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?