A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)
A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)
David Evans won a Grammy award in 2003 for “Best Album Notes” for the following essay in Revenant 212, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.
Charley Patton died on April 28, 1934, some three months after his final recording session. During the preceding five years he had become the most extensively recorded of the early Mississippi folk blues artists, leaving behind a legacy of fifty-two issued songs as well as accompaniments of other artists.
Patton was the first recorded black folk artist to comment directly and extensively on public events that he had witnessed or experienced and to treat events in his own life as news. He was also the first recorded black folk artist to mention white people from his own community in his songs, sometimes unfavorably. He did all of this while continuing to live his life in the Mississippi Delta, a region which featured perhaps the most rigid racial caste system in the entire nation.1
Charley Patton was almost certainly born in 1891, making him more or less a younger member of the first generation of folk blues singers, the originators of this genre. It is known that Patton himself learned some of his music from other artists who were a few years older. He is nevertheless the earliest Mississippi blues artist about whom we have much information, although much of this information comes from the last five years of his life during which he made his recordings. He was extraordinarily influential on other Mississippi blues artists and was a role model in both music and lifestyle for many of them. Among the many artists he is known to have influenced or inspired are Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, “Son” House, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Bukka White, a great Mississippi blues artist eighteen years Patton’s junior, recalled saying as a child that he wanted “to come to be a great man like Charley Patton.”2 White was not alone in his great respect for this man. It is probably fair to say that Charley Patton is the only black person of his generation to live virtually his entire life in Mississippi who still has a national and international impact and whose name and accomplishments are known to many outside his immediate family and community over a century after his birth and almost seventy years after his death. This piece does not purport to be a full-scale biography but is mainly concerned with matters of personality and with reaching an understanding of the social context of Patton’s life and music. It is based largely on the internal evidence in Patton’s songs that contain biographical details and allu¬sions and on interviews with relatives and associates of Charley Patton, particularly his sister Viola Cannon, his niece Bessie Turner, his nephew Tom Cannon, and Tom Rushing, a figure in one of his songs.3
Previously published accounts4 of Charley Patton’s life, character and personality have been based on the evidence of his records as well as interviews with fellow blues artists (especially “Son” House), friends, relatives, ex-wives, and girlfriends. The first publication to give much significant information about Patton was a booklet by Bernard Klatzko published in 1964 as the notes to a reissue album of some of Patton’s records.5 Klatzko obtained his information during a brief field trip to the Delta in 1963 with fellow researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. Although their interviews of a number of Patton’s relatives and friends were brief and superficial and contained some errors, Klatzko was nevertheless able to piece together an outline of Patton’s life that served as a useful starting point for further research. As for Patton’s lifestyle and personality, Klatzko revealed that he was popular with women and had married several times, that he was fond of drinking liquor and tended to be argumentative. Klatzko also revealed that Patton traveled constantly and was well known in Mississippi. A subsequently discovered photograph showed Patton as having a rather light complexion and curly hair, clearly the product of a mixed racial ancestry. Based on the evidence of Patton’s performing style on his records, Klatzko speculated that the artist felt some sense of outrage, stating, “It must have seemed strange to a man like Patton who looked little different from white men to be relegated to a second-class status. At any rate, Charley’s outrage, whatever sparked it, was released in the blues.”6 Later researchers have largely ignored this speculation or tried to paint a portrait of Patton as a carefree entertainer.
About the time that Klatzko presented the first factually based outline of Charley Patton’s life, “Son” House was rediscovered. House had known Patton for the last four years of the latter’s life and was a Mississippi blues artist of comparable stature to Patton. House clearly found some of Patton’s character traits hard to comprehend or annoying. He told Stephen Calt and Nick Perls in an interview published in 1967 that Patton was argumentative, far from generous with his money, unable to read and write, and careless about his music, preferring to clown for the audience rather than take care to structure his songs coherently.7 In an article published in the same magazine issue as House’s interview, Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt (writing under the pseudonym of Jacques Roche) work from House’s assertions and paint an unflattering portrait of Patton as illiterate, self-centered, a drunkard, a glutton, and a hustler of women.8
In the same year Samuel Charters, drawing upon Klatzko’s booklet and an interview with Patton’s last wife Bertha Lee, presented a more favorable image of Charley Patton and tried to interpret the meaning of some of his songs.9 Stephen Calt, however, soon returned to the offensive. In the notes to the then most widely circulated reissue album of Patton’s recordings Calt asserted that Patton “never learned to read or write and passed most of his time . . . in total idleness,” that he was a “perpetual squabbler,” “extraordinarily tight with money,” always courting women and entering sham marriages with them, beating his wives, and “eating out of the white folks’ kitchen.” Calt adds that Patton was “reportedly disavowed” by his daughter from one of his marriages. 10
In the first book-length study of Charley Patton’s life and music the late John Fahey mainly tries to assemble known facts into a coherent account of Patton’s life.11 Although Fahey actually did some fieldwork in Mississippi as early as 1958, most of his information was supplied by Bernard Klatzko, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and myself. Fahey did subsequently interview a number of other musical figures who knew Patton, including apparently Bertha Lee, Patton’s last wife, and Sam Chatmon, who claimed to be Patton’s brother. Fahey mentions Patton’s drinking and fighting but does not dwell on these topics. His life history attempts to be factual rather than anecdotal. Fahey does, however, suggest that Patton did not have a particularly profound personality or sensitivity to the world around him. He stresses the fact that Patton was first and foremost an “entertainer” and had a “limited picture of the world.”12
The most sympathetic portrait of Patton to date is found in the late Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues.13 It is based primarily on Patton’s recordings and previously published information as well as new information gained from Joe Rice Dockery, the owner of the plantation on which Patton’s family lived, and several musicians who had learned from Patton, including Hayes McMullen, Howlin’ Wolf, and Roebuck Staples. Even when discussing Patton’s drinking and his less than tender treatment of women, Palmer attempts to see Patton’s life in the context of the period and the social system in which he lived, stating, “Charley Patton saw a world of changes during the fifty-odd years of his life, but the system was in effect in the upper Delta before he was born, and it outlasted him by several decades. He adapted to it well enough despite his lingering rage, which he tended to take out on his women, sometimes by beating them with a handy guitar. He suffered his dark moods and his occasional repentances and conversions, but he also had fun, or something like it. He rarely worked for whites except to furnish a night’s entertainment, and he was never tied to a menial job or a plot of land for very long. He went where he pleased, stayed as long as he pleased, stayed as intoxicated as he pleased, left when he wanted to, and had his pick of the women wherever he went.”14
Unfortunately, the positive effect of Palmer’s treatment of Charley Patton has been considerably offset by two of the more recent works to deal with this artist, the first being a screenplay by Alan Greenberg about the life of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson.15 In two fictionalized scenes, based largely on the writings of Calt and Fahey, Greenberg depicts Patton as preaching a comic sermon, drinking furiously, dancing lewdly, talking dirty, fighting with his wife Bertha Lee, who cuts his throat, being dragged off unconscious, later playing music at a riotous house party unconcerned about a murder that has just taken place there, and finally being bested in a musical competition by an upstart Robert Johnson. In a third scene Patton has died, and his funeral degenerates into a drunken tribal dance. The overall picture of Patton’s character is negative in the extreme. The second of these more recent works is a 1988 book-length treatment of Patton’s life and music by Calt and Wardlow which, while containing much valuable research and analysis, perpetuates the image of Patton as a degenerate sociopath.16
Many writers have discussed the musical stylistic characteristics of various recorded performances of Charley Patton or transcribed and commented upon lyrics of some of his songs. Fahey attempted to do this in a comprehensive manner for all of Patton’s then-extant recordings.17 While writers like Charters and Palmer have tried to find serious meaning in Patton’s song texts, there has been another strain of criticism attempting to show that Patton’s songs were often garbled and incoherent and that the artist was merely providing casual entertainment and not attempting to transmit a serious message or meaning. While there are admittedly difficulties in transcribing some of Patton’s texts and while some criticism of his compositional technique may be justified, it would appear that the negative view of Patton’s lyricism, like the negative view of his character, is based largely on an interpretation and exaggeration of some remarks of Patton’s fellow bluesman “Son” House. House sang with fairly precise diction, his pieces generally maintained consistent musical structures, and his songs display consistent and extended thematic development over several verses or even in their entirety with an impression of some degree of lyrical stability and prior rehearsal. House was critical of Patton for not maintaining these same standards in his compositions, memorably commenting, “Charley, he could start singing of the shoe there and wind up singing about that banana.”18
Based on House’s remarks and an attempt to decipher some of Patton’s recorded lyrics, Stephen Calt characterizes the artist as frequently incoherent and prone to garbling.19 The strongest criticism of Patton’s lyricism, however, comes from John Fahey, who notes the “disconnection, incoherence, and apparent irrationality” and “stanzaic disjunction” in many of Patton’s songs, stating that “various unrelated portions of the universe are described at random.”20
There is general agreement among all of the writers on Charley Patton that he was someone important. Many of these writers, however, have failed to find any redeeming sensitivity in the man, and some have even found fault with his art, criticizing him for a kind of sloppiness consistent with his alleged personality. His greatness, such as it is, is ascribed simply to his role as a consummate entertainer. While I do not intend to view him as a saint or to deny the possibility of fault in his work, I hope to set the record straight by introducing new information and interpretations of Patton and his music which reveal a special artistic sensitivity and show that he was not only a singular artist but one who was indeed quite serious about his work.
