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Charlie Patton recorded 57 songs between 1929 and 1934 which sold exceptionally well and catapulted him into relative stardom. His legacy lives on, 80 years after he stopped doing so. Even though he has not stayed a household name, latter-day artists cite him as a major influence, from Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin and The White Stripes. The reason he has endured at all is because Patton was a self taught genius who worked out the blues for himself with little help from others. That’s not to claim that he invented the genre. musical movements tend to emerge as parallel lines of development converge. We can see that from the use of blues as a term to describe sadness from very early on, across the whole of the Mississippi area,
I laid in jail, back to the wall
Brown skin gal cause of it all
I’ve got the blues, I’m too damn mean to talk
A brown skin woman make a bull-dog break his chain.
Those lyrics from the Journal of American Folk-Lore are similar to these collected by folk music researcher Howard Odum before 1909, “I got the blues but too damn mean to cry” and “I got the blues and can’t be satisfied / Brown-skin woman cause of it all / Lord, Lord, Lord.” Slightly earlier, composer-publisher Antonio Maggio said he heard a 12-bar tune called “I Got The Blues” played by a guitarist in Louisiana in 1907.
The first bluesman Patton likely heard was Lem Nichols who sang “rag” ditties including ‘Spoonful’ and ‘Pearlee’ using a pocket knife as a slide. Even though he was about fifty years old when Patton heard him, suggesting the blues stretched back well into the heart of the 19th century, Charlie Patton is considered the beginning because, apart from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s country style, Patton’s is the earliest blues recording that we have, and the oldest recording of true Delta blues that tells us about its source. Within his single chord licks you can hear all the rhythms and expressions that would develop, with an extra phrase here, a key change there, into the form carried off the plantations and up to Chicago by greats like Muddy Waters. It’s this lineage from before Patton, that was then handed on through his recordings, to rock and roll bands during the 1960s blues revival, and the 1970s stadium-filling groups playing blues rock. A great example is Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’, which he loosely based on Patton’s ‘A Spoonful Blues’, which was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960 and became a staple song within the underground blues boom in the UK in the sixties. Most famously of all must be Cream’s reworking of the track in 1967, but it was also picked up by Ten Years After, Etta James, George Thorogood and The Grateful Dead.
Analysis of Patton’s playing has shown that he must have played most, if not all, of his songs lap style. Doing so enabled him to make long slides up as far as the 17th fret in say ‘Magnolia Blues’, where holding the guitar “normally” necessitates an uncomfortable stretch around the bottom edge of the soundboard’s upper bout. In later years, cutaway models would facilitate access to these highest pitches, but Patton likely played a black Stella, with a pearlette-white fingerboard made by the Oscar Schmidt Company. They had their headquarters in Jersey City, and were considered the “the world’s largest manufacturer of fretted musical instruments”, up until the Wall Street Crash of 1929. According to an account given to Gayle Dean Wardlow by the Reverend Pearly Brown, who knew Patton personally, the “Tefteller” portrait, being the only photograph we have of him, shows Patton seated holding a Stromberg-Voisinet parlour guitar. However, it is widely believed that the guitar in that picture is simply a prop, not Patton’s own instrument at all. Even so, he is indeed holding it flat enough to fret a chord from above. Although the arguments are persuasive, we have to remember that he was also famous for his showmanship and performance antics, playing behind his head, through his legs, riding the guitar like a mule, possibly playing with his teeth too. So he was obviously able to pick out his tunes from a variety of positions.
The sort of guitar he did play would cost less that $10 (equivalent to $125 today). In context, a plantation wage was 50 cents to a dollar, per day, but bluesmen would earn a weeks wage, five dollars for a single night’s work. New instruments, whiskey, cigarettes, fine clothes, stetson hats, automobiles and fêting their female company, would all put high demands on that income, yet as Bessie Turner recounted, Patton never seemed short of money.
