Of all the legendary figures whose names have come down to us from the early years of the Mississippi Delta blues tradition, Charley Patton is generally recognized as the most influential blues artist active in the first decades of the twentieth century. No single individual can be credited with “inventing” the Delta blues style, but Patton was among its half dozen earliest practitioners—recognized by 1910 throughout the Delta area as a rowdy, hard-drinking performer of consummate skill and versatility. Patton’s rough voice and earthy lyrics place him securely within the tradition of “downhome” country blues, but his guitar playing and rhythmic dexterity were as advanced as those of any of the numerous later bluesmen who benefitted from his innovations.
Patton’s parentage and early life are obscure. He was born around the year 1887 in Edwards, Mississippi, the son of Anney Patton and either her husband, Bill Patton, a preacher, or her lover of many years, Henderson Chatmon, a musician and farmer. Whichever man was his actual father, young Patton spent much of his time with the Chatmon family, many of whose members were talented musicians later to make blues records in the 1920s and 1930s. From Bill Patton, Charley Patton became familiar with the gospel tradition, but it seems clear that his true education in music was provided by the huge Chatmon clan.
For reasons unknown, Patton moved from Edwards to the plantation of Will Dockery around 1897. Dockery’s plantation covered many thousands of acres of the Delta’s best cotton country, straddling the Mississippi River near the towns of Drew and Cleveland. It was a well-run farming community in which hundreds of black sharecropping families enjoyed a relatively decent standard of living. Music was a daily ingredient of life among black sharecroppers—at work, in church, and especially at the Saturday night parties held in remote parts of the backcountry or at rollicking “juke” joints. These gatherings provided black society with some of its only opportunities for recreation free of white domination or the inhibiting influence of the church; in the words of famed novelist Zora Neale Hurston, as quoted in Early Downhome Blues, a juke joint was “a fun house. Where they sing, dance, gamble, love, and compose ‘blues’ songs incidentally.”
Patton was one of the earliest such composers. Along with an older mentor named Henry Sloan, Patton seized on a new form of popular song the basic units of which were 12-bar stanzas of three lyric lines each, the first two identical, the third different but end-rhymed with the others; the subjects of these songs were usually farm life, sexual relations, or poverty. When and where this form originated is not known, but its early development
Born in 1887 in Edwards, MS; died of heart disease, April 28, 1934, in Indianola, MS; buried in unmarked grave in Holly Ridge, MS; son of Anney (one source says Amy) Patton; father was either Bill Patton (a preacher) or Henderson Chatmon (a musician and farmer); married wife Gertrude, early 1900s; married Minnie Toy, 1908; married Minnie Franklin, early 1920s; married to wife Bertha Lee, 1930-34.
Learned to play guitar and sang with Chatmon family, c. 1890s; moved to Dockery’s Plantation, near Drew, MS, c. 1900; “invented”/adopted Delta blues style and performed at parties, taverns, and on streets of Delta region, 1905-1929; recorded with Paramount label, Richmond, IN, and Grafton, WI, 1929-1930; recorded with Vocalion label, New York City, 1934.
was concentrated in eastern Texas and the Mississippi Delta, where bandleader W. C. Handy, according to Early Downhome Blues, reported hearing blues sung in the streets of Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the “lean, loose-jointed Negro” he heard was the 16-year-old Charley Patton.
For 30 years Patton would remain a fixture in the Delta region, playing his guitar and singing the blues wherever he could make a few dollars. This often meant playing on the street, at picnics, at logging camps deep in the pine forests, or for white audiences at the larger plantations; but above all it meant the Saturday night dance parties of the sharecroppers. Patton was an ideal entertainer for such gatherings: he was not only a musician of genius, but “a clowning man with a guitar,” in the words of his probable half-brother Sam Chatmon, as printed in The Devil’s Music, given to bawdy storytelling and crowd-pleasing tricks like playing “his guitar all between his legs, [carrying] it behind his head, [laying] down on the floor.” Patton drank excessively, was querulous, changed women constantly, and treated all of them badly, according to contemporaries such as Son House. He was also noted—and sometimes criticized—for his slurring of lyrics and willingness to throw in lines at random, often without any relation to the rest of the song. When House chided Patton for such sloppiness, as reported in The Devil’s Music, Patton’s response was pragmatic: “Oh, man, all I want to do is get paid for it. What’s the difference?” Patton was the kind of rough-and-ready performer who would be designated as “countrified” by a later, more sophisticated generation of bluesmen; but there was nothing primitive about his musical ability, and Patton’s combination of refined skills and “downhome” style lend his recordings a unique historical importance.
Patton’s stay at Dockery’s plantation ended in 1929 when he was recruited to record for the Paramount label in Richmond, Indiana. Delta blues artists were not frequently recorded before the year 1926—vaudeville blues, featuring female singers backed by large bands, was the standard up to that time—but during the four-year period ended by the Great Depression, hundreds of recordings were made by musicians including Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Tommy Johnson, to name but a few. Patton recorded for Paramount three times in 1929 and 1930 and for the Vocalion label in New York City in 1934. All of the sides are now available on compact disc, and they reveal a musician far removed from the “clown” described by Sam Chatmon; as music scribe Robert Palmer wrote in Rolling Stone, “Patton’s sheer focus and magnetic, almost palpable presence will still jump out of your speakers and grab you by the throat.” Patton sang in a burly baritone that was nonetheless amply capable of rendering the pathos of many blues songs. His guitar work—often complex and always rhythmically challenging—was accompanied by a variety of hand and foot percussion. And his recorded output ranges widely in genre, from raw downhome blues to nineteenth-century ballads, show tunes, gospel, and country breakdowns.
Patton moved to the town of Lula after his recording session with Paramount, in 1930, and then to Holly Ridge, both of which are in the same Delta region of Mississippi. He died in 1934 of heart disease, though, like many other early blues musicians, he was widely rumored to have been murdered. Patton’s music had a deep and lasting influence on the entire history of Delta blues—the basis of nearly all subsequent blues—including the work of such legends as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Shines, and Muddy Waters. He is also credited by Palmer as one of the earliest progenitors of rock and roll, “an American archetype, the first in a series of hard-living, hard-rocking ramblers” that would eventually include the likes of pianist Jerry Lee Lewis and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Patton painted an apt self-portrait in his “Elder Green Blues”: “I like to fuss and fight/Lord, and get sloppy drunk off a bottle and ball/And walk the streets all night.”
King of the Delta Blues: The Music of Charley Patton, Yazoo, 1991.
Founder of the Delta Blues: 1929-1934, Yazoo, 1992.
Charters, Samuel B., The Bluesmen: The Story and the Music of the Men Who Made the Blues, Oak, 1967.
Charters, Samuel B., The Country Blues, Rinehart, 1959.
Colt, Stephen, and Wardlow, Gayle, King of the Delta Blues, Shanachie, 1988.
Oakley, Giles, The Devil’s Music, Ariel Books/BBC, 1976.
Titon, Jeff Todd, Early Downhome Blues, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Blues World (U.K.), August 1970.
Guitar Player, August 1992.
78 Quarterly, Autumn 1967.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1992.
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