In the 1930s and '40s, photographers employed by the federal government's now-legendary Farm Security Administration [FSA] created the most significant and, perhaps, most beautiful of all American photo archives. The FSA's Historical Unit, which was established to document and promote the Roosevelt administration's New Deal policies, far transcended its narrow political purpose. The unit employed some of the most important photographers of the twentieth century -- Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Russell Lee, among others -- and, as recent research has shown, their boss, Roy Stryker, gave them the latitude to pursue their own visions. Not surprisingly, more has been written about the FSA than any other episode in the history of photography.
Cover photo, Marion Post Wolcott: Beggers on main street corner. Montgomery, Alabama. 1939.
I can't actually prove that last assertion, but I'll be willing to buy a drink for the person who shows that I'm wrong. There are at least 29 books in my university's library about FSA photography, and that's not counting biographies and monographs about individual FSA photographers. Any final tally would be at least twice than number. Seemingly, no aspect of the FSA photo project has been left unexamined. The books look at the structure of FSA photo essays, the ideology of the FSA and the New Deal, FSA photography and religion, FSA photography and race, FSA photography and the American Dream, plus FSA photography in states from Virginia to Colorado. (I own five books on Dorothea Lange alone.)
Can the world possibly need yet another book on the FSA? Yes. That book would be Rich Remsberg's Hard Luck Blues: Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression. And I wish that I'd written it. It's that good.
Russell Lee: Negro musicians playing accordion and washboard in automobile. Near New Iberia, Louisiana. 1938. (All but one of the photographs in this review appear in Hard Luck Blues. They're from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection at the Library of Congress. Having been made by photographers employed by the United States government, they are not eligible for copyright protection. Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
Hard Luck Blues justifies its existence in a couple of ways. First, most of the more than 200 photos are beautiful, a real joy to see. Lange, Shahn, and Lee are well represented, as are the Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, John Vachon, and Arthur Rothstein, wonderful photographers all. Many of the photos have rarely, if ever, been published and will be new to anyone who hasn't spent hours rummaging through the FSA archives.
Second, the collection is, as Remsberg says, "almost certainly the best visual documentation of vernacular musical performance," during the Depression years. It was a critical time in American music history. An older world of street musicians, barn dances, and community concert bands was vanishing, as was the last generation of musicians "to learn [their art] without sound recording."
Jack Delano: Fiddler (Mr. Ed. Lorkin [sic]) for the square dances at the World's Fair at Tunbridge, Vermont. 1941.
Remsberg's introductions to the various chapters (the book is divided geographically) are brief and to the point. He's a master of knowing how to give enough information to allow the viewer to see the photos in their historical context, but not so much that the pictures are buried by words.
For instance, Remsberg tells us that Ed Larkin (above) was a Vermont farmer who had been fiddling since the 1880s. At the time that Jack Delano photographed him, he was a leading figure in the revival of "the New England contra dance tradition," making him something of a forerunner of the folk revival of the '50s and '60s. To this day, the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers are "still active in Vermont."
Ben Shahn: Doped singer, "Love oh, love, oh keerless love," Scott's Run, West Virginia. Relief investigator reported a number of dope cases at Scott's Run. 1935.
Street musicians are a well known phenomenon of the era. But had it not been for the FSA photographers, there would be little visual documentation of the people who were actively creating the nation's musical culture. Some preserved distinctive regional styles, while others, the itinerants, brought new musical ideas to once isolated areas.
Ben Shahn: Scott's Run, West Virginia. 1935.
The photos not only show us the musicians themselves; they also tell us something about the social context within which they lived and worked. (The full set of Shahn's photos from Scott's Run, West Virginia, two of which can be seen above, reinforces what musicologists already know -- that black and white musicians learned a great deal from each other.)
John Collier: Local band leader leads with "An Old Southern Melody" and everybody cheered. Home guard passes through Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama. 1941.
Remsberg's definition of "roots" is broad enough to encompass concert bands, which is a good thing, since they show up in the FSA archive with great regularity. In 2010, it's difficult to imagine a time when "commercial, military, and community bands" were popular, "prestigious and commercially successful." That popularity was fading, in the '30s, but had by no means disappeared, especially in small towns, where many Americans still lived.
Russell Lee: Acrobat and audience at Spanish-American traveling show. Penasco, New Mexico. 1940.
A set of Russell Lee photographs, showing the musicians, acrobats, and clowns who were members of at Macia Brothers "traveling show" is one of the book's unexpected pleasures. Like many of the book's photos, they will be extremely valuable for anyone trying to understand the popular culture of particular communities during the Depression.
Jack Delano: A prisoner dancing while another plays the guitar at a prison camp. Greene County, Georgia. 1941.
Remsberg's texts are short, as I've mentioned. But the research is deep, and he knows when to use it to greatest effect. The story behind the photo above, for instance, is a troubling mix of institutional racism and personal ambition. Delano tells the tale in his memoirs, and Remsberg quotes it at some length. A guard had ordered the prisoners to "dance for the photographer." Delano remembered that
I was so nervous and excited by the opportunity to get these pictures that I blocked out my personal feelings. I had only one thought in mind: I must not fail to get these pictures! ...It was only afterward, relaxing back in my hotel room, that the realization of what I had witnessed came upon me. ...How humiliating it must have been for those men to be obliged to perform for me, as if they were trained animals!
Russell Lee: Entertainers at Negro tavern. Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
Chicago gets a chapter unto itself. And why not? Lee, Delano, and Edwin Rosskam, another FSA photographer, spent a considerable amount of time in the city, largely to document African American community. Despite the segregation and high unemployment that blacks endured, they had created a flourishing cultural life for themselves and sustained an influential cluster of professional musicians.
Singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson (above, on the right) was "an enormously popular" entertainer and "an innovative guitarist." Singing with him is either Dan Dixon or Andrew Harris, both of whom were members of his trio.
Marion Post Wolcott: Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. 1939.
Many of the best -- and best known -- photos in the book were made in the South. That's no surprise, really. As Remsberg says, the South has long been "high-yield territory" for folklorists, musicologists, and photographers.
Marion Post Wolcott's photo of dancers in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, juke joint is probably the most famous of all the FSA photos that involve music and musicians. It's not in the book, perhaps because of its popularity. It's been endlessly reproduced and is one of the photos that the public most often asks to have reprinted. None of that detracts from its considerable charms. Not only is it visually stunning, but it's also a powerful reminder that the Depression was not just about suffering. It was also about people determined to keep their communities and their cultures alive and to live with joy and dignity. The FSA photographers were aware of their era's complexity, and, as artists, they captured it in the photos that they made.
There's little in Hard Luck Blues to complain about. Some of the photos are poorly reproduced -- flat and lacking any visual punch. The book's publishers, the University of Illinois Press and the Library of Congress, haven't done these important photos justice.
Occasionally I wanted more context than Remsberg was willing to provide.
Dorothea Lange: Camp talent provides music for dancing at Shafter camp for migrants. Halloween party, Shafter, California. 1938.
I was especially disappointed with his failure to discuss "blackface" entertainment, which shows up several times in the book's photos. In this hangover from nineteenth-century minstrelsy, white performers darkened their faces with makeup and mimicked what they imagined were African American performance styles. The result was either crude or sophisticated racial satire, depending on the skill and temperament of the performer. Blackface was still acceptable in polite white society, in the '30s and '40s, but faded rapidly after World War II, under pressure from the growing civil rights movement. The book's photos of grinning white adults (above) and slightly bewildered white children (below) in blackface makeup demand some discussion.
Marion Post Wolcott: Second and third grade children being made up for their Negro song and dance at May Day-Health Day festivities. Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina. 1939.
Quibbles aside, Hard Luck Blues is an important book. Anyone who is interested in photography or music will want a copy. Anyone seriously engaged in the study of the history of photography or the history of popular music will need a copy.
And, thanks to those fabulous photographers, it's a delight to behold.