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Samuel Charters | Living With Music: A Playlist

Living With Music: A Playlist by Samuel Charters

By Blake Wilson
Samuel Charters, author of The Poet Sees His Family Sleeping on Kamini Press, writes a playlist for the New York Times Papercuts blog:

Samuel Charters is an ethnomusicologist and Grammy-winning music producer. His most recent book is “A Language of Song.” Samuel Charters Shares a Playlist with New York Times

Some Songs I Wrote About, and Some I Haven’t Gotten Around to Writing About Yet

1) Dark Was the Night, Blind Willie Johnson. A mostly amateur Dixieland band I was rehearsing with on my clarinet in Berkeley in 1948 ended its rehearsals with two 78 r.p.m. records that the cornet player had in his collection. Only one of them each night — they seemed to us to be so powerful we only listened to one of them at a time. One was this haunting, searching guitar solo by the Texas evangelist singer Blind Willie Johnson. It sent me with my first wife, Mary, searching for Willie Johnson in the farm country of East Texas in 1955. A street singer in New Orleans told me the spring before that he’d met Willie in ’29, and he was “still livin’, last I heard, somewhere around Dallas.” The documentary of the people we met and the songs they sang for us as we searched the empty countryside the next winter became the LP album I produced for Folkways Records two years later.

2) Stones in My Passway, Robert Johnson. This was the other song that ended our Berkeley rehearsals, and we knew even less about Robert Johnson than we did about Blind Willie Johnson. The disc we had was an acetate copy with nothing on it but the name of the singer and the song. When I finally saw one of the original records the coded numerals on the record masters told me they were recorded in San Antonio, and it was there that I first searched for Robert Johnson in the winter of 1956. When I first wrote about him in the book “The Country Blues” in 1959, I explained that still almost nothing was known about his life, and his records had sold so poorly that I shouldn’t be including even a short chapter about him — but he was one of the most extraordinary of all the acoustic blues artists, and I didn’t feel I could leave him out. To accompany the book, I included his “Preaching Blues” on an LP album of blues singles that I’d written about in the book. It was the first time Robert Johnson was heard by listeners outside of the very small world of 78 r.p.m. blues collectors, and nothing afterwards was the same.

3) Penitentiary Blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins. When I found Lightnin’ on Dowling Street in Houston in 1959, he was down and out, living in a bare bedroom, his guitar in pawn. The guitar I rented for him so we could record in his room for a couple of hours was the kind of old-fashioned acoustic model he thought he’d left behind him in his struggle to get out of the cotton fields. Maybe it was the wiry sound of the strings, or the pint of gin under his chair, or the stillness of the neighborhood outside as I sat there with the microphone held in my outstretched hand, but after a moment or two Lightnin’ found his way back to those country roots and, of all the albums of his I was involved with in later years, it is still this one, and this first blues he sang that afternoon, that bring tears to my eyes. It was a description of that moment that opened my book “The Country Blues” published later that year.

4) One Room Country Shack, Buddy Guy. The old Chicago blues recordings were more complicated than they sounded to a casual listener, maybe because the 78 r.p.m. singles that companies like Chess were releasing were recorded in mono, and for the first stereo LP recordings we did in the studios later we had a complicated question deciding where each instrument should go in the final mix. This song was one of the great moments from the first album I produced where everything finally came out right. Buddy wouldn’t play without his usual guitar amp, and its sound leaked onto every other microphone we had set up in the studio, so the amp was put out in the corridor with the door propped open so Buddy could hear it as he sang. The album was done without vocal overdubs or reworked solos, and I have always been convinced this is the only way to record the blues. What you get is — as another great musician said about his own compositions once long before — “Not one note too many and not one note too few.”

5) I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag, Country Joe and the Fish. This song really did change my life. The song had difficulties with airplay in the U.S., but it was a No. 1 hit in Scandinavia, and as the song’s studio producer I decided to trail along with the band on their victorious tour through Denmark and Sweden. What I saw of Sweden decided me to take my family there the next summer, and what we experienced in that summer on a small farm in the traditional province of Dalarna persuaded us to leave New York and begin a new life in Stockholm. The song still sounds as gruff and as loose and as irreverent as ever, and I like what it was saying as much as I did then. That first summer, at an outdoor dance pavilion in the Swedish countryside, I asked some kids if they understood the words. “No, not really,” they said, “Not all of the words, but it’s so good to dance to!”

6) Crazy Man Crazy, Bill Haley and the Comets. From Country Joe to Bill Haley and his Comets was a total clash of musical cultures, but the Swedish company that hired me as a producer had just signed Bill as a recording artist. For our first album, I took Bill and the Comets into the studio to try him out with some new rock sounds. But for this second album, recorded in Nashville three years later, I decided to return to Bill’s rock roots. Putting together the arrangements with the sax veteran Rudy Pompilli from the Comets’s greatest years was a humbling and gratifying lesson in the value of simplicity. It felt a little like we were winding up a big toy, and when it was wound tight, all we had to do was press the button and it played itself. I still listen to the album and shake my head at the cheerful, knowing synthesis of styles behind its seeming artlessness. The album went gold in Venezuela.

7) I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired, Rev. James Cleveland. Many of my books have been about the blues, but in a new book, “A Language of Song,” I included a long chapter about gospel music and the great churches of Harlem. I hope it goes a little way toward placing gospel music in its proper place as one of the molding forces of today’s African American spirit. Rev. James Cleveland, with his peerless blending of the fervid emotions of the gospel sermon with the soaring voices of his choirs, won six Grammy awards and helped shape a new generation of gospel artists. Once, after a week with Rev. Cleveland’s recordings, I said to a friend, Dr. Robert Stephens at the University of Connecticut, that I realized Cleveland was one of the geniuses of modern American music — but why didn’t people say more about him? Dr. Stephens was thoughtful for a moment, then he shrugged and smiled, “Everybody knows it!”

