If you had to choose an image to define “rock ’n’ roll,” what would it be? Elvis’ pompadour? A psychedelic rock poster? A Flying V guitar? The last thing you might picture is a young woman in the Great Depression, wearing her Sunday best, smiling modestly as she poses with her saxophone. But when Jim Linderman, a collector of vernacular photography and folk art, finds a photograph like that, he sees the seeds of the rebellious music known as rock.
Linderman, an author and former librarian for CBS News, has made something of a second career for himself collecting vintage, everyday photographs that fit into particular themes. Then he organizes and presents them on one of his blogs, like Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Old Time Religion, or Vintage Sleaze, or even as books, such as Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography, 1890-1950 and the self-published Secret History of the Black Pin-Up: Women of Color From Pin Up to Porn.
“The whole point was pretty much to get together, get drunk, and get laid. That’s the real history of rock ’n’ roll.”
His latest book, The Birth of Rock and Roll, published by Dust-to-Digital and available for pre-order on Amazon, is a series of found images sandwiched between his musings on rock music and a conversation with rock critic Joe Bonomo. The images are largely unexplained, left to speak for themselves—and they don’t include a single photo of Bill Hayley, Elvis Presley, or any of the usual suspects. In fact, most of the people in the photos wouldn’t have heard of rock ’n’ roll, much less thought of themselves as rock-’n’-roll progenitors. Instead, the images capture the gangly musicians, the giddy dancers, and the drunken antics found in small-town America from the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond. All the musical genres that influenced what we know of as “rock” are represented: Everything from jump blues and gospel to boogie woogie and Western swing.
“A couple of years ago, I came to the realization that I had lived through virtually the entire history of rock ’n’ roll,” Linderman says. “What a remarkable, lucky thing that was, to be here at that time. As I say in the book, I was born the year Hank Williams died, and the next year, Elvis made his first recording. I’ve literally been here for the whole thing. I was collecting photographs of guys with banjos when I realized that I could tell a bigger story if I included more recent photos, and yet still use roots music as my influence. I realized that rock ’n’ roll didn’t come down from above, from performers in arenas, it came up from little people. That’s the story I wanted to tell with images, not words.”
For a book about rock, many of the images are undeniably “country”: Women in homemade gingham dresses and shawls, men with slicked down hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, a little girl with springy curls playing a banjo labeled “Jesus Saves,” square dancers, marching bands at tabernacle revivals, hardscrabble Dust Bowl farmers with stern expressions holding guitars, and Western bands in full-on Hollywood cowboy regalia. The most famous group in the book, the Carter Family, wears ruffled dresses at a county fair, the sort of event you’d expected to find homemade ice cream and a pie-eating contest. It’s a little slice of entertainment found in America’s rural landscape of the early 20th century.
“We have this notion that rock ’n’ roll started in Memphis in 1955, and it really didn’t,” Linderman says. “Bob Wills was playing in the ’30s and ’40s in Oklahoma, and Chuck Berry modeled ‘Maybellene’ on a Bob Wills song. The roots of rock go back a lot further than we realize. It came from the church, from vaudeville, from the music played in after-hours clubs, from juke joints. Some of it came from Ireland. It’s such a conglomeration, and that diversity is the real back story of rock ’n’ roll. Without any trouble at all, I was able to include people of all races in this book. I was able to show the melting pot in America, which came together to create this phenomenon.
“I was especially happy to be able to include so many women performers, because they never got their due,” he continues. “Which is why we don’t know who they are now. I love being able to illustrate how broad the music used to be, because now it’s so narrow and pigeonholed. It seems we’ve lost some of the breadth that used to be there.”
Rock music, in fact, is the product of the so-called American melting pot—a potent mix of racism, segregation, reintegration, assimilation, and appropriation. “Classical European music used notes on scales, while Northern African music used notes that slide, music in between the notes,” Linderman says. “When these two styles got together in America—which is the only place it could have happened—that’s what paved the way for rock. Americans weren’t dancing the minuet anymore, and they started to loosen up a little. That’s where jazz came from, the mixture of classical with African American music in New Orleans.”
