I didn’t set out to do a “women of the blues” issue, but like many other issues, the theme emerged organically in the process. First, Roger Wood pitched a story to me on vocalist Jewel Brown. Then, Justin O’Brien told me about playing bass with Chicago singer Ardella Williams, and he thought she would make an interesting story since she was Jazz Gillum’s daughter. Next, Barry Lee Pearson and I were talking about our next cover, the Holmes Brothers, and he mentioned he had interviewed Jesi Terrell. That’s three. Finally, when I mentioned the stories to Lee Hildebrand he asked if he could do something on Diunna Greenleaf and one on a local talent he was big on, Terri Odabi.
As the stories came together one theme became obvious. They were all about women of strength—powerful women who had faced diversity in their lives, but who had persevered. Each of the women had a compelling story to tell, and as I read them the common thread of strong, focused women overcoming obstacles, dealing with the challenges of life—especially those that many women face simply because they are women—became clear. As you read these stories I hope that you are not only introduced to a number of artists you may not be familiar with, but also that you take away a sense of the strength these women possess. I found myself reflecting on the strong women in my life and giving thanks. Perhaps you will too.
Just a few days before we went to press I got word that pioneering blues scholar Samuel Charters died on March 18. Sam Charters’ writings about the blues have influenced generations of blues fans and scholars. His first book, The Country Blues, published in 1959, interjected an excitement about rural blues music into the burgeoning 1960s folk revival movement. With his self-proclaimed, non-academic and somewhat romanticized style of writing, Charters sparked the desire of young blues fans and researchers to hit the back roads and go find the men and women who actually made the music. Fans like Dick Waterman and musicians like John Fahey, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine were disciples. They took up the search, tracking down scores of pre-war blues performers such a Bukka White, Skip James and Son House—all of whom went on to have revival careers that influenced a generation of musicians big and small.
Charters’ more than 50 years of scholarship was vast as well as diverse. He continued to research and write about the blues for his entire life, penning several other blues classics including The Poetry of the Blues (with photographs from his wife Ann Charters), The Bluesmen and The Roots of the Blues while also writing several books about his other musical love, jazz. He also wrote fiction (Jelly Roll Morton’s Last Night at the Jungle Inn, Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show and more), poetry and two books with his wife about the Beat Generation. He was the producer behind the influential Chicago: The Blues Today! series of records on Vanguard, as well as records for Folkways and recordings by Country Joe & the Fish. Charters’ field work included recordings of Joseph Spence, Lightnin’ Hopkins, J.D. Short, the Mardis Gras Indians and others.
Recently, Charters wrote books on the music of the African Diaspora and New Orleans Jazz, and two more of his books are scheduled to be published later this year.
Sam Charters’ influence on blues scholarship cannot be over estimated. His books are in the libraries of anyone who takes blues seriously. His voice will be missed.
Brett J. Bonner