Wednesday, 10 June 2015


My obituary of Sam Charters, historian of the blues, novelist, record producer, civil rights worker, and man of letters, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can read it in the paper paper or link to it here. It is pretty much as written, but because the paper had a four-obit day, it was cut for space, and mostly in the traditional way of trimming from the bottom few inches. What was lost was mostly the catalogue of Sam's later work, but also some bits about him and his wife Ann which I found interesting, and the best quotes, so what I've posted here is my original copy...

Samuel Charters, who has died aged 85, was a music historian and producer hugely influential in the revival of the blues, and the promotion of the vast range of music generated by the African diaspora. His 1959 book, The Country Blues, and the companion record he produced, turned a spotlight on performers like Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White, moving beyond earlier field recordings by Alan Lomax, or Harry Smith's famed Smithsonian anthologies of American folk music. The historian Saul Wilentz called it 'a touchstone at once captivating and mysterious'. Almost immediately, folk musicians like Bob Dylan were covering songs from The Country Blues. Then, when Charters in 1965 produced for Vanguard records the three-LP set Chicago: The Blues Today, its barewire electric blues by the likes of Johnny Shines, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy was imitated by dozens of rock n roll bands.

Charters' approach to the blues was at heart literary. He once explained he 'got bored with all those damn guitar solos, all sounding like BB King. What I really wanted to hear was great text.' He was hearing the depths of the story of black people in America, and his pursuit of what he heard took him to four continents, and the magnificent study/memoir Roots Of The Blues: An African Search (1981).

He was drawn to the blues at a young age. Samuel Barclay Charters IV was born 1 August 1929 in Pittsburgh, where his family played and listened to an eclectic mix of jazz and modern classical music. He was eight when he was captivated by Bessie Smith singing 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out'. Playing clarinet, he had his first jazz band when he was 13. When he was 15 the family moved to Sacramento California; he finished junior college there, and served in the army. Meanwhile he was collecting records and making the connections between jazz and the blues. After the break-up of a short-lived marriage, in 1951 he moved to New Orleans, immersing himself in jazz while chasing the history of blues legends like Johnson while field recording traditional bluesmen he found on his travels.

He also earned a degree in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he met Ann Danberg, a literature student who became his partner in research and writing, and in 1959 his wife. In 1958 they traveled to the Bahamian island of Andros to record the guitarist Joseph Spence; the trip would be the basis of his moving memoir The Day Is So Long And The Wages So Small (1999).

Moving to New York, Charters was central to the Greenwich Village scene. He played in jug bands with Dave Van Ronk and Danny Kalb, who co-founded the Blues Project band, and published a remarkable series of blues books, intended, he said, to draw more people into the field where huge amounts of research remained to be done. He worked on jazz and blues for Prestige records and back in California produced the rock band Country Joe And The Fish, as their music moved from bluesy folk to psychedelic protest.

Ann Charters became a leading scholar of the Beat movement, whose affinities with jazz were obvious; she wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac and an influential early study of Charles Olson. Their shared interests were reflected when she provided the photos for Sam's 1963 book, The Poetry Of The Blues and when Sam edited an important early anthology of modern American 'underground' poetry: Some Poems-Poets (1971). Their writing collaborations included the textbook Literature And Its Writers, and I Love (1979), a joint biography of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and the famed modernist muse Lili Brik. In 2010 they published Brother-Souls, another joint biography, this one of Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes; Charters was hospitalised twice by stress during the writing. He said, 'you are really on edge; you are always exposed when you are writing.'

Both Charters were involved in the Civil Rights movement and became early opponents of the Vietnam war; Sam had put Junior Wells' 'Vietcong Blues' on that 1965 Chicago record. In 1970, they moved to Sweden, where he produced for Sonet Records, eventually splitting time between Stockholm and the University of Connecticut, where Ann taught. He was an early translator of the 2011 Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer's poetry, including his seminal collection Baltics (1974).

His fiction, encouraged by the London publisher Marion Boyars, often drew on music. Jelly Roll Morton's Last Night At The Jungle Inn (1984) was an imaginary memoir, while Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show (1992) is an almost Kerouac-like monologue. Lousiana Black (1986) is a moving story of a man who is radicalised after seeing a photo of his own father being lynched. Charters' essays are collected in A Language Of Song and Walking A Blues Road; a selected poems, What Paths What Journeys was published earlier this year. Songs Of Sorrows, a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, who collected the first book of slave songs, will be published in April 2015. 'My work is about fighting racism,' he once said. '.. by introducing music I can have somebody look across the racial divide and see a black face and see this person as a human being...that's why my work is unashamedly romantic.'

Charters died 18 March 2015 in Arsta, Sweden, from bone-marrow cancer. He is survived by Ann, their two daughters, and his son Samuel Barclay V by his first marriage.

1 comment :

5Thingsseenandheard said...

Dear Michael

As an old friend of Sam’s I just wanted to say thanks for posting your uncut version of an excellent obit.

Best, Martin Colyer