Living Blues — Living Blues #241
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Charlie Sayles
Frank Matheis

The Blues salvaTion of Charlie sayles

One can romanticize and fictionalize the blues, turn it into fables and pretend like you know it, but like Son House sang about the shakin’ chills,

“. . . Unless you had ’em, you never will.”

Charlie Sayles has the real damned blues!

Don’t try to romanticize the life of an itinerant street busker to Charlie. Don’t moan to him about how your baby left you or that your Chevy is broke down. You better not tell Charlie about the blues because Charlie is the walking blues.

Charlie Sayles has been homeless. He’s run through the jungle in Vietnam with a machine gun hunting down Viet Cong. He openly admits that he killed many people. He is a one-eyed bluesman because he had his eye and teeth knocked out in a fight with a gang of racists in Philadelphia. He has bashed people over the head when he believed they crossed him. He has played harmonica in the streets for 42 years as a subsistence busker. He has played Carnegie Hall and subway stops. He has been in jail and been to the White House. He has been high and low, and, before he found his redemption in Jesus, he did plenty of things to keep him out of heaven. But now he might just have a shot at it.

Underneath all of that existentialist “sturm und drang,” or despite it, is an audacious, yet sensitive person of considerable artistry and remarkable resilience. Charlie Sayles is a musician, a military veteran, a songwriter, a Christian, a street philosopher and a rambler—a complex character and a true bluesman. He has been blowing harmonica for 44 years, most often as a busker, but also in various ensembles. He had his moments of fame, but somehow each opportunity to achieve stability and a steady career was derailed by his inner turmoil. There were people who saw his talent and potential as a player. Ralph Rinzler, the influential co-founder of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and the curator for American art, music and folk culture at the Smithsonian, tried to promote him. The BBC did a documentary about him. JSP Records in England issued three records and a compilation on him. The harp player just released the record Charlie Sayles on his new label, Fetal Records, of Washington, D.C. Two of his albums were nominated for W.C. Handy Awards. He should be famous. He should be financially secure with a steady career. But, Charlie Sayles is still living the blues.

Musically, he has the chops to keep up with the best. He has developed his own style of temperamental playing, as painfully expressive as his personality, honed over decades of street busking, where the harp and meek little amp needs to compete with traffic noise without a band to back the lone soloist. His arsenal of riffs is impressive, gritty, urban blues despite the tip of the hat to Sonny Boy Williamson II. Nobody would listen to him and not rank him among the fiercest harmonica players on the scene, an irresistible amalgam of Rice Miller, Walter Horton, Little Walter and James Cotton, but with curling screams of anguish and agony. His style during his JSP recording years, 1990–2000, is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, an artist to whom Charlie paid tribute on his album Hip Guy (2000). Charlie described it as, “When I’m playing I am like in combat, fighting my enemies”—an unusual state of musicality.His is a hard blues, raw, unadorned and not pretty. This blues is a lament, but a brash, bombastic, furious, attacking, complicated one with an eerie sense of desperation. The artist is playing to survive, not just financially but as a form of catharsis down to the essential core of his humanity. In its emotive, piercing peaks he hides polyphonic nuances and peculiar overblowing bends that twirl around the cascading notes, sometimes ingeniously melodic, sometimes just volcanic eruptions and thunderous, rhythmic explosions that shake you up a little. On his new release his harmonica playing is more subdued, in some ways even gentle, a faith driven gospel blues album by a man who found redemption through Jesus. As he said, “I had nobody else.”

Charles Warner Sayles was born on January 4, 1948, in Woburn, in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, one of four children. His initiation to the blues came early—a lasting memory of his daddy viciously beating his mother when he was just two years old. That was the reason his family fell apart in 1950 and how he ended up with his grandparents in Andover, Massachusetts, but that idyllic arrangement was short lived. By 1953, when Sayles was five years old, he and his siblings were in the foster care system, one of the greatest breeding grounds for the blues ever invented. Sayles went through at least five foster homes, some good, some bad but none lasting. “So you know like you go to one foster home and something would happen and you’d move to another one. What it is, is if you’re black—if you’re a nice child, do everything—you might stay there forever, but it just wasn’t that way. Maybe I wasn’t perfect— but that’s just what happened. That’s my life.”

