Three years after publishing his pioneering 1959 book “The Country Blues,” the music historian and record producer Samuel Charters felt he still had more to say about blues music and the people who created it. Traveling throughout the southern United States throughout the 1950s searching for blues musicians, his book told the stories of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Pink Anderson, Sleepy John Estes, and many other bluesmen.
“But there was no film,” Charters says in “Searching for Secret Heroes,” a new documentary that traces how he and his wife Ann, professor emerita of American Literature at UConn, decided to return to Tennessee and South Carolina with a single wind-up camera to make a film considered the first exclusively about the blues. The Charterses discussed the making of “The Blues” with Gary Atkinson of Document Records before Sam’s death in 2015 of a type of bone marrow cancer at age 85.
The Samuel and Ann Charters Archives of Blues and Vernacular African-American Musical Culture is part of the Archives and Special Collections at the UConn Library. Samuel Charters is a foundational scholar of the blues, whose writings, field research, and recordings helped to launch the revival of blues and folk music in the 1960s and 70s. He also wrote about jazz and produced recordings by Buddy Guy, Country Joe and the Fish, and Bill Haley and the Comets. Ann Charters is a specialist in Beat writers and an accomplished photographer who photographed the musicians for albums produced by her husband. The Charters Archives holds thousands of hours of recorded music on both analog and digital platforms spanning the entire 20th century and the early 21st century, including 25,000 recordings donated by Document Records.
“Searching for Secret Heroes” was produced by Document Records, the American roots music label based in the United Kingdom and owned by Atkinson, who became a fan of the blues as a teenager after listening to recordings made by Sam Charters on the Folkways label. The film includes a restored version of “The Blues,” which was made in 1962 while Charters was recording in the rural homes of veteran blues musicians including Estes, Lewis, Anderson, Baby Tate, and J.D. Short. “The Blues” was not widely seen after its completion.
“Searching for Secret Heroes” weaves the narrative of the Charters describing their experiences making “The Blues” with compelling scenes from the 25-minute film, which is included at the end of the narrative. The documentary includes performances by the musicians and images of the extreme poverty – ramshackle homes and life without electricity or running water — and the racism endured by them – signs on businesses and hospitals indicating “White Only” entrances — which had driven Sam Charters to showcase their music.
“What no blues singer ever was permitted to say was that the racial oppression was destroying their lives,” Charters tells Atkinson in the film. “So in the sequence of Baby Tate where he’s sitting talking to us, I wanted to you to know what was in his mind; that is why that sequence is followed by those signs of the white discrimination — white only, black only — even in hospital walls. They were everywhere in this apartheid state in the South of the United States.”
The story of making “Searching for Secret Heroes,” restoring “The Blues” and the collaboration between the Charters and Atkinson, his wife Gillian and son George, began with a chance meeting between the two men at the rural southwest Scotland warehouse of Document Records in 2012.
After acquiring Document Records in 2000, Atkinson exchanged correspondence with Charters about obtaining his original Folkways recordings for the label but did not complete their discussions as they each pursued other projects. The Atkinsons reside primarily in England and have a home in Scotland not far from the warehouse. They decided to head north for a week in 2012. Coincidentally, Charters was in his ancestral homeland with his son, also Sam, and daughter-in-law, Heidi, after locating a long-sought first edition copy of a 1794 book by his family namesake at a bookstore that happened to be around the corner from the Document warehouse.
While Sam and his son were at the bookstore, Heidi walked around the area and met Gillian, who happened to be standing outside the Document building. As they were talking, the Charters men came by and as the discussion continued, Gillian discovered her new acquaintance was the author of the 1963 volume “The Poetry of the Blues,” one of the first books she bought as a teenager. She quickly ushered the Charters family into the building to meet Gary.
“If Gillian hadn’t gone out that moment, Sam Charters would have been walking around Document Records and not knowing it and I would have been inside the office, not knowing that Sam Charters was walking around outside,” Atkinson says. “We just kind of laughed and smiled and were in disbelief for several minutes before I said, would you like to go for lunch?”
Over lunch, Atkinson recalled that he had a copy the 1967 recording “The Blues,” produced by Charters and described as the soundtrack of a film. He asked Charters what happened to the film.
“He said they only printed around about four or five copies, what they could afford as a young couple back in 1962,” Atkinson says. “I think that one university actually showed it at a music festival or something, but after that it never came to the surface again. Sam said he had lost his copy of the film for a long time.”
However, Charters indicated he had recently found his copy of the film but it had deteriorated and had only a red color. Atkinson said his son, George, was a filmmaker and might be able to restore the film after converting it to a digital format. Charters returned to the U.K. the following year with Ann and a digital copy of “The Blues,” which the younger Atkinson was able to restore to its original form. Atkinson thought he should record an interview with Sam and Ann about the making of the film and possibly write an article about the making of the film. “But Sam was such a dream to interview and the filming went well. I dared myself to think that we could possibly turn this into a documentary,” he says.
In the film, the Charterses describe the challenges they faced as first-time filmmakers with no technical experience and little financing.
“Films are generally made with more than one camera. If you were using only one camera when you’re photographing music, when you change where you’re photographing it from the camera will be shut off,” Sam says. “I had this windup camera, we had my tape recorder. We were going to have to work with the fact that there was going to stops and starts when I moved the camera. I crawled on my knees to another shot. I accepted those problems and those limitations.”
Ann adds, “I had taken lots of still photographs for his album covers. I was absolutely raring to go to be part of his crew. In fact, I was the crew. I held the microphone attached to the Ampex recorder and held it out of the line of sight of his movie camera. When he was finished filming and recording I would put down the microphone that I had held out to the artists and I would pick up my camera and begin taking stills. I just functioned on the dual level all the time. Of course I was happy to be part of it.”
Sam ultimately did the editing at a film studio in New York City operated by a friend who allowed him to work at night when no one else had reserved the equipment, while Ann was teaching in New Hampshire. When he was done editing “The Blues,” Sam asked Ann to travel to New York to watch it.
“We sat together at this really strange little sort of theater, where Sam had the editing, or some processing of that film,” Ann says. “Spontaneously we held hands across the aisle that separated our two seats in this pathetic little theater. We were so excited and it was so much better than we thought we could ever do. Sam had the great idea of showing it to our friends. So the next day he rented a 16 millimeter projector.”
They scheduled showings at the apartments of friends around New York City, booking specific times to arrive and show the film, as late as 2 a.m., until having to return the projector.
“We’re more than satisfied that [the film] existed, that the statement had been made — good, bad, or indifferent,” Sam says. “Others would do it better. I was sure this was only going to be one of many films. I had no idea that this would be the only one.”
The title of the documentary, “Searching for Secret Heroes,” comes from an anecdote related by Ann, author of the first authoritative biography of Jack Kerouac, who she first met in San Francisco at the second public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem, “Howl.”
“Allen Ginsberg once looked at me and said, I know the work you and Sam are doing; you’re looking for America’s secret heroes and that was Kerouac and himself,” she says in the film. “And definitely the people like John Estes and Furry Lewis.”