Fresh Air Remembers Blues And Jazz Historian Samuel Charters
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Samuel Charters, the blues and jazz historian who helped ignite the blues revival of the 1950s and '60s, died of cancer Wednesday at age 85. He was a white Northerner who as a young man became fascinated by Southern black music. During most of the '50s he was based in Louisiana and traveled around the South making field recordings of forgotten and previously undiscovered performers. He's produced hundreds of albums of blues, Cajun and Southern folk music, mostly for Folkways Records. In the mid-to-late '60s, he worked as head of artists and repertoire at Vanguard Records. For many years, Charters lived in Sweden. Charters also was the author of two influential books about the blues, books that informed and inspired Bob Dylan and many others. Terry Gross spoke to Samuel Charters in 1987 and asked how he was first introduced to blues and jazz.
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SAMUEL CHARTERS: I'm one of those people who grew up in a family that had discovered jazz in the mid-'20s. My father and my uncles had played in an amateur high school band. And in 1926, they were playing at a little lake in Michigan, playing arrangements of dance songs of the period. And someone said to them, well, you guys are OK, but you should hear the band at the next lake. So they went up to the next lake, and there was the Hoagy Carmichael Band...
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
CHARTERS: ...Playing jazz.
CHARTERS: And my family, to this day, has not recovered from it. And they instantly became jazz musicians and so, I just grew up with all of this. One of my aunts married a trumpet player who'd come out of Electra, Texas with the whole Ray McKinley and that group. So people would check in the house. Teagarden would be there, hanging up on the clothes hanger because he was too drunk to stand up, and there were band rehearsals going on. And my uncles would disappear and they would go off and, it turned out, they'd hitch-hiked to New York to see who the latest trumpet player was in the Duke Ellington band. And I assumed everybody lived this way. At the same time, they were deeply involved in Bela Bartok's music and they were deeply involved in theater. And there was just all of this going on. My uncles, when they were trying to court a girl, would play Bessie Smith records for them, which didn't go over very well - but they certainly went over very well with me. And it wasn't until I was really in my late teens that I discovered that what I'd had as a background was really very, very unusual.
GROSS: Well, you spent your life in search of music. In the 1950s, you moved from the North to the South, based yourself in Louisiana and started making field recordings of Southern blues musicians and singers. Why did you want to go specifically to the South and why were you interested in blues? It was jazz that you were brought up on.
CHARTERS: That's right. And absolutely if you were interested in jazz at that time, New Orleans was the city to go because it was still alive. I began playing clarinet with my own jazz band when I was 13 - and really wasn't very good - and was looking for models, and I always was very determined. If I wanted to do something, I did it. So I went to New Orleans as a teenager and looked up a man there named George Lewis. And George, for $5, would let me sit in the kitchen with him and we'd play two clarinet duets for hours. And we'd play a tune like "High Society" and I'd play the melody and George would show me 30 ways to play the chorus. And I'd read every word that you could read about jazz as I'd grown up and I thought I knew a lot. And then one day I met George on the street in the French Quarter. He was with Jim Robinson, a wonderful trombone player - George and Jim, and they were all dressed up. And I said where have they been? They'd been to a funeral. Who had died? A trumpet player. He said, wonderful trumpet player - Big Ben, a trumpet player from the '20s. I'd never heard of him and I'd read every word on jazz that had ever been published. So that night when I went to see George before the jump - he always rested, so he was lying in his bed resting - and I sat at the foot of the bed and he began telling me about all the history of jazz that we'd never known anything about. And suddenly I realized that this is what I was going to try to find out about. So for the next seven years I lived in New Orleans, on and off traveling at the same time, interviewing all the musicians - the black musicians, who'd ever played there.
GROSS: Did you have specific musicians you were going in search of, maybe musicians whose record you had on 78 RPMs and who'd never been heard of for the past 30 years?
