[If you want to know the story so far, see the first part to this post]
Back at Dockery’s, by the time Sloan had left, Charlie Patton was an accomplished 19-year old performer and songwriter. How he had reached this level of musicianship is hotly debated. blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow interviewed people still living at Dockery’s in the 60’s,
All [Patton] learned from Henry Sloan was basically some chords. They’ve made Henry Sloan into an older bluesman, but there’s no evidence to back it up, based on the different people I’ve talked to at Dockery’s — even [Patton’s] sister, Viola… .
Furthermore, and this is a shocker, there were some older inhabitants who recalled that Sloan didn’t play guitar at all! If this was the case, then not only does it suggest Patton largely taught himself to play, and he truly can be considered the Father of the Delta Blues in the absence of any other named candidates, but it also disqualifies Sloan being Handy’s Tutwiler “lean, loose-jointed Negro”.
It also happens to chime with the view of Patton biographers, Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow,
Although Charlie Patton’s sister once told her son that he learned the guitar as a ten or eleven year old and ‘come up playin’,’ Patton himself told his protege [sic] Booker Miller that he began to play guitar around the age nineteen or twenty. Assuming that he reckoned his birth year as falling between 1887 and 1890, this account would firmly place the beginning of his career sometime between 1906 and 1909, when he had spent at least five years in the Delta. The earlier date is preferable, since he was already a musician when he met Millie Barnes in 1908.
We’re never really going to know for sure, of that we can be certain! Even with these doubts, some people still hold out for Sloan, mainly because of what other musicians from that time had supposedly said. Tommy Johnson even claimed the popular “Pony Blues” was actually a Sloan song, which Patton learnt and performed faithful to the original. Equally unconvinced, some people think Handy’s man must have been Crying Sam Collins because of his 1927 ‘Yellow Dog Blues’ which would have meant a 200 mile journey from his home in McComb, due South of Tutwiler.
Most people, however, unflinchingly think that it was Patton whom Handy must have heard playing, because of his known musicianship, proximity and itinerant lifestyle, and it fits the romanticised version of events. Ethnomusicologist David Evans wrote,
Tutwiler is only seventeen miles north of Drew, and Cleveland is only five miles west of Dockery’s plantation. It is even possible that the singer at Tutwiler was the young Charlie Patton, who was able to play knife-style guitar and who recorded that very stanza [“Goin’ Where the Southern cross the Dog”] twenty six years later in his “Green River Blues”.
Irrespective of who it was, if that encounter did influence Handy’s musical path from then on, it’s ironic that a Father of the Delta Blues inspired the “Father of the Blues”, yet their music was distinctly different and grew out of unique roots. And, given the doubt over dates, it could have been Patton.
So, with Charlie Patton still on our radar, what else do we know about him? Well, in keeping with his reputation, he married eight or so times, and had many affairs. A wanderer, heavy smoker and drinker, likely an alcoholic, he could be an angry and aggressive individual, expressing fury through his music and in his relationships. His brawling led to him serving at least one gaol term. A superstitious man, he occasionally flirted with religion, but did not show much commitment until later on in life, when he spent time also preaching and singing gospels.
Patton never worked much on Dockery’s Plantation, but he lived on and around the farm throughout the rest of his life, earning a good living playing the blues, for both white and black audiences at parties hosted by Dockery. He would also frequently be thrown off the site for distracting the workers with his music and fooling around. Patton’s niece, Bessie Turner recalled that Dockery,
liked for all his folks to be nice, lively, have parties. He’d give free picnics and things like that and got Uncle Charlie to play. Had a platform built for them to dance on the Fourth of July. The dance started about one o’clock and ended up the next morning. Start on the Fourth and end up on the fifth, dancing out there, right at that grove … That’s where Uncle Charlie have made many a tune … That’s where the parties used to be. All through the year they have parties. Mr. Dockery put on big barbecues, and Uncle Charlie used to play. All his Negroes would be there. Homer Lewis, and Willie Brown, Mr. Henry Sloan, Mr. Bonds. They had a group, some blowing a little old horn [cf. kazoo] and Uncle Charlie picking guitar and one playing the accordion, Willie Brown and him picking guitar. Mr. Homer Lewis, he played the accordion.
Patton also played local Juke Joints, and his name spread, generating a previously unheard of popularity across the southern states. To put his success in perspective, his steady income was about fifty to a hundred dollars per week, which was perhaps ten-times that of a plantation worker. Not averse to enjoying his wealth, Patton’s tastes were not cheap. He bought Model T Fords, with the exception that his last car was a Chevrolet. He wore well-tailored suits, finished off with a stetson hat, an unmistakeable statement of standing, but not quite as boastful as his guitars which were decorated with gold. Bessie Turner said,
He have a sack of money every time he would go and come back, and he would take that money and pin it to his pajamas[sic] and sleep with it under his legs. Then his wife would call me and say, ‘Come here and look at this sack of money Charlie got between his legs.
Despite his small build, five-feet-five and 135 pounds, he seemed a much larger presence: cocky and often belligerent, with a loud gravelly voice and flamboyant tricks, spinning and slapping the guitar in rhythm and playing it blind, on his knees, then through his legs, and now behind his head, then spinning it slapping the back as a drum. You can imagine the spectacle. Here, long before Hendrix, Patton was performing with dazzling showmanship. According to Sam Chatmon,
Charlie used to come around and twirl the guitar and then play and make it come out right. Then he had this way of tapping on the guitar too, the same time he played, and a lot of others too, like behind his neck.
