Archive for the ‘Sam Charters’ Category

A Language of Song

June 27, 2015


A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora, b (Duke University Press):

In A Language of Song, Samuel Charters—one of the pioneering collectors of African American music—writes of a trip to West Africa where he found “a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression [he] encountered everywhere . . . from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana and the great churches of Harlem.”

In this book, Charters takes readers along to those and other places, including Jamaica and the Georgia Sea Islands, as he recounts experiences from a half-century spent following, documenting, recording, and writing about the Africa-influenced music of the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Each of the book’s fourteen chapters is a vivid rendering of a particular location that Charters visited. While music is always his focus, the book is filled with details about individuals, history, landscape, and culture. In first-person narratives, Charters relates voyages including a trip to the St. Louis home of the legendary ragtime composer Scott Joplin and the journey to West Africa, where he met a man who performed an hours-long song about the Europeans’ first colonial conquests in Gambia.

Throughout the book, Charters traces the persistence of African musical culture despite slavery, as well as the influence of slaves’ songs on subsequent musical forms. In evocative prose, he relates a lifetime of travel and research, listening to brass bands in New Orleans; investigating the emergence of reggae, ska, and rock-steady music in Jamaica’s dancehalls; and exploring the history of Afro-Cuban music through the life of the jazz musician Bebo Valdés. A Language of Song is a unique expedition led by one of music’s most observant and well-traveled explorers.

Sam Charters: 1929-2015

March 22, 2015

edited from

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.”

“Ragtime 2: The Country”

April 10, 2013


from notes to “Ragtime 2: The Country” (Folkways RBF 18) by Samuel Charters:

Country ragtime in the 1920’s and 1930’s has some of the feel of an old farm house that was on the land for years, then was added-to and redone, until finally it wasn’t quite the old house any more – but it wasn’t quite a new house, either. It has some of the look of the old house and some of the look of the new house, and in some places it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

Ragtime seems to have been once a kind of style of playing that went on in the black slave cabins and the isolated country towns of the South. It had the melodic structure and the kind of harmonic patterns that characterized European dancing and march music, but it was different from it both in rhythm and scale.

Instead of the simple four beat or dotted accent of the European jigs and reels the ragtime melody was more subtly syncopated, perhaps as a reflection of some earlier time when African drums were still played surreptitiously along with the banjos and the violins.

The more complex, multi-layered, texture of African drumming could lead to a free-flowing sense of melody, which was more strictured in the European context. And some of the same scale patterns that characterize the blues also turn up in early ragtime – the ambiguous major-minor resolutions of James Scott’s rags, and the gapped scales in some of the strains of the early St. Louis rags.

“Lindy”  played by the Proximity String Quartet (from “Ragtime 2: The Country”):

The Day Is So Long and The Wages So Small

February 22, 2013


from and

The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small by Samuel Charters (Marion Boyars Publishers)

The quest to record and preserve the last vestiges of a fast-disappearing musical culture is vividly rendered in this account of a summer on the Bahamian island of Andros. In 1958, when Charters and his future wife, Ann Danberg, then in their early 20s, made their trek to the island, Andros was a barren, swamp-ridden backwater, with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, almost all descendants of Bahamian slaves.

A budding music historian, Charters (author of “The Roots of the Blues”) had discovered a series of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of Andros folk songs from the late 1930s, and was so intrigued by the music–a fusion of 18th-century anthems and African polyphony–that he decided to seek out the musicians and their songs.

The Charters’ “discovery” of Joseph Spence was both fortuitous and coincidental. Sailing from settlement to settlement along the coast on small, locally made fishing sloops, they hoped to find and record traditional Bahamian music that had not been influenced by either tourism or the popular calypso music of neighboring Trinidad.

Lugging a heavy, suitcase-sized tape recorder, and traveling on the tightest of budgets, he and Danberg finally made it to the tiny settlement of Fresh Creek. On the porch of their mosquito and crab-infested house there, they recorded the guitar music of Joseph Spence and the ballads and rhyming songs of John Roberts.

“When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it. One of the few times it ever happened to me was in our first few weeks in the Fresh Creek Settlement on Andros. We went out one day about noon…. Some men were working on the foundation of a new house, and as we came close to them we could hear guitar music. It was some of the most exuberant, spontaneous, and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard, but all we could see was a man in a faded shirt and rumpled khaki trousers sitting on a pile of bricks. I was so sure two guitarists were playing that I went along the path to look on the other side of the wall to see where the other man was sitting. We had just met Joseph Spence.”

Still, they were assured that their project wouldn’t be complete until they had heard the voice of the legendary singer, Frederick McQueen. Charters’s final chapters document their search for the elusive musician; he concludes with a rousing outdoor performance by McQueen. The elegiac, leisurely pace of this slim memoir evokes the moods and rhythms of a long-distant island summer.

Samuel and Ann Charters Archive at UConn

February 16, 2013


For nearly the last 50 years, Samuel Charters has been discovering and documenting African American music. Starting as a field recorder for Folkways Records in 1954, Sam Charters has also served as recording director for Prestige and Vanguard Records, producer for Sonet Records and is the owner of Gazell Records. A prolific writer and poet, Charters has published many books about the blues and accounts of the lives of musicians who played the blues. In the field, he often collaborated with his wife Ann, who is a writer, literary scholar, photographer and pianist in her own right.

Their quest to document African American music has taken them to St. Louis, Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, the Caribbean and as far as Africa. In these places, the Charters have tried to record music that they believed was going to be lost. Their efforts to preserve and share the songs that they heard on their travels have culminated in a working archive that provides researchers with a complete experience of African American vernacular music.

The Archives at UConn contain sound recordings of a full range of African American music from African, gospel and the blues in all its forms, to Cajun and zydeco, early New Orleans jazz and more recent jazz, ragtime, Caribbean, reggae and rap and hip hop music. Original research materials include field notes, musician’s contracts, studio session listings and photographs, as well as engagement diaries and interview notes. A host of reference sources including monographs, sheet music, film and video recordings on African American music are also available for research use.