HARD LUCK BLUES: Images of the Forgotten
Published May 7 2010
Released for Christmas 2009 by the acclaimed and often discerning Knopf publishing house, WHO SHOT ROCK & ROLL: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY, 1955-PRESENT, is a flagrant disappointment. Want pictures you’ve already seen? Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? The Who snoozing under a Union Jack? Johnny Cash giving us the finger? The Beatles in generic descent from an airplane? Wanna see, again, the covers of world-famous albums by Bob Dylan (two), Led Zeppelin (two), Carole King, U2? Meanwhile, a newly released small-press collection called HARD LUCK BLUES: ROOTS MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE GREAT DEPRESSION by Rich Remsberg ($34.95; University of Illinois Press) is everything WHO SHOT ROCK & ROLL is not: surprising, nuanced, memorable, universal. ROCK & ROLL dooms itself by a vapid attraction to imagery of the rich and the famous. If you didn’t know who John Lennon was, you’d be baffled as to why you are being made to consider the repetition of too many snapshot-like poses of this dude in the “New York City” tee. In contrast, HARD LUCK BLUES consists almost entirely of moments involving the anonymous and the forgotten. Meaning, these HARD LUCK photos have to appeal to something beyond any easy familiarity we may have with the subjects; to compel us inward, these photos must, in fact, strike universal chords. Which they do, with both sweet and bittersweet resonance.
Doris Ulmann, Group of Four Kentucky Mountain Musicians, including African American Fiddler. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.
The family of Russell Tombs moving out of their home, which is being taken over by the army in Caroline County, Virginia. June 1941. Jack Delano.
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. October 1935. Ben Shahn.
Migrant family from Arkansas playing hill-billy songs. Farm Security Administration emergency migrant camp. Calipatria, California. February 1939. Dorothea Lange.
An organ deposited by the flood on a farm near Mount Vernon, Indiana. February 1937. Russell Lee.
(All photos and captions from HARD LUCK BLUES.)