It’s thought that bluesmen probably included the hit tunes of the day in their repertoire. After all, that’s what their audiences would have wanted to hear, as well as their own songs. So, it’s likely Patton would have been proficient in various Vaudeville and Tin Pan Ally tunes. But it wasn’t these previously recorded songs that any recording company would be interested in. They didn’t want cover versions, but original blues and spirituals. With growing fame, Patton decided he was ready to record. He wrote a letter to a white man named H.C. Speir, a storeowner in Jackson, Mississippi, and free-lance music scout for several northern labels, including Paramount Records, “The word was out all over Mississippi: If you want to get on record, you go audition for Mr. Speir. The word was he won’t cheat you”. Spier actually visited Dockery’s and was soon collecting his spotting fee for putting Patton on a train to go the 750-miles to Indiana. Spier’s judgement would be proven correct, “Patton was one of the best talents I ever had. And he was one of the best sellers, too, on record.” Patton would have been paid a flat fee for each song, usually about $40, which explains his sacks of money and comparative wealth.
Patton would have arrived into the grand Pennsylvania Railroad Station at North 10th Street and North E Street, downtown Richmond. On June 14, 1929, 38-year-old Charlie Patton walked into the backroom studio to the rear of a warehouse, next to some railtracks, with his Stella guitar. The Gennett (pronounced with a soft ‘g’ as in giraffe) Records studio would that day host a most prolific day in Delta blues recording, intermittently interrupted by a train rolling past. How long it took to cut all the sides from this session, we don’t know, but if he stayed in town then it was probably in ”Goose Town,” the shanty neighbourhood, north of the station. Here Gennett staff often accommodated their black recording artists.
Paramount had recorded in Chicago since 1920, but in early 1929 decided to create a studio at their headquarters in Grafton, Wisconsin. The deal with Gennett was a temporary arrangement while the building was being completed. Gennett therefore ended up producing the first sides by Patton, and the last records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. In an odd twist, Gennett was only able to keep going through a more lucrative “private” or “vanity” recording sideline, and one of their biggest customers was none other than the Klu Klux Klan who commissioned records in thousands for their membership, such as, ‘The Fiery Cross’ and ‘Wake Up America Kluck Kluck Kluck’. In 1923, Louis Armstrong made his legendary, first ever recording as part of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the studios, just before a Klan orchestra was in the same studio, using the same engineer.
Paramount released the 14, 78-rpm shellac sides recorded by Patton under three names: Charley Patton, Rev. Elder J.J. Hadley, and the rather fanciful Masked Marvel. Sales were modest at first, compared with mainstream artists, but suddenly, the Mississippi Delta had been put on the musical map, and within 5 years, Patton became the largest selling blues artist of his generation. The 14 songs were,
Mississippi Boweavil Blues, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, Down the Dirt Road Blues, Pony Blues, Banty Rooster Blues, It Won’t Be Long, Pea Vine Blues, Tom Rushen Blues, A Spoonful Blues, Shake It and Break It (But Don’t Let It Fall Mama), Prayer of Death – Part 2, Prayer of Death – Part 1, Lord I’m Discouraged, I’m Going Home.
Moving to the new Paramount studios at Grafton in October, he recorded twice as many as before,
Going To Move To Alabama, Elder Greene Blues, Circle Round The Moon, Devil Sent The Rain Blues, Mean Black Cat Blues, Frankie And Albert, Some These Days I’ll Be Gone, Green River Blues, Hammer Blues, Magnolia Blues, When Your Way Gets Dark, Heart Like Railroad Steel, Some Happy Day, You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die, Jim Lee Blues Part 1 & 2, High Water Everywhere Part 1 & 2, Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker, I Shall Not Be Moved, Rattlesnake Blues, Running Wild Blues, Joe Kirby, Mean Black Moan, Farrell Blues, Come Back Corrina, Tell Me Man Blues, Be True Be True Blues.
In June the following year, only 4 sides were laid down,
Dry Well Blues, Some Summer Day, Moon Going Down, Bird Nest Bound.
and it would be another four years before he would make it back into a studio, this time a dozen songs for Vocalion Records, based in New York City,
Jersey Bull Blues, High Sheriff Blues, Stone Pony Blues, 34 Blues, Love My Stuff, Revenue Man Blues, Oh Death, Troubled ‘Bout My Mother, Poor Me, Hang It on the Wall, Yellow Bee, Mind Reader Blues.
Patton’s recording legacy is extraordinary in elevating the blues idiom to a whole new level and many of these tracks have attained legendary status. The recordings suffer from the low quality shellac reproduction dynamics, but in one way this adds to their antiquity and charm, but in another, frustrates a relaxed listening experience. As the Gomez song goes, “I spend a lifetime / Trying to decipher / Charlie Patton Songs / I don’t know why I bother / Even if I think it’s right / It always comes out wrong”. Ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon notes in the book Shadows in the Field how he had sat with Patton’s friend Son House, trying to get him to decipher the lyrics from a tape recording. Rather than attempt it, House instead reminisced about how “Papa Charlie” got religion in the old days in the Mississippi Delta and how they had made bad moonshine whiskey together, inevitably ending up in a scrape with the law. As a case in point, ‘Banty Rooster Blues’ is delivered with a drawl that masks its message as a celebratory and defiant song, with a cryptic hint of sex, as we saw in ‘Easy Rider’ before, “My hook’s in the water and my cork’s on top / My hook’s in the water and my cork’s on top / How can I lose, Lord, with the help I got / I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark / I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark / I can tell my rider if I feel her in the dark“.
‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues’ has that gravelly but light tenor, fantastic double strum on the bass notes, like a drone humming while a bottleneck intermittently spikes up through the depths. It’s a blueprint for punk rock as much as the blues. ‘Screamin’ and Hollerin’’ has more of a countrified feel with stepping down bassline and light strum across the mid- to treble strings this time. Patton seems to be establishing two styles depending on what he assigns to the rhythmic part of his songs and what is reserved for intonation, to follow his voice for the chorus, or accentuating significant lyrical lines. ‘Down the Dirt Road Blues’ has a counter rhythm tapped out on the guitar body to give his country blues style an additional layer.
Patton also covered several songs, but would usually modify something about them to make them his own. The most recognisable example is his hit ‘Some Summer Day’, which uses The Mississippi Sheiks million bestseller ‘Sitting On Top of the World’. The melody was left unchanged but “But now he’s gone, I don’t worry / Because he still has chance number three.” replaced the famous refrain, “But now she’s gone, I don’t worry / I’m sitting on top of the world”.
Singing a much modified version of the popular Tin Pan Alley song ‘Some of These Days’, Patton’s booming drawl makes the tellurian lyrics about love and loss sound hymnal, even dirge-like, “Some these days, you’re gonna be sorry / Some these days, I’m going away / Some these days, you’re gonna miss your honey / I know you’re gonna miss me, sweet dream pie, be going away”. It departs dramatically from the the earlier 1911 recording by ex-Ziegfeld Follies, Music Hall singer Sophie Tucker. Her version of the song written by Shelton Brooks is a mid-tempo show tune run through with an arabic swirl. It also differs markedly from Patton’s reading because he discarded the context-setting preamble that Tucker half-spoke to introduce the sweetheart protagonists and explain the circumstance of their parting. It’s clearly a highly malleable song, recorded by Tucker (1911), as well as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1923), Art Landry and His Call of the North Orchestra (1923), Ted Lewis and His Band with Tucker again (1926), Vaughn De Leath (1927), Ethel Waters (1927) and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra in the same year as Patton. By the time Bobby Darin recorded it as a big band ragtime number in 1959, while the verse-chorus structure remained essentially the same, the lyrics and styling have been changed again so that it is barely recognisable as the original.
Of note is how Patton adapted the song, retitled ‘Some These Days I’ll Be Gone’, by introducing lyrics to change the rhythmic structure, rather than simply accentuate a different note, as was the case for Tucker and Darin. The verses of the three versions show the effect of elongating the last line with the effect of introducing tension, until it is released on the final note.
Some of these days You’ll miss me, honey,
Some of these days You’ll feel so lonely;
You’ll miss my hugging, You’ll miss my kissing,
You’re gonna miss me, honey, when I’m faar away.
Some of these days You’re gonna miss me, baby
Some of these days You’re gonna feel you’re so lonely
You’ll miss my huggin’ You’re gonna miss my kissin’
You’ll miss me, baby When I am far awaaaaaaaay
Some these days, you’re gonna miss your honey
Some these days, I am going awaaaaaaaaaaay
Some these days, you’re gonna miss your honey
I know you’re gonna miss me, sweet dream pie, be going away
Extending these lines, Patton is stretching and moulding the chord sequence of the original into the basic structure of a 12-bar blues. Another example of this is his ‘Banty Rooster Blues’ recorded in the same year,
I’m going to buy me a banty, put him in my back door
I’m going to buy me a banty, put him in my back door
Lord, he sees a stranger coming, he’ll flap his wings and crow
Here Patton has gone one stage further and collapsed the first lines into a repeated single phrase. The classic “I woke up this morning…” formula.
One of the devices that allows him to stretch and bend the chord structure so much is a repeating bass signature. Sam Chatmon (below) remembered that Patton only knew how to play in two tunings, E and open G, also known as “Spanish”, although fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey also identified songs in the keys of F and C, as well as the key of D played in an open D tuning. In the case of ‘Some These Days I’ll Be Gone’ with that lovely gospel melody, in the key of E major, the unfretted bottom E string acts like a drone, anchoring the rhythm and melody to the root note. Tension results by moving away from the root towards another significant note, defined by the matching scale, or mode (Patton uses the Ionian here). The note most often used is the dominant. B is the dominant of the E ionian mode.
In pop music, a jump to the dominant or subdominant, is often used to introduce a change in the song’s energy. It’s the bit where the key changes, it’s proper name is modulation, and the singer in the video looks like they’ve strained something. In these oldest blues, also known as primeval blues, instead of changing the key, the dominant is used only briefly to establish tension within the musical progression. A popular chord to play at this point is a 7th. It sounds real bluesy. Later, Patton and others would add another chord, also often a 7th to give us the 12-bar blues progression that has been used thousands and thousands of times during the last century. His ‘Moon Goin’ Down’ and ‘High Water Everywhere’ are great examples of this.
The perceptive W.C. Handy had noticed this flavouring of the southern music during his travels, and imitated it to give his own compositions a bluesy sound,
The primitive southern Negro, as he sang, was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tone of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton field of the Delta or on the Levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same. Till then, however, I had never heard this slur used by a more sophisticated Negro, or by any white man. I tried to convey this effect … by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called blue notes) into my song, although its prevailing key was major … , and I carried this device into my melody as well … This was a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot.
Today we have the luxury of perspective, broadened by immediate access to the world’s musics, and deepened by archival research, literally rooting out the stories of their development. We can now compare the lineages of African blues by the likes of Ali Farka Touré and American blues and conclude that the significant difference is the absence of a 12-bar progression entirely, with a stronger reliance on rhythmic and polyrhythmic components to shape the music. It is then possible to suggest and test a rhythmic connection to a development within another musical movement, the modal form that George Russell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, etc., did so much to progress in Jazz music. This is why the blues can be claimed to underlie modern music, and those pioneers of the primitive blues are the start of it all. Charlie Patton would probably not be able to discern his Delta blues in Davis’ sublime ‘Freddie Freeloader’, even though it is a 12-bar blues, nor in Cream’s rollicking version of ‘Spoonful’. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we can. So, while Charlie Patton wasn’t necessarily the inventor of the Delta blues, he was the first to put on record what it sounding like in its early days. His recordings have proven to be a benchmark for all that followed, and an invaluable reference point worth a king’s ransom, and deserves the type of respect usually reserved for royalty.
[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.
Charlie Patton died April 28, 1934. His legacy, the music we call the Delta Blues. That’s a huge legacy for one person to leave: Founding Father of the Delta Blues. But, how many people know his name compared to the superstars of the blues that have become household names? And in any case, everyone knows Robert Johnson invented the blues, right?
Well, not according to history, but not a history taught in schools much, nor one that appears in several popular books on the subject. It seems that when names have to be left out for whatever reason, accessibility, simplicity, parsimony, Patton’s is amongst the first to go.
If there is any turning of the tide, then it has been mostly in the last few decades, even though references to him in popular culture have been fairly restricted to appreciation amongst fellow musicians, for example, name-checking him in song titles: Bob Dylan (‘High Water for Charlie Patton’) and British indie band, Gomez (‘Charlie Patton Songs’). So, let’s attempt to raise his profile and meanwhile fill in a few gaps.
