Samuel Charters

Samuel Charters
Sam Charters playing the jug

Samuel Charters (August 1, 1929 – March 18, 2015) was an American music historian, writer, record producer, musician, and poet. He was a widely published author on the subjects of blues and jazz music, as well as a writer of fiction.

Sam Charters was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into an upper-middle-class family that was interested in listening to and playing music of all sorts. "I grew up in a world of band rehearsals, blues records, and a whole consciousness of jazz . . . The family also played ragtime, also played Debussy, also was involved in hearing Bartok's new music. It was a general musical cultural interest in which jazz was central."(Ismail, 2011, p. 232) Charters first became enamored of blues music in 1937, after hearing Bessie Smith's version of Jimmy Cox's song, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (Charters 2004). He moved with his family to Sacramento, California at the age of 15. Charters says that he was "playing clarinet, playing jazz steadily all this time; I had my first orchestra when I was thirteen . . . I had no natural abilities, but I soldiered on, and it was this that directly lead [sic] me to the beginning of the research." (Ismail, 2011, p. 232) Charters attended high schools in Pittsburgh and California and attended Sacramento City College, graduating in 1949. After completing military service during the Korean War, he received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956.

In the 1940s and 1950s, though he was mostly immersed in studying and playing jazz, Charters also purchased numerous old recordings of American blues musicians, eventually amassing a huge and valuable collection and beginning to understand that blues and jazz were connected in the history of black music. In 1951, at the age of 21, he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he absorbed the history and culture he had previously only read about; he lived there for most of the 1950s, moving back and forth between Berkeley and New Orleans. He served for two years in the United States Army (1951–53) and began to study jazz clarinet with George Lewis.

Charters was always interested in politics and had wished to play a role in public life, but because he had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee while in the Army in 1952, he decided that he would have to engage in politics without holding any sort of office. "For me, the writing about black music was my way of fighting racism. That's why my work is not academic, that is why it is absolutely nothing but popularization: I wanted people to hear black music, as I said in The Poetry of the Blues . . . It's where I say, you know, if 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 -- and that's why my work is unashamedly romantic." (Ismail, 2011, pp. 251–52) Charters always thought of blues as containing within it a small and pure strain of folk poetry, something that ran through the lyrics of early artists such as Charley Patton or Blind Willie McTell, but which was lost in the later, more commercialized, blues. "I really got bored with all those damn guitar solos. To me, they all sounded like B.B. King, and what I really wanted to hear was great text . . ." The poetry of the blues, then, Charters thought of as profound human cultural expression that could connect all people who love poetry. (Ismail, 2011, p. 258)

Charters had for years been doing research into the history of jazz, but in the 1950s he also began to study the blues. Noticing that his copy of the bluesman Robert Johnson's recordings were recorded in San Antonio, Charters set out for Texas in 1953 to discover what he could about Robert Johnson, but also about another favorite musician, Blind Willie Johnson. For Charters and his wife, Ann Charters, the search for Robert Johnson began years of doing field recordings (initially for Folkways Records throughout the United States, and then in the Bahamas in 1958 where he made the first recordings of Joseph Spence). Their 1959 recordings of the Texas bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins proved instrumental to Hopkins' rediscovery. Also in 1959, Charters published his very influential book The Country Blues, the first history of blues and an absorbing account of his search for the bluesmen themselves, as well as issuing the companion album to accompany it.

During the years of field work in the 1950s that lead to the publication of The Country Blues, Charters always felt overwhelmed with the amount of work required to properly document the music of black Americans and hoped that his writing would encourage others to join him. "I always had the feeling that there were so few of us, and the work so vast. That's why I wrote the books as I did -- to romanticize the glamor 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 that year in Europe and I found kids doing research in the South . . . They almost all came to me at some point, they wrote me a letter saying this is what I'm doing." (Ismail, 2011, p. 259)

Charters' writings have been influential, bringing to light aspects of African American music and culture that had previously been largely unknown to the general public, as well as publishing poetry and novels. His writings include numerous books on the subjects of blues, jazz, African music, and Bahamian music, as well as liner notes for numerous sound recordings.

J.D. Short
J.D. Short in The Poetry of the Blues

From 1966 to 1970 he worked as a producer for the psychedelic, anti-war band Country Joe and the Fish (all albums except CJ Fish in 1970). He was also affiliated with the European Sonet Records label and in 1970 produced Rock Around the Country, an album by Bill Haley & His Comets, for Sonet.

He became thoroughly disenchanted with American politics during the Vietnam War and moved with his family to Sweden, establishing a new life there despite not being able to speak the language at first. He divides his time between Sweden (where he has Swedish citizenship, though maintaining his U.S. citizenship) and Connecticut. He has translated into English the works of the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer and helped produce the music of various Swedish musical groups.

Charters' first marriage, at the age of 20, ended in divorce. In 1959, Charters married the writer, editor, Beat generation scholar, photographer, and pianist Ann Charters (b. 1936), whom he met at the University of California, Berkeley during the 1954-55 academic year in a music class; she is a retired professor of English and American literature at the University of Connecticut. The two have collaborated on many projects, particularly their extensive field recording work. He had three children: the eldest, Samuel Charters (V) was the product of his first marriage, and is a marine architect living in New Orleans. The other two, Nora Charters and Mallay Occhiogrosso, reside in New York City. Nora, born in 1973, is a photographer, and Mallay, born in 1967, is a psychiatrist on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College.

Charters was a Grammy Award winner and his book The Country Blues was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991 as one of the "Classics of Blues Literature." In 2000, Charters and his wife donated the 'Samuel & Ann Charters Archive of Blues and Vernacular African American Musical Culture' to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. The archive contains materials collected during the couple's decades of work documenting and preserving African American music throughout the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. The archive's materials include more than 2,500 sound recordings, as well as video recordings, photographs, monographs, sheet music, field notes, correspondence, musicians' contracts, and correspondence.

In 2008, Charters published, A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz. In 2014, he published a short work of fiction which he described as "a fable": The Harry Bright Dances.

Charters died at his home in Arsta, Sweden on March 18, 2015 of myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of bone marrow cancer.