SCRAPED AND RAW AS A FRESHLY PLOWED FIELD, Charley Patton’s voice decries his harsh life amid the plantation system of the Reconstruction-era South. Patton rises defiantly from scratched 78 rpm shellac records, his voice in sync with the relentless clang of the Stella guitar he tuned a whole-step sharp to cut like a scythe in raucous juke joints; his prickly presence makes his protégé Howlin’ Wolf sound like a crooner. His is a brutally uncompromising sound that modern ears may find daunting. Listeners used to standard 12-bar progressions and regular four-beat measures may also find disconcerting the idiosyncrasies of early blues accompaniment, which follows the vocal line, rather than vice-versa. Like some of the greatest art in any media, however, time spent deciphering the darker mysteries of the music may be rewarded by a transcendent experience.
Recent research suggests that Charley Patton’s birth date may have been as early as July 12, 1885, giving even more credibility to his billing as the “Founder of the Delta Blues.” If accurate, when combined with the evidence that he began playing at the age of seven, it means Patton learned to play in the 1890s, when the first recognizable blues—such as “Joe Turner Blues” and “Frankie and Johnnie”—were making the rounds in the South. As a youngster, he learned from the people around him, with his most significant teacher being the unrecorded Henry Sloan, a fellow resident of Dockery plantation in Ruleville,
Mississippi. Part of the lore of the Delta is that Sloan may have been the unnamed slide guitarist W.C. Handy memorably described hearing at the nearby Tutwiler train station in 1903—a true landmark in the history of the blues. Patton also played with members of the Chatmon family, who would go on to form the highly influential Mississippi Sheiks string band, best known for the 1930 recording, “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
Patton’s preacher father—who beat him with a bullwhip when he first showed interest in the “devil’s music”—presented him with the first instrument he could call his own at age 14. Like many country bluesman of his generation and later, Patton was conflicted between a calling to the “cloth” or the “bar,” and he responded by performing the sacred, as well as the profane. He had begun playing professionally at dances when he was ten, and, by 1910, was so accomplished that he was the one influencing the players around him. More than most, he also played regularly for white audiences, giving them the unadulterated blues, as well as the popular numbers of the day.
Patton carried his guitar everywhere, including out in the fields where he rarely worked. Later in life, he would own three guitars, taking such great pride in them that he would decorate his main “box” by affixing gold coins to it. Patton had Cherokee blood in his veins, as well as a penchant for clowning—like playing the guitar behind his head or overhanding (fretting piano-like with the palm over the low-E string). This type of showmanship was once an expected highlight of the bluesman’s act, and the latter trick can be seen demonstrated in a recently released full-body photo of Patton.
In 1929, Patton was discovered by H.C. Speir, the prescient white talent scout who held auditions for local blues cats in the back of his furniture store in Jackson, Mississippi. In June, he cut 14 sides for Paramount Records, and Speir once told researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow that it took Patton two hours of steady drinking and playing before he “hit his stride.” With fiddler Henry “Son” Sims accompanying him on selected titles, Patton waxed such future classics as “Pony Blues,” “Banty Rooster Blues,” “Bo Weavil Blues,” “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” “A Spoonful Blues,” and the spiritual “Prayer of Death.” His music was keenly focused on rhythm, and his muscular, unwavering drive with box beating (Son House’s term for rapping on the top of an acoustic for a percussive effect), is featured throughout. “Pony Blues,” in standard tuning and featuring first-position E chord licks, is a masterpiece of bass runs, chords, treble fills, and dynamic box beating. “Banty Rooster,” in open G, was likely patterned after “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern, and the slippery bottleneck work functions as a second voice to Patton’s commanding growl. Its tempo is that of the slow drag, a “contact” rhythm, described as “dry screwin’” by Johnny Shines, that was favored by black dancers from the turn of the century through to the 1940s.
Paramount introduced Patton as the Masked Marvel, and asked listeners to guess his identity as a marketing ploy. “Pony Blues”/”Banty Rooster” became his biggest seller at more than 10,000 copies. He was an instant star for Paramount—as well as the first Mississippi bluesman of note to record—which cleared a path for Son House, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf to tread.
In 1930, Patton participated in a legendary session in Grafton, Wisconsin, with Son House, Willie Brown, and a young boogie pianist and singer named Louise Johnson. With Brown chording on second guitar, Patton gave some of the most powerful performances of his career on “Some Summer Day” (his take on “Sittin’ on Top of the World”), “Bird Nest Bound,” “Dry Well Blues,” and “Moon Going Down” (where his line “Oh, the smokestack lightnin’ shinin’ just like gold” would appear in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin” in 1956). Unfortunately, Patton and House did not record together.
When Patton completed his last session for Vocalion Records in New York City in early 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, he had added the classic “High Sheriff Blues” and “Revenue Man Blues” (a recording that shows his undiminished chops) for a total of 52 songs. “High Sheriff Blues,” one of his last compositions and a mournful variation on his earlier “Tom Rushen Blues,” is based on an actual experience when Patton and his woman, Bertha Lee, were imprisoned in Belzoni, Mississippi. They were rescued by American Records Company producer W.R. Calaway in time for the session, and Lee would sing along with Patton on “Troubled ‘Bout My Mother” and the eerily prophetic “Oh Death.”
Patton died shortly thereafter, on January 27, of a heart condition after 49 hard years that included having survived a gunshot wound in 1924, a slit throat (courtesy of a jealous husband) in 1933 that damaged his vocal cords, and the ravages of indiscriminate alcohol use and wanton pursuit of women. Patton’s resting place remained unmarked until 1991, when a handsome stone was placed near Holly Ridge, Mississippi, with financial backing from John Fogerty.