Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rock and Roll in Sepia: A Conversation with Jim Linderman

Jim Linderman
Jim Linderman is an archivist of the obscure. I profiled him here in 2011 and continue to deeply enjoy the curios he finds and actively posts at his three blogs, Old Time Religion ("Vernacular religious detritus"), Vintage Sleaze ("The true and untold story of smut in America"), and Dull Tool Dim Bulb ("Surface, wear, form and authenticity in art, antiques and photography"). Via Blurb, he's just released a terrific new book, a collection of found photographs titled The Birth of Rock and Roll in which he's arranged a storyboard of sorts that dramatizes the spirit, if not the chronology of rock and roll. The book is poetic in that the photos evoke without naming, and Linderman trusts that the white spaces among the images will do much of the heavy lifting. The photographs have little to do with conventional iconography of the birth of rock and roll—i.e., young white men in Memphis, poodle skirts, Bill Haley's Brylcream, etc.—instead they document, and celebrate, the pure but undefinable essence of rocking: ordinary, nameless men, women, and children, some white, some black, are holding guitars and strumming while looking relaxed or frantic, but nearly always blissful. Some of the action takes place in rural fields, some in dance halls, some at civic events, some in living rooms and basements. Wherever there is an urge to make acoustic or electric music—whether it was to help at a rent party, or to busk in front of a crowd, or to testify in the name of Jesus—there is an uncredited photographer to snap an image.

I've long been fascinated by the ethos of found photography. The very spontaneous nature of the framed images in The Birth of Rock and Roll—only a few of the photos feature conventionally posed figures—adds to the excitement in the moments. Bottles are open, races are blending, legs are splayed, guitars are played, there's smiling all around: these photos capture the at-ease thrills of making music off the cuff, in the moment, inspiring some of the unlikely moved to dance. There's a lot of impromptu dancing in The Birth of Rock and Roll. It's beautiful stuff.


In his introduction, Linderman discusses the brevity of the rock and roll revolution, couching that melancholy truth in larger terms. "We think our lifetimes last a long time," he writes. "They do not. We think what has happened in our lifetime is significant too, but not really. On the contrary, we and the events we live through are just blips. We celebrate the 50th anniversary of an event as though it was forever. Nope." He continues:
The entire span of Rock and Roll occurred in just one century out of millions of centuries, and it is now over. A tiny and brief stirring, a mere bump we passed on the road which is now well behind us. Royalties remain, songs change hands like soybean futures and a museum in Cleveland attempts to recreate the era like a sacred archaeological dig. To kids, Rock and Roll is but the fundraiser week on PBS.
Helpfully sifting the diverse ingredients in the photographs, Linderman names the forces that coalesced to help create Rock and Roll. "Loosely in order of their importance? Racism and subsequent integration, gospel, blues (racism again...I am afraid), hillbillies, minstrels in blackface, cheap Silvertone guitars from Sears, the Hawaiian music craze, burlesque, booze, weed, vaudeville, the circus, some Showtime razzle-dazzle and the spoiled generation following World War Two." He adds:
That pretty much sums up the whole damn fad which many of us have lived entirely through. Those forces, and of course the necessity to procreate the species. Rock and Roll was more than anything else about sex. Not romance at all. Romance was pop chart pre-rock. When a bar band had to play one for slow dance (romance) they did it almost with apology, and when it was over they were glad to rock again. Rock and Roll was sexual attraction, hot passion and down dirty rutting...even when it was being created in the church. They tried to cover it up with holy gospel, but there was a back door in every church. Lord knows they worshiped the flesh too, and it helped fill the pews.
Near the end of his introduction, Linderman cites some detailed evidence. "If you doubt my thesis above that Rock and Roll was pretty much about sex," he argues, "think of one of the great Rock and Roll songs 'Farmer John' and you will agree. Every garage band learned it. The premise? Doing the farmer's daughter. That’s the whole song. It is a story as old as farming itself, but again in the scope of time? Not so long. Even the change from 'hunt and gather' to agrarian didn't take so long in time. Longer than Rock and Roll, of course, but that is still not as old as the rocks under your feet."

Judge for yourself:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Linderman to discuss The Birth of Rock and Roll and found photography.


Could you talk a bit about how you came in possession of the photos? How old is your collection? Did you have guiding principle in selecting images for the book?

I am always collecting with a project in mind, and usually few projects at a time. I love vintage anonymous photographs of musicians. Originally, I had in mind an "old timey" musician book, purely rural and full of banjos, but the project broadened as it developed. I wanted to give a fuller impression as complex and alive as the story, and also to include participants and the audience. The beauty of anonymous, vernacular photographs is that they leave so much to the viewer's imagination, and yet for the most part, the collections which have been formed have not concentrated on one narrative or subject. There are specialized anonymous snapshot collections, many of them at this point…but for the most part the collections seem all over the place. I like to collect in a narrow area, and let the objects themselves create an expansive landscape. And make no mistake, these photographs are objects. The have shape, surface and form. Digital photography will never have that. These photographs scratch just like records, and records lasted around 100 years too.

To answer the question, all were purchased at paper and ephemera shows, antique shows, flea markets and eBay. It isn't surprising how many photographs contain musical instruments. To become adept, instruments becomes an extension to a musicians arm, in particular for guitar players. Photographs of people enjoying music are also common. I could have done an entire book of families staring at the phonograph.

What's the appeal of found or vernacular photography? Is the genre a kindred spirit to rock and roll somehow?

