The Real Sam Charters
Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 21, 2015
The New York Times rightly eulogized Samuel Charters this week as a “foundational scholar of the blues.” Other obituaries emphasized his “discovery” of Bahamian guitar wizard Joseph Spence in 1958. But enthusiasts of Golden Age calypso will remember Charters as the compiler and annotater of The Real Calypso: 1927-1946 and The Real Calypso, Vol. 2 (variously subtitled Send Your Children to the Orphan Home and Out the Fire: Calypso Songs of Social Commentary and Love Troubles), which rescued forgotten classics like Caresser’s “Edward the VIII” and Tiger’s “Money Is King” from oblivion and paved the way for a golden age of calypso reissues. (Rounder’s collections of the 1990s and Bear Family’s magisterial West Indian Rhythm  all have Samuel Charters in their DNA. And maybe the Charters lineage hasn’t run out: it’s rumored that another big box gathering the rest of the prewar Decca and ARC sides is in the works. Yes please!)
The author and ethnomusicologist was a lifelong devotee of music from across the black diaspora, so he came by his interest in calypso honestly. (In fact, I’ve read that Charters happened upon Spence when, as a song collector and field recorder for Moe Asch‘s Folkways Records, he was traveling the Caribbean in search of local musical styles “uncorrupted” by the influence of Trinidadian calypso.) But he wasn’t necessarily a scholar—or even a discographer—of calypso. The bulk of his “annotations” on Volume 1 consists of a multi-paragraph quote from J.D. Elder‘s calypso primer for Sing Out! magazine, and when Charters flew solo on Volume 2, it was clear that his own expertise didn’t match his, uh, elder’s. (On basic points of information, moreover, he was factually incorrect: the majority of tunes on the album were not recorded in Trinidad, for instance, but in New York.) Still, the strength of both discs is in their selection, not their documentation.
In his biography of Asch, Making People’s Music, Peter Goldsmith noted that “[l]ike Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music] and Fred Ramsey’s History of Jazz series” (Ramsey, whom Charters knew, was another calypso fan and annotater, by the way), The Country Blues and many subsequent records on Charters’s Folkways subsidiary label RBF—Records, Books and Film, including both volumes of The Real Calypso, “consisted of reissued recordings from the twenties and thirties, usually appropriated without any arrangements with the original labels. . . . Charters made the dubious claim that ‘the American copyright laws permit the reissue of any of these older performances, the only restriction being that the name of the company not be used in any notes or advertising'” (269).
In the case of calypso, at least, I’m glad he made that claim. For one thing, the aptly named Universal, heir/engulfer/devourer of the Decca label, has more than enough money already, even in the twilight of the record industry. Besides, Decca paid the calypso singers and musicians peanuts to begin with, as “artists-for-hire.” And none of the succession of Decca’s corporate foster parents over the past half-century has ever been what you could call a steward of this important cultural patrimony. Plus, Capitalism Is (still) Killing Music, not to mention scholarship. So there. Anyway, let’s call what Samuel Charters did “liberation,” not appropriation. Whatever it was, it wasn’t dubious: his lifelong work for black music history was as real as it gets.
More on Sam Charters:
- The Samuel and Ann Charters Archives of Blues and African American Vernacular Music Culture (Dodd Center, UConn)
- Sam Charters: Singing the Blues at UConn (YouTube)
- A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora (Duke UP, 2009): Charters’s final book, with chapters on calypso and pan
- Tribute to Sam Charters at Smithsonian Folkways