Samuel Charters: Musicologist whose seminal book, 'The Country Blues', helped kick-start the 1960s blues revival

Along with musicologists such as Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, Charters helped to bring mainstream attention to once-obscure musicians

Thursday 09 April 2015 08:02

Samuel Charters, a vital historian of American blues, folk and jazz who helped to introduce a generation of music lovers to Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and other performers, has died. He was 85.

Along with such musicologists as Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, Charters helped to bring mainstream attention to once-obscure musicians from the South and Appalachia and make possible the blues revival of the 1960s. His first book, The Country Blues, came out in 1959 alongside an album of recordings by Johnson, McTell, Sleepy John Estes and others that reached a small, but influential base of fans. Bob Dylan would include versions of two songs compiled by Charters, Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die Blues" and Tommy McClennan's "New Highway 51", on his debut album, and later wrote a song about McTell. By the mid-1960s, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other rock stars were routinely performing blues songs.

"Sam Charters brought the country blues alive, and with great intelligence," said historian Sean Wilentz. "His book was a touchstone at once enlightening and mysterious; the record, along with Harry Smith's collection and a few others, was a thrilling informant."

Charters, a native of Pittsburgh, moved to Sweden in 1970 to work as a producer for the record company Sonet Records. A dual Swedish-US citizen, he was best known for his books on the history of the blues and jazz, although his subjects also extended to Swedish fiddlers and poetry.

From early on in his life, Charters was enamored of blues and jazz. In 1951, he moved to New Orleans and lived there for almost a decade. "He felt that the black musicians of New Orleans needed more recognition," his widow, the author Ann Charters, said from Stockholm.

His last book, A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz, was published six years ago. He also wrote poetry and novels, produced records, and translated, among others, poems by the 2011 Nobel literature prize winner, Tomas Transtromer, into English.

In 1959 Charters married Ann, a leading authority on the Beat Generation who wrote the first biography of Jack Kerouac, in 1973. Together, the couple were involved in the US civil rights movement and became ardent critics of the Vietnam War. Ann Charters said that they were disillusioned with the US political scene and moved to Sweden, "a neutral country". He received Swedish citizenship in 2002.


Samuel Charters, music historian: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1 August 1929; married twice (one son, two daughters); died Stockholm, Sweden 18 March 2015.

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