Charley Patton - Biography

Virologists and immunobiologists constantly hunt for the source of a virus, for the first person to host it when it jumped from Their species to Ours. They label that hypothetical person Patient Zero. Music historians and ethnomusicologists engage in a similar pursuit, as they search for the origins of the sound that infects nearly all of today’s worthwhile music: the blues. Before the advent of recording technology, it’s pure speculation. We’ll never know for sure. But since the first, fragile groove was cut, one thing is for certain: Charley Patton is Bluesman Zero. He’s not just the king of the Delta country blues, he is the Delta country blues. Put another way, Charley Patton, even though he lived and breathed and cussed and bellowed a mere century ago, is the Homer of rock ‘n’ roll. We don’t know who came before him — someone, lost to the mists of time, surely did — but we know that after him, everything, everything changed.

Patton’s identity itself was nearly lost to time. We know the specifics thanks to a single photograph, and the recorded testimony of his protégées, the bluesmen he influenced. He was slight, 5’ 5”, freckled, with reddish hair and a mixed heritage of African American, Native American, and Caucasian. Folks who heard him perform swore his raspy, smoke-and drink-fueled holler would carry for 500 yards if it would carry for a foot. In an era when many musicians were itinerant wanderers, eking out a living from roadhouse to roadhouse to juke to juke, Charley Patton was a veritable superstar, with a vaudevillean flair that was the stuff of legend. All that Jimi Hendrix showmanship — playing the guitar with his teeth, or behind his back? Patton was doing it in the 1910s. He lived large and loud, in the constant presence of whiskey and woman and violence.

Stylistically, Patton just careened. His gift to the genre was to add a strident, syncopated rhythm and a charging, chugging beat. He could handle any sort of material, and often and abruptly swerved from barrelhouse raunch to gospel. His slide work was incendiary, and his bag of tricks bottomless. He would insert conversation into a song, supplying different voices for different characters; he would establish a line, then drop it, mimicking his voice with the guitar; he popped strings, funk-style; he pounded on the body of the guitar to add percussion. Charley Patton was the complete package, and his influence reverberated throughout the plantations and juke joints of the Deep South.

Patton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near Edwards or Bolton, in 1891. In 1900 his family moved to the legendary plantation, Dockery Farms. The Dockery family plantation consisted of over 10,000 acres of cotton fields and timber stands, which fed a vast milling operation; Dockery also had its own rail spur, nicknamed the “Pea Vine” for its meandering route. The plantation was the nexus for sharecropping in the region, and functioned as a self-contained hamlet for its 2,000 laborers. There was a rail terminal, post office, school, doctor, and general store; there were churches, and boardinghouses for the workers. Sunflower County had a large black population, and Dockery became the destination for musical entertainment.

As a boy, Patton fell under the influence of an older musician, Henry Sloan, who taught him how to play; by his late teens, Patton had already written much of the material he would later record. The blues really percolated at Dockery: Patton’s peers there included Tommy Johnson, and Eddie "Son" House; John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf were both Patton’s students; and later plantation residents included Robert Johnson, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards.

Patton played the circuit for years, but finally got his opportunity to record in 1929, thanks to the wily talent scout and furniture-store owner, HC Spier. Spier got Patton a session with a small, down-on-its-luck label based in Grafton, Wisconsin: Paramount. Paramount had had some decent selling acts in the mid-20s, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Charlie Jackson, Ida Cox and Blind Blake; but by 1929 their star was fading. The first session was in June 1929, in Richmond, Indiana. Patton recorded fourteen tracks, including the ballad “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues”; there’s the rowdy, “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” in which he deals with the conflicts between a bluesman, women, and religion. “Down the Dirt Road Blues” addresses the ambiguity of his own racial identity; “Pony Blues,” sings the praises of the non-married life.

Through all of Patton’s work, there is an undercurrent of inevitability; fate; sometimes a spiritual opacity; at other moments, a half-glimpsed, glowering rage. It came through, even in the poorly recorded Paramount sides, and he sold enough to warrant more sessions. In October of 1929, he visited the label’s studio in Grafton to lay down another mix of ballads, blues, and spirituals. There was “Runnin’ Wild Blues” and “Hammer Blues” which details the misery of the chain gang. The epic “High Water Everywhere” sprawls over two sides, and details the massive Mississippi River flood of 1927 that wrecked the levee and left 600,000 homeless. Lots of artists sang about this event, but in Patton’s you can taste the blood and mud and confusion and anger. He returned and recorded four more tracks in August of 1930; this time he brought along pianist Louise Johnson, and his buddy Son House.

Charley Patton’s fourth and final session took place in January, 1934, in New York City. He was in poor health, dying of heart disease, and you can hear the weariness and fatigue in his voice. On these sessions he recorded with his partner Bertha Lee, and when they sing the spiritual “Oh Death,” you can feel a cold, bitter wind. The performance is chilling. Patton was dead less than three months later.

Patton was overlooked when the history of the blues was (re) written in the wake of the British Invasion. Entranced by the adjacent mystery surrounding his personal life, artists like the Stones and Eric Clapton championed Patton’s younger protégée, Robert Johnson. So, it was an especially glorious moment in 2002 when Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (2002 Revenant) appeared. Abruptly, Patton went from being a criminally neglected master, to being the most comprehensively documented bluesman that ever lived.

Simply put, this is the most lavish boxed set in the history of recorded sound. No foolin’. It is monumental in every sense. It collects every known Patton recording, of course, but it doesn’t stop there. Over seven CDs, it examines in detail every aspect and facet of Patton’s extended milieu. It includes all of the sessions in which he may or may not have participated, just on the off chance that he performed, including recordings by Walter Hawkins, Edith North Johnson, Henry Sims, Willie Brown, Son House, Louise Johnson, the Delta Big Four, and Bertha Lee. There’s also a disc with artists whose tracks are related to Patton, including Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis, Tommy Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Joe Williams, and the Staple Singers; there are also interviews with Howlin' Wolf, Rev. Booker Miller, HC Spier, Pops Staples, and the Rev. Booker Miller.

The amount of text that accompanies the music is massive. It includes exhaustive scrutiny of every known detail of Patton’s life and career, and in doing so establishes a primer on the Delta blues that may never be equaled. And there’s the packaging. It’s designed to replicate a 78 rpm album, right down to the 10-inch faux shellac disks that hold the CDs. There are full-size reproductions of Paramount’s 1929 Patton ads; a sticker set of the complete series of Paramount/Vocalion record labels; and it’s all housed in a huge, foil-stamped, embossed, cloth-bound box. It won three Grammys. It’s insane.

Revenant Records was founded by the late John Fahey, himself a master of steel-string guitar and raw Americana, and the world’s foremost Patton scholar; and while he regrettably passed before its completion, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues is a testimony to Fahey’s zeal for the country blues, and to the enduring power of the blues as a whole. Fahey does a fine job of summarizing that elusive quality that makes Charley Patton so unique: “What Patton portrays brilliantly is the uncanny feeling that the real forces controlling him are not forces outside himself, but dimly beheld, obscure ‘jinxes’ which hang over him and cloud his thoughts like a pall.”

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