Raeburn Flerlage – Chicago Folk: Images of the Sixties Music Scene (ECW, 2009)
Raeburn Flerlage, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 86, was as much a record man as he was a photographer. His decades of work in writing about, promoting, distributing and selling records gave him both an insider’s collection of contacts and a fan’s undying love of musicians and their music. Moving to Chicago in the mid-1940s he placed himself at a well-traveled crossroads for touring artists and, later, ground-zero of the electric blues revolution. He began studying photography in the late-1950s and was given his first assignment (a session with Memphis Slim that found placement in a Folkways record booklet) in 1959.
Flerlage worked primarily as a freelancer, capturing musicians and their audiences at Chicago’s music festivals, concert halls, theaters, college auditoriums and clubs. He was welcomed into rehearsal halls, recording and radio studios, hotel rooms and even musicians’ homes. His photographs appeared in promotional materials, magazines (most notably, Down Beat), and illustrated books that included Charles Keil’s Urban Blues and Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues. In 1971 he started a record distributorship and mostly stopped taking photographs. When his company closed in 1984 he found the demand for his photos increasing, and spent his “retirement” fielding requests from all around the world.
In 2000 ECW elevated Flerlage from photo credits to photographer with the first book dedicated to his photos, Chicago Blues: As Seen From the Inside. His pictures evidenced the comfort and familiarity of someone who’d mingled with musicians on both a professional and personal level, and who’d developed a feel for their lives and their places of work. Fellow photographer Val Wilmer wrote him “No one else has taken the kind of moody action shots that you took in Chicago, so full of atmosphere and so full of the blues.” His photographs were more than just documentation, they were a part of the scene in which musicians created music. Studs Terkel (who’s included in four photos) pointed out that Flerlage was more than a photographer, he was a companion.
This second volume of photographs, despite its title, is not strictly limited to Chicago musicians or folk singers. “Chicago” covers natives, transplants and those touring through the Windy City, and “Folk” encompasses a variety of roots musicians, including guitar toting singer-songwriters, folk groups, blues and gospel singers, bluegrass bands and more. Even those who know Flerlage’s work – either by name or by sight – are unlikely to have seen this part of his catalog. Among the 200-plus photos here, most have never been published before and none duplicate entries in the earlier Chicago Blues.
There are many well-known musicians depicted here, including Odetta, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Furry Lewis, the Weavers, Mother Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan. They’re captured in the act of creation: playing or singing, entertaining an audience or conversing with fellow artists. Big Joe Williams is shown seated, staring off camera in concentration as his right hand blurs with motion. The Staple Singers are depicted with their mouths open in family harmony and their hands suspended between claps. Flerlage focused on a musician’s internal intimacy, but also expanded his frame to add the context of stage, auditorium, spotlight and audience.
Beyond the most easily recognized names, Flerlage made pictures of lesser-known musicians, as well as those instrumental in Chicago and folk’s music scenes. Highlights include rare shots of blues busker Blind Arvella Gray, radio legend Norman Pellegrini, Old Town School of Music co-founders Win Stracke and Frank Hamilton, Folkways label founder Moe Asch, Appalachian artists Roscoe Holcomb and Frank Proffitt, children’s folk singer Ella Jenkins, field recordist Sam Charters, Sing Out editor Irwin Silver, one-man band Dr. Ross, and dozens more. Flerlage also captured record stores such as Kroch and Brentano’s and Discount Records, blending his work as a photographer with his career in distribution.
The photos range from careful compositions that frame artists in stage light to spontaneous grabs in adverse conditions. Whatever the circumstance, Flerlage caught something about each subject that remains vital on the page fifty years later. The book is printed on heavy, semi-gloss stock, and it’s only real weakness is the lack of expositional text. The 12-page introduction by Ronald D. Cohen provides context on the photographer, but the photo captions provide little detail on the photographed. The pictures are worth seeing on their own, but they would come alive for more readers if the subjects, particularly the local heroes and lesser-known artists, were given a few sentences of explanation. Buy the book, enjoy the photos, and spend some quality time with Google to dig up the stories.