A Language of Song

Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora

A Language of Song

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 59 photographs Published: May 2009

Author: Samuel Charters

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Travel, Music > Ethnomusicology

In A Language of Song, Samuel Charters—one of the pioneering collectors of African American music—writes of a trip to West Africa where he found “a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression [he] encountered everywhere . . . from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana and the great churches of Harlem.” In this book, Charters takes readers along to those and other places, including Jamaica and the Georgia Sea Islands, as he recounts experiences from a half-century spent following, documenting, recording, and writing about the Africa-influenced music of the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Each of the book’s fourteen chapters is a vivid rendering of a particular location that Charters visited. While music is always his focus, the book is filled with details about individuals, history, landscape, and culture. In first-person narratives, Charters relates voyages including a trip to the St. Louis home of the legendary ragtime composer Scott Joplin and the journey to West Africa, where he met a man who performed an hours-long song about the Europeans’ first colonial conquests in Gambia. Throughout the book, Charters traces the persistence of African musical culture despite slavery, as well as the influence of slaves’ songs on subsequent musical forms. In evocative prose, he relates a lifetime of travel and research, listening to brass bands in New Orleans; investigating the emergence of reggae, ska, and rock-steady music in Jamaica’s dancehalls; and exploring the history of Afro-Cuban music through the life of the jazz musician Bebo Valdés. A Language of Song is a unique expedition led by one of music’s most observant and well-traveled explorers.


A Language of Song's presentation style mixes richly detailed first-person recollections of travels, historical accounts of the music and vivid descriptions of performances. The result is a fascinating and highly readable story of a unique lifetime in music.” — Scott Barretta, Clarion-Ledger

“[W]ritten in a vivid, often enthusiastic, and eminently readable style . . . . A Language of Song is an interesting and entertaining introduction to the subject. I found it a pleasant and most enjoyable read.” — Thomas W. Jacobsen, Journal of Folklore Research

“Charters follows the roots of the blues wherever they lead. In the process, he’s mapped a multicultural genome that provides great insight into the genre.” — Jazziz

“Filled with vivid, lively writing (and cool photos taken by Charters’ daughter), this wonderful book shows masterfully how the African cultural diaspora has always been a musical one too.”
— Jason Bivins, Cadence

“Let’s hope Charters keeps extracting from his mine of inexhaustible stories of music from around the world for future tomes. Roots music lovers will devour them over and over again.” — Library Journal

“Reading Charter’s book, even an experienced researcher may find precious tips on how to articulate sources and conduct fieldwork. The author’s experience in finding and interviewing local musicians and making profitable use of literary and historical sources can be useful for the academic public as well as providing a pleasant reading experience for the non-specialist.” — Conrado Falbo, Popular Music

“The scope of the book is pretty astounding, particularly considering that so much of Charters’ work with jazz, blues and other musics—not to mention his literary pursuits—is barely referenced here. The book flows smoothly thanks to Charters’ narrative style, which shifts effortlessly back and forth between colorful travelogues, summarizations of modern research, and his informed interpretations of the music and social settings he encounters. All in all it’s a delightful book that reflects a remarkable life in music.” — Scott Barretta, Living Blues

“The value of this book probably lies primarily in the personal memories and reflections it leaves of various milestones in a long and distinguished career – one that continues to this day. It makes for enjoyable reading, and ... it will be received with gratitude by students of African diasporic musics who have been inspired at one time or another by Charters’s pioneering work, myself included.” — Kenneth Bilby, New West Indian Guide

“[A]n extraordinary journey, filled with vital, revealing details of cultures and music. Charters himself emerges as a guide fully worthy of all the guides he’s sought out so diligently and clearly been so blessed to discover.” — Stuart Broomer, Signal to Noise

“Charters’s sensitive examination of the well-heeled Kingston audience and their ambivalent response to this inflammatory music is one of this book’s high points. . . . The present volume falls somewhere between a memoir and a compilation album: over 14 chapters he recounts his trips in search of what lies behind black music. . . . Charter’s elegant gambit is to switch back and forth from today’s music to its historical precedents...This is a quietly written book, but Charter’s excitement at such moments of epiphany is palpable. . . . His book is an absorbing, accessible read, underpinned by solid scholarship and the author’s good-humoured and seemingly endless curiosity” — Clive Bell, The Wire

