New York: Rinehart and Co., Inc., 1959.

Reprinted with new introduction by the author: New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

The publication of The Country Blues by Sam Charters in 1959 was a major landmark in the development of blues appreciation, as the first book to piece together a chronological, cultural, and stylistic history of the music, complete with biographies of many key performers. Charters took the story from the 19th century slave songs, minstrel music, spirituals, and work songs through the commercial breakthroughs of W.C. Handy and Mamie Smith on up to a contemporary (1959) look at what was happening in postwar blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Much of the book was devoted to chapters on Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Robert Johnson (at a time when Charters had to write: ‘Almost nothing is known about his life.’). The Country Blues inspired a wave of new interest in the blues and set a new generation of blues researchers on their way, at the same time sparking debate about what defined ‘country blues.’ Charters’ inclusion of Lonnie Johnson, Broonzy and Carr, for instance, didn’t fit some concepts of the term, but as he wrote in his preface to the 1975 reprint, his intent was to place the blues in the context of its audience, and those artists were the big names in their day among African American listeners — much more so than Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnson, described in the 1959 as intro as one of the performers who played only ‘minor roles in the story of the blues’. Obviously, with the exaltation of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, and others in subsequent decades, the appreciation of ‘country blues’ has taken a path of its own among a primarily white base of fans and musicians.

Charters acknowledged in 1959 that his work would contain errors, and subsequent research has revealed new and different facts about many of the artists he discussed in The Country Blues. But he chose not to revise much of the book when it was reprinted by Da Capo, preferring to retain his text as an artifact of the 1950s and an intellectual product of those times; revised accounts are’ own subsequent works), encyclopedias, magazines, and web sites. In 1975 Charters wrote: ‘I shouldn’t have written The Country Blues when I did; since I really didn’t know enough, but I felt I couldn’t afford to wait. So The Country Blues was two things. It was a romanticization of certain aspects of black life in an effort to force the white society to reconsider some of its racial attitudes, and on the other hand it was a cry for help. I wanted hundreds of people to go out and interview the surviving blues artists. I wanted people to record them and document their lives, their environment, and their music, not only so that their story would be preserved but also so they’d get a little money and a little recognition in their last years.Considering what a movement Charters successfully helped to ignite, the blues world owes him a debt for writing The Country Blues when he did.

–Jim O’Neal

[Note: The Country Blueswas inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991. Due to some disorganization at the Blues Foundation, it was listed again on a later ballot and was voted in again in 2000 , just in case there was any doubt that it deserved induction!]