Historical Photography: Capturing the Essence of Americana
The United States is filled with places that are beautiful for their scenery, their majesty, and their history. Every year, thousands upon thousands of visitors flock to different sites to look in wonder upon the works of man or nature or to stop and take in a room where some momentous event took place: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Appomattox, and many more.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at photos of historical sites that capture the essence of America in some manner. If you have any photos you’d like featured in this series, feel free to post them to our Facebook page with all of the relevant information (photographer, location, date, caption information) and we might include it.
This week, we’re setting the Wayback machine to the 1950s and the birth of American Rock and Roll. This uniquely American music style was born out of the Deep Southern traditions of blues, jazz, gospel, and jump blues. These music styles had been percolating in the South for generations after the Civil War. After the Second World War, they began to meld and mix as segregation led to greater contact between the whites and blacks of the region, bringing together their musical heritage into the mix called “rock and roll.”
However, even though the music of this era was wildly popular, it was the photographers who captured the images of charismatic singers and performers who helped fuel the fanaticism among followers of the most heavily promoted artists. Some of their photographs have become so famous that the Library of Congress acquired all of the rights to them and has archived them as essential to capturing the image of this era of American musical history. Posters featuring Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, and many others are stored in the Library of Congress’s collection along with the negatives and photos from live concerts, television performances, and magazine covers. Some photographers, such as Elvis’s photographer Alfred Wertheimer, have maintained and preserved their own collections. Wertheimer’s can be viewed at his website here.
Early pioneers in this American musical genre were Elvis Presley (Tupelo, Mississippi), Chuck Berry (St. Louis, Missouri), Little Richard (Macon, Georgia), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Ferriday, Louisiana). With their mixing styles and the blending of traditions, these pioneers — along with many, many others — changed the shape of modern music. Rock and roll traveled over the Atlantic to the United Kingdom and then returned in force with the British Invasion of the 1960s and 70s. In addition to this major historical movement in music, rock and roll gave birth to the traditions of heavy metal, glamrock, punk, Ska, hip hop, and rap. Rock and roll also defined a generation as the Baby Boomers grew up and created events such as Woodstock, Lollapalooza, and many more.
Drawing from such a diverse mix of traditions and regions, rock and roll, and its history, are quintessentially part of Americana.
— da Bird
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress