Charley Patton

Published on 14 April 2024 at 13:20

By Manfred Curinckx.

I’m delighted to take you back to the early days of Mississippi blues with this article on the great musician Charley Patton. He is rightfully considered as one of the most impressive, important and influential bluesmen that ever recorded. But who was he? He was a man of mixed race, said to be part African-American, part White, part Native American, born in 1891 in the Edwards/Bolton area in Mississippi. That is somewhat halfway between Vicksburg and Jackson, just south of the Delta. The Mississippi Delta is often thought to be the area where the Mississippi joins the Gulf of Mexico, but that is not the case. The Delta is an area between the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River, stretching to the north roughly from Vicksburg towards Memphis Tennessee. Charley was not a tall man, standing only about 5 and a half foot. His parents were sharecroppers. There is debate on who his biological father was, Bill Patton or as per a legend a man called Henderson Chatmon. Henderson was an early suitor of Charley’s mother. He was the head of the Chatmon family, of which various members formed and played in The Mississippi Sheiks. At the end of the 1890’s, the entire Patton family moved north to the Dockery Plantation close to Ruleville, in the heart of the Delta. Dockery farm was started by Will Dockery as a large cotton plantation in 1895. It was there that the young Charley met a man called Henry Sloan, a guitar player/musician that used to live in Charley’s native area and had moved to Dockery a couple of years prior to the Patton family. Henry was reportedly a great guitar player of who we sadly have no recordings, excelling in the blues style that would make Charley famous later on. By no means Charley invented the blues, nor was he the first to record blues. Henry reportedly taught Charley to play guitar but it wouldn’t take long before Charley became skilled. Already in his late teens, he was a fine blues guitar player, perfomer and songwriter. Another early blues pioneer, named Willie Brown, also lived at Dockery. Charley and Willie often played together on the plantations and juke joints in the Delta area in the early 1920’s, and Willie would often accompany Charley on his recordings later on from the end of the 1920’s. Other great musicians that worked at Dockery were Tommy Johnson, Son House, David (Honeyboy) Edwards and Pop (Roebuck) Staples. They all performed and made name as Delta blues players in the area on plantations, picknicks, fish fries, in juke joints….
2 other great blues guitar players would soon follow, Robert Johnson and Chester Burnett (Howling Wolf), both of them being heavily influenced by Charley from seeing him play in juke joints (often with Willie Brown and Son House). Charley made his first recordings in 1929 and would regularly do so until 1934. His recordings like Pony Blues, High Water Everywhere, Dry Well Blues, Mississippi Boll Weavil Blues, Pea Vine Blues … provide us with a window on Charley’s world at that time. High Water Everywhere tells us about the great flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927, following almost continuous rain from the second half of 1926 until april 1927.

In Pea Vine Blues he mentiones hearing the sound of the train whistle of the Peavine train engine. The Peavine branch was a railroad, official name Kimball Lake Branch, running from Dockery 10 miles West to join the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Line (commonly known as the Yellow Dog) Charley’s lyrics give us a clear view of his daily life, his surroundings and the hardship and everyday difficulties. They tell us of the often dramatic conditions of life on the plantations in the Mississippi Delta, where cotton was the main harvest product , often destroyed by insect plagues like the Boll Weavil infestation. (Also sugar cane, corn and tobacco were regularly grown). Charley Patton commonly did not play the standard I-iV-V common blues progression. He had a lot of variety, ranging from one-chord songs, ballads, heavily syncopated rags, spirituals and
more…(syncopation can in a simple form be described as the use of silence on the moments where a beat is expected and placing emphasis on the moments when no beat is expected). What was always there is his typical rhythmic genius. He played powerful acoustic guitar with an enormous drive and strong percussive bass lines, often descending from root, flat 7th, 6th to perfect 5th or altering between 6th and flat seventh in the bass. To this he added foot stomping, tapping the body of the guitar, hand clapping between lines… and to top it off a loud, gravelly voice and beautiful melodies. This melodic playing and singing gave many of his songs, although very powerful, a delicate feel. Charley played fingerstyle as well as slide guitar, in standard tuning as well as in spanish tuning and 1 recorded song (spoonful blues) in vestapol tuning. I’m deliberately using spanish instead of open G and vestapol instead of open D since he mostly used to tune up his guitar higher. This was also common practice for some of his songs in standard tuning. His guitars really got a beating and Charley was know for putting up quite a show. He would play behind his back, between his legs riding the guitar, throwing the guitar up in the air, putting it on the ground.. all without stopping to play. This was (sounds a bit disrespectful) sometimes referred to as clowning around, as Son House is said to have called it. However, his showmanship was combined with enormous musical skill and versatility, which made him well known and successful in the area. He was not rich but did well, had his own car and always wore a nice suit when playing. He took his musicianship as a blues player very serious. The great depression of the 1930’s crushed record sales. Large amounts of copies of the various recordings between 1929 and his final recording in 1934 were not made because of that. This caused Charley to remain famous mostly locally in the South and among the coloured population. Charley was also known for his heavy drinking, being argumentative and moody, womanizing and getting into trouble. He was married several times, his last wive being Bertha Lee.

Bertha Lee and Charley went up to live in Holly Ridge Mississippi. They had a loving, yet tumultuous relationship, both of them being known not to be afraid of being violent towards eachother. This landed them both in jail at some point. Charley sings about being in jail in the songs High Sheriff Blues and Tom Rushen Blues.

In 1934, joined by Bertha Lee, Charley made his final recordings. These songs, especially Oh Death and Troubled ‘bout My Mother are absolute masterpieces in my opinion. Charley sadly died shortly after this, on April 28th 1934, of a heart condition, on the Heathman- Dedham plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. He is forever known as one of the first great Mississippi Delta blues musicians and his influence on those who followed is immense. Even the awesome Muddy Waters and Bukka White mentioned him as greatly missed and an enourmous source of inspiration. His craftmanship and rhytmic genius make him hard to copy, which is maybe one of the reasons why his music is nowadays still far too little known among the general public. Digging into it however will transport you back to very roots of the blues and will provide an amazing and everlasting experience. ~

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