“No garden-variety writer about music, Samuel Charters deserves a respectful bow from anyone who values roots music. . . . Charters’ first-person writing—straightforward, flowing, quietly passionate, seldom dry, never afflicted by self-absorption or scholarly denseness—provides proof of his gift for understanding various types of African-derived music that he encountered on his travels. . . . Any reader beginning an investigation of this or that music discussed would be wise to spend time with A Language of Song. Readers already hip will find new information and appreciate Charters’ fresh enthusiasm over the golden sounds.” — Frank-John Hadley, DownBeat

“What’s truly impressive is the scope of the whole work which, while it devotes a little space to blues and jazz, is basically about all of the rest of the African-derived music we hear from around the world. . . . The quality of the writing is invariably interesting and sympathetic, not to mention informative. . . . [T]here’s a timely attention to the economics of slavery and the present-day persistence of racism which merits a wide readership.” — Brian Priestley, Jazzwise


A Language of Song is an important work. Samuel Charters is a lovely writer, his observations and anecdotes are invaluable, and his background for writing this book perhaps unsurpassed among living writers. He has visited so many important places in the history of the music of the African diaspora during the last half century, and has always done so with great attentiveness and sensitivity.” — Ted Gioia, author of Work Songs and Healing Songs

“From The Gambia to the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic to the American Deep South, New Orleans, St. Louis, Manhattan, down to the Bahamas, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, and finally to Brazil. These were staging grounds of the horrific African slave trade, which eventually became outposts of freedom and cultural and musical creativity. With beautiful, highly evocative prose, Samuel Charters describes a lifetime of tracing these routes and documenting the music that was created along them—blues, ragtime, jazz, zydeco, calypso, reggae, steel band, rumba, samba, and much more—music that has changed the way the world listens and dances.” — David Evans, author of Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues

“In this highly readable account, Samuel Charters takes us on a personal, guided tour of the many musical worlds touched by the African diaspora. In a sensitive and revealing text, Charters portrays the real stars, often unknown to the general public, who have played a central role in melding a range of traditions, from ancient to modern, into new musical styles. Like that of Alan Lomax, Charters’s work has transcended genres and crossed the decades, laying the groundwork and providing inspiration for generations of scholars who have followed. This splendid book is a celebration of a lifetime of enthusiasms.” — Richard Carlin, author of Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Samuel Charters is a renowned and influential ethnomusicologist whose many books on music include A Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz; The Blues Makers; The Roots of the Blues: An African Search, winner of an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award; Robert Johnson; The Life, the Times, the Songs of Country Joe and the Fish; The Bluesmen; and The Country Blues. In recognition of his writing, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994. Charters is a Grammy-winning music producer, who has made many recordings as well as a documentary film, The Blues. He is also the author of four novels, numerous books of poetry, and a memoir.

Table of Contents Back to Top
A Note

1. A Griot's Art: The Story of Everything 1

2. Canaries—Canarios: A New Music in an Old World 17

3. Go Down Chariot: The Georgia Sea Islands and Fanny Kemble. The Slavery Spirituals, Lydia Parrish and Zora Neale Hurston 37

4. Skiffles, Tubs and Washboards: Good Time Music before the Blues 62

5. Red Clark's List: New Orleans Street Jazz and the Eureka Brass Band in the 1950s 81

6. A Dance in Ragged Time: "Shake the World's Foundation with the Maple Leaf Rag" 105

7. Gal, You Got to Go Back to Bimini: The Bahamas, Its Rhymers, and Joseph Spence 133

8. Pretenders, Caressers, Lions, and a Mighty Sparrow: Trinidad's Sweet Calypso 152

9. It Be Like Thunder if a Man Live Close: Nights in Trinidad's Pan Yards 178

10. Reggae Is a New Bag: Kingston Streets, Kingston Nights 203

11. To Feel The Spirit: Gospel Song in the Great Churches of Harlem 230

12. A Prince of Zydeco: Louisiana's Zydeco Blues and Good Rockin' Dopsie 254

13. ¿Como se llama este ritmo? Bebo Valdés, the Music of Cuba, and the Buena Vista Social Club 283

14. Bahia Nights: Carnival in Brazil's Black World 308

Notes 335

Bibliography 339

Index 343
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4380-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4358-5
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