Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
Thirty Years of Music History Through the Lens of Burton Wilson
Photographer Burton Wilson doesn't take pictures anymore.
"People accuse me of being lazy," he says, "but no, I'm old!"
At the age of 82, you'd think people would give him a break, but no, he says, they just keep pointing out how simple it is to operate today's automatic cameras. Any professional photographer could put up a scrap on that topic, but let's just assume the reason why people keep pushing Burton Wilson to pick up a camera is because they've seen the incredible things he's done with one before. Like, say, any number of images from his new book, The Austin Music Scene, 1965-1994, Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, published locally by Eakin Press.
His third collection of photos immortalizing the Austin music scene starting in the late Sixties, Through the Lens of Burton Wilson not only documents the roots of the local scene with images of seminal acts like Conqueroo, Rusty Wier's Lavender Hill Express, Shiva's Headband, Kracker Jack, and the Storm, featuring Jimmie Vaughan, Doyle Bramhall, and Paul Ray, it also captures Central Texas stopovers by a Hall of Fame-type list of music industry legends: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Fats Domino, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more. Given that the two volumes of Burton's Book of the Blues, both self-published in the Seventies, are long out of print, Through the Lens of Burton Wilson stands as the longtime local's definitive archive of a time now largely relegated to mythology.
Born in Vermont, Wilson attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he met his wife, with whom he still resides, and later moved to Dallas. After doing time in the United States Army during WWII (infantry; stationed in Italy), he returned to Texas, but skipped over Dallas in favor of Austin, because the former was "too big." In the Sixties, he went back to school, taking photography classes at UT under Depression-era photo-documentarian and flash photography pioneer Russell Lee ("You don't get a chance like that every day!"), and later all but backed into the music scene.
"I was interested in the blues, and the Vulcan Gas Company was bringing in people like Lightnin' Hopkins," explains Wilson, whose son had introduced him to the Vulcan gang. "So I took pictures of them."
His shots at the Vulcan and later Eddie Wilson's famed Armadillo World Headquarters capture the sweat and spirit of the live music havens, both on- and offstage, the images of those instants clearer and more intense today than any memory of those nights could be -- still ready to be shared with anyone who wasn't there but cares to look.
As with all the arts, Austin claims its share of expert photographers, like Martha Grenon, Alan Pogue, and Ken Hoge, for example, all of who captured something special with a little black box and a flash of light. Burton Wilson was there first, however, before the others thought to peer into those dimly lit halls where the blues were sung, where light gleamed off shiny electric guitars, where youth gathered and reveled in the essence of rock & roll. No, Burton isn't lazy, though he is indeed old. He might not pick up the camera much anymore, but even if his works have earned him the right to retire, he's still busy, busy, busy with his art.
"I'm up to my elbows in the book right now," he says of Through the Lens, a mere sample of which can be seen on the upcoming pages. Besides, it's enough of an effort just getting around the Austin of 2001 for a man who remembers the days when it was a cozy, friendly little town of a few thousand of people. "It's frightfully different now," he sighs. "The traffic is appalling."
Still, he and his wife have their nice, inviting house on 34th Street to come home to, with lovely old wooden furnishings, and once inside, it's as though the years since the Vulcan closed its doors never happened. And while many people can only wish others could see the world through their eyes, that's not a problem for Burton Wilson. All one has to do to see through his eyes is to pick up a copy of Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, and take a nice, long, relaxing look at what he's seen.
Burton Wilson will be signing copies of The Austin Music Scene, 1964-1994, Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, at Waterloo Records, Saturday, May 26, 2-4pm; at Wild About Music, June 22, 6-8pm; Barnes & Noble, June 23, 2-4pm; and at BookPeople, July 25, time TBA.