Charlie, often misspelled Charley, Patton was born in 1891 to Bill and Annie Patton, who lived in Mississippi, somewhere in the 10 miles separating Bolton from Edwards, due East of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. There were nine daughters and three sons in all, but only two girls survived past childhood. Charlie’s brothers faired marginally better, “C” being accidentally killed in 1918, still a teenager, by his best friend while hunting. Elder brother Willie, on the other hand, lived until 1959, dying aged 64. (Above is one of Charlie’s own children, Rosetta Patton Brown, seen holding her father’s portrait in 1996).
Charlie’s striking features, that you can see in this one and only photograph of him, were a mixture of African-American (mother and father), White-American (paternal grandfather) and Cherokee (maternal grandmother). His mother and her Red Indian lineage would be the subject of several of his songs in years to come. She is mentioned late in life, in ‘Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues’ (“My mama’s getting old, her head is turnin’ gray / Don’t you know it’ll break her heart, know, my livin’ this-a way?”), and ‘Troubled ‘Bout My Mother’ was written after her death (“Lord, I wonder a-where’s my mother, Lordy, I wonder, Lordy / where she’s gone… / Now she’s up in the Kingdom, Lordy, she won’ be troubled any mo’…”). The ancestry that he inherited from her crops up in ‘Down the Dirt Road Blues’, making reference to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (“I’m goin’ away, to a world unknown … been to the Nation, oh Lord, but I couldn’t stay there”).
Charlie nurtured an early interest in the blues, but it was frowned upon by his father who shared suspicions about the music with other devout Christians, fearing it Satan’s work. However, beatings meted out to dissuade him failed to have their intended effect, and his father eventually acquiesced, even buying him his first guitar.
Like many other families across the southern region, the Pattons sought a better life by relocating to the Dockery sawmill and cotton plantation, near Indianola, beside the Sunflower River between Cleveland and Ruleville.
Renowned for it’s superior wages and better treatment than on other Mississippi estates, Dockery’s allowed shareholding and worker promotion, and also boasted modern labour-reducing machinery, such as a cotton-gin for separating fibre from seed. The estate offered excellent amenities for its workers including, stores, railroad, telegraph, church, graveyard, and a recreation ground.
By the time the Pattons moved to Dockery’s Plantation at the turn of the century, Charlie had received a good education, eventually reaching ninth grade, had studied the Bible, and could play some basic chords, enough to accompany the Chatmon brothers who had formed a group they called the Mississippi Sheiks. He didn’t hang around very long however. Their Tin Pan Alley and Ragtime songs weren’t satisfying him and he thirsted for something with more sincerity.
The Mississippi Sheiks would go on to become famous for their 1930 single ‘Sitting on Top of the World’, continuing as a group until 1937, when three of the brothers and two of their sisters died. Sam Chatmon (pictured below) survived to work plantations until he was rediscovered in the 60s and went on to have a reasonably successful solo career right up until he died in 1983 shortly after his final performance, at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival.
Through being interviewed during this period, he provided a vital link with the past, and made some revelatory claims, amongst them, that he was Patton’s half-brother, and their father was Henderson Chatmon, himself, “born of mixed union, and had very little black blood”. If you were wondering about the top colorised picture of Patton, this is why he is depicted as being, “evidently of primarily white and Indian descent” with “copper hair”, (the range of skin tones was generated using the colour photo of Sam Chatmon below).
Patton stayed much of his early life with the Chatmons and the many brothers and half-brothers he had born to Henderson and his mother. According to Sam Chatmon, was acceptable and nobody seeming to mind having these open relationships,
My daddy had three wives and my mother had the least children of any of them, which was 13. Daddy said he had 60 children with the three wives, but that ain’t counting Charlie Patton and all of them on the outside. Papa died in 1934 when he was 109 years old. My grandmother lived to be a 125. She said she’d come from the place where they caught the slaves on the Niger River. She said they’d put molasses out and catch them and herd them into a boat.