By age 11, he ended up as the only black kid in the Plummer Home for Boys in Salem, Massachusetts, a group residential home for ten boys at the time, that he describes as “not exactly a reformatory, but definitely not a real home.” It was a place where he was tormented by constant and unrelenting racial taunting by two older bullies, an unbearably stressful situation for a kid who was separated from his family and siblings. It was a lonely place for a kid to grow up, a place that was isolating and alienating, perhaps a better place to be than many, but still Sayles was an outcast and he slipped into the uncontrollable emotional turmoil of anger and anguish that would follow him throughout his life.By the time he finished high school with classes as an automotive mechanic, he was a troubled teenager: “I was a lone wolf, all to myself. Been that way all of my life. I didn’t like people. A year before I went to Vietnam I guess about six months, and I was so angry with life—not Vietnam—I’m talking about before Vietnam. I had challenged God to a fight. I said, ‘God, if you’re up there, let’s fight, because I’m tired of you, I’m tired of this life. I don’t dig it.’ And it has nothing to do with Vietnam.I’m talking about life. Every second of it. Okay? I don’t dig going to school, and every time somebody gets a Valentine thing, ‘I love you’—I never got one, man. Not any year. All right? I never had a girlfriend—I didn’t like that. I was always getting into fights—I didn’t like that. And I didn’t like not having no mother and father.Okay? I don’t see nothing good in it. And that’s how angry I was.”

From this odious situation, the lonely hardship of youth in an institution, he would soon meet the biggest institution for young poor, black men of the era—the U.S. Army.Homeless at age 20, with no family to turn to, no hope for an education or a decent job, life had nothing better to offer him. The army was drafting young warriors to brave the jungles of Vietnam, and in August 1968, young Charlie Sayles enlisted and bought his second ticket to the blues—the brutality of the war in southeast Asia.

Most Vietnam vets don’t talk about what they did in that war. Sayles defies the unofficial code of silence. He doesn’t hold back.Vietnam is a central point of his personal narrative, an experience that seems to be in vivid recollection to this day. He freely talks about it, including the high number of people in whose killing he says he was involved. He even wrote a journal about his war experiences, portions of which he has shared here exclusively with Living Blues. “I had to go to a Vietnam kind of anger management class for two years in order to get some money from the government. So they ask us to write down our experiences.”

A piece he wrote titled “All the Times My Life Was in Danger as an Infantry Soldier in Vietnam” included: “I was in the 101st Airborne infantry base in the northern part of (South) Vietnam called Camp Eagle. We were replacing 30 men from a company of 100 men who had just been killed by our own airstrikes. I did that for a year, from August 1968 to August 1969. We averaged about two to four times of running into combat with the enemy every month. For the first six months I was the assistant machine gunner for the M-60 gunner. . . . I re-upped for a second tour to Vietnam because that’s the only place where I ever had any respect paid to me as man. I was in the infantry, a paratrooper with a combat badge. That meant something.I was somebody. I was a sergeant with a combat badge. I had respect. My second year in Vietnam I chose the 173rd Airborne long range recon company. You went out into the field with a six man team for four days or less.Everything was done by helicopter. The six man team would be flown out to where the enemy was hiding. . . . We once surrounded a village at night from the high ground while flares lit up the night like it was day so we could see the people trying to get away. We got some returning fire but not much. We fired at people running around off and on all night until morning . . . ”

In a piece he wrote titled “The Problems I Have Today” he described: “Depression at times, and I got into music so I didn’t have to deal with people and holding a regular job.Anger has gotten me into fights and disputes.I don’t have too many friends, especially the first ten years out of the army. I just didn’t like anybody and I didn’t trust them. I lost a lot of music jobs because of my anger and sometimes fighting. I tried school, but couldn’t fit in. I am jumpy over loud noises or anything out of the ordinary. I don’t socialize and can’t seem to get along with people. Just thinking of people makes me frown, angry and depressed at times throughout the day. I never could hold a job when I got out of the army. I would either get fired or I would quit.

