We are always on the hunt for stories about that genre of roots Americana music known as the blues. On that note, a press release from Gary Atkinson of Document Records Ltd. recently landed on the publisher’s desk telling about a project that his company is releasing. This project is titled, Searching for Secret Heroes and its focal point is an unreleased (until now) documentary film about the life, times and music of black blues artists in the mid 20th century southern US.
The film is titled, The Blues, and was created by Samuel Carter and Ann, his wife. Samuel Charters is known as a widely published author on the subjects of blues and jazz as well as a music historian, writer, record producer, musician, and poet. Ann Charters is a retired professor of American Literature at the University of Connecticut. She is also a writer and editor of note.
Making the Movie
As Charters told Atkinson the story, he became interested in the every day life of southern African American blues players and discovered that there was little documented material available. Without any real film making experience, he armed himself with an audio tape recorder, a used 16 millimeter film camera and cans of color film; and he and Ann headed south from their New York City home in the summer of 1962. Their goal was to visit several blues artists, which Charters had recorded and written about in the late 1950s, and to make a film record of their home life and some field recordings of them playing the blues in their home environment. What they encountered was the racism and meanness that was part of everyday life for black people living in the segregated south, in the early 1960s. Needless to say, the couple was ill prepared to face these bitter truths, and the encounter, left them shaken and shocked.
Charters first took his exposed film to a New Orleans lab for development then returned home to New York with the raw developed footage. Over the next several months, Charters spent long nights in a small editing suite, just off Times Square, which he had been given access to for free—free because he could only use it through the night. He managed to edit the raw footage into a coherent motion picture that could tell a story.
The Charters could only afford to have six prints made. One or two copies ended up with Universities and he kept a copy for himself. In the interviews on the DVD, Charters did not mention anything about distribution. It appears he did not give that thought any consideration. He mentioned that he and Ann first viewed the completed work together in a private studio and later showed the film to some friends in small group settings. Plus, he made a few copies available to some universities.
The film eventually dropped from circulation despite its obvious cultural importance. And the universities apparently lost or mislaid their copies. Charters later lost his only personal copy. Thus the film, The Blues, was considered lost forever.
The soundtrack, however, did survive. The LP record of the sound track eventually made its way to England where it introduced those blues greats from the 1930s (such as Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and Pinkney (Pink) Anderson) to an emerging English blues/rock culture.
Later in Life
Charters went on to write many books and essays about jazz and blues during his life. He was a Grammy Award wining record producer. His classic book of blues literature, The Country Blues, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991. Charters passed away in 2015. His widow, Ann Charters lives in Connecticut
Enter Document Records
Mr. Gary Atkinson and his wife Gillian own Document Records—a respected independent record label located in Bladnoch, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, UK. Document Records specializes in reissuing vintage blues and jazz recordings.
Gary Atkinson tells the story of how many years ago he purchased an LP record that contained performances by some unknown blues artists. The record was produced by Sam Charters. Atkinson said that the name was familiar to him as he had purchased several books and records that Sam Charters had compiled—all relating to the blues in particular the early recordings of the 1920s and 30s. The record that Gary purchased, was a soundtrack to the film that Charters produced in 1962, called, The Blues.
Gary went on to say that sometime in the fall of 2012 during an ordinary day at the studio, Gillian Atkinson stepped outside for a break and encountered a lady standing nearby. They spoke, and the lady mentioned that she was on holiday with her husband and father-in-law who was meeting a bookseller at his storage unit to pick up a book purchase. Upon being asked, Gillian told the folks that she worked in the record company that she had just exited and that they (Document Records) deal with vintage, black American blues music, plus gospel, jazz etc. The lady then mentioned that her farther-in-law had written books about and produced records on the same subject and that his name was Sam Charters. Of course, Gillian knew the name and quickly introduced him to Gary. Sam Charters had certainly heard of Document Records and the two marveled at the coincidence of Charters, some 4000 miles from his home in Connecticut, was unknowingly walking around, outside of the Document Records building.
In the course of a short afternoon visit, Atkinson told Charters of that long ago LP purchase and asked of the accompanying film. Charters told him that after years of being lost, he had just found it only a week or two before coming to England. He said that there was a problem with the film’s color. Gary told him send to a copy of the film to them and that his son, a film maker, could correct the problem. Sam said that he and Ann would bring the film themselves. In Gary Atkinson’s words, “A year later Sam and Ann visited and within a few moments, my son corrected the color. During their weeks stay with us, at our house in Scotland, I asked Sam more about the making of the film and then had the idea of filming an interview of both Sam and Ann and having them describe the making of his film, the preparation for the trip, their experiences, the artists shown in the film, how they felt as they left the area, and what their thoughts were about finally getting to view their efforts.”
Ultimately, the folks at Document Records combined this interview segment with the restored copy of the film, The Blues, onto a DVD. They also bundled the DVD with a CD of the music from the film, including unreleased recordings which never made it to the film; and added an informative, illustrated booklet telling about the project; and titled the bundled project, Searching for Secret Heroes.
We asked Gary about the title. He told us, “It was me who chose the title. The phrase came out of one of the interviews with Ann. On watching the interviews you would see and hear Ann explain the mood and interest of their friends and peers in the 1950s and at the time of Sam coming up with the idea of the film. She tells of how Beat writer and poet, Allen Ginsberg, had said to Ann, when she explained about Sam’s work, ‘I know what you are doing. You are looking for America’s secret heroes.’ This kept coming into my mind as I worked on the project until it became a natural fit.”
If you are a fan of the blues genre of music, Searching for Secret Heroes by Document Records is a must have for your music library. It is exclusively available for purchase on the web site:
To whet your interest, you can view a trailer of the DVD at: https://vimeo.com/411380834/d3e24f05cf
By Edward Tutwiler