brothers stamp with - yeah, these over-the-top Busby Berkeley dance productions. But behind the scenes, there's a lot of weird stuff going on. The Warner Brothers are publicly embracing the New Deal and the NRA, which we should make clear, the NRA, the National Recovery Act...

HARVEY G COHEN: (Laughter).

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...Had a very different meaning back in the '30s. It was an economic program that the Roosevelt administration had introduced to help combat the Depression. And Hollywood was very much on board with it at first. And in fact, they're putting the Blue Eagle logo of the National Recovery Act in their movies.

HARVEY G COHEN: ...Administration.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...Administration, thank you - administration, which was fascinating to me that you would see Hollywood briefly almost become a sort of propaganda outlet in a way for these new programs. But then behind the scenes, as your book details, there's a lot of different kind of stuff going on.

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly, you know. And I really became enthralled with that (laughter) story. So basically, the way it runs, I mean, you've given us a nice summary. So thanks for that, David.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I did read the book in its entirety.

HARVEY G COHEN: Oh, how nice, man. Thank you. Yeah. I - yeah. I always appreciate when somebody does some of my work for me.


HARVEY G COHEN: But basically these Warner Brothers, especially the top two brothers running the studio, Jack and Harry, they were big supporters of FDR in his 1932 election, and they donated a lot of money. And they put together a lot of fundraising events, including a huge one at the L.A. Coliseum, which had just hosted the Olympics that year in the summer and probably 100,000 people were there. And, like you were saying, they were big supporters of FDR in that first year of 1933. And they were putting that NRA Blue Eagle front and center before their films, sometimes even in their films, in their advertising, and other studios did this as well. But the Warner Brothers were really over the top on this because they were his friends. They knew him. They were working with him. They did a lot for his election in California and so forth. And so the Warner Brothers were like seen as his buddies and particularly loyal to them. And like you're saying, the National Recovery Administration gets created by the FDR administration really quickly after he comes to office in April of 1933. And already, you know, Warner Brothers are promoting him really well. So the Warner Brothers were really in favor of FDR's legislation.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: One of the things that struck me in your book, Who's in the Money: The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood's New Deal, was how Franklin Roosevelt emerges in your book as sort of the first cinematic or cinematic-conscious president. You talk about his voluminous intake of movies of all kinds at the White House, the amount of movies that he watched. And you also convey that he had a really keen sense of the medium and how he would be portrayed in the medium. And that really jumped out at me, because you always hear a lot about FDR and his use of radio and the fireside chats. You don't hear nearly as much about him in a film context. And I was just curious how that kind of emerged for you as you undertook this project, how you saw him as was he sort of the first movie age president in a way?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, he was the one I think - he wasn't the first movie age president at all. But I think he was the first one that really understood the mass media in that way, you know. And he loved films. I think, you know, he saw - there's a statistic in the in the book - but it's like he saw like three or four times more than other, you know, presidents had. And he understood the mass media and that he was a part of that, and that that was really important. And he thought that, you know, he could understand his voters more if he knew what was popular in terms of movies. And movies that were particularly popular or particularly important, he would look at them two or three times. Like there's this movie from 1933 called Gabriel over the White House that's, you know, very controversial, saying that the movie - basically it's really worth seeing. And my students always love it. But the idea of Gabriel over the White House is that things are so bad in the United States that we need a president to gain the spirit of, you know, kind of Christianity or Providence, that the problems of the Great Depression are so bad we need some sort of like, religious...


HARVEY G COHEN: ...Savior, yeah, to be done. And it's, you know, part of how people really were terribly suffering during the Great Depression. I mean - what? - you know, the average across the country was 25 percent unemployment. But in some of the bigger cities like Chicago and Detroit, it was often more than 50 percent. And so, you know, Roosevelt, he's trying to get a fix on what Americans think and how he can sell his vision to more Americans.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: He even pops up in a couple of films, doesn't he? You talk about his image suddenly appearing in a couple of these musicals.