The true history of our culture is told in anonymous photographs, and whether they are kindred to rock and roll is both a good question and a good observation. I was determined to tell the story with no promotional photos if possible. I think I included only one. Just as I would rather listen to a bootleg or a live performance, I would rather see a candid shot or an authentic image created without artifice. What is presented to us as product is today so manipulated and controlled, virtually all the reality has been airbrushed away. This applies to music, photographs…across the board. The real story is always found beneath the surface. It seems fewer and fewer take the time to look for the real story these days. Product need only be surface deep to sell. Amateur photographers may not have been rebels, as so many of the early musicians were, but they were documenting a life and time without pretense or an agenda. 

What I especially like about the book is the way you evoke a story without naming it, the juxtaposition of strangers and eras scenes in a long, complex narrative. In the introduction you write that the book tells "a one hundred year old story." What is that story?

I came to the realization one day that Hank Williams had died the year I was born, and Elvis made his first recordings the following year. I realized I had lived through virtually the entire history of rock and roll, and how fortunate I had been to have experienced it in real time. I've seen dozens of the performers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and many of them in small, intimate venues, yet today it all seems so effortless.  I began to wonder how such a diverse and rich musical form had coalesced into rock and roll at the very time I was here…it seemed too fortunate. I had even seen Muddy Waters perform. And yet all the books I had read about rock and roll still hadn't said how short a time the entire span of the genre was. They failed me somehow, and I thought the story could be told without words just as well.

As this is a photography book, the images really tell the story. I can only hope they provide a suitable impression in the mind of viewers, as the actual story is far too complex to explain. I wanted to create an atmosphere more than a book of non-fiction, and I think the results work well enough. History is impossible to capture. Any history is tainted with error and  false memories, certain agendas and misinterpretation. The best I can do is evoke an emotional response, and I choose to do it by assembling and grouping images here.

Also in the introduction you reference racism as among the forces that created rock and roll. There are unfortunate images of blackface and minstrelsy in the book. Can you comment on them?

At the time the Caucasian rockabilly performer Warren Smith was playing "Ubangi Stomp" so what can I say? The history of rock music is filled with unsavory and inappropriate things. Hollywood, the cartoons and the dominant society as a whole were just as offensive. There have been plenty of scholars discussing the birth of rock and roll and the forces which led to it, but basically what it took was European music meeting African music here in America. There were all manner of configurations, connections and influences, and you can't deny minstrelsy was one of them. If it sold tickets, it was on a stage, be it vaudeville, the carnival or the burlesque show. All were instrumental in the forces which combined to create rock and roll, and why sugarcoat it?

Blackface is offensive, but just as offensive to some are the white covers of African-American music which happened in the 1950s and 1960s. White musicians wore "virtual" masks and repurposed the originals…but last I heard Little Richard was thrilled to be covered by the Beatles. One could say Pat Boone was a minstrel without a mask, but why bother. It was the relative lack of racism among musicians which contributed more than anything to what we call rock and roll. If more of us were as colorblind as musicians, it would be far better place. As I point out, once white musicians realized they could learn from black musicians and vice-versa, we got rock and roll, we got jazz and we got harmony, literally. Like it or not, minstrelsy was a part of that. No less than Nick Tosches has documented the importance of minstrelsy in his work devoted to Emmet Miller. A considerable force behind rock and roll is Caucasians trying to emulate black musicians. With a mask or not, it was appropriated. I try to be as much journalist as collector, and the photographs exist. I don't judge them anymore than I judge any photograph. The ravages of slavery contributed to blues, to gospel, to jazz, to hokum, you name it. To me, rock and roll is all about showmanship, strutting and cake walkin' babies from home. I certainly do not embrace blackface, but masks come in all colors. Bob Wills played minstrel songs. Hank Williams did as well.  

The image you are likely referring to is a black and white photograph, so for all I know the witless imbeciles were wearing green masks and trying to be martians. But few images carry that much emotion and baggage in a little 3 x 4 snapshot.  This is a photography and art book, and few photographs are as thought-provoking. It is a WTF photo. Denying history is not a positive thing, and neither is censorship or revisionist interpretations of what went down. To some, the photographs here of inter-racial dancing and kissing will probably be just as offensive, but they are photographs which were taken. Same with obviously intoxicated dancers and a fellow doing the alligator. Artifacts now…and yet still they carry a power as strong as the music.

Do you have a favorite image in the book, one that narrates the birth of rock and roll in a particularly powerful or graphic way?

Certainly the 1949 snapshot of the Carter Family is among them. They are the only known performers in the book. It not only evokes a different time and place, but as a composition it is lovely. Even at a pie-eating contest in a county fair, they were regal. Country musicians have always been more willing than most to "meet and greet" but the picture reveals how much music evolved from "us" rather then "them." It came from the bottom up. I also favor the cover photograph. It reveals the American dream, a family opening their ice cream shop, and they hired an African-American ensemble to perform for the celebration. It is hard not to appreciate that photograph as both historical and prescient.
Carter Family, 1949

All original photographs from the collection of Jim Linderman.


Donna Lethal said...

Well done. Linderman is a brilliant unsung hero of American cultural history.

dosing unit said...

I agree with you "Donna Lethal" Linderman is one of the best unsung hero of American cultural history

Unknown said...


The D'Anne Burley Show said...

His info is not based on total fact its pieces of what he thinks happened .....as I have an achieve and he totally lied about my father someone he must had little resources on facts so mr liberman call me and lets see your facts not what your .... call me 630-863-9971 Danne Burley
I have my achieve and letters what do you have as fscts about black history in entertainment media arts etc Respectfully yours DAnne Burley