Charley Patton Biography

1 May 1891, Bolton, Mississippi, USA, d. 28 April 1934, Indianola, Mississippi, USA. Charley Patton was small, but in all other ways larger than life; his death from a chronic heart condition at the age of 43 brought to an end his relentless pursuit of the good things then available to a black man in Mississippi - liquor, women, food (courtesy of women), music, and the avoidance of farm work, which carried with it another desideratum, freedom of movement.

By 1910, Patton had a repertoire of his own compositions, including ‘Pony Blues’, ‘Banty Rooster Blues’, ‘Down The Dirt Road’, and his version of ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, all of which he recorded at his first session in 1929. He also acquired a number of spirituals, although the degree of his religious conviction is uncertain. By the time he recorded, Charley Patton was the foremost blues singer in Mississippi, popular with whites and blacks, and able to make a living from his music. He was enormously influential on local musicians, including his regular partner Willie Brown, in addition to Tommy Johnson and Son House. Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf were among others whose music was profoundly affected by Patton.

Patton’s own sound is characteristic from the first: a hoarse, hollering vocal delivery, at times incomprehensible even to those who heard him in person, interrupted by spoken asides, and accompanied by driving guitar played with an unrivalled mastery of rhythm. Patton had a number of tunes and themes that he liked to rework, and he recorded some songs more than once, but never descended to stale repetition. His phrasing and accenting were uniquely inventive, voice and guitar complementing one another, rather than the guitar simply imitating the rhythm of the vocal line. He was able to hold a sung note to an impressive length, and part of the excitement of his music derives from the way a sung line can thus overlap the guitar phrase introducing the next verse. Patton was equally adept at regular and bottleneck fretting, and when playing with a slide could make the guitar into a supplementary voice with a proficiency that few could equal.

Patton was extensively recorded by Paramount in 1929-30, and by Vocalion Records in 1934, so that the breadth of his repertoire is evident. (It was probably Patton’s good sales that persuaded the companies to record the singing of his accompanists, guitarist Willie Brown and fiddler Henry Sims, and Bertha Lee, his last wife.) Naturally, Patton sang personal blues, many of them about his relationships with women. He also sang about being arrested for drunkenness, cocaine (‘A Spoonful Blues’), good sex (‘Shake It And Break It’), and, in ‘Down The Dirt Road Blues’, he highlighted the plight of the black in Mississippi (‘Every day, seems like murder here’). He composed an important body of topical songs, including ‘Dry Well Blues’ about a drought, and the two-part ‘High Water Everywhere’, an account of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi that is almost cinematic in its vividness. Besides blues and spirituals, Patton recorded a number of ‘songster’ pieces, including ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, ‘Frankie And Albert’ and the anti-clerical ‘Elder Greene Blues’. He also covered hits like ‘Kansas City Blues’, ‘Running Wild’, and even Sophie Tucker’s ‘Some Of These Days’.

It is a measure of Patton’s accomplishment as a musician and of his personal magnetism that blues scholars debate furiously whether he was a clowning moral degenerate or ‘the conscience of the Delta’, an unthinking entertainer or a serious artist. It is perhaps fair to say that he was a man of his times who nevertheless transcended them, managing to a considerable degree to live the life he chose in a system that strove to deny that option to blacks. A similar verdict applies to his achievements as a musician and lyricist; Patton did not work independently of or uninfluenced by his musical environment, but considering how young he was when the blues were becoming the dominant black folk music, his achievements are remarkable. He was able to take the given forms and transmute them through the application of his genius. A proper recognition of his work was represented by 2001’s beautifully produced box set. In appreciating his work, the listener must expect the recording quality to be quite primitive and a million miles away from the technology of today. That will be seen as part of the historical charm.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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