April 28th, 1934 marked the passing of a legend.
On that day in the tiny community of Holly Ridge, deep in the rural Mississippi delta, a thin, frail 43 year-old man breathed his last and, to paraphrase a line from one of his songs; “went away to a world unknown”.
That man was Charley Patton.
Born sometime in April 1891, Charley, having learned guitar at an early age from an unknown blues singer, quickly discovered a way out from the drudgery of life on a cotton plantation and went on to record over 50 songs for the Gennet, Paramount and Vocalion record labels.
Thanks to the likes of The Beatles, Clapton, the Rolling Stones and other artists, old bluesmen such as Son House, Willie Brown, Howlin’ Wolf and of course Robert Johnson are pretty much household names. What many people are not aware of is the influence that Charley Patton had on them. All of these singers either followed, were taught by or played alongside him and if you listen to songs by any of them you will hear snippets of words and music borrowed from his wide repertoire of original songs.
A scrawny, semi-literate figure with jug-ears who was a heavy smoker with a penchant for corn-whisky and other men’s wives, Charley Patton could have been the blueprint for any number of skinny, modern-day rockstars (except Justin Bieber).
He wore scars from knife wounds (see previous reference to other men’s wives) had a pronounced limp when he walked, and spoke with a less well-pronounced growl to his voice. However, Charley Patton more than made up for any physical limitations with the sheer force of his voice, his talent for composing and his unique skill on the guitar.
I got into the blues in the same way that most white people of my age and older did. From listening to bands like the Rolling Stones and working backwards. That got me into Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson and for years I thought that old blues meant playing the standard 12-bar “Woke Up This Morning” rinse and repeat melody.
Then I discovered Charley Patton.
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard one of his songs. I know that it was ‘High Sheriff Blues’ and what I do remember is thinking “WTF is this?” At the time it seemed so unintelligible that I almost gave up, but then something about the way he played guitar caught my attention. I’ve always been a sucker for the sound of a slide guitar and I remember a phrase in ‘High Sheriff Blues’ that sounded like the guitar was singing the last words of each line.
I listened to more and more of his stuff but had difficulty deciphering some of the words (and nearly all of the wonderful spoken asides that he would throw in) because of the poor sound quality of many of his recordings.
What did stand out for me was the way he played the guitar.
Such was his virtuosity that he could seduce the guitar to echo the lilting gentle water flow of “Green River Blues” and then beat the beejezus out of it to emulate the awesome majesty of the Mississippi in full flood as he bellowed the powerful, “High Water Everywhere.”
And then came the internet.
All of a sudden, blues research opened up and anything and everything you wanted to know about anything and everything was at your fingertips. Previously incoherent song lyrics were decoded, the clouds parted and beams of sunlight shone through in a blues epiphany.
No, I don’t get out much.
From an early age, I have long held a fascination with the American South in general and the state of Mississippi in particular (I have no idea why, although someone once said that I must have lived there in a previous life) and when I finally got to understand the words, I realised that Charley Patton was documenting aspects of his life and his surroundings and turning them into songs.
Charley Patton in full flow is a force of nature.
Songs such as “High Water Everywhere”, “Moon Going Down” and “Revenue Man Blues” are delivered at full throttle; he would tune the guitar above concert pitch to make it louder, hit the body at the same time as he hit the strings and wear metal cleats on his shoes to amplify the stamping of his feet.
And then there was his voice.
By all accounts, his growl was loud enough to carry 500 yards without amplification; perfect for making himself heard in a packed, noisy and raucous juke joint, or drumming up business at a railroad station.
I could wax lyrical all night on the subject of Charley Patton; for me his songs provide fascinating vignettes into an equally fascinating life-story.
But don’t take my word for it, check him out for yourself. YouTube or Spotify are the obvious places to start for his music and you can find any number of biographies on the internet or on Amazon.
It was 80 years ago today. How many other musicians will be remembered on the 80th anniversary of their death?
Rest in Peace Charley Patton.
And thank you.