The first time Samuel Charters came to Memphis, it was in the fall of 1956. "I bought a car for a hundred and fifty bucks in New Orleans, and I drove back to New York via Memphis with a cardboard box full of tapes that Folkways Records was going to put out," recalls the venerable musicologist and author, calling from his Connecticut home.
Charters, who is heading this away again for this week's "Blues Today: A Living Blues Symposium" at the University of Mississippi, continues his story:
"I found a real cheap hotel south of Beale Street for five bucks a night and set out on a search for the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers," he says. "Memphis was totally buttoned up in those days. The city had been taken over by the Christian right, and you could barely spit on the street. Certainly, none of those blues guys could sing. I got a lead at a barbershop on Beale, which led me to Howard Yancey, who was the booking agent for the musicians. He sent me around to see Will."
Will was guitarist Will Shade, who recorded nearly 100 sides with his Memphis Jug Band between 1927 and 1934. In his prime, Shade was more popular than Elvis, but by the time Charters caught up with him, the musicians left with the Memphis Jug Band were relegated to the Christmas party circuit.
"I was stunned," Charters says. "There he was with Gus Cannon and [mandolin player] Charlie Burse. On my next trip, I learned about Furry Lewis, who I recorded in '61 for the Prestige label. A year later, I came back to make my movie, The Blues, with [bluesman] Memphis Willie Boerum. It was wonderful. I'd walk through the neighborhood south of Beale, and everybody would say, 'We know what you're here for!'"
Working with a variety of labels, Charters recorded and released dozens of albums of Memphis' forgotten greats, spurring comebacks by Cannon, Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, and others. Already an established novelist and poet, he also wrote several books about the blues genre, including a biography of Robert Johnson and seminal titles such as The Country Blues and The Poetry of the Blues, before widening his focus to African and island music.
"My interest in the blues was intensely related to the black community. When they moved on, I moved on," Charters explains. "Nineteen fifty-eight was the last time a blues record was on the charts. Since then, we've had Otis Redding, disco, and rap.
"Today, rap music has energized and focused the soul," says Charters, now age 75. "Adding observations and rhythmic intensity created some of the most exciting music I've ever heard. It gives a whole social strength and objectivity to soul music which wasn't [previously] present." He names rapper Jay-Z and the Gospel Gangstaz as two of his current favorite acts and notes how many rap artists use traditional African musical hallmarks. "The call-and-response, the counter-rhythms are all there," he says.
"Blueswise, there aren't that many mysteries left for me," Charters says. Nevertheless, Walking a Blues Road, a collection of his writings on the genre, was published just last month, and Charters will be the keynote speaker at the blues symposium in Oxford, February 16th-20th.
The event, now in its third year, is produced by the University of Mississippi's Center for Southern Culture, which also publishes Living Blues magazine. A well-blended combination of academic study and musical entertainment, "Blues Today" is expected to draw nearly 200 scholars and blues aficionados from around the world, including musicologists Jim O'Neal, Paul Garon, Elijah Wald, and University of Memphis professor David Evans.
The weekend promises all kinds of fun: day trips to the Mississippi Delta, panel discussions, music jams, and a special edition of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show. Filmmakers Les Blank and Bob Stone will be on hand for screenings, while Precious Bryant, Honeyboy Edwards, Chick Willis, and Herbert Wiley and the Checkmates will perform at Oxford nightclubs.
Sacred Steel guitarists Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell, gospel musicians at the House of God Church in Rochester, New York, will also make a rare appearance at the event, participating in a panel discussion on Friday, February 18th, at 3 p.m. and performing at Oxford's Second Baptist Church that night.
For a $100 registration fee, symposium attendees will get an all-access wristband, but several "Blues Today" events, including the Campbell Brothers' performance and Charters' address, are free. Tickets for other events, including the Blues on the Square performances, will be sold at the door. For more information and an event schedule, go to www.outreach.olemiss.edu/livingblues/bluestoday/Agenda.html. n