The rich history of the blues is what helps to make it a compelling musical form. Getting in touch with that rich history is another matter.
There are grainy films and images, and scratchy recordings of some of the artists from the early years of the 1900s who introduced the music to wider audiences, beyond the house parties and juke joints where the primeval music bubbled from its origins into the national consciousness.
And there were enough revivals and rediscoveries of old-timers in the 1950s and ’60s to offer a tantalizing picture of early blues — Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Sleepy John Estes, Sippie Wallace, Son House and Alberta Hunter, to name a few.
And just a handful of writers and researchers were trying to document the music in a serious way. One of those hardy individuals was Sam Charters, (don’t overlook his biography here, he was born in Pittsburgh and musically talented at an early age) a writer, music historian, record producer, and a widely published author on blues and jazz.
Charters would write “The Country Blues,” a seminal book of blues history, in 1959, which was accompanied by a Folkways album of the same name. The album was filled with songs that illustrated the music described in the book.
As his love of and interest in the blues developed, one of the things that Charters wanted to do was document the blues, not necessarily as a commercial product, but as a profound expression of human lives. To do that, he wanted to find and film some of the people who were performing the music where they lived.
“Searching for Secret Heroes” is the story of how Charters and his wife Ann toured the South to gather material for this earliest of blues documentaries, filmed in 1962, but never really released commercially, and thought to be lost. The film was titled simply, “The Blues.” An album of music from the film had been released, and is part of this new release package.
The 26-page booklet that accompanies this historic DVD/CD set tells the fascinating story of how Charters and Gary Atkinson, the owner of Document Records in Scotland, a small but prolific producer of vintage blues, jazz and more, met by accident in 2013. The result was this film.
The film itself is a brief, but very powerful journey into the lives of its musicians, which Charters found was tortuously bound to the oppressive and racist conditions under which they lived.
The bulk of the DVD is a compelling interview with Charters and his wife Ann, a writer and photographer who helped produce the documentary, in which they talk about how it came about, the many tasks of filming, and their being overwhelmed by the living conditions of these musicians. Don’t ignore this part — it’s as important as the music itself.
The musicians featured in the film are J.D. Short, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Memphis Willie B, Pink Anderson, Little Pink Anderson, Baby Tate and Sleepy John Estes. CD Features some of the recordings made at the time of the making of the film and pre-war recordings by the artists. The CD includes previously unreleased recordings and an interview with Henry Townsend that did not make it to the film.
I don’t usually do this, but I think it’s worthwhile to link to the page where you can order the package. That’s how I got mine. I’m not sure that it’s widely available, and I think it’s worth considering if you’re interested in this type of blues history.
Here’s a trailer for the package from Document Records: