Charlie Patton – Folksinger
by Elijah Wald

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Who was Charley Patton, and what the hell was he singing about? There are infinite arguments about Patton’s lyrics. His growling, slurred diction, and the fact that his recordings were often made on mediocre equipment and survive only in scratched and beaten copies make words and phrases utterly indecipherable. Combined with the gaps in what we know of his life and character, this creates an almost irresistible opportunity for historians to shape him into whatever they want him to be. Take the first line of “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” one of his earliest and greatest recordings: Is he a haunted, Delta mystic singing, “I’m going away to a world unknown,” as transcribed in the liner notes to an ornate new box set and a half-dozen web sites? Or is he a popular country entertainer singing, “I’m going away to Illinois,” a common theme of the great exodus of black Mississippians to Chicago? There is no “right” answer, but how one hears a line like this can be emblematic of the whole way one looks at blues.

For some forty years, “Delta blues” has been used as a synonymn for the most tortured and soulful strain in American music. Never mind that the region produced gentle, light singers like Mississippi John Hurt, country string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, racy comedians like Bo Carter, slick, jazzy performers like Joe and Charlie McCoy, and smooth, urban stars like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy--or that (Hurt excepted) these were the Delta’s biggest record-sellers. In popular legend, the Delta blues scene was dominated by haunted, Devil-harried guitarists whose records remain the gold standard for “deep” blues. Robert Johnson is the most famous name in this pantheon, but among aficionados Charley Patton is almost universally hailed as the founding, defining genius, the source of a musical lineage that runs through Johnson to the Chicago masters and on to encompass virtually everything now called blues.

Born in 1891, Patton was older than the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, and he seems to have developed many of the themes that are now considered basic to the Delta blues repertoire. His trademark guitar arrangements were adopted by Tommy Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown, as well as younger players like Howlin’ Wolf, Roebuck “Pop” Staples, all of whom hung around him in order to master the pieces he had turned into local hits. He apparently gave formal lessons to some of them, using teaching as a secondary source of income in the weekdays between juke joint performances.

And yet, when we define Patton as the brilliant progenitor of blues as we know it, we are to a great extent limiting him, locking him into a stylistic straitjacket he never wore when alive. Of course, he was a great blues player. His basic blues themes--the “Spanish tuning” arrangement he recorded first as “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” and that reappeared as “Future Blues,” “Jinx Blues,” and “Maggie Campbell” when recorded by Willie Brown, Son House, and Tommy Johnson respectively, or the basic blues in E he called “Pony Blues,” which was reshaped by Brown into “M&O Blues” and Johnson into “Bye and Bye”--are masterpieces, and no other solo player has matched his controlled and inventive rhythmic variations. Still, when historians base their assessment of Patton’s work on these pieces, they are seeing him through a prism of blues fandom that barely existed in his day, and shortchanging both his talents and the broader world in which he lived.

Great as they are and much as they have been immitated, those classic arrangements represent only one side of Patton’s recorded repertoire, and undoubtedly an even smaller proportion of what he played at live appearances. Remembered by history as a blues musician, Patton had grown up in the pre-blues era, and he played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Even though his recording career was sparked by the blues craze, only about half of his roughly fifty records can reasonably be considered part of that then-modern genre. The others are a mix of gospel and religious music, ragtime comedy like “Shake It and Break It,” ballads like “Frankie and Albert,” older slide guitar standards like “Bo Weavil” and “Spoonful,” and a couple of unclassifiable pieces that seem to be his reimaginings of Tin Pan Alley pop numbers, “Some of These Days” and “Running Wild.”

This was not a particularly unusual repertoire for the time and place. Back in those days before recorded entertainment, rural musicians were expected to perform whatever their audiences cared to hear, and many of them mastered an extraordinary range of styles, from minstrel comedy to square dance accompaniments. Even Robert Johnson, twenty years younger and a child of the blues era, made a streetcorner specialty of songs like “Ain’t She Sweet” and cowboy numbers. By the time Johnson recorded in the mid-1930s, though, producers were pushing black guitarists to stick to blues. Patton first recorded in 1929, and was one of the last rural African-Americans to have a chance to preserve his broader range of material on commercial recordings. Unfortunately, his non-blues material has generally been relegated to the background of his story, as if it were far less important than his blues work--some scholars have even argued, with virtually no evidence, that his non-blues repertoire was simply learned for white audiences. This has unfairly limited his appeal to modern listeners. Promoted as the deepest, rawest Delta bluesman of them all, Patton is rarely heard by people who are not already hardcore blues fans.

In fact, in many ways Patton’s recordings are more like Leadbelly’s than like Robert Johnson’s, and it would be easy to assemble a collection of his work aimed at folk and old-time country fans. In rural Mississippi, blacks as well as whites danced hoedowns and square dances, and when Patton used a sideman--even on blues records--it tended to be a fiddler, Son Sims. (Sims was still going strong in the 1940s, leading a country dance quartet that included Muddy Waters on guitar.) On the four of their duets where Sims took the lead, it is an education to hear how Patton plays. The songs are all blues in some sense, but the boom-chang pattern of his guitar accompaniments sounds a lot like hillbilly playing, albeit with a leavening of hot, syncopated bass runs. It does not sound white, exactly, but if a modern bluegrass group reworked these songs, Patton’s guitar would fit right in.

Patton’s way with pre-blues, “songster” material is even more interesting, and it is not a stretch to say that, had things worked out differently, he could have appealed to the same audience that made Leadbelly a folk icon. Admittedly, his recordings do not include a “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special,” but it is worth remembering that Leadbelly only learned the latter song after being taken up by John Lomax as a folksong demonstrator. We have no idea how much more “folk” material Patton might have known, or how he might have adapted his formidable skills to suit a Greenwich Village audience. He was a notably versatile performer and musician and, unlike virtually any major blues singer besides Leadbelly, he was given to composing lengthy ballads about current events in his world, just the sort of thing the New York crowd would have prized and encouraged. His most famous topical song, “High Water Everywhere,” is a six-minute description of a Mississippi River flood, telling of the suffering caused throughout the Delta, and leading his listeners on a journey through the devastation:

The water at Greenville and Leland, it done rose everywhere,
I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me it’s water there.

He had a gift for personal narrative, and seems to have enjoyed documenting events that touched his own experience, and which would have been particularly interesting to his local audience. For example, he wrung wry humor from two of his own run-ins with local lawmen, in “Tom Rushen Blues” and “High Sheriff Blues.” Recorded five years apart, these were essentially two variations on a single musical theme. Far from being bitter, passionate heart-cries, they used a lilting melody that would have fitted the smooth style of a Leroy Carr, or even a Gene Autry, and Patton sang with relaxed ease over a slide guitar line that shadowed his voice:

Lay down last night, hoped that I would have my peace, ee-yee (2x)
When I woke up, Tom Rushing were shaking me.

The song is full of local color, mentioning Tom Day, the town marshal of Merigold, Mississippi, and a bootlegger named Holloway who was apparently one of Patton’s running buddies. As for the title character, Tom Rushing (his name was mispelled by whoever took down the title for Paramount Records) was a deputy in Bolivar County, and when some blues experts tracked him down in the 1980s he recalled Patton coming to see him after the record was released and presenting him with a copy. He considered this an honor, and described Patton as a important local figure--indeed, he compared him to the track star Jesse Owens.

Much has been made of the isolation of the rural Delta, and the poverty and racism that overshadowed the lives of black farmers and musicians. It is important to remember, however, that this was not the whole story, that a singer like Patton could have a relatively friendly (though obviously unequal) relationship with a white deputy, and that his arrest could lead to songs that show humor as much as despair. It is also worth noting that Patton’s song, despite its personal details, was a reworking of “Booze and Blues,” recorded by the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, with a jazz group directed by bandleader Fletcher Henderson. That is to say, far from being an opressed rural primitive, Patton was a professional musician using a modern pop style to tell a story that would interest and amuse local fans, both black and white.

“Tom Rushing Blues” combines Rainey’s verses about the misery of being stuck in jail without a drink with wry digs at the local power figures. Marshall Day, for example, would not have been somebody for a black sharecropper to trifle with in 1930s Mississippi, but Patton jokes that his badge is not a permanent possession and, “If he lose his office, now, he’s running from town to town.” Likewise, in his Depression lament, “34 Blues” Patton mocked Herman Jett, the white foreman who had ordered him to leave his home plantation, Dockery’s Farm, apparently because he had become involved in a marital dispute (Once again, he sent a copy of the record to Jett, who was amused):

Herman got a little six Buick, big six Chevrolet car (2x)
(Spoken: My God, what sort of power!)
And it don’t do nothing but follow behind Harvey Parker’s plow.

In both of these songs, Patton’s singing is notable for how laid-back and relaxed he sounds. Though he was famous for the volume and strength of his voice, which made it possible for him to be heard over a crowded room full of dancers despite the lack of amplification, and to keep this up for hours on end, many of his records find him in a quieter mood. His voice remains gruff, but he has no need to shout in the intimate surroundings of a recording studio, and his playing is equally gentle. This is particularly true of his slide work. In most cases, Patton used the slide in the old-fashioned, voice-like manner of the pre-blues era. It is the same sound one hears in Lemon Jefferson’s “Jack O’ Diamonds,” or Mance Lipscomb’s work, rather than the hard, slashing style associated with Delta masters like House, Robert Johnson, and Waters.

A perfect example of this is Patton’s very first recording, “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues.” This is a cousin of the song that Leadbelly and others made into a folk standard, a ballad of the bol weevil, a tough little bug that was destroying cotton crops and impoverishing farmers throughout the South. Patton sings a particularly minimalist version of the song, essentially a single musical line punctuated with slide riffs, but full of the grudging, comic admiration for the pest that has led commentators to consider the song a veiled protest in which the bug represents the rebel urges of black sharecroppers:

Bol weevil left Texas, Lord, he bid me fare thee well, Lordy.
(Spoken: Where you going now?)
“I’m going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell,” Lordy.

It is interesting that Patton (or the recording agents) should have chosen this as his first song to record, since by 1929 such older, “folk” material was already falling out of favor on what was then called the “race” market. The accepted commercial wisdom of the time was that, while white rural Southerners were eager to buy “old fashioned songs,” their African American neighbors wanted hipper, contemporary material like the smooth blues ballads of Leroy Carr or the double-entendre hokum of Tampa Red. Both of these artists had breakthrough hits in 1928 and, combined with the economic conservatism that came with the Depression, essentially wiped out the market for idiosyncratic rural geniuses, which Blind Lemon Jefferson had pioneered only a couple of years earlier. Patton was the last Jeffersonian to make a significant impact on the blues market, and it is worth noting that only a half-dozen of his earliest records sold at all well, and even these almost exclusively in rural areas. (Jefferson, by contrast, was a big seller in country and city alike.)

Back home in Mississippi, the story was somewhat different. Here, recordings might slightly enhance a musician’s reputation, but they were in no way vital to local success. Son House, for example, was a very popular juke joint player, though he was a complete failure as a recording artist, his records selling so poorly that hardly any survived to be found by later collectors. Patton did much better, releasing 26 records to House’s four, but there is no reason to think that the recordings made up a significant part of his income, or that the failure of his later records to sell implies any lack of work on the local dance and picnic scene. On the contrary, all reports suggest that he remained a favorite performer right up to his death in 1934, and could easily have kept working and recording had his health not given out.

Indeed, one of the most misleading myths about the rural blues players is that they were all down-and-out ramblers, or sharecroppers trying to pick up a few extra bucks. It was a picture conjured up by John Lomax when he presented Leadbelly in overalls as an ex-convict, and was reinforced by the poverty in which many old blues singers were living at the time of their rediscovery in the 1960s, but in no way matches the life they led in the music’s heyday. Patton, for instance, always appeared in a nice suit, and according to some reports was given to buying a new car every year. He was not rich, exactly, but certainly was doing far, far better than the black farmworkers who came to the jukes on Saturday night, and probably earned more than a good many of the white country folk who hired him to play at their dances and outings.

Likewise, although Patton’s success was undoubtedly due in part to his astonishing abilities as a guitarist, and the depth and soul of his blues singing, it also owed a lot to his professionalism and skill as an entertainer. Friends interviewed in later years would comment on his dependability, the fact that he always showed up on time and took care of business. His performances were masterpieces of showmanship: he was famed for tricks like playing behind his head or between his legs, to the point that some rival musicians disparaged him as a mere trickster. Unfair as this seems to modern listeners, it highlights an important point: To his live audiences, Patton was not the subtle player and singer we hear on the records, nor particularly noted for his soulful depth. He was a man who banged out loud rhythms, shouted so he could be heard to the back of the room, and was a dazzling showman--despite his older, acoustic repertoire, he can in some ways be considered a predecessor to Little Richard and James Brown.

