The Rockabillies

The Rockabillies

Author: Jennifer Greenburg

I can stare at the photographs in The Rockabillies, a book by Jennifer Greenburg on the Rockabilly subculture, for a long time. I can come back to them over and over again and see something new each time. I enjoyed the photographs the first time I looked through the book, pausing to note the small details like the bright red dog tag on the snow white poodle in “Mr. Mysterious and Mamie,” the copy of Dracula in “Vivien on the RCA Victrola chair,” and the images reflected in a mirrored table in “Keith at home with his cat.” The amazing array of colors is eye-catching: the green walls and figurines in “The Stricklands next to their Majestic lamp” and the blaze of Fiestaware and the bright turquoise wall in “Mrs. Hughes in her kitchen.” Recurring images such as turquoise, tattoos, perfectly sculptured hairstyles, and reflections in mirrors invite comparisons and I often found myself flipping back and forth between photographs trying to bend the pages so I could examine two images at the same time.

However I truly appreciated these photographs only after reading the essays at the end of the book. “The Culture, Style, and Art of The Rockabillies” by Audrey Michelle Mast provides background information about the Rockabilly culture that started in the '50s and provides a framework for the Rockabilly culture that is still thriving today. The last passage of the essay provides the most food for thought. Mast closes:

Rockabilly is escapism, but it is not the popcorn-and-movie-in-an-air-conditioned-theatre kind that most of us seek out; it is unrelenting, exacting, and permanent. The rockabilly life is also an enormously creative and life-affirming way to exist. Greenburg has taken us inside the enigmatic world of the rockabilly subculture, captured it for us, and encouraged us to look beyond its glamorous surface into the compelling substance within.

The book opens with glamour; the second photograph, “Miss Jolie on her ’59 Ford Fairlane,” shows Miss Jolie in gold lamé pants lying on the white hood of her car, feet propped up on the turquoise roof. “Hot pink rat rod dream girl in her ’60 Ford El Camino at Viva Las Vegas 12” is another seemingly glamorous photograph. The updo of the girl and everything about the perfectly matching shimmering pinks of her lipstick, pantsuit, leather seats, gearshift, and fingernail polish screams glamour, except for the open can of Miller Lite in the dream girl’s hand. And while Miss Jolie looks very glam on the hood of a Ford Fairlane, \when it’s simply “Jolie in her bedroom” with a gently aged stuffed tiger on her bed and an angst-filled expression on her face, the glamour is gone.

It is pictures like this one that make me think of the last lines of Bruce Berenson’s “Afterword.” He states,

Jennifer Greenburg’s photographs do what any successful portrait should: make me want to know more about the subjects and, lacking facts, make me want to construct my own life story for them. I wonder what these Rockabillies do for a living and if their world view is reflected in their aesthetic. Do they always dress like this (even to cousin Marilyn’s wedding or Max’s bar mitzvah)? Do their musical preferences include The Strokes, Vivaldi, or even Hannah Montana?

There are stories in these pictures. Some, such as “The legendary HawleyWoods’s Barber Shop,” suggest their own narrative. The haircut in progress, the reflections in the mirror, the newspaper clippings, the Pabst beer advertisement, and racing paraphernalia on the walls, all combine to tell a story about HawleyWoods's Barber Shop. Then there are photographs where it just feels natural to try and fill in the blanks. Why won’t the couple in “Amazon Anne and Stephan in their bungalow” look at each other? What is Bobby in “Bobby in his finished ’54 Cadillac Coupe de Ville at the Pile-Up” gazing at in the driver’s side mirror?

In the introduction to the book, Greenburg describes her own entrance into the Rockabilly subculture: “I had found a subculture of people who mostly turned away from the horrors of contemporary American culture to focus on family, friends, music, and culture. I was hooked, jealous, and fascinated all at the same time.” Greenburg’s photographs evoke the same feelings, making it a collection of photographs and essays that is hard to put down.

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