HARVEY G COHEN: The FDR PR people like Stephen Early, they were really careful about how FDR was portrayed in films, and they wouldn't let FDR promote newspapers or promote some kind of company. And I think that was a really smart thing. They really kept a tight hold on the president's image. You know, Roosevelt was just really far ahead of his time of how using media in the right way could really help his campaigns and his image and help Americans in general, really.



DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson and our guest today is historian and King's College senior lecturer, Harvey G. Cohen. We've been talking about his book, Who's in the Money: The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood's New Deal. He also is the author of a previous book, Duke Ellington's America, which came out in 2010 and received a lot of favorable notices in the media. And Harvey, I wanted to ask you because I myself am a passionate Duke Ellington devotee. So I was very excited when this book came out. And you've talked a little bit about your background and some of the things that maybe pulled you towards Ellington's story. But it was a humongous undertaking. You spent, I believe, about a decade working on this book. What hooked you so much that you - that, yeah, you got to the point where Duke Ellington seems to be living in your mind (laughter) as a present-day entity?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, you know, one of the things that I try to do personally with this book is I really tried not to burn out on Ellington. And, of course, you know Mr. Ellington makes that easier because there's just thousands of songs. You know, I mean, to this day, I still discover things every once in a while. And I had to take breaks because I was working on it a lot as a PhD student. And so sometimes I had to go and do that for a while. And so I wasn't working on it full time. And so luckily, I haven't burnt out on Ellington. I still really enjoy him. I don't listen to him that much, you know. But the reason I started working on Duke Ellington, the reason I became so attracted to that subject is that everybody knew that Ellington was really musically important. I think, you know, probably most people would agree that he's, well, perhaps America's greatest composer. I think there's some other people you could describe that way as well. And so I don't think there's a lot of argument on that. But when I started going through all of Mr. Ellington's business and personal papers at the Smithsonian Institution, I realized that there was just a whole lot of the story that hadn't been covered and that Ellington was not just musically significant, but also really historically significant and not just on stuff that you might expect, like civil rights or racism or segregation, but things like religion. His approach to the music business is really different than most people's. His idea of money, his idea of - you know, the way that he was raised, the way that he went through the world, the way that he established a reputation as not only a successful pop music artist but somebody who audiences followed for a half century because they knew that he was going to give them the unexpected. He kept on composing, changing, molting over the decades. And, you know, the Ellington of the 1970s doesn't sound anything like the Ellington of the 1920s, you know, something I think Miles Davis took a lot from, you know. and, you know, to give an example - I mean, don't get me wrong, I love these two gents, you know, like almost nobody else. But you look at somebody like a Bing Crosby or a Louis Armstrong, you know, when it came to the '60s and '70s, they're pretty much doing the same stuff they were in the '30s. But Ellington was always moving forward and he had been given the kind of commercial and artistic reputation early in his career to be able to get away with that whereas a lot of artists couldn't do it.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. Your book, I think, does a great job of pointing out how he continues to evolve because the length of his career is pretty staggering, too.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: He - on record, he starts in the early '20s and ends in the early '70s. I sometimes joke to people he, you know, goes from the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding administration to the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration.

HARVEY G COHEN: I never heard that one before. That's good.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, which, of course, he has nothing to do with either one of those, but I mean, that's a very significant stretch of American history. A lot is going on. And to me, what jumped out at me when I read your book when it came out in 2010, was how well you situated him within that historical arc of everything that was going on. And the music was there. The music was always at the forefront, but it was surrounded by all these other things. He had a very complex relationship with the civil rights community.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Your book goes into detail about the kind of disappointment that the NAACP felt in him at times or - and his own sense of feeling like he wanted to express in his own particular way his sense - he wanted to do his own kind of protest music - which he did social significance music, things like Jump for Joy, Black, Brown and Beige, which you devote a whole chapter to. It's a fascinating saga. And to me, it's like it's an enormous wealth of material to try to sink your teeth into as a writer.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: How did you deal with the challenge of trying to present this really, truly kind of epic story of an American artist?

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. That's a really good question. And I think what guided me on that in a lot of ways was, first of all, I had all these great papers that nobody knew about. And I think most people that are writing about music, they're not thinking about the history, the business, the money. And there's some great books about Ellington before mine. But I was looking at more of the entire story. And I think what really helped me especially is that most of the material on those archives are in the second half of his career, let's say post 1945. And as I listened more and more to Ellington and became, you know, kind of lovingly obsessed with his work - I mean, not all of it's great. But the great majority (laughter) of it is. I started realizing that in all the books previous that the second half of his career had been short changed. You know, when people think of Ellington, they think about, you know, the Cotton Club and they think about Mood Indigo. And they think about, you know, the great wartime hits like I'm Beginning to See the Light or Take the A Train. And I take nothing away from that. I mean, that's just, you know, amazing stuff that, you know, yours and mine great-great-great-grandchildren will be listening to. But that second half of the career, maybe because it wasn't quite as much in the media as the first half, people have neglected as he continued to develop in his own individual way. And as I argue in the book, and I hope this is one of the main kind of contributions I was able to make, is that he redefines the role of a senior citizen in popular music as somebody who's still a composer, still developing, still surprising people. But he wasn't like an avant garde artist. He also loved playing those hit singles from the '40s to the '70s and making people dance and, you know, telling his little witticisms on stage like he used to. He had this really great penchant for kind of making audiences appreciate something new while also giving them what they wanted. And when you see some of the senior citizens in pop music today, I think they took a lot from his example. And I think it's really it's a genre of music, if you can call it a genre, that I think is underexamined. Sometimes I think maybe I should write about it because I think what a lot of these rock and rollers who are - or just people in pop music that are writing things when they're older, I think it's really interesting because you're not writing about chasing women anymore. You're not writing about young life. You can't - I mean, you could - I mean, people who are older are still dancing. I mean, my dad certainly is and lots of other people. But I think it's really interesting. Like, what do you write about when you're in your 60s and 70s? Now looking at people like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo for me is about as good as anything she ever did. And - what? - she was in her 50s at that point.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Neil Young is another artist who is...

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah, Neil Young. I really like these people writing about getting older. And it's a whole new thing, I think, in the history of pop music. I mean, these people usually aren't at the top of the charts. But, yeah. I find that interesting.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. With Ellington, I thought one of the contributions in your book that I really enjoyed was how much you devoted to his sacred concerts, which was - which were concerts and works that he undertook in the latter years of his life starting in the mid-1960s. He passes away in 1974, at which point he has done three sacred concerts. And it clearly seemed like that was something that he had had in mind for a while, been moving towards and then did it when he could have just been sitting back collecting royalties, not really writing new material if he didn't want to. It was a controversial move with a lot of people to - for jazz to enter the church, so to speak, in the 1960s. Your book does a great job of detailing some of the backlash he faced in his own African-American community of religious people. You know, Ellington certainly had religious beliefs and tried to express them in this music, and he met with some resistance. And so, you know, he was in his 60s then. And a lot of people at that point might just be ready to kick back in their Sugar Hill Penthouse and take it easy. And he didn't do that. And it's fascinating to me how you detail that story in your book.

