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  • Smithsonian Folkways Remembers Samuel B. Charters (1929-2015)

    Noted music scholar, author, musician, and producer Samuel (Sam) Barclay Charters IV died on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at age 85, in his home in Arsta, Sweden. Charters’ interest in researching, recording, and documenting folk, jazz, and the blues began in the 1950s and continued for the rest of his life.

    He began his association with Folkways Records in the late 1950s after being introduced to Moses Asch by Folkways producer Frederic Ramsey Jr. Among Charters’ early Folkways recording credits are those of Bahamian folk guitarist Joseph Spence, who he recorded with his wife Ann Charters, and of country blues musician Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins. The resulting albums, Music of the Bahamas, Vol. 1: Bahamian Folk Guitar and Bahaman Ballads and Rhyming Spirituals (now compiled as Joseph Spence: The Complete Folkways Recordings) and the self-titled Lightnin’ Hopkins, became important folk and blues recordings and contributed to a revival in country folk and blues music, influencing such musicians as Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal, and Bob Dylan (New York Times). Charters’ association with Folkways also resulted in the “rediscovery” of country blues musicians Furry Lewis and Pink Anderson and the recording of New Orleans brass bands, the Six and Seven-Eights String Band of New Orleans and the Eureka Brass Band.

    Letter from Samuel Charters to Marian Distler, 16 January 1959. Moses and Frances Asch Collection, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

    Charters involvement with Folkways continued into the 1960s and 70s and includes a reading of the letters of Emily Dickinson, field recordings of traditional Irish music, a recording of the roots of Black American music, and the seminal The Country Blues—the companion piece to his 1959 book of the same title. In 1975, Charters produced an album of griot singer-storytellers in Gambia and Mali, Griot: Ministers of the Spoken Word.

    In the book Worlds of Sound by Richard Carlin, Charters notes that recording for Folkways was never about the money. For his three-album series of the landmark Music of the Bahamas, Charters received $150. “But that’s, you understand, how it worked: we wanted to do those recordings in the Bahamas, and the only way we could do them was by taking advantage of Moe [Moses Asch] saying, “I’ll put them out.”

    In 1970, Charters and his wife Ann moved to Sweden in protest to the American involvement in the Vietnam War. While he eventually became a Swedish citizen, he continued to return to the United States to conduct research and teach. On his vast work with Folkways, Charters said, “We didn’t know what people would listen to, but we believed in sound.”

    Find Samuel Charters’ entire Smithsonian Folkways discography here and read more about his recording of Lightnin’ Hopkins in this Smithsonian Collections blog post.

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