Documenting the Art of American Roots Music

During October, music photographers who have captured the essence of musicians from acoustic traditions exhibited their work in American Roots Music at The Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York. Roots music, also commonly called folk music in the United States, are musical forms created without the use of synthesizers and electronics, incorporating early blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues. Music journalist Frank Matheis organized and curated the American Roots Music exhibit inviting twelve prominent and internationally renowned music photographers in this exhibit of black and white fine art photography.

We are all familiar with the folk music tradition led by world renown king of folk music, Pete Seeger. Fine art photographer and artist, Bibiana Huang Matheis, captured images of Seeger in concert and at his home. In the photo on display, Huang Matheis caught the moment when Seeger has one hand on his beloved banjo and one arm outstretched to the audience. Seeger’s expressive face is framed against the inky black background, capturing him in song.

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Pete Seeger in concert by Bibiana Huang Matheis. (2008) 

Bill Steber has documented blues culture in Mississippi for the last 20 years, chronicling the state’s blues musicians and traditions that gave birth to or influenced the blues. Steber’s documentary photography of guitar evangelist Flora Fluker perfectly captures her intense singing style.

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Bill Steber captured Guitar Evangelist Cora Fluker in Marion, Mississippi. (1996)

Many of the photographers that document the musicians also make music. Bill Steber performs with several bands and John Rocklin is the co-founder of the Honesdale Roots & Rhythm Festival, sings and plays guitar in several bands. Rocklin’s involvement with music started at a young age when his father took him to Washington Square Park exposing him to music. “I stood right next to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.” Rocklin met and soon became friends with Little Sammy Davis, a blues harmonica legend. Inspired by his photographs of the musician, he pursued art photography and went on to capturing music legends such as B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Odetta.5 LitteSammyDavisbyJohnRocklin

Douglas Baz is a freelance and fine art photographer residing in Dutchess County. The images in this exhibition are from a documentary project that he and Charles Traub photographed in Cajun Louisiana in 1974. A large exhibition and book of this work will be exhibited at the Historic New Orleans Collection Museum during 2019.

George Mitchell and Axel Küstner used a documentary approach to capture photography and field recordings of blues musicians; similar to a folklorists’ approach to documentation. Mitchell’s photo of Jesse Mae Hemphill on her porch shows that music was an everyday part of life. Axel Küstner is known as one of Europe’s blues experts. Küstner’s 1980 photo of Flora Molton sitting on a Washington D.C. corner performing to passerby depicts the essence of roots music – it is by the people and for the people.

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Flora Molton performing in Washington D.C., (1980) photographer Axel Küstner

The late Myron Samuels was a serious blues fan and photographer. Samuels was also a street musician playing blues harp at Portland, Maine area venues and farmers markets. His work in this posthumous exhibit includes photographs of Etta Baker, Ted Bogan, and John Cephas.


This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal Enjoy!, October 5, 2018. American Roots Music was on display at The Howland Cultural Center, 477 Main Street, Beacon, New York;  October 6-28, 2018.