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Box Full of Blues

A Seven-CD Set Fleshes Out the Charley Patton Story

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/7/2001

Charley Patton

One of the most powerful songs on Bob Dylan's new album, Love and Theft, is "High Water (For Charley Patton)," clearly inspired by Patton's 1929 recording "High Water Everywhere." Patton's song is a first-person account of the panic that reigned in the Delta when a flood sent the Mississippi River pouring through a levee on April 21, 1927. Borrowing phrases, place names, a melodic contour, and a basic rhythm from Patton, Dylan achieves the same feel of apocalyptic emergency and applies it to an American culture that seems to be sinking before his eyes. "If I made records for my own pleasure," Dylan recently told a Dutch magazine, "I would only record Charley Patton songs."

Even allowing for his usual interview hyperbole, Dylan clearly considers Patton a touchstone artist, ranking right up there with Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Carter Stanley, and Robert Johnson. Who is Charley Patton and why is he so important?

To answer that question, the late guitarist John Fahey's label, Revenant, has released a box set so large and so ambitious that it should be called a crate. Containing seven CDs and two full-sized books in a 3-inch-thick box, Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues includes all 56 of Patton's existing recordings, plus 38 songs recorded by other artists at his sessions, plus 24 songs by other performers who either influenced Patton or were influenced by him, plus a disc of 1964-'69 interviews with Mississippians who knew him, plus a reprint of Fahey's 1970 biography, plus six major essays. In other words, here we have not only Patton's music but also its context.

Even with all that help, Patton remains an elusive figure. After 40 years of persistent research, his biographers still can't agree on the number of his wives, his father's identity, who slit his throat in 1929, or even his birth date (the guesses range from 1881 to 1891; 1890 is a good bet). Everyone agrees that he was a short, slight, light-skinned black man who smoked and drank heavily and wound up with a weak heart that killed him in 1934.

He's not easy to listen to. Paramount Records, the company that released his best and earliest 78s, lost the original metal stampers and pressed its records on such inferior vinyl that the existing copies are well worn. Even if you can get past the static (reduced on the box set as never before), you still have to contend with Patton's guttural baritone and slurred enunciation. Even his fellow Delta blues musicians had trouble deciphering Patton's lyrics when researchers played his records.

Despite all this, Patton is unavoidable in any blues genealogy. All paths lead back to him. Robert Johnson, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Pops Staples, and Bukka White all learned directly from Patton, and they in turn influenced musicians as different as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan. Patton is the doorway that stands between the recorded history of the blues since 1925 and the undocumented, lost mists of Southern black music beforehand.

The best single-CD anthology of Patton's music is still the venerable 24-song collection Founder of the Delta Blues; if that title is a bit far-fetched, the title of the companion volume, King of the Delta Blues (both available on Yazoo Records), is not. Charley Patton didn't invent Mississippi blues, but he was probably alive when it was created and he was by all accounts the music's first regional star.

The thing to remember is that there was no Delta until the government built levees along the river in the 1870s and lumber companies cut down the wooded swamps of northwest Mississippi in the 1880s. Only then, in the years immediately afterward, did cotton plantations spring up on the newly cleared land; only then did blacks from the surrounding hills flock to the Delta for better wages and better sharecropping deals; only then did an uprooted society need the old ballads, spirituals, and field hollers to become something new--a fast, vocal dance music known as the blues.

Suppose it's a Saturday in October 1926 and you've spent a long week picking cotton on Dockery's Plantation in Sunflower County. As you turn in your last 100-pound bag to the overseer, your friends tell you that Charley Patton is back on the farm after one of his trips to Vicksburg or Tunica. An hour later, you've squeezed into the horse-drawn wagon headed to a juke joint over in Drew, because Patton puts on the best dances in the state.

The sun is already down by the time you reach a ramshackle house with nothing but cotton rows stretching out straight and flat in every direction. In a grove of trees by the house, a bootlegger is doing a brisk business in unlabeled bottles of clear moonshine.

The house is packed, but by walking sideways you can reach the room where Patton and his sidekick guitarist, Willie Brown, are rocking hard and fast through "A Spoonful Blues." You pull a big-boned gal away from the wall and commence the shimmy-she-wobble to Patton's syncopation--his voice pushing in one direction and his guitar pulling in the other as your elbows and hips go every which way. When the two musicians switch to the deliberately paced double entendres of "Banty Rooster Blues," you pull that gal close for a slow-drag dance.

But there's something about Patton and Brown that's different from all the other blues duos you've heard. The others settle into predictable grooves that you could dance to without paying much attention, but Patton keeps mixing things up. He changes the melody and the guitar riff; he draws out some words over a long phrase and scrunches others up into a small ball after a pause; some words he sings, but others he talks, and still others are "sung" by his guitar. Every improvised alteration increases the tension and somehow reinforces the dance beat rather than distracting from it.

And that voice. It's so big and deep on his signature song, "Pony Blues," that you can't believe it comes from that skinny man in the wooden chair. Moreover, it possesses an intensity that transcends the needs of dance music. A lot of the lyrics are familiar from other blues tunes you've heard, and one verse doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the one before or the one after. But every once in a while, you catch something autobiographical, a story about Patton's troubles with a woman or the police that cuts with conviction and rebounds with the assurance that he will survive any problem.

It's that sense of freedom--of being beyond the grasp of any cop, wife, or boss, of coming and going as he pleases without the need of a farming job--that's so exhilarating. That, more than his clowning antics of playing the guitar behind his head or between his legs, keeps you by the bandstand till the sun comes up Sunday morning. Maybe, you're thinking, you should get a guitar of your own.

That's what Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan heard in Patton's music, and that's what you will hear too. You can hear it in Founder of the Delta Blues; you can hear it on the new, more comprehensive, three-CD set The Definitive Charley Patton. But on Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues, you can hear it in the context of his fellow musicians. That context is fleshed out in the essays by Fahey, Bernard Klatzko, David Evans, Dick Spottswood, and Edward Komara.

To wade into these notes is to enter the bizarre, insular world of blues research, where no one agrees and each writer carps about his rivals. To make matters worse, none of them (except Spottswood) can write very well, and the prose is often as indigestible as that in an academic journal. On the other hand, Revenant Records has created a gorgeous artifact--a package of discs, books, vintage labels, and Paramount advertisements, all designed to look like a vintage album for 78s.

Piggybacking on the box set is a tribute album, Down the Dirt Road: The Songs of Charley Patton, that features new versions of Patton's compositions by Graham Parker, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve James, Guy Davis, Snooky Pryor, Paul Rishell, and others. Corey Harris serves up a faithful imitation of "Moon Going Down," and Joe Louis Walker's "Sugar Mama" matches Patton's quirky, improvisatory spirit. But most of the covers miss the point. They focus on the words and melody, giving us folk songs rather than the dance numbers Patton intended.

It was Patton's traveling partner, Son House, who put more emphasis on storytelling and melody and thus created the folk-song tradition in the blues. But for every one of House's heirs (Robert Johnson in Mississippi, Muddy Waters in Chicago, Ray Charles in Georgia, Chuck Berry at Chess Records), there has been a corresponding Patton heir (John Lee Hooker in Mississippi, Howlin' Wolf in Chicago, James Brown in Georgia, Bo Diddley at Chess) who remembered that the blues are first and foremost a dance party--even if the high water is rising all around us.

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