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. I mean, like you were saying, if he just would have sat home, he would have made millions of dollars a year from his royalties because he wrote so many hit songs that were still on the radio all the time. But that wasn't his thing. He was just absolutely addicted to writing. And he loved writing things at like 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and then hear them being played by one of the greatest jazz bands to ever walk the earth, you know, his orchestra, that night at a gig. He was addicted to that. And so he kept on doing that. And he arranged his business around that. And like I think you're saying, he loses a lot of money because of it. Because to put a big band on the road, that's - what? - 18 to 20 members and then the roadies and PR people. And it's a lot of money. And usually he was losing money. He had to use his royalties to underwrite that. And the people who had written about Ellington before me said that he was a failure at business. And what I find when I went through his business records is that actually he was a huge success. He did what he wanted to do. Yes, when he died in 74, as you're saying, he owed, I think, three and a half million dollars to the IRS, which today is something like 20 million dollars. But he got to be on the road 300 nights a year. He got to write every day. He got to hire all these great musicians. And he loved the road. He loved the hotel room. So he actually was very successful. So as you're saying, you know, the gospel concerts are part of that. And if you - and he did get a lot of criticism about that. And of course, you know, the black gospel people had been getting criticism on the same kind of things. Oh, my God, you're bringing blues and R&B and jazz into the church. But...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It's the devil's music, right? (Laughter).

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah, it's the devil's music. But when you look at that Black gospel music, it's actually very close to the four gospels, to the Old and the New Testament. It was very reverent. And those Black gospel people, they were having some of the same resistance as Ellington was a couple of decades later from these older African-Americans that, you know, thought it just wasn't respectable to have that kind of music in the church. But with the Black gospel people and Ellington, they were actually very sincere and very, you know, taking things from the Old and New Testaments. And Ellington in particular was non-ecumenical. It's obvious he's talking about Christianity, but he never mentions the word Jesus, as I recall. And it's just about spirituality and how he lives his life with respect and according to the Bible and how God fits in his life. It's very non-preaching. And I find it very compelling. It's like, you know, for me anyway and I think a lot of other people, too, because these concepts were hugely popular. And a lot of them were for charity. But they were very popular. And people loved them at the time and they seem very popular today. They still bring the music out and do successful concerts here, you know, whatever it is, you know, 50 plus years later.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You - when you did this Duke Ellington's America book, you spent a lot of time in the Ellington archives at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

HARVEY G COHEN: I miss them so much, David.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I would love to spend some time in his archives as well. And you have a new project you're undertaking now that draws on a lot of your previous interest and areas of expertise. And it's brought you to Bloomington to work in the archives of African-American music and culture. When you go into an archive like the like the one here in Bloomington or the Smithsonian or wherever, do you go in with a game plan? Do you go in with a list of here are the things I'm looking for? Where do you start - I mean, when you're dealing with a large mass of material and you're looking for specific things related to your project?

HARVEY G COHEN: You know, that's a difficulty. And it's especially a difficulty with the book I'm working on now, which I apologize, David, but I'm not going to talk about yet what it's about until I'm signing a contract about it. I felt the same way about the Ellington book, like all my sources, except for the dozens of interviews I've done that are public. But yeah, it is hard to organize things like, for example, this project I've been working on now for four or five years that I'm now working on at the Indiana University, as you said, the archives of African-American music and culture, you know, first of all, I want to say that that is such a great archive. I'd been researching the same book there about four or five years ago. And the people there just really know their stuff. They've arranged the collections so clearly, which I'm telling you, I've been in dozens of archives around the world. That's not the way it always is. And you can sit there and talk to them, you know, people like Brenda and Tyron and William and they just really know their stuff. And it's just such a pleasure to work there. But anyway, that's the - you know, this - that's the problem - organization that you brought up. That's what I'm kind of having now, because I've got thousands of pages of notes. And I've got a lot of new stuff on the subject, which once again is about music and history and where it combines. And it - you know, the book's going to go from the 1700s on, but it's mostly about the 20th century. And the reason why organization is so important, David, is that as I'm sure you know, most academics today, if I may say so, they don't think about their audiences, whether they're lecturing or writing a book. I mean, here I'm talking about writing a book. I mean, just so many things I've read in grad school and then later, too, were just so boring and badly written and full of theory and jargon that only, you know, like 300 people around the world would understand. And those were horrible books. And my favorite historians didn't write those books. And I vowed I wasn't going to write a book like that. And what really takes time, and I think these people don't always realize this, is that to break down something complicated, to break down thousands of pages of research like I had for, you know, my first two books, too, and make them into something understandable, compelling, dramatic, a narrative that anybody that loves history books could understand and hopefully enjoy, you could underline that word, enjoy, that's a lot of work. And I'm really proud of doing that, you know, because I think we academics - maybe especially historians like me - but I think all academics, all - especially people in the humanities - we need to let the public know what we're doing. We need to engage with them because this is one of the major reasons this kind of theory and jargon, in my opinion, really boring writing - this is one of the reasons why so many people in society these days can disrespect what we do and defund what we do is because we're not reaching out to the public. We're not proving all the worth that we're contributing - all the things that, you know, hopefully we're contributing to society and also people just having a good time, you know, sitting in their easy chair reading a book. And so I've always really fought against that because, you know, all my favorite historians, they wrote that way, you know? I mean, they were full of facts. There are footnotes and their research was, you know, super rigorous. But it was also really accessible and sometimes even with some of my favorites, the writing touched you, too.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You know, that's interesting that you talk about all that because I'd wanted to ask you about your teaching that you teach the business of popular music.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And your knowledge of popular music goes back quite a long way, well beyond what I think a lot of people would think of as they think popular music. They're assuming the last 50, maybe 100 years. But you know it all the way back to the colonial era. How...

HARVEY G COHEN: And I'm always learning, David.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, that's a good sign. That's a good sign of a good historian and writer and teacher, I think. You know, how do you put this across to your students what - how you just talked about how you think it's important writing a book to be accessible, not in a dumbed down way, but just to communicate to a broader audience than just a narrow circle of academic specialists, whatever? How does that carry over to how you teach these topics to students?

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. You know, once again, I'm always thinking of the audience. And you're right. I don't want to dumb it down. But I really try to be, you know, entertaining, but on the level with these students. And I think, you know, most of them appreciate that. I teach in a program, an MA and PhD program, about the creative and cultural industries. And a lot of students want to get into those industries. And so I'm trying to teach them where the music and the business connect. For example, with our old spiritual friend, you know, Mr. Ellington, there were a lot of problems with his first manager, Irving Mills, from 1927 to '39. And, you know, you could read my book for more about this. But Irving Mills took way more from Duke Ellington's royalties (laughter) than a manager and publisher should have. But without Irving Mills, despite all his drawbacks, I don't think you would have Duke Ellington. You know, you need that management. You need that person who's connected to get you through the business. And when I was in the business, that's what I was always looking for, and I never quite found it. I think it's one of the reasons I was happy to become a historian because I was tired of, you know, knocking my head against the door. But I try to introduce that business because these students are going to get into that business. And it's so key to what you hear and what succeeds and what doesn't. And I want to give my students wherever possible a warning about what they're going to hit in the music business because I definitely saw a lot of those pitfalls. And I've read about them in the Ellington files and some of my favorite music historians' books. And they need to be aware that. I try not to pull the punches, you know. I try to talk about how so many of my graduates, people who have graduated the program I teach in, how they're making just insanely low salaries, you know, starting salaries for these jobs in the media because these media corporations know that, you know, 100 people are going to vie for a job at Paramount Pictures in Golden Square in London or the BBC, you know, near Oxford Circus. And so I try to tell them that in a current way. But I also bring in historical examples as well and questions of, you know, bias - whether it's about race or sexuality or gender. You know, I try to talk about all the resistance that's out there as well. And, you know, most importantly, like we were just talking about, I really try to stress to them the importance of great writing because, you know, their boss in that cultural industry, you know, in a couple of years, they're going to ask them to write a report on this new product or this artist. Should we take this on? Should we invest in it? You know, and if they're not able to write clearly, especially in this time of the Internet, people are going to get bored. People are going to get fired, you know. Another thing I do is I have them do presentations because if they can't do a presentation about that product or that artist that the company wants to maybe take on, if they can't do a great presentation about that, they're also going to get fired, you know. So these are - I'm trying to give them the history but also the real-world qualities that I found in my experience usually but not always lead to success in the cultural industries.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Profiles and WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson and I'm talking with historian and King's College senior lecturer Harvey G. Cohen. And I should mention that King's College is in London, and you have been teaching there and living in the U.K. now for 15 years or, I'm not sure…

HARVEY G COHEN: Not quite that much, but more than 12. Yeah, a little bit more than 12.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So you've been a bit of an American academic expatriate of sorts...