8) Heaven’s Just a Sin Away, the Kendalls. One of the classics of the modern Nashville country sound — an irresistible beat and the impeccable duet sound of Jeannie and her father Royce Kendall. How many other songs manage to tell you everything the song’s about in the title alone? Usually no one pays much attention to the writer of a popular song hit unless it is the artists themselves, but Nashville couldn’t live without its writers. For this song, it was the indefatigable composer and lyricist Jerry Gillespie who did both the music and lyrics. It was the Kendalls’ irresistible bouncing spirit on songs like this that got my wife, Annie, and daughters and me through many long car journeys back and forth from New York City after their return to Connecticut.

9) Cleopatra, Queen of Denial, Pam Tillis. This song was an unmistakable nostalgic nod back toward the years when country music didn’t make so much money and the song texts still reflected the wry amusement many of the writers felt at life’s foibles. The veteran singer Mel Tillis’s daughter Pam was entirely sincere and wonderfully persuasive as “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial,” floating down a river of lies, and she was one of the song’s writers, along with Bob DiPiero and Jan Buckingham. At a recent poetry reading, the remarkable Australian poet Les Murray read a short poem he’d also written about Cleopatra, the Queen of Denial, and I asked him afterward if he knew of the country song. He shook his head and said regretfully in his Aussie accent that he’d never even heard of it. I suspect that Pam Tillis also has never heard of Les Murray.

10) Hey Bobby, K. T. Oslin. K. T., if you ever read this, I want to tell you that it’s a wonderful woman’s song and the rhythm groove shakes the leaves off the trees — but how about a third verse? You only wrote two verses and I know you have more to tell us about what it feels like to be a woman picking up her date at his own house for the first time. She’s just bought her first car and she wants to take him out somewhere to park where they’ll watch the moon come up and drink that champagne toast from a paper cup! I’m not the only one who’d like to hear what the next verse might say.

11) To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places, Dave Van Ronk. Dave was one of my closest friends for many years, and we made music together for nearly 40 of those years. This song, from the last album I produced with him, summed up so much of what we had come to understand about life as the years passed. Dave learned it from the composer, Jane Voss, and after Dave’s death from cancer in 2002, it was years before I could listen to his version without beginning to cry again. Jane, I hope you don’t mind if quote from some of the lines — it is one of the most beautiful songs I know, and what it has to say has its own place in my heart.

In stranger’s shapes I seem to trace
The lines of old familiar faces
I left my heart so many places
I scarcely know which way is home

And parting is my constant sorrow
Here today and gone tomorrow
I’d like to wake up in some town
And find that you were all around me
And all of us were settled down
And I’d come home —
To all my friends in far-flung places …



Samuel Charters

(born Samuel Barclay Charters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, August 1, 1929; his name also appears as Sam Charters) is an American music historian, writer, record producer, musician, and poet. He is a noted and widely published author on the subjects of blues and jazz music, as well as a writer of fiction.

Charters was born and spent his childhood in Pittsburgh. He 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. He attended high schools in Pittsburgh and California and attended Sacramento City College, graduating in 1949. After being kicked out of Harvard for political activism, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California in 1956. In the 1940s and 1950s, Charters purchased numerous old recordings of American blues musicians, eventually amassing a huge and valuable collection.

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. He served for two years in the United States Army (1951-53) and began to study jazz clarinet with George Lewis, but soon acquired an interest in rural blues. In 1954, he and his wife began conducting field recordings (initially for Folkways Records throughout the United States, and then in the Bahamas in 1958). Their 1959 recordings of the Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins proved instrumental to Hopkins’ rediscovery.

Charters began his writing career in 1959 with The Country Blues. Since that time, his writings have been influential, bringing to light aspects of African American musics and culture that had previously been largely unknown to the general public. 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. From approximately 1966 to 1970 he worked as a producer for the anti-war band Country Joe and the Fish. 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 a residence permit to live, 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 is married to 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 professor of English and American literature at the University of Connecticut. The two have collaborated together on many projects, particularly their extensive field recording work. Charters is 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. Charters’ most recent book, New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus, is scheduled for release in September 2006.

Books by Samuel Charters

  • * 1959 – The Country Blues. New York: Rinehart. Reprinted by Da Capo Press, with a new introduction by the author, in 1975.
  • * 1963 – The Poetry of the Blues. With photos by Ann Charters. New York: Oak Publications.
  • * 1963 – Jazz New Orleans (1885-1963): An Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans. New York: Oak Publications
  • * 1967 – The Bluesmen. New York: Oak Publications
  • * 1975 – The Legacy of the Blues: A Glimpse Into the Art and the Lives of Twelve Great Bluesmen: An Informal Study. London: Calder & Boyars.
  • * 1977 – Sweet As the Showers of Rain. New York: Oak Publications
  • * 1981 – The Roots of the Blues: An African Search. Boston: M. Boyars.
  • * 1984 – Jelly Roll Morton’s Last Night at the Jungle Inn: An Imaginary Memoir. New York: M. Boyars.
  • * 1986 – Louisiana Black: A Novel. New York: M. Boyars.
  • * 1991 – The Blues Makers. (Incorporates The Bluesmen and Sweet As the Showers of Rain) Da Capo.
  • * 1999 – The Day is So Long and the Wages So Small: Music on a Summer Island. New York: Marion Boyars.
  • * 2004 – Walking a Blues Road: A Selection of Blues Writing, 1956-2004. New York: Marion Boyars.
  • * 2006 – New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus. Marion Boyars.

With Leonard Kunstadt

  • * 1962 – Jazz: A History of the New York Scene. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.