ACCORDING TO the 1900 United States Census, Charley Patton was born in April 1891. It is not known whether his name was spelled Charley or Charlie. Both spellings occur on his records and even on his death certificate. I use the spelling Charley, which was found on his Paramount records that first introduced his name to the world.
ACCORDING TO the 1900 United States Census, Charley Patton was born in April 1891. It is not known whether his name was spelled Charley or Charlie. Both spellings occur on his records and even on his death certificate. I use the spelling Charley, which was found on his Paramount records that first introduced his name to the world.
There is no uncertainty about his place of birth. All sources are in agreement that it was in the country between Bolton and Edwards, Mississippi, two communities that are themselves about midway between the cities of Vicksburg and Jackson. His parents were Bill and Annie Patton. Blues artist Sam Chatmon, who was born in the same rural community as Charley Patton, claimed that Charley was his “brother,” implying that they both had the same father, Henderson Chatmon. Possibly Annie Patton had once been the wife or girlfriend of Henderson Chatmon and even had children by him, but the longstanding stability of the Patton family, including the marriage of Bill and Annie Patton, argues strongly for the thesis that Bill Patton was Charley’s father. In any case, Charley remained close to Bill Patton and there is no suggestion among Charley’s surviving relatives that Bill was not Charley’s father.
Bill and Annie Patton had nine daughters and three sons. All but two of the girls died in infancy or childhood, including one who was burned to death in a fire. Of the remaining children Katie was the oldest (b. 1884), followed by Viola (b. 1887), Charley, William (also known as Will, Willie, “Son,” and “Buster,” b. 1895) and a brother known as “C” Patton who was born around 1901. Katie died in Chicago in the 1960’s. Willie Patton, who sometimes played guitar with his brother Charley, died in Gary, Indiana, around 1959. “C” Patton was killed by his best friend in 1918 in a hunting accident.
Charley’s mother Annie Patton was a short brown-skinned woman with straight hair, of partial Indian ancestry. She was born in Mississippi in January 1862, and Tom Cannon states that she died before Charley at Beaver Bayou near Merigold and was taken to Bolton for burial. Charley’s “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” (Paramount 12805), recorded June 14, 1929, suggests that his mother was still living at the time. His “Troubled ‘Bout My Mother” (Vocalion 02904), recorded February 1, 1934, suggests that she was dead by that time.
Bill Patton was born in Mississippi in March 1864 and Tom Cannon states he died in 1927 or 1928 in a hospital in Vicksburg, where he had been taken. He was buried in Vicksburg. He was a very large man weighing about 350 pounds and was described by his grandchildren as having a “bright” or “red” complexion. Bill Patton’s father was a white man from Vicksburg, also named Bill Patton, and his mother a “black Indian” woman named Rose. Rose was likely a slave and Bill her owner; sexual liaisons between white men and their women slaves were quite common, with some white men openly acknowledging their illegitimate mixed-race offspring.
Charley Patton was about five feet and seven inches in height and weighed between 135 and 160 pounds in adult life. He had light brown complexion and curly hair, which he may have oiled. Charley was closest in appearance to his sister Viola. Some writers have asserted that Charley Patton was virtually indistinguishable from a white man. This is hardly the case, as any serious look at his one extant photograph reveals. Nevertheless, his physical features were perplexing to many who saw him. Howlin’ Wolf, who began his musical career as a disciple of Charley Patton, likened him to a Mexican. The photograph reveals him as an exotically handsome man of serious demeanor with prominent Indian features below the eyes and evident Caucasian features from the eyes up. Charley’s ancestry would have been at least one-quarter Caucasian, probably one-quarter to one-half Indian, and the remainder African.