Not everyone appreciated his stage antics though. A stickler for precision and diction, Son House objected to Patton’s lack of self-discipline and sloppiness, “Charlie, he could start singing of the shoe there and wind up singing about that banana”. Listening to a Patton recording is certainly ear-opening. You’re often left straining to work out the words he’s singing, even with the lyrics in front of you, “Here’s a lill boweavil, he’s movin in a haayvaa lowdair…” and “Lumdee yay come missa honey…”, etc. But then again, that’s what mothers were saying about Rod Stewart in the 70s!
In spite of his detractors, Charlie’s skills created quite a following amongst the other local musicians: Tommy Johnson (who met Patton in 1910), Fiddlin’ Joe Martin (… 1924), Howlin’ Wolf (… 1930), Son House (… 1930), John Lee Hooker (… c. 1931), all revered his music, as did guitarist Willie Brown (… 1910) who would become Patton’s duetting partner. Notably, Robert Johnson wasn’t even born until the year after Henry Sloan had left Dockery’s, but he too would benefit from the scene around the plantation, moving into the area in 1925. Playing on a first guitar given to him, he hooked up with the same Willie Brown, who Johnson would write into a certain song about a certain crossroads.
Before Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters and beyond, Patton’s influence pervades all. His most popular and influential record paired “Pony Blues” with “Banty Rooster Blues.” People, places and topical events in the Delta regularly featured. “High Water Everywhere” is his 2-part magnum opus that recounts the tragedies during the Great Flood of ’27. Patton was spotted by Henry Speir, a white, music store-owning talent scout for Paramount records on the lookout for more artists to follow up the huge success they’d had recording Blind Lemon Jefferson.
The tip off led to the first recording session, and several thereafter. Paramount recorded 68 titles performed by Patton between 1929 and 1934, plus an additional 7 as accompanist. The first session at the Gennett Records studios along the Whitewater River in Richmond, Indiana, laid down 14 songs which almost instantly made him the best-selling blues artist. The next session was at Paramount’s house studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, which was twice as productive. Other musicians playing on his sides were fiddler Henry “Son” Sims, Eddie “Son” House, Willie Brown and pianist Louise Johnson.
Patton had left Dockery’s in about 1928, spending time in Jackson and then Clarksdale the following year. He met Bertha Lee in 1930 by which time he had made it as far as Lula, 60 miles to the north of Dockery’s. About this time he also met Son House and started gigging with him. Patton and Lee headed south again in ’33 and settled for the last time, just twenty miles southwest of his starting point.
By 1930, Patton’s lifestyle was taking its toll and he was suffering failing health. The Final session recorded a dozen tracks in early 1934, at Vocalion Records in New York, a label bought by Brunswick Records and subsumed into Decca. He travelled with last wife Bertha Lee who sang on some of the songs. A further 17 sides were actually also recorded, but were lost, likely destroyed. But, if you were to find them … !
As with the details for the rest of his life, there is confusion about his death too. For a long time, Patton was thought to have died during February 1934, in Holly Ridge, aged 42, and for a whole range of fatal reasons. Sharecropper and friend Jim Edwards reported Pattons death was of heart trouble, and that he died alone in Longswitch near Leland. One of his wives Minnie Franklin Washington reckoned he drank himself to death. Alternatively, witnesses had him murdered at the Holly Ridge general store. Other rumours also had him poisoned, or gashed across the throat by a jilted lover at a barrelhouse, a story Booker Washingtom White confirmed on record. While not fatal, Charley was indeed gashed across the throat which healed as a large, conspicuous scar, possibly the reason why his collar appears pulled up on one side in the only photograph we have of him. Almost too banal, Son House was sent a telegram from Bertha Lee saying Charley had died from the mumps. Untrue, and very suggestive that Bertha Lee was not with Patton when he died. More in keeping with his larger-than-life reputation, and the blues folklore of selling your soul to the devil, a friend Hayes McMullan reported that he died from a lightning strike.
As even with his fame, Charley’s passing was not reported by the newspapers, the last word, literally, must be given to his death certificate upon which the only other name is Willie Calvin, and no Bertha Lee. It records the date of death as April 28, 1934, and lists the cause of death as Mitral Valve Disorder at the age of 43. This bicuspid valve separates the upper left heart chamber from the lower left heart chamber, and helps control blood flow through the heart. It’s worth noting that he was rejected for military service during World War I because of a heart disorder. Of the various forms of disease and infection that can cause malfunction, it is most likely that Patton’s lifestyle of heavy drinking and chain smoking would have increased the chances of a prolapse of the mitral valve, perhaps with complications of regurgitation where blood leaks back into the left atrium, over time causing congestive heart failure. He may well have experienced shortness of breath, tiredness, dizziness, ankle swelling, persistent coughing, lack of appetite and associated weight loss, tachycardia and chest pain.
The place of death was the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola, where he was living at, 350, Heathman Street. Therefore, he died at home. The house is no longer there, replaced by a well-appointed, spacious, leafy, suburban estate. He is buried in Holly Ridge. Both towns are located in Sunflower County which led to the confusion about the location. In July 1990, a memorial headstone was placed as close as possible to the correct location as remembered by cemetery caretaker C. Howard who said he had been present at the burial. The stone was paid for by John Fogerty and the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and Jim O’Neal composed the Patton epitaph. Charley Patton’s gravesite (below) is 60 miles to the South-West of Tutwiler and that legendary meeting place with W.C. Handy, and only 20 miles due West of Moorhead, where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog.