Hard Luck Blues: Roots Music Photographs from the Great Depression Rich Remsberg. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
The imagery of the Great Depression-era United States has become almost untouchably iconic, perhaps because of their inherent power but not unimportantly also as a result of elaborated and ongoing constructions of social and historical import. Yet there seems something undeniably renewable and surprising in these images, a freshness in their viewing that increases rather than fades as the era becomes both more distant and more strange to postmodern eyes.
Such is the case with these photographs produced by the Historical Section of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration under the direction of Roy Stryker, a group which formed part of an unprecedented federal government collection that numbers close to 170,000 images. Driven by an interest in visually capturing the rural experience during the Great Depression in support of New Deal programmatic and political agendas, Stryker assembled what would later be recognized as a singular and astonishing group of photographers like Ben Shahn, John Collier, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Carl Maydans, and Jack Delano. These photographers were charged with promoting agricultural life and the experiences of common people. Though given no guidance to capture the experience of musicians, these photographers nevertheless happened to create what Rich Remsberg calls "the best visual documentation of vernacular musical performance during this time" (xviii), an achievement especially notable since among this group, only "Vachon was the most enthusiastic about music" (133). These images reveal how music making saturated the experience of people across American regions during this era. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the images a reading of this book reinforces is both the diversity and totality of musical experience across space. The photographs reveal, with a keen eye and rich contextualization, the musical being in the world of whites and African Americans, secular and religious, rural, small town, and urban Southerners, northeasterners, westerners, and Midwesterners.
Remsberg argues that the images display "a powerful sense of the Old World vanishing" (xxii) as the musical world of the United States during the Great Depression was superceded by development and change. For example, he considers a rare shot of a street bluesman by Marion Post Wolcott to be "the best documentation in existence of this important phenomenon" (25). Remsberg links the renewed photographic attention to the vitality of American vernacular music as a development related to the maturation of styles like hillbilly, swing, and jazz, and the rise of regionalism in American visual art. He praises the naturalism and intimacy of the photographs as well as their sensitivity. Both the original FSA photographers and Remsberg believe that "showing people in a social context has a tremendous humanizing effect" (xxvi). This intent is clear in the set of photographs gathered in this book. Jack Delano's image of the family of Russell Tombs being moved by the army (likely forcibly, though the caption does not say) from its house in Caroline County, Virginia, is striking not for the guitar leaning next to the door, but because of the stark reality of peeling newspaper covering the walls. The caustic image of school children in …