Every armchair rock historian knows that prewar African American blues music—like the recordings made by Paramount Records of Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Blake, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson—had a tremendous influence on rock ’n’ roll. But Linderman points out that for every one of these artists who had the good fortune to be recorded for posterity, there were at least 10 others who went undiscovered, their contributions lost to time, living only in memories of rowdy nights at a juke joint.
“Until the ’60s, there really wasn’t a rock-’n’-roll industry,” Linderman says. “No matter who you saw perform, the venue was no larger than a hundred-seater, and you didn’t have to fight for tickets. A lot of times, bars offered live music just to get people into the place to sell drinks. Some of the greatest musicians in the world played for tips. They were not any more wealthy than the people in the audience.”
In the introductory essay to the photos, Linderman asserts that the quest for sex, not money, prompted all those late-night performances in dives and honky tonks. “Since I’m kind of a sleazy guy, for me, rock music is as much about sex as gospel music is about religion,” he tells me. “The whole point was pretty much to get together, get drunk, and get laid. That’s the real history of rock ’n’ roll. But they never say that in any of the books about it. It’s a sexual thing for the performers, and it’s a sexy atmosphere that’s created, by its nature, to make people sweat, to make them buy drinks, and to make them go out back. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Besides the human sex drive, in the book, Linderman lists both racism and integration among the forces that came together to create rock ’n’ roll. He explains that music had a way of creating a camaraderie that breached the boundaries of racial segregation. Many of the photos in The Birth of Rock and Roll that depict people of different races intermingling would have been considered scandalous at the time they were taken. In one, someone has snuck a camera into an integrated “black-and-tan” club where a white woman is stripping for a mixed-race audience. Another shows a little black boy and little white girl dancing, holding hands. Hank Williams even learned how to play guitar from a black man.
“As soon as Caucasian and African American musicians realized they could trade riffs and learn from each other, their racial tension went away,” Linderman says. “Music was bigger than racism, somehow.”
But the history of rock ’n’ roll wasn’t free of prejudice. In fact, in the book, Linderman includes a couple photos of white musicians performing minstrel music in blackface.
“Rock ’n’ roll didn’t come down from above, from performers in arenas, it came up from little people.”
“I don’t defend them or justify them,” Linderman says. “That’s the way it was. Minstrel music and its effect are a large part of the story, where white people emulating black musicians comes from. By the 1950s, when things had coalesced into what we traditionally understand as rock ’n’ roll, it was beginning to be taboo to put on a minstrel face. But a lot of white musicians took black music and made it their own, without a mask. There’s very little difference, but we don’t think of it that way. You could say that Pat Boone was a minstrel because he took Little Richard’s songs and he did them his way.”
A few of the photos Linderman found obviously came from newspaper offices and have typed captions attached to them. For example, an African American woman playing a tambourine in 1937 is described as a follower of spiritual leader Father Divine in Los Angeles and a “buxom Negro mammy.” Other photos show black people dancing in church, which is described as “being touched by the spirit.” One caption even explains that the pastor had a bell, which he rang when he was ready for the dancing to stop—and sometimes it didn’t.
“The press was just as racist as the dominant white culture was,” Linderman says. “Often, photographs of African Americans in the ’30s and ’40s, when they were put in the press, were meant as little jabs. They were the butt of a joke as much as a news story. That persisted until the ’50s. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness! Look at these shucking and jiving (blanks)!’”
Church music, and particularly music from black churches, had a huge influence on rock ’n’ roll history. “In prewar Delta music, there are numerous examples of musicians who started in the church, then got dirty and did the blues,” Linderman says. “Church-goers literally would say ‘The devil got ’em,’ and they would be ostracized from the church culture. These musicians weren’t seen as uplifting to the race. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s, African American leaders considered it important for black people to be better than other people, because there was so much at stake. They had to be super smart, clean, and dressed properly. The burden was placed on black people to be accepted into a dominant white culture.
“There was a lot of division between gospel and blues because of those respectability politics,” he continues. “The church was considered a good place, and the blues was seen as dumb and dirty, found in little places where moonshine was sold. It’s hypocrisy because churchgoers can be just as filthy, and a lot of gospel music is just as rockin’ as rock ’n’ roll.”
Proper church-going folk at the time would have been appalled by images in the book showing flagrant drinking and risqué performances. But who knows how they would have felt about the pictures showing children and adults in drag—would they see it as innocent play or displays of defiant homosexuality?
“I wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” Linderman says. “It just happened that I was able to find men dancing with men and women cross-dressing, which let me illustrate that diversity. I see that as a progression of civil rights, and it’s beautiful to have early examples of it captured. Now, is anyone in the book gay? Who knows. And the point is, who cares?”
But for all the talk about backroom shenanigans involving booze and sex, several of the people in Linderman’s photos seem a little, well, square. Times were tough in the ’30s, so a few men and women holding the instruments wear dowdy clothing and have expressions that range from tentative cheer to plain dour. Fresh-faced kids proudly pose with their accordions and young women in prim, ankle-length taffeta hold saxophones. The images stand in contrast to the photos of raucous couples dancing, women in fringed miniskirts shaking their hips, and young men frolicking naked in a river.
“I used a little irony,” Linderman says. “My editors and I are juxtaposing what used to be with what was to come. There is a picture of rigorous, straight, uptight white kids in a boarding school, learning to dance. I juxtapose that with a cooler culture, drunk and whooping it up. Basically, I just want to show the richness and depths of what I grew up with. When you think about it, even though it looks really square, how remarkable is it that someone was able to get 50 accordion students together for a photograph?”
Yes, Linderman sees those 50 awkward accordion students as one of the threads that came together to bring rock ’n’ roll into the world, right as he was born. And Linderman was also fortunate enough to grow up at exactly the right time in Michigan—so that he could witness the wild, chaotic proto-punk movement burgeoning in Detroit in the late 1960s and early ’70s. As a teenager, Linderman saw the MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Mitch Ryder up close.
“These bands ruined me for life because that’s what I thought rock ’n’ roll was,” he says. “Then I’d go see like a big band like Kansas, and I’d go, ‘What the hell is this, man? This is crap. This isn’t rock ’n’ roll! Iggy is rock and roll!’ He just shaped the way I expected it to be. There’s this tradition of garage bands in Michigan, which literally invented punk rock.”
Other music that had a profound effect on Linderman includes Bob Dylan’s entire catalog, the Rolling Stones from ’68 to ’74, Stevie Wonder’s three albums from ’72 and ’73, a punk band called the Algebra Mothers, and the work of Devo, the Neville Brothers, Derek and the Dominos, and Duane Allman. He even saw blues great Muddy Waters perform at a small venue in the 1970s. “If you see old promo posters for some of the greatest acts in history, the shows cost $4, $5, and $6,” Linderman says. “And that’s in my lifetime.”
Today, though, tickets to see one of the few remaining popular guitar-driven rock performers like the Black Keys and Jack White can cost upwards of $50—which is part of the reason it struck Linderman that today is a prime time to go back to the roots of a genre he believes will actually end in his lifetime.
“As soon as Caucasian and African American musicians realized they could trade riffs and learn from each other, their racial tension went away.”
“The more I think about it, the more I believe rock ’n’ roll is gone now,” Linderman says. “I don’t think there are any guitar heroes left. Bands can’t make money off records anymore because they’re shared so widely online, so they make their money touring. But I fear bands today are pricing themselves out of their market. If you’re of rock ’n’ roll age, which is probably 18 to 25, $70 is a car payment. It seems to be, to me, a considerable amount to be asking of the audience. It’s just not the communal pleasurable experience it used to be. It’s now a major commitment to go see someone perform.”
That said, Linderman says a handful of modern artists, including Alison Krauss, Pokey LaFarge, and The Accidentals, can sate his desire for old-timey authenticity and talent that doesn’t involve Auto-Tune.
“The lifespan of rock ’n’ roll was not a long time at all,” Linderman says. “Bob Dylan knew Woody Guthrie. And the Rolling Stones played with Muddy Waters. There’s a museum for rock already. It’s really been a blink of the eye.”
(All images above come from Jim Linderman’s “The Birth of Rock and Roll,” published by Dust-to-Digital. To pre-order the book, go here. Follow Linderman as a blogger at Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Old Time Religion, or Vintage Sleaze, or at his Vintage Sleaze Facebook community. To read more about his baptism photo and folk art collections, go here and here.)