Having absorbed the foundations of his singing and playing style from mainly living with the Chatmons, Charlie’s quest to find a more meaningful music led him to the plantation’s bluesmen. One of their number was Henry Sloan, an innovator of the Delta blues way of playing, which he began teaching to Charlie from about 1905. Their playing together lasted for several years. Later accompanists of Patton, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both remembered that he, “dogged every step” of Sloan’s. In this sense, Sloan could be considered the real “Father of the Blues” or perhaps better still, the “Granpappy of the Blues”, as he was likely responsible for nurturing Patton’s interest in this newly emerging music.
So, perhaps the first significant person in Delta Blues history that we know anything about was this Henry Sloan. Obviously, we should take a quick look at him, unfortunately not literally because no known photograph exists. Also, details of his life are sketchy at best, but a version of his story claims him born in 1869 and christened “James”. His parents were likely Sam and Laura Sloan. The name of his wife has not been passed down, but we do know that she died in 1898 probably during childbirth, leaving him with three children (3 years, 1 year and a newborn). The children were cared for by their grandparents, Sam (58 years old) and Laura (aged 53) while Henry, who was literate, worked as a farmer on a plantation in Hinds County. He also played guitar and sang songs in a style distinct to the local area.
It’s often quoted that composer-musician W.C. Handy (pictured below, centre holding trumpet, with his Memphis Orchestra in 1918) encountered Sloan while Henry was dossing down on Tutwiler train station in 1902/3,
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.
The next day they separated, Handy going on to proclaim himself the Father of the Blues and write the account above in his autobiography with the same title forty years later. To be fair to Handy, he probably felt justified in giving himself this title because by that time he would have had great success in publishing 12-bar blues as sheet music, and bringing the music to the attention of the wider public. But anyone bearing him a grudge that he usurped Sloan or Patton, or their own favourite for the blues crown, should know that Handy’s music never really bore much similarity to the Delta blues in it’s oldest form.
Indeed, Handy’s first big success came about in 1912 when he rewrote his composition for a mayoral candidate, changing the song’s title to ‘Memphis Blues’, but it actually wasn’t very bluesy at all. More of a march, it has a blues-like structure that can be traced to a type of 12-bar folk song that Handy had already encountered during the 1890’s in Evansville, 350 miles to the North-East of Tutwiler. It’s quite clear from the earliest recordings that Handy’s blues is the urban blues of ragtime and Jazz.
Of note, in 1914 Handy would write ‘The Yellow Dog Rag’ in answer to Shelton Brooks’ song, ‘I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone?’, which told a story about Jockey Lee swindling Susie Johnson out of her money she had intended to put on a horse race. Future revisions of these songs would be called ‘E.Z. Rider’, Easy Rider, ‘See See Rider’ and ‘C.C. Rider Blues’, each with their own typically sexual suggestion; “Riding” is a common euphemism for sex, so an “Easy” or “E.Z.” rider is a promiscuous partner,
C.C. Rider, where did you stay last night?
Yeah, your shoes ain’t laced,
Your clothes ain’t fittin’ you right.
Handy’s song was first picked up by jazz bands and vaudeville-blues singers in the early ‘20s. Lizzie Miles recorded it in ’23, but it was made famous by Bessie Smith in ’25 accompanied by the Fletcher Henderson Hot Six, singing a version fairly faithful to the original, railroad-inspired lyrics,
Dear Sue, your easy rider struck this burg today
On a southbound rattler beside the Pullman car.
I seen him there and he was on the hog.
He’s gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog.
Despite being a famous tune, it wasn’t recorded in this form by any rural bluesmen, because it came from an urban blues scene, at this stage independent to the Delta provinces. One of those bluesmen, Crying Sam Collins would record a version of ‘Yellow Dog Blues’ in 1927, likely the closest that we have to what Handy had heard a quarter century before,
I would ride the Yaller Dog but wary of Mary Jane,
I wanna ride the Yaller Dog, were wary of Mary Jane.
I dug deep in my saddle, an’ I don’t deny my name.
Dug deep in my saddle, Lord, an’ I don’t deny my name.
Just as sure as the train leaves around the curve.
Central to the song is that phrase Handy had heard in Tutwiler, “where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog”. This refers to a local link that connected both musical worlds, urban and rural. It’s where the main Southern Railway crossed the provincial Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, previously the Yazoo Delta Railroad (the site is still preserved today, picture above).
