Samuel Charters, whose books and field research helped detonate the blues and folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s, died on Wednesday at his home in Arsta, Sweden. He was 85.
When Mr. Charters’s first book, “The Country Blues,” was published at the tail end of the 1950s, the rural Southern blues of the pre-World War II period was a largely ignored genre. But the book caused a sensation among college students and aspiring folk performers, like Bob Dylan, and it created a tradition of blues scholarship to which Mr. Charters would continue to contribute with books like “The Roots of the Blues” and “The Legacy of the Blues.”
Released in tandem with “The Country Blues,” which remains in print, was an album of the same name containing 14 songs, little known and almost impossible to find at the time, recorded in the 1920s and ’30s by artists like Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White.
Equally important, the aura of mystery Mr. Charters created around his subjects — where had they disappeared to? were they even alive? — encouraged readers to go out into the field themselves. John Fahey, Alan Wilson, Henry Vestine, Dick Waterman and other disciples tracked down vanished performers like Mr. White, Mr. Estes, Skip James and Son House, and their careers were revived. Their song catalogs were soon injected into folk and pop music.
“I always had the feeling that there were so few of us, and the work so vast,” Mr. Charters told Matthew Ismail, the author of the 2011 book “Blues Discovery.” “That’s why I wrote the books as I did, to romanticize the glamour of looking for old blues singers. I was saying: ‘Help! This job is really big, and I really need lots of help!’ I really exaggerated this, but it worked. My God, I came back from a year in Europe and I found kids doing research in the South.”
Mr. Charters had himself succumbed to the lure of field work. In 1958 he went to the Bahamas to record the guitarist Joseph Spence (who would influence the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal and others), and a year later he helped revive the career of the Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins. He pursued overlooked music and artists on four continents for the next 50 years.
Mr. Charters had long been involved in the civil rights movement and left-wing causes, and the Vietnam War infuriated him. He moved to Sweden with his family in 1970 and acquired Swedish citizenship. For many years he shuttled between Arsta, a suburb of Stockholm, and Storrs, where his wife, who survives him, taught American literature at the University of Connecticut.
Mr. Charters wrote about jazz and blues until the end of his life. His book “A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora,” a series of essays on the evolution of music in places like the Caribbean, Brazil and the Georgia Sea Islands, was published in 2009.
Two other books, “Songs of Sorrow,” a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, who in the mid-19th century compiled the first book of American slave songs, and “The Harry Bright Dances,” a novel about roots music set in Oklahoma, are scheduled for publication next month.
“For me, the writing about black music was my way of fighting racism,” Mr. Charters said in his interview with Mr. Ismail. “That’s why my work is not academic, that is why it is absolutely nothing but popularization: I wanted people to hear black music.”