CHARTERS: Well, the ones I was looking for hadn't even been recorded, most of them. In New Orleans it was all legends. You knew that there was someone Louis Armstrong had learned from and you'd heard Louis, but who was the one he learned from? Buddy Petit, and Buddy Petit had never made a record. So it became a wonderful, intense search for ghosts, looking for men who'd died many years before, trying to catch an echo of what their music must've been like. I tried to find every living member of the first jazz band - the Buddy Bolden Band - trying to get them to hum me their trombone parts, hum me the part that the guitar player plays, trying desperately to get to something that was lost, something that was lost forever but we still had a chance to catch a glimpse of it, get some little memories of it somehow or other.
GROSS: What kind of equipment would you take with you when you were going to record somebody performing?
CHARTERS: (Laughter). Well, when I first started recording - and this is marvelous, it becomes sort of like the history of early photography. People don't realize the struggles we had. The early machines in the late '40s, which I couldn't afford, were simply wind-ups which had a heavy fly wheel and always ran down. And then you could possibly get a new thing called a wire recorder, but they got all tangled up and had very low fidelity. And then you can get tape recorders, which was brand-new. So I bought my first tape recorder in 1953, one of the very first cheap models - had a little green eye that blinked at me. And the eye closed when I played things too loudly on it. (Laughter). And it must have weighed - sometimes I thought it weighed several hundred pounds, but I carried the [expletive] thing for five or six years and I did 35, 40 great records with it. I had a microphone that I stuck with me and I hitch-hiked around with that [expletive] thing. And it wasn't until finally I went to Africa in '74 that I was able to take a really good battery-operated stereo tape recorder with me.
GROSS: While you were traveling around the rural South, did you always have electricity to plug the tape machine into?
CHARTERS: (Laughter). In 1954, I'd heard of a group called the Mobile Strugglers, which was one of the last real genuine skiffle bands in the South, playing with wash boards and washtub bass and everything. So I went over, and I was very inexperienced, but I had my tape recorder and I managed to get the washtub bass player out of jail - where he'd gone from drunk and disorderly - and managed to track the guys down. We were in a little shack neighborhood outside of Mobile, back in the - sort of the woods. And I was looking for someplace to plug in my tape recorder because I had to plug it in, and the fella said well, there's a house right there, I know those people, go in there. So I went in and of course plugged in and everything, and I used the people's ironing board for the microphone stand. Of course, they didn't know anybody lived there. We'd simply broken into somebody's house. And the people came in later that afternoon, and here was this recording session going on with the tape recorder, and by that point we'd managed to find some beer. I was incredibly embarrassed, but they were very, very kind about it. They understood - danced along with the playbacks. We had a great afternoon. (Laughter).
GROSS: What kind of leads did you pick up on to find the musicians who you were interested in? How would you find out where they were? You had to be, like, a detective.
CHARTERS: Well, I felt sometimes more like someone - an insurance tracer or a skip claim tracer. You know, I felt I was doing something like that. You'd try to find somebody who'd last been seen in a little town outside of New Orleans in 1924, and you could usually find them. You just - you had to be patient.
GROSS: You've also discovered musicians who no one, aside from local people, knew about before.
CHARTERS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: One of them was Lightnin' Hopkins...
CHARTERS: That's right.
GROSS: ...Who's very familiar, I think, to people who listen to blues now. How did you first hear about him?
CHARTERS: Well, it was impossible to not hear the blues as a jazz musician, even though we tried to keep the two separate. As early as the late '40s, the jazz groups I was playing with, we had one or two blues records that we would listen to even though we knew nothing about it - nothing. And I heard over the radio - of course, I was part of the black community in the early '50s, and the radios were on, and I'd hear Lightnin' Hopkins who was a figure somewhere out of Texas, who was making some records for a funny little record company called Gold Star, which then went out of business, Lightnin' disappeared. But I always ate in a same sort of run-down restaurant in the French Quarter and turned out that I was talking one day about Lightnin' Hopkins, and the cook said, that's my cousin. And he at least directed me to Houston. And then once I got in the Houston ghetto, after about three days of asking around, found his sister, who didn't know anything. Found a place where his guitar was on pawn, they didn't know anything. And finally, I was sitting in my car at a street corner and a car pulled up beside me and a man rolled down the window and said, you looking for me? And I said, you're Lightnin? That's right. So I rented a guitar for him, got a bottle of gin, we went back to the little shabby room where he was living, and we made his first LP.
GROSS: What was it like?
CHARTERS: It was marvelous. I'd never heard anything quite like it in my life. Lightnin' went on and did hundreds of records, some of them losing the intensity, but - for me, this was the first time he'd had a chance to stretch out without time limits, to simply do a range of songs so he could - he wasn't having to worry about starting on time, stopping on time. I was sitting there with the microphone right in front of him and so he could simply be free. And he'd gone - he'd always been working with an electrical guitar and I rented him an acoustic. So he was playing with music that was - he was hearing himself in a marvelous way. And for me, I'd come closer, I think, to the genesis of the blues than I'd ever come before because Lightnin' was such an extraordinary artist.
GROSS: How old was he at this time?
CHARTERS: Lightnin' would've been in his - I think would've been 49. Born in 1910, I believe.
GROSS: Now, we have a recording standing by of Lightnin' Hopkins. Is this from that first session that you recorded?
CHARTERS: That's right, this is from - the first song he did, "Penitentiary Blues," where he took the old work song about - ain't no more cane in this Brazos, and turned it into a blues song.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PENITENTIARY BLUES")
LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS: (Singing). Penitentiary Blues. Big Brazos, here I come. Lord, have mercy. Big Brazos, here I come. You know, I'm going to do time for another man when there haven't been a thing poor Lightnin' done. They say you ought to be on Brazos 19 and 10. Bud Russell drove pretty women just like he did ugly men. Big Brazos, oh Lord yes, here I come. Thinking to do time for another man and ain't nothing poor Lightnin' done. Well, you ought to be 'shamed.
GROSS: Lightin' Hopkins, recorded in 1959. I guess when you were recording this session with Lightnin' Hopkins that you weren't disappointed.
CHARTERS: I couldn't believe it, absolutely couldn't believe it because I had, in all these years been looking for the beginnings, been looking for the roots, which meant I was always working with older musicians. And quite often, even when they were playing for me, I was only getting a memory of what they had played like when they were young. And this was the first time I'd met someone really just at the height of his creative powers, that someone who had the imagination, had the flow and the vitality.
GROSS: Did this record change his life?
CHARTERS: It absolutely did. It - he was, you know, completely flabbergasted by the whole thing. Here's this person just showing up, handing him a guitar, giving him $200 and disappearing. And it appeared on a number of best records lists. It got rave reviews. In fact, the whole spectrum - jazz, folklorists, everybody loved it. And all of a sudden, there were four more LPs by the end of the year (laughter), and his career started. We'd meet over the years, we'd encounter each other at clubs and - always a very good relationship. We did a lot of records together after that.
BIANCULLI: Samuel Charters speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with folk and blues expert Samuel Charters. The influential author, field researcher and record producer died earlier this week at age 85.
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GROSS: You were living in the black community in Louisiana and traveling in black circles in the South.
GROSS: This is the 1950s. The South was still segregated. Were you - I mean, you must have really stuck out a lot...
CHARTERS: It was - yeah.
GROSS: ...Being one of the few people probably in black circles at that time and one of the few white people in black circles in the South at that time.
CHARTERS: It was always complicated because racism was an official policy of these small communities. It wasn't simply that people were prejudiced; it was simply the law. I was arrested a lot. I was picked up a lot, and I was scared a lot. Every person I talked to was immediately questioned by the local sheriffs, the deputies, afterwards.
I would - I remember I was looking for Robert Johnson in Mississippi. And I talked to a couple of people on the street in just one of the little towns there, Friars Point, and got down to the end of the corner. And I was looking at my map, and I look back and a deputy had both the persons I talked to up against a tree. And all I simply asked them for was directions. But I was not a car they recognized and I was white. And they wanted - so I always had to be very careful, not only for my own sake but for the sake of the people I talked with.
In New Orleans, it was quite literally illegal for me to shake hands with a black musician on the street. And the streetcars were still with those damn signs you moved up and down saying white, black, you know, segregated, and you had to move them up and down and - if you tried to do anything against it, you simply got people in trouble. And so when I'd go with musicians into a bar, they'd always have to - into a black bar - they'd always have to pass me off as a full-blooded Indian. He may look white, but he's a full-blooded Indian.
GROSS: Well, that comment that you just made reminds me, too, that I wonder if you've ever felt at times like you were in an awkward position with a black musician you were recording because especially in the 1950s when you were finding people who were really down on their luck, a lot who were poor who hadn't - no one knew who they were. No one knew about their talents. They'd been in and out of prison maybe.
GROSS: So you're coming from a more, you know, advantaged, privileged background. You have the money to give them and so on. It's not exactly a position of equality. And when you have this political sense that you're - that's motivating your work, you can really feel the unevenness of a relationship like that. How would you deal with that?
CHARTERS: There really was no way to deal with it because there was no way that they could understand enough of me or my background to in any way comprehend the complex nature of this. And also they were very religious, most of them, and deeply conservative politically. And that here was someone who was essentially areligious and rather radical coming down and doing this for his own reasons, so they simply regarded me as a white recording boss. And the only possible relationship, most of the time, was that. And, of course, there were - I was endlessly trying to make it friendship, but it couldn't be. It would've been - some of them wonderful ones like Big Joe Williams and things, they totally understood that they totally didn't understand. And they just accepted it all as some crazy cloud-cuckoo-land (laughter).
GROSS: But it must be tough for you to have this identity as the boss man to someone whose music you really admire, you know, 'cause you don't see yourself as the boss.
CHARTERS: No. And yet the only way I could make the thing happen because I - because to get better recorded sound, finally, I was using small recording studios and everything. And the musicians themselves had been waiting for a break or waiting to be rediscovered, that they were very much part of the musical world. To us, they were quaint folk musicians - to as many way - many people regarded them. But for as far as they were concerned, they were pop stars or had been pop stars, and they wanted to be on the radio again. And what I did in the first book, "The Country Blues," was I really exaggerated the romance of the search for these guys. So the book is incredible passages of prose about drifting around little towns in Texas because I recognize that at that point I was the only one doing this. I had the whole South, so I simply needed help. So I didn't say I need help. I simply wrote the most romantic book I could think of about being a young, white blues researcher driving around the South. So I - the book came out and I went to Europe for a year and I came back. And there were people in every small town in the South - young, white college kids - and they found everybody. It was one of the great research projects. In four or five years, they found every living blues musician - unbelievable.
GROSS: Have people who've read your books or heard your records assumed that you were black?
CHARTERS: Most do, and this has been difficult. It's been such a difficult point that for parts of the '70s, I decided I would do no more work in the field of black music. So I didn't do anything from '70 until '73, expecting that a young black scholar would step in and do this kind of historical work, but because of the sensitivity involved, none did. So back I went and started again. And there were series of books in the '70s, again, documenting the blues, documenting black music. But, no, I had always felt this kind of sensitivity.
That I - the only thing that really put it into perspective for me was after my first blues book came out, "The Country Blues," I was at a party with the Folkways office and there was Langston Hughes. And Langston was telling me how much he liked the book, and I said, Langston, thank you, but you could tell me so much more about the blues than I'll ever know. And Langston looked at me and said tell me something about Schubert that I don't know. And I realized at that point that this is simply something to learn about and that it didn't matter what color or what your background was. If you set out to learn it and you were open, you could learn. And so this has been my final justification for continuing to absorb myself in it. Absolutely, there may be nuances I miss, but after all these years there a lot of nuances that I get, and I'll settle for that.
BIANCULLI: Samuel Charters speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The influential author, folk and blues historian and record producer died Wednesday at age 85. Coming up, author Phil Klay on his collection of short stories about the Iraq War and critic-at-large John Powers on a new documentary directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Here's Otis Spann from the "Chicago: The Blues Today" collection, produced by Sam Charters. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES I WONDER")
OTIS SPANN: (Singing) Sometime I wonder, but I ain't got to wonder no more. Sometime I wonder, but I ain't got to wonder no more. You're not for me woman... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.