The smaller line was nicknamed “Yellow Dog”, possibly for its YD initials and yellow carriages, and a short-dog being a branch line, or named after the prohibitive “yellow dog” contract that railroad workers were required to sign waving any union rights. There’s also talk of a legendary yellow dog that used to chase the passing locomotives.
It’s intriguing to think about the relative proximity of this crossing, certainly by modern-day standards, and know that those musical worlds could have met sooner than they did. The first wave of bluesmen, such as Big Joe Williams, relocated to Chicago in the ’30s, significantly followed by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf a decade later. But, it’s not known whether Sloan rode the mainline the 42 miles south to Moorhead, where this famous crossing exists. All we do know is that about that time he was living on the Dockery Plantation, having moved there a few years before the Tutwiler incident. This timing is likely because we know that it coincided with another family also moving there. They were called Patton, but that’s a different story, and we’ll catch up with Charlie in the second part to this post.
Meanwhile, Henry Sloan left Dockery’s about 1910 leaving few traces to his whereabouts. Most likely he had settled about a decade later, 160 miles to the north, in West Memphis, Arkansas. By then he had a wife, Mary, and two sons. Pretty much all else we know is that he died in Crittendon County on March 13, 1948, aged a venerable 78 years: and so ended the life of the first great bluesman, the inventor of the Blues and Charlie Patton’s teacher. Or was he?
[If you want to know more, see the next part to this post]
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25 April 2015
Oliver Sacks shares a laugh with actor Robin Williams in 1989 during the filming of Awakenings
“Dear Chifuti Safaris clients,
It is with deep sadness to announce the passing of Chifuti Safaris professional hunter Ian Gibson.…”
There’s quite a bit of debate raging about this hunter guide who, allowing his client to rest after 5 hours of following a bull elephant in musth, went ahead with his tracker “in hopes of getting a look at the ivory”.
The defence for Gibson and his ilk boils down to the anti-hunting lobby don’t understand, that hunting supports the local tribes, through employment and being gifted the dead animal after removal of whatever bits the client wishes to keep as a souvenir, including ivory legally brought back into the UK, and that the revenue sponsors maintenance of protected areas and conservation of endangered species.
It’s bollocks of course. Yes, the tribes get a bit of meat, etc. The trackers get paid a pittance, and privately-owned hunting parks are maintained at higher stocking rates than natural capacity would allow. The companies that offer these “safaris” are the only ones seeing most of the £10,000 clients pay to shoot a giraffe, or $40,000 to kill an elephant. If you’re on a budget, Vervet monkeys and Tree squirrels are but $200 each, but there won’t be much left of either after a .375 calibre bullet has passed through.
So, knowing a bit about it, having worked in the field with private and public land managers, professional rangers, wardens and academics, and local tribespeople, I can conclude this about hunters, their clients and the companies that make it possible to kill these animals for money: FUCK ‘EM. I wish more of the bastards got killed pursuing their sick pastime.
Another guitar great and legendary musician has died.
My Spanish roots must have given me a love of Flamenco from the outset. It’s still the single musical genre to which I find it hardest to multitask, write, or even sit still. The merest scent of duende and I’m all “¡Ole!” and “Mi aerodeslizador está lleno de anguilas”.
Manitas de Plata, literally “Hands of Silver”, but in a good way, not like the baddie out of Enter the Dragon who can carve the Sunday roast without even a glance at the cutlery drawer.
No, Manitas, probably just “Hans” to his amigos, oozed duende, the fiery depth of spirit that flows within the heart of gypsy Flamenco. He was a walking fountain of it, enough to sire the majority of the Gypsy Kings, anyway.
Indeed, if Paco de Lucía was the new face of Flamenco, then Manitas de Plata was the ancient, craggy, Hadean understratum that underpinned this soul music from the dawn of time. Well, since his first recording in 1963 at least.
A couple of related trivia that I like:
Manitas de Plata only agreed to play in public ten years after the death of Django Reinhardt, unanimously considered the king of gypsy guitarists.
Upon hearing Manitas de Plata play at Arles in 1964, Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed “that man is of greater worth than I am!” and proceeded to draw on the guitar (see picture, above).
Now, behold his greatness…