HARVEY G COHEN: (Laughter).

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...Living in the U.K. And I want to ask you what that's been like for you. Do you like it? Do you miss being in the U.S.? What's your sense of being an American in London teaching at King's College?

HARVEY G COHEN: Wow. I could go on for so long about that (laughter). I mean, in one way, it's kind of difficult because I think all over the world, but especially in the U.K., there's been some real problems with academia. And it's become very exploitive. It's become rather dysfunctional. There are way too many managers, and they usually are thinking about money and lowering quality and standards to do that, is what I found. So that's, you know, dispiriting (laughter). I mean, you know, I know people are having a lot harder time around the world, but it's strange, you know? It's like me and my colleagues, we keep on being told what a great job we're doing all the time. And, you know, you're not going to stay in that job unless people are telling you that. But at the same time, you know, management has allowed our salaries to go down 25 percent because of inflation. And so, yeah. It's - you know, it's kind of disconcerting in that way. But I have to give credit to the U.K. and London because, you know, in the U.S. and the U.K., when I got this job, both sides of the Atlantic, they were saying we really like interdisciplinarity. You know, we like it when - like I did in the Ellington book and the film book - you combine music and history and business and religion and...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Foreign policy.

HARVEY G COHEN: ...Foreign policy and politics. But yet when I was trying to get a job in the U.S., you know, they were kind of talking the talk, but they weren't walking the walk. And there was a couple committees in my, you know, hiring stage where they said here in the U.S., they said the people at the place where I was interviewing, the committee said, “oh, we really like this guy. We want to hire him.” But then they got back to the department and they said, “oh, he's writing a book about Duke Ellington, about pop music? That can't be serious.” You know, there was this kind of conservative nature in that like 15 years ago. And my book hadn't come out yet. And so they didn't know that it was - you know, it got a pretty good reception, like you're saying. And people thought it was really serious and added to the literature and, you know, some high-profile people liked it. So I think now I wouldn't have that problem as much, whereas in the U.K., when I was going for the job, they talked the talk and walked the walk. And they understood how this would be important. And so, you know, I was kind of like, “I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I was kind of, like, being discriminated against on the U.S. job market and the U.K. people just understood what I was doing.” And also, it's just such a privilege to be in London. I mean, always, you know, for the last 30 years, I've always loved the culture, the history, the music, and now the food is amazing as well. And, you know, I spend a lot of my recreation time just kind of wandering around looking for places. It's so diverse and ethnic and the vegetarian stuff, the meat stuff, whatever you want, it's just really risen. So living in London itself is really a cool thing. It's a little tough socially. I mean, the stiff upper lip, it is a stereotype and it's not true for everybody. But yeah, it's true sometimes.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It's just interesting to me that you grew up in Los Angeles, which is a very cosmopolitan city in an American way and very diverse, as you said. And now you're living in London, which is also a very diverse, cosmopolitan city. But yet it does - having spent a little bit of time in both cities, to me, it strikes me as they have a very different vibe about them and certainly very different things that you can enjoy and appreciate about both cities. But it's interesting to me to try to understand what it would be like for you, having lived in America for most of your life, to have been in the U.K. for 12 years. Also, you've been living there in recent times during a period of great turmoil...

HARVEY G COHEN: (Laughter).

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...To put it mildly, with everything that's going on with the Brexit referendum, which was voted on in 2016 and continues since that vote to be an issue of contention. I wanted to ask you what it was like to live through that when the initial...

HARVEY G COHEN: Oh, it's still going on.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Right, right. And what do you think it's a symptom of? What are the larger underlying issues that Brexit is a symptom of?

HARVEY G COHEN: It's kind of the same with the politics in the U.S. and the U.K. For me, I think what the problem is, is that too many people are following ideology and not reality. Because something like Brexit, in my opinion, you know, feel free to challenge it, anybody out there, you know, with Brexit, it became this huge popular movement. But what I talk about on my Twitter account all the time is, “name me one good benefit from Brexit that will affect most people in this country and will improve their lives.” And there's nothing like that, you know. And there's all this exploitation (laughter). You know, I mean, it's really strange. It's really hurting the country. And both parties, both sides of the political spectrum are not solving the problem. Their leaders don't have the insight to solve the problem. And it's just so amazing that it's such a disastrous sort of thing because, I mean, why can't they just get it together and solve the problem and make things better for the majority of the people? And for some reason, you know, most politicians in the U.K. are (laughter), you know, contributing to this Brexit that's not going to help anybody and is going to probably rob the country of a lot of its GDP.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You mentioned your Twitter account. And I followed your Twitter account. And you do comment a lot on there on Brexit and other things. Do you ever get any blowback from that, from, say, the folks at your college or the wider world? People like, “what are you doing on Twitter talking about Brexit? You should be just focusing on music.” I mean, do you - have you had any blowback from commenting on these things?

HARVEY G COHEN: Well, my Twitter account has nothing really to do with the university where I work. I kind of use it as a separate outlet, you know. But it's about really great music that I've discovered. It's about history. It is about politics. But I really try to look at it in an even sort of way. I try to look at both perspectives. I try not to curse at people. You know, I try to - if people aren't agreeing with me, like I try to put it in a respectful way.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You're not flaming them.

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah, I mean, I'm trying to like maybe make people think of different perspectives. I'm not going to call the president fat, or I'm not going to call the prime minister of the U.K. dumb. You know, I'm trying to, like, reach out to people, but I do have an opinion. And I'm also trying to turn people on to like great new music. You know, on Twitter, like you're saying, you know, I'm talking about over a century of popular music and talking about why it's important or why it turns me on, why it's, you know, kind of cathartic and therapeutic for me. So, yeah, it's kind of an interesting combination of the personal stuff and the history and the culture.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It seems like social media is becoming more and more a significant tool for people, younger people, maybe in academia - and younger could be defined maybe as (laughter) a broad, very broad sense of younger people in academia. But I know even 10 years ago there were folks that kind of frowned on younger academics using Twitter, using Facebook or using - so like that wasn't deemed serious. You shouldn't be fooling around with that.

HARVEY G COHEN: But I talk a lot about American history and music history. And people really like that, you know. And I think it's the same thing. I mean, in order to like crush down this complicated history so it fits into a tweet and entertains people or makes them laugh, you know, I'm still trying to reach out like, unfortunately, a lot of academics don't do. So, yeah. I'm trying to make Twitter entertaining, too, and have some content and substance, hopefully but also not take myself too seriously. I mean, I know a lot of people really enjoy the music that I turn them on to and the movies. And yeah, I love that stuff. You know, it's like I'm always looking at music and trying to find great music. And to me, it's just really not as good unless you're able to share it. And that's kind of what Twitter does. Like, you know, I used to be on college radio like you are. And I used to always be researching, you know, new songs and great songs. And to me, like, I always feel like it's not right if I'm not also sharing that knowledge and that love and that music.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You said you're still writing songs, right? You still write songs?

HARVEY G COHEN: I do. I do. I put together a CD in I guess it was about 2012. I've been working more on the books lately. But, you know, there's always a guitar close by when I'm at home.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: How would you describe the music that you write? What's a Harvey G. Cohen song sound like?


HARVEY G COHEN: You know, I just...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What's your trademark or signature style? I mean, what...

HARVEY G COHEN: It's the same thing. It's like just really eclectic. The last band I had that was pretty successful, you know, we played at the Whiskey A Go Go and we played at Berkeley. It was like a combination of gospel music and R&B and kind of Americana, stuff like that. It's hard to describe. You know, I really try to have a broad palette like lots of my favorite artists do.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, you draw on such an interesting - in reading your books and the Ellington book and articles that you've written and everything, you draw on such a rich, deep resource of American music and American history. I would imagine that would come out in your songs. So you put out a CD in 2012? Do you...

HARVEY G COHEN: It was just private. You know, I'd give it to friends and people I knew in the business and so forth. Yeah, I was just doing it for me. I had just moved to London and it was tough, you know. I mean, I love London. But it was, you know, kind of tough. And I was writing a lot of songs at that time and recording them at home, like the old small recording studio I used to have when I was in the biz.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So it gave you kind of an emotional solace as you were sort of adjusting to living in England?

HARVEY G COHEN: Yeah. Yeah, those first two or three years in London I'd never been so isolated in my life, really. I mean, you know, they talk sometimes about the stiff upper lip and it's not always true. But people are a bit held in usually, not always. But don't get me wrong, I love London and all the things that go along with it.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Do you feel as an American pretty well-received over there? What's the current U.K. attitude towards America?


HARVEY G COHEN: Well, I think that, you know, we're in a really difficult period politically. And I think there's just a lot of shared things, you know, between Brexit and the supposed constitutional crisis that a lot of politicians say we're in in America at the moment. And there's a lot of connections and a lot to talk about. I mean, you know, I try to keep above all that. But I'm always willing to talk about it and kind of study it. And, you know, in my classes, in my writings, I will go back to the 1700s and the 1800s and the 20th century. And I show how there's a lot of connections and a lot of the same music business issues in the 19th century than in the 20th century. And when you see these ideas coalesce together, I think that's really important. And my students are always really interested in that, you know, because the way that the publishing scene or the record company scene worked in, you know, the 1910s and 1920s, it gives us a lot of information about how it works now. And I also talk a lot in my classes on the music business, there's always, you know, every 20 or 30 years some new technology comes up that upends the business like we saw at the turn of the 21st century with Napster. You know, it's this kind of crisis of technology. How are we going to deal with it? How are we going to re-monetize the industry? And, you know, I think at first the students and most people think, oh, God, this is a new crisis. But actually it's happened over and over for two centuries in America and of course, lots of other countries, too.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, I really look forward to reading your future works about...

HARVEY G COHEN: (Laughter).

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...The music business and music history. I've been speaking today with historian and author Harvey G. Cohen. Harvey, thank you so much for being with us.

HARVEY G COHEN: Hey, it was so much fun. Thank you, David.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: This is David Brent Johnson for Profiles.


MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling (812) 855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.



Harvey G. Cohen

Harvey G. Cohen (Aaron Cain, WFIU)

Harvey G. Cohen uses music and film to trace significant themes in American culture and history from the colonial era to the present. He earned his PhD in US and cultural history from the University of Maryland, then stayed on for three years to teach about the Harlem Renaissance, and the cultural history of New York City.

In 2006 Cohen became a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London, where he teaches about the history and business of popular music and film in the US and UK; the history of museums and the publishing industry; the business issues facing cultural industries; and American and African American history

Cohen’s book Duke Ellington’s America (2010) was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, won a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Award and received significant coverage in the New Yorker, New York Times, Mojo Magazine, BBC, NPR and many other media outlets.

His new book, Who’s In The Money? The Great Depression Musicals and Hollywood’s New Deal (2018), outlines the history of Warner Brothers movie musicals during 1933 and reveals their political, historical and cultural connections—both on and off screen—with the newly-elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs.

Harvey G. Cohen's work has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, The Independent (UK), and on BBC and SkyNews radio and TV stations.

He spoke with David Brent Johnson, host of WFIU’s Night Lights.

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