The birth of rock and roll didn't occur as you’ve been told. It wasn’t a big-bang event with Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry or a conspiracy by Murray the K or Alan Freed. Rather, the music was born over decades as segregated neighbors passed each other on the street, as music seeped from windows and into alien ears, as communities integrated one borrowed melody and rhythm at a time.
The evidence is gathered throughout “The Birth of Rock and Roll,” a forthcoming book of found photos from the collection of Jim Linderman. Filled with images of long-gone souls lost in revelry, moving to music, posing with instruments, they offer snapshot takes on culture clash in the decades prior to the rock explosion of the 1950s.
Linderman, who is described in the book as both a “collector and Americana yay-sayer” and an “archivist of the obscure,” is the brains behind the blogs Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Vintage Sleaze and Old Time Religion. He’s got a keen eye for themes, as evidenced by his books, including “Take Me to the Water,” a selection of old baptism photos and similarly themed gospel songs.
Like “Take Me to the Water,” “The Birth of Rock and Roll” will be issued by Dust-to-Digital, the Grammy-winning record label and publisher responsible for essential archival compendiums including the six-CD gospel set “Goodbye, Babylon,” the “Art of Field Recording” series and “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM.”
The new work doesn't come with companion music, but it doesn't need it. Rather, Linderman guides the reader through a silent meditation on sounds that long ago ceased to exist, their only remaining echo courtesy of a chance encounter with the yay-sayer.
The images try to capture the chaos. An innocent tableau of two groups of people, one white and posing in front of an ice cream shop, the other black and on the next-door porch playing music, lays out the porous nature of segregation. A couple poses for a photo on a sofa, a stack of 45s on the woman's lap. A piercing shot captures white men performing minstrel music in blackface, laying out a stark truth about appropriation and racism.
“Several forces combined in one century to create Rock and Roll,” writes Linderman in the introduction. “Loosely in order of 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.”
All that drama packs the book. “The real story is always found beneath the surface,” says Linderman in an epilogue conversation with the writer Joe Bonomo. “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.”
"The Birth of Rock and Roll" comes out April 19 through Dust-to-Digital.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit