“The Voice of the Delta – The Foremost Performer of Early Mississippi Blues Whose Songs Became Cornerstones of American Music”
This powerful tribute adorns Charlie Patton’s tombstone in Holly Ridge, Mississippi and is the first stop of the historic Mississippi Blues Trail(link). He is considered by many to be the Father of Delta Blues and is one of the earliest recorded blues artists whose work has inspired nearly every musician to come out of the Delta. Only the poor quality of his surviving recordings has kept him from enjoying the same idolatry as his successor Robert Johnson. Its truly unfortunate that the 56 masters he recorded were sold off as scrap after his record company went out of business. Some of it was used to line chicken coops. All of the existing recordings available today were copied from the scratched and worn 78’s. He is arguable one of the most import musicians of the twentieth century.
Patton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi in 1891. In 1900 his family moved 100 miles north to the Dockery Plantation, near Ruleville. It was here the young Patton discovered Henry Sloan, a guitarist whose unusual style was a form of early blues which effected Patton immensely. According to Son House and Willie Brown, Patton ‘dogged every step’ of Sloan and followed him from gig to gig. By his late teens he was already a dynamic performer and a prolific songwriter, having already composed the incredibly ‘Pony Blues.’
He would straddle the guitar, play it behind his head
In 1910 he teamed up with the talented Willie Brown and was soon in high demand not only for his musicianship and powerful vocals (it was rumored his voice was so strong it could travel for 500 yards without amplification), but also for his showmanship. He would straddle the guitar, play it behind his head, behind his back, roll on the floor and never stop playing. Patton traveled and rambled across not only the Delta playing his blues, but went as far as Louisiana, Memphis and Arkansas. He teamed up with members of the Chatmon family, who later became the Mississippi Shieks. By 1926 a young Robert Johnson was following Patton and Brown to shows, trying to absorb anything he could. Other notable fans included Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Honeyboy Edwards, Bukka White and Big Bill Broonzy.
The first Blues Star
Charlie Patton became the epitome of the rough and tumble bluesman, his heavy drinking, smoking, womanizing and hell-raising became almost as legendary as his music. As the first blues star he would be booked in advance to play instead of rambling from town to town looking for gigs, and because of his reputation he’d always pack them in.
He first recorded in 1929 for the Paramount label. That single session produced 14 sides and earned him $700. He was invited back to record again three months later where he lay down 22 more sides. As a result of these recordings Patton became the best selling blues singer of his time and the biggest celebrity in the Delta.
Here is Patton performing Spoonful Blues, recorded in 1929.
As with most of the musicians we discuss here, its hard to identify any one album as ‘definitive,’ they all have something to offer, even if it’s alternate versions of songs you already know. Here are a few recommendations which highlight different aspects of his style, and some of our favorite performances.
The Best of Charlie Patton
I have to admit, this reviewer said it best:
If you’re not up for one of the numerous Charlie Patton box sets, this is a really excellent alternative.
Yazoo’s “The Best Of Charley Patton” gathers 23 cuts, 70 minutes of music, including “Down The Dirt Road Blues”, “Pony Blues”, “Shake It And Break It”, “Banty Rooster Blues”, and numerous others. The sound quality is a good as any disc you’ll ever come across, and while these sides certainly aren’t as clean as Robert Johnson’s or Blind Willie McTell’s prewar singles, Yazoo has done a really fine job remastering the songs.
There are other excellent Charlie Patton discs, like Wolf Records’ “Pony Blues: His 23 Greatest Songs”, Recall’s very reasonably priced double-disc overview “Screamin’ & Hollerin’ The Blues”, and Snapper’s brand new “Hang It On The Wall”, but as far as single disc compilations go, none are better than this one, and few are quite as good.
Friends of Charlie Patton
This album has been heralded on these pages before. It’s a fantastic compilation put together by Yazoo Records containing two of his three solo performances and showcasing many friends and contemporaries including; Son House, Bukka White, the infamous aforementioned Kid Bailey, Tommy Johnson, Louise Johnson, Ishman Bracey and Bertha Lee. Yazoo puts out some of the best compilations going, unfortunately a lot of their earlier releases sound like they were taken straight from the old 78’s and plopped on CD with very little remastering. This means hisses, pops, and noisy recordings. On the other hand, where else are you going to hear this stuff?
Complete Recordings 1929-34 [Original recording remastered]
When you’re ready to go all out, for less than $30 this 5 disc JSP collection is an unbeatable value. It contains everything on the much more expensive Revenant Box set except for interviews and a bonus disc of music by Patton’s contemporaries. The restoration is decent enough to listen to without gritting your teeth. Every recorded song is included here.
Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton [Box set]
If your a completest, if the quality of the JSP set doesn’t quite meet your standards, or if you happen to have an extra $150 lying around to spend on a box set – this is the pinnacle to aspire. From all reports, this is the greatest Patton re-issue existing today. If only I had $150 lying around…
I ain’t gonna tell nobody, ’34 have done for me
I ain’t gonna tell nobody what, ’34 have done for me
Took my roller, I was broke as I could be
Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton is the musical equivalent of a limited-edition, fine-press book, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful collections of recorded music ever assembled. Exquisitely designed, this 78-album-inspired, seven-CD package contains a wealth of information and music, featuring not only the Delta blues pioneer’s complete recorded works, but the music of peripheral players (including Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, and Henry “Son” Sims), a disc of fascinating audio interviews with Patton associates, and hours of reading material on the enigmatic songster.