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Samuel Charters, Foundational Scholar of the Blues, Dies at 85 – NYTimes.com

Samuel Charters, Foundational Scholar of the Blues, Dies at 85 – NYTimes.com


Sam Charters, shown in 1963, was a jug player at the Vanguard. CreditAnn Charters 

Samuel Charters, whose books and field research helped detonate the blues and folk music revival of the 1960s and 1970s, died on Wednesday at his home in Arsta, Sweden. He was 85.

The cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of bone marrow cancer, his daughter Mallay Occhiogrosso said.

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. His book immediately caused a sensation among college students and aspiring folk performers, like Bob Dylan, who would later become pop stars — a small but ultimately influential group. The book, which remains in print to this day, 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.”

“In retrospect, we can mark the publication of ‘The Country Blues’ in the fall of 1959 as a signal event in the history of the music,” the music historian Ted Gioia wrote in his book “The Delta Blues” (2008). As “the first extended history of traditional blues music,” Mr. Gioia said, it was “a moment of recognition and legitimation, but even more of proselytization, introducing a whole generation to the neglected riches of an art form.”

Released in tandem with “The Country Blues” 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 1930s by artists like Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell and Bukka White. Mr. Dylan’s first album, recorded in 1961, included a version of Mr. White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” and within a decade other songs by the singers and guitarists Mr. Charters had highlighted were staples in the repertoires of blues and rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Canned Heat, Cream and the Rolling Stones.

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. Over the next five years, John Fahey, Alan Wilson, Henry Vestine, Dick Waterman and other disciples tracked down vanished names like Mr. White, Mr. Estes, Skip James and Son House, whose careers were thus revived and whose song catalogs were 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.”


"The Country Blues," edited by Samuel B. Charters.CreditRFF Records 

Mr. Charters had himself earlier succumbed to the lure of field work, and he would continue to travel on four continents in pursuit of overlooked music and artists for the next 50 years. In 1958, he had gone 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.

Throughout the 1960s, as the audience for the blues expanded exponentially, Mr. Charters continued to write about the music and to produce blues-based records for Folkways, Prestige, Vanguard and other labels. “The Poetry of the Blues,” with evocative photographs by his wife, Ann Charters, was published in 1963, and “The Bluesmen” appeared in 1967; during that same period he also wrote two books about jazz, “Jazz New Orleans” and, with Leonard Kunstadt, “Jazz: A History of the New York Scene.”

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Charters had broadened his focus to include contemporary electric blues, producing an influential three-record anthology of new recordings called “Chicago: The Blues Today!” Songs from that collection, as well as from albums Mr. Charters produced for Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite, were soon covered by rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf and remained rock standards through the decades that followed.

Samuel Barclay Charters IV was born into comfortable circumstances in Pittsburgh on Aug. 1, 1929, and grew up there and in Sacramento, Calif. In autobiographical writings and interviews, he would recall a childhood immersed in jazz and classical music. He dated his interest in the blues to first hearing Bessie Smith’s recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” when he was about 8 years old.

After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he spent time in New Orleans, where he played clarinet, banjo and washboard in bands and studied with the jazz clarinetist George Lewis while also researching that city’s rich musical history. He then went back to California, where he earned a degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to the field.

After the initial impact of “The Country Blues,” which would be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, Mr. Charters resumed performing music, more for the sheer fun of it than as a livelihood. He played with Dave Van Ronk in the Ragtime Jug Stompers and then formed a duo called the New Strangers with the guitarist Danny Kalb, later of the Blues Project.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Charters had also been drawn to the psychedelic music emerging in the San Francisco area. He produced the first four albums by Country Joe & the Fish, including the satirical “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” one of the best-known protest songs of the Vietnam War era.

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 later acquired Swedish citizenship, eventually settling into a pattern of shuttling between Stockholm and Storrs, where his wife, now retired, taught American literature for many years at the University of Connecticut.

After leaving the United States, Mr. Charters published several collections of poetry, including “Things to Do Around Piccadilly” and “What Paths, What Journeys,” and wrote novels, among them “Louisiana Black” and “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show.” He also translated works from Swedish by authors including the poet Tomas Transtromer, who in 2011 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and wrote a book in Swedish, “Spelmannen,” about Swedish fiddlers.

In addition, Mr. Charters wrote two books with his wife, an expert on the literature of the Beat Generation as well as a pianist and photographer: a biography of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and “Brother Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation.”

He also continued to write extensively 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.

Besides his wife and his daughter, a psychiatrist, Mr. Charters is survived by a son from an earlier marriage, Samuel, a naval architect, and another daughter, Nora Charters, a photographer. Beginning in 2000, Mr. and Mrs. Charters donated much of their vast collection of recordings, sheet music, books, photographs and other documents to the University of Connecticut.

“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.”




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