American music historian, author and musician Samuel Charters passed away on March 18th. Known for his field recordings of influential blues musicians, many of the works Charters uncovered went on to inspire and shape much of today’s musical landscape.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Charters developed a connection with jazz and blues music early on. He grew up playing and listening to a wide array of music from a multitude of genres and sources, including classical and jazz, moving to Sacramento, California, as a teen, eventually serving in the Korean War.
In his early adult life, Charters immersed himself in jazz, learning to play various instruments including banjo and jug. Along with his studies of American blues, he realized that Black music in America was part of a larger-spanning tradition of Black culture, that was being widely ignored by music academics of the time. He moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, at age 21 and began to collecting and recording music, with the intention of introducing the songs and poetry to the masses.
The House Un-American Activities Committee censored Charters in 1952, effectively ending his long-held political ambitions, forcing him to focus himself entirely on collecting black music from around the country and beyond. He moved to San Antonio, Texas, after wishing to discover more about blues legend Robert Johnson. In the process he began his foray into compiling field recordings for record labels such as Folkways and Vanguard, which led to a major growth in popularity for blues musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White and Bahamian artist Joseph Spence.
Compiling years’-worth of recordings and studies, he published The Country Blues, his first book, which is also notable for his glamorizing of the field-recorder’s lifestyle. It helped ignite the folk music revival of the ’60s, and caught the eye of a burgeoning Bob Dylan. The book was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991, and is considered a quintessential piece of American literature.
For years he continued his field recording work, but also had successful ventures helping produce albums by the 1960s folk-rock group Country Joe and the Fish as well as New York City folk artist Dave Van Ronk. He married writer, editor and pianist Ann Charters and began to write more books, including Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, The Poetry of the Blues, Jazz New Orleans and several more, to wide acclaim. In the ’70s, he moved his family to Sweden, and became an official citizen of the country. He continued to write about Blues and Jazz music for the remainder of his life.
Charters passed in his home on March 18th 2015 after a battle with cancer. He was 85.