“I became a blues harmonica player.I make my money as a street musician and heading a band whenever I can get a gig, which are hard to get and don’t pay much. I have been in dozens of fistfights, when you get angry there is always a chance for physical violence. I lost my eye in Philly when I got in a fight with a white street gang. They called me some racial names and like a magnet I was over there fighting until I dropped. I lost an eye and few teeth on that one. Most every day I’ll think of something that has happened to me in the past and I get angry all over again as I keep going over it in my mind. For years once I left the army I didn’t like anybody. Seemed to me everybody was a potential problem I didn’t feel like dealing with. That’s one reason I got into music and teaching myself to play the harmonica and write songs and perform them.I started from scratch with no formal training at all once I got out of the army. I tried school when I got out of the army but that didn’t work. I couldn’t deal with that lifestyle right after what I went through in Vietnam. I’ve lost a lot of musical jobs because of my anger and violent outbursts. So many times I’ve rolled on the ground fighting somebody over whatever.When I dream usually something bad happen.

“In Vietnam we were trained to turn toward the enemy wherever we were attacked, get down and fire our weapons at them. To this day I still have that mentality, when I get mad I lose control of my anger and sometimes it turns violent. I have a very bad anger problem if I feel I am being attacked verbally and mentally or physically. I revert back to being a soldier in Vietnam, fighting an enemy that must be destroyed or he will surely kill you and the men in your unit. Day in and day out you have to fight.”

Anger issues as a civilian are debilitating.He recounted a story when he was living in New York: “I went to 42nd Street to buy a recorder because I wanted to listen to a James Cotton cassette. When I got back to my room, it didn’t work. I wanted to listen to that record so badly, that’s how much music means to me, I was so angry, I stormed back to the store and when the damned clerk who sold it to me gave me some lip and an attitude, I took the recorder and bashed him over and over upside his head with it. I smashed him with it.

That landed me in jail for 30 days.” That experience is today defined as PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. When Charlie Sayles returned home from Vietnam he, like thousands of other Vietnam vets, was dropped back into a society with no help, no therapy and no welcoming parade. His subsequent existentialist struggles would be a heavy burden for anyone. Somehow, admirably, he is still standing and he’s made it through life with his harmonica. PTSD expert Craig J. Bryan, PsyD, ABPP, executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah, commented on Charlie Sayles’ situation: “Mr. Sayles’ struggles in life reflect the tragic legacy of the Vietnam War and demonstrate the high cost that can be paid by many veterans. Although society as a whole does not treat veterans in the same disrespectful and shameful way that our Vietnam veterans were treated, many veterans today nonetheless find it difficult to reintegrate into society and struggle in ways that are similar to Mr. Sayles. In the wake of the Vietnam War, many clinical scientists have developed better treatments and methods for helping veterans exposed to combat trauma. Today we now have very effective treatments for PTSD, especially prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy, that simply did not exist 40 years ago when Mr. Sayles returned from Vietnam.”

Charlie Sayles found his salvation, his self therapy and his personal catharsis through the blues, and a little ten-hole diatonic reed instrument. “I first started [playing harmonica] my last year in Vietnam. This white guy on my team was blowing a harmonica one day.I’ve heard a cowboy play a harmonica, but this is different. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m playing the blues.’ I had never heard the blues. They never play the blues in Salem, Massachusetts. Never. I didn’t know who B.B. King or any of those guys were. I remember when I went to Germany I bought a harmonica. Of all places Germany—that’s where they make harmonicas, you know. I started fiddling with it, and when I got out [of the military] I just started practicing on the harmonica, I just did it every day.

“I started playing on the street between 1973 and ’74 in Atlanta, Georgia, with a guy called Butch Evans, a 12-string Georgia guitarist and I’ve done it ever since, practicing and playing eight hours a day. . . . I still play the streets today, off and on in between gigs. Musicians, they’re happy if they get two gigs a month. And even those two gigs you’re lucky if you get $80. So most of them have to work a regular job or they teach music. What I do is I play it on the streets to make some money. So when you get a gig, you do the gig. I was homeless for four years after I got divorced in the early ’90s. I would go to the gig and would either stay out at a musician’s house that night or I could go back to the mission at 2 a.m. or whenever, as long as I had a pass to get back in. So that’s how I operated.So whatever it takes to play music. It’s what I do . . . If you try to take your show out on the street, people are going to look at you as crazy, first of all. You know, you’re not going to make much money, because you don’t have any real good sound system, you know, these little speakers and the cars going by. Also, it’s just the way it is. People will literally shy away from anything that’s not normal.What’s normal on the street is for people to walk real fast and look like you’re talking on your cell phone; or, just to be kind of in a down mood, going to work you know—just this non-expression. I try to get out there and do the boogie-woogie, I do it because I’ve got to make money. I’ve got to live. You’re just out there going over your songs. Also, sooner or later you’re going to run into violence, all these hassles, you’re going to run into funny people on the street. But if you don’t do that you’re not going to be a harmonica player.

“The best was playing in New York when I first started. That was the only time it was actually pretty good. That was after 1974. I stayed in the Sloane House YMCA in New York City for a couple of weeks. I was averaging probably $125 to $150 a day playing on the streets. So it was great. I liked going to movie theaters. Sometimes I’d see two or three movies a day. Go to a movie, eat, play for a couple of hours, take a nap, go to a movie, come out, play—you could play in New York until like 3 o’clock in New York at the time, on Broadway or 42nd street—those areas. The BBC made a film of me playing on the street back then (Omnibus, 1975). They rented a hotel room just to do the show, so they could look down, and there were ten deep people listening to me—I’m talking about people jumping up and down to try to do see me. . . . It never happened again.It never happened again! I didn’t have that spirit anymore. So that was the best . . . But there are also negative aspects to playing the streets. In New York you can do anything.You go to D.C., you play two hours and the cops are going to run you off or the people will not care, so it never happened again. It’s just one of those things in life. In fact, that’s how I became famous, really. When I became famous, world-known, because when they heard me, that’s when I met Ralph Rinzler and then I started playing Carnegie Hall and all them joints, going to Europe. My first album—the guy heard me on the street, that thing on BBC. He said he spent a year trying to find me to make my first album . . . He was an English guy, lived in New York, David Sax. The album is called Raw Harmonica Blues (1976). We did it in his basement in New York. He played the guitar. I like to use my foot cymbal for a lot of the songs. I just use my right foot to hit the cymbal. That’s what I’ve got with my feet. In fact, I still do that. And we stood out with him, made the album and it was up for the W.C. Handy Awards, the blues awards.”

Ralph Rinzler was associated with Smithsonian’s folklife program during that period, and he also was an influential contributor to the Newport Folk Festival. As fate would have it, Rinzler heard Sayles on the corner of Bleeker and Thompson streets on Friday, May 16, 1975, as described in a Sing Out! Article (vol. 29, no. 4) authored by Rinzler in 1983, A Future for the Blues: Charlie Sayles. Rinzler recounts meeting Sayles, who he described as a “master harmonica player.” He quoted Sayles: “Look man, before I had music to hold my life together, I had nothing. I was a bum.” Interestingly, Rinzler published a completely different version of Sayles’ Vietnam experience: “At age 18 [he was actually 20] he went to Vietnam and rose to the rank of sergeant, but after killing his first Vietnamese soldier face to face, he refused to kill again, Sayles was stripped of his rank and assigned menial tasks for the rest of the time.” Did Charlie Sayles make up this version his story to fit in better with the new circle of people he had met? We may never know, however, it’s unlikely that Rinzler’s published account can be accurate. Sayles’ current account of events bears more logical reasoning— you don’t get to the rank of sergeant in the infantry during wartime in front line combat by refusing to kill people, and you certainly don’t re-enlist for a second tour of jungle combat just to do menial tasks. When asked, the musician shrugged it off: “Yeah, he just got misinformation.Remember, Ralph didn’t really know me, he just asked some questions. He only hired me to play music. That’s ridiculous. I had been in Vietnam for two years . . . As I told you, one day we killed over 40 of them [Viet Cong], man—40 of them in one day.”

Rinzler, one of the most powerful movers and shakers on the folk roots music scene in America at the time, catapulted Sayles’ career from the street into the biggest stages in the land. He took the street busker under his wing and introduced him to the who’s who of the folk scene. Sayles played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C., each year from 1975 to 1977, and again in 1982 and ’83. He played a White House picnic on Labor Day in 1980, a show where Virginia bluesman John Jackson also performed. He appeared on stage at the Clearwater Festival in the Hudson Valley, New York, with Rinzler’s friend Pete Seeger joining him on stage. Sayles met and jammed with Bill Monroe. He was invited to a reunion celebration of the Newport Folk Festival, and other gigs including a Carnegie Hall show produced by Pete Seeger on April 30, 1991, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and Tommy Makem. Rinzler also arranged for a grant for Sayles to teach harmonica to prisoners at the Lorton Reformatory prison in Laurel Hill, Virginia, which he did for three years.

Charlie Sayles even moved into Rinzler’s Washington, D.C., home in 1981, but eventually it all ended. Whatever the efforts Rinzler made to connect Charlie with the right people, to get him working and name recognition, it was all short lived. Sayles’ issues and dramatic existentialism never let him capitalize on the moment. He would rise and fall, and in the end, the lone wolf, the tormented soul who could no longer fully integrate and operate by the rules and expectations of a structured society, would separate from the pack and go off into the wilderness. Charlie Sayles could not be tamed.

Eventually he was signed to the English JSP Records label after they saw the BBC 1975 documentary Omnibus. He recorded three albums with JSP: Night Ain’t Right (1990), which was nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, I Got Something to Say (1995) and Hip Guy (2000). He toured Europe and Asia and his songs appear on various compilation records, notably the recent Classic Harmonica Blues from Smithsonian Folkways, produced by Jeff Place and Barry Lee Pearson. He also published a harmonica instructional book.

Nowadays, the harmonica player has found Jesus and he attributes this conversion, and personal path to redemption, to having helped him quell his anger problem and to learn to get along better with people. “So when I get on stage—when I used to perform before God hit me, I performed out of anger, because I would get on stage, be nervous, do a couple of songs, seeing that people didn’t dig it, and get real angry at the people—I mean angry—and then just play like hell. And that was my formula.It was crazy. But it happened every time.Now, I know that God put music in my head and plays me like an instrument.”

On his new album, Charlie Sayles & the Blues Disciples on the Annapolis, Maryland–based Fetal Records label, he explores his life, his struggles and his faith in a decidedly more subdued style than his JSP recordings. He explained, “I’ll tell you about what I experienced. The main thing about Vietnam, it was the loneliness and gloom in that first year, being out in no-man’s land for 30 days, and the only time you are going to see somebody, it’s a cat you don’t want to see. They could be throwing a grenade at you or something. That’s a New Day Coming [a song from the new album]. That’s about being a Christian and knowing that some day you’re going to have to pay for your good and bad. And it is coming. We all know that, but we all try to dismiss it. But, anyway, those are things that I feel.”

Sayles wrote the songs, and he plays harp and sings on the album in a raspy Tom Waits sort of way. The titles of his anguished and hopeful blues reveal it all: Jesus Christ, These Chains, Vietnam and I Don’t Want to Die. He is accompanied by guitarist Tony Fazio, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. Fazio, himself a man who overcame addiction and is on a Christian path, has been Sayles’ friend for many years and a frequent collaborator. He plays a sensitive, eloquent, deep roots style a bit reminiscent of guitarist Willie Johnson of the Howlin’ Wolf band.Sayles explained, “Tony—I tell you, ain’t nobody like him.He’s the best musician I know. And he’s dedicated to the blues. He tries to make people sound good. I know that sounds strange, but most guitar players—they want their sound to sound good. I’ve seen it so many times and it’s very rare when you find a musician who is only interested in making the sound the best it can possibly be. Tony made the whole dang thing just about. He played both guitars, the bass, and we have a drummer. I sang and he did the arranging. Tony did all the work.”

Not beyond playing the hauteur, Sayles puffs things up a bit, “If you listen to the CD—I’m not bragging, but it’s the best thing I ever heard in the blues, but it’s just my personal opinion. But because every song is new, it’s different—and it’s really musically well thought out. It’s not just one boogiewoogie after another. This is like 20 years of thought going into these songs.”

Charlie Sayles may be at the best place possible right now. The kinship and support of Tony Fazio and the label president and manager Azar Dagher (a radiologist and part time musician from Annapolis, Maryland) seem to be a strong support system. His band, the Blues Disciples, are getting more gigs. Charlie Sayles is now older, able to be with people, mellowed out a bit, and his faith brings him hope and a way to cope, but his blues is as raw and openly anguished as ever.Jesus or not, it may always be.

The writer thanks Jeff Place of Smithsonian Folkways, photographer Bibiana Huang Matheis, transcriber Margaret Pooley and Azar Dagher for fact-checking support and coordination.