All of Patton’s varied skills come out on the records, though not necessarily in the ways one might expect. For example, the power of his voice is often most evident in his gospel work. (Much has been made of the absolute divide between secular and religious music in African American culture, so it is worth pointing out that, though Patton released his first gospel record under the alias “Elder J.J. Hadley,” his five other religious records came out under his own name to no apparent protest from the church folk.) Clearly inspired by the ferocious, shouting style of the Texas “street corner evangelist” Blind Willie Johnson, Patton delivered his best gospel sides with a fervor and vocal volume that is unmatched on any of his blues recordings. Some of his showmanship also comes through in the brief sermon he delivers on “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die” (a reworking of Johnson’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond”). The Johnson connection further highlights a fact often forgotten by Mississippi blues patriots: Texas was a deep blues country as well, and few if any Delta guitarists were unmarked by Johnson’s and Jefferson’s hugely popular recordings. This was a quickly-moving musical world, in which styles shifted dramatically in a few years time, influenced by all the new sounds streaming in with traveling shows, records, and radio. When we listen to Patton sing his quirky reimagining of “Running Wild,” it is the sound of a man raised on 19th century country dances, hearing a song once or twice on the radio, then coming up with his own variation to record and ship to stores throughout the country.

Which brings us to the hippest sound in Patton’s repertoire, those blues songs that have made him a musical legend. Because, unlike Leadbelly, Patton did not find a white folk audience, and his recordings were directed at contemporary African American rural pop music buyers. And, great as his musical range was and whatever he may have done at live shows, it is those records that earned him a reputation outside the Delta, that were adopted by other players, and that are the bedrock of his enduring fame.

If one had to pick out one characteristic of Patton’s work that is unique and--despite many attempts both then and now--inimitable, it is the rhythmic control he displays on his greatest blues recordings. Take “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” the first recorded version of his trademark “Spanish” guitar arrangement. His playing is never hurried, and the rhythmic power comes not from direct forward momentum (as in Willie Brown’s magnificent reworking, “Future Blues,” now a staple of Rory Block’s repertoire), but from the constant variations and surprising accents. He keeps pausing in his playing, creating moments of tension, then coming back with completely different emphasis. Meanwhile, his relaxed vocal sets up still another level of complexity, sometimes joining the guitar, sometimes working in polyrhythmic counterpoint.

In these terms, Patton’s masterpiece is “Down the Dirt Road,” which for sheer rhythmic complexity is the most striking performance in the whole of blues. At times, Patton seems to be singing one rhythm, tapping another on the top his guitar, and playing a third on the strings, all without the slightest sense of effort. This is the work that distinguishes him from his peers, and that sets his circle of Mississippians aside from all the other players in the early blues pantheon. While no other player equalled his abilities, Mississippi consistently produced the most rhythmically sophisticated players in early blues. Perhaps this was due to the regional survival of African tradition exemplified by the “fife and drum” bands of the hill country to the Delta’s east, perhaps to the proximity of New Orleans and the Caribbean, perhaps in a large degree to the influence of Patton himself.

It is a mistake to view this music through the prism of modern blues, to see Patton and his peers as the progenitors of the first electric Chicago bands, and thus of the barroom boogie bands that fill suburban bars outside every Ameican city. His rhythms are a world--or at least a continent--away from the straight-ahead, 4/4 sound that defines virtually all modern blues. That is why so few contemporary players can capture anything of his greatness. There is the tendency to play his tunes for driving power, missing the ease, the relaxed subtlety that underly all of his work. It is a control born of playing this music in eight or ten-hour sessions, week after week and year after year, for an audience of extremely demanding dancers, and of remembering centuries of previous dance rhythms--not only the complex polyrhythms of West Africa, but also slow drags, cakewalks, hoedowns, and waltzes.

There is a lot more to be said about Patton’s blues work, but most of it has been said many times, in articles, essays, liner notes, and books. The debates come hot and heavy, scholars fiercely arguing over whether his lyrics are consciously obscure and poetic or simply careless, whether he carefully composed his songs or often assembled them on the spot. Some base involved theories on what they perceive to be a constant “angry” tone in his singing, which I do not even hear, or find clues to his deepest fears and desires in lyrics which I assume he picked up from other singers. They may perfectly well be right. The important thing is not to be scared off by the myths or debates, and to give the music a chance. In his lifetime, people listened to Patton because his music was fun and exciting, and he pleased audiences of varied colors, tastes, and economic backgrounds, finding something in his repertoire for each of them. Luckily, much of that range has been preserved on record, and it is too varied, interesting, and important to be left to the small circle of prewar blues fans.

©2002 Elijah Wald (originally published in Sing Out!)