In Memory of Samuel Charters
Samuel Charters passed away last week. A man to whom I owe an almost inexpressible debt.
As I read Mr. Charters’ obituary, I was stunned to realize that I first read his book “The Country Blues” 30 years ago. Because of his book, I have been playing this music for 30 years. 30 years! If I read that number in someone else’s bio, I’d immediately assume elder statesman; a grizzled veteran; a lifer. Strange to realize that number 30 applies to me now.
But that’s how important that book was to me. It literally changed my life. Dramatically. Who knew one seemingly innocuous trip to the library by my mother would result in a 30-year immersion in this music?
I signed my first record deal in 1994, with Blind Pig Records. This was approximately 10 years after I first read “The Country Blues.” If you look up my first bio on the Blind Pig Records website, you’ll find the story of the book right there:
“When he was 16, he stumbled upon Samuel Charter’s book entitled The Country Blues, which his mom had brought him from the library, knowing his current fascination with a Howlin’ Wolf record that he had found in the family record collection. Although he had never heard of any of the names in the book, their stories and personalities completely swept him away. He immediately ran to the record store and purchased a compilation album from the Newport Folk Festival, and thus began a lifetime of respect, love and devotion for the music of players like John Hurt, Son House, Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb and many others.”
On my second Blind Pig album (Gutters & Pews), we did a version of Catfish Blues, based on a performance from the Newport Folk Festival by Willie Doss that I discovered on that Vanguard album noted above. The Vanguard album I bought because of Samuel Charters.
My album Demanding To Be Next was released in 2004. 20 years after I first read The Country Blues. On it, I did a version of “Death Letter Blues” by Son House. A song I first heard when I was 16 years old. Because of that book by Samuel Charters.
It’s early 2015 now. It is 30+ years since I read “The Country Blues.” And I am going to release a new album this year. (Actually, I’m going to release 3 new albums! But that’s another story …). And that album is going to contain performances of songs I first discovered because of Samuel Charters.
I won’t name names, but there are a lot of writers out there these days trying to make their names by debunking the idea of Country Blues. Writers who seem to think they’re awfully clever for “proving” that the whole story of Country Blues was “invented” by a bunch of misguided young white kids in the 60s who “rediscovered” Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, and more.
Well, listen. I’m not rendering judgement on the conduct of those individuals. Dick Waterman, Stephan Grossman, John Fahey, Dick Spottswood, et al. But what I will say is this: I don’t care how clever you think your book is, or how deep your research is, or how many myths you think you’ve debunked, or how much you think you know about race issues as they relate to this music. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — can change the truth of those recordings. They exist. They are real. Those performances happened. Those songs were written. Those voices were lifted. Those chords were played. And my life –and the lives of so many others — was changed. Not because of any myth. Not because of some false and over-romanticized narrative. Not because of some imagined and perpetuated legend.
We were changed by the music.
I read the book, and the book took me to the record store. (Tower Records, Seattle). And the book and I, we found that Vanguard Twofer full of names that were in the book. And so the book and I bought it. And then the book and I took ourselves home on the bus. And when we got home the book and I went to the living room and put the album on the record player. And the book and I sat back and listened as Mississipi John Hurt began to play “Sliding Delta.” And my life changed.
And that is a true story.
And I would not have experienced any of this truth if it wasn’t for Samuel Charters. So to him I offer deep bows. Very, very, very deep bows.
Samuel Charters, you changed my life. And I cannot thank you enough.