It is important to recognize the fact that Charley Patton’s cultural and emotional background was as mixed as his racial background. Even though in the post-Reconstruction South he would have been classified as a “Negro,” it is not necessarily the case that Charley accepted this designation. The elder Bill Patton, a white man, and Charley’s grandmother Rose, who considered herself to be an Indian, remained close to their children and grandchildren and visited with them often. There can be no doubt that the white Bill Patton, Sr., openly acknowledged his “colored” progeny. He passed on his surname to his descendants, and his first name, William, or its variants Bill, Will, or Willie, remained in the Patton family for at least another three generations. The Indian cultural strain in the Patton family is more obscure, and it would have had less chance to flourish openly in the Mississippi Valley, where the Indian social presence had been eradicated by the early part of the nineteenth century.
There is considerable evidence in the naming practices, migrational patterns, and oral legends of the Pattons that they resisted the idea of racial classification and preferred to have an ambiguous status and to be considered on the basis of their specific ancestry as well as their actual accomplishments and talents. Indeed, Charley Patton’s entire life and musical output bear witness to this fact.
While the names Bill, Rose, Annie, Katie, Charley, Viola, and even C. Patton are unremarkable, there exists a more curious naming pattern within the family that deserves to be noted. Blues singer David “Honeyboy” Edwards has stated that Charley had an uncle named Sherman Patton.21 This was, in fact, Sherman Martin, the younger brother of Charley’s mother Annie (Martin), who was raised by Charley’s parents. This is a most provocative name, as it was undoubtedly bestowed in honor of General William T. Sherman, the Union army leader in the Civil War who led a division at the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 and whose “scorched earth” policy brought the South to its knees. The giving of this name would mark Annie’s parents as strong Union supporters, a viewpoint that was far from popular and even downright dangerous in white-dominated post-Reconstruction Mississippi.
Charley’s father Bill Patton gave his children conventional names, but his “baby boy” C. Patton was also known as “X.” While the use of initials for proper names is not unusual in the South, “X” is hardly a common name or nickname. It is a fundamental symbol of the cancellation of identity. It serves as the “mark” of one who cannot write his own name, i.e., who cannot claim his legal identity. Many years later Elijah Muhammad gave this designation to his followers in the Nation of Islam to indicate the loss of their African surnames and their consequent ambiguous status in America, with his most articulate disciple being the late Malcolm X. Indeed, the name “X” remained in the family and was given once again to the elder Bill Patton’s great great grandson. Willie Patton, the son of Charley’s brother Will “Son” Patton, named his only son X. L. Patton. X. L. died in the early 1970s in Cleveland, Mississippi.
The naming practices of Charley Patton himself were perhaps the most curious of all. In what could be interpreted as an incredibly ironic commentary on his own racial ambiguity, he named his daughter China Lou. Could this name have symbolized a refusal to allow his daughter to be classified in a way that made sense within the Delta’s rigid social structure? She was not in any way Chinese, though there were Chinese people in the Delta. Many of them were in the grocery business. In some towns they were classified socially with whites, in others with blacks, and in Greenville, they were able to fashion a separate classification of their own. Like the Indians before them, they could and did intermarry with both whites and blacks. They thus constituted an ambiguous social category, their threat to the status quo mitigated only by the fact that their numbers were small.
Much later in his life, when Charley Patton made his recording debut in 1929, he had his second record (Paramount 12805) issued under the name of “The Masked Marvel.” Although this was done as a promotional device by the company, it is hard to believe that Patton himself was uninvolved in its planning. While Patton was well known to his Delta audience under his own name, this could have been an attempt by him, either conscious or unconscious, to revert to some ambiguous status as he began to present his music to a much larger audience through the medium of “race” records.
The movement and occupational patterns of the Patton family lend further weight to the idea that they were dissatisfied with the status quo in the post-Reconstruction South. While by the beginning of the twentieth century most Americans of any degree of African ancestry adopted, reluctantly or not, a social status of “colored” and made the best of its accompanying social indignities, it would appear that in many ways both real and symbolic (as exemplified in their naming practices) the members of the Patton family took pains to avoid adopting this status and were always seeking a situation of increased freedom and opportunity. All but Charley and the unfortunate “X” Patton eventually found their place in the system and made a rather successful accommodation.
Bill Patton, Senior, and his black Indian wife evidently looked back to the hopes that were generated by the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. It is not known whether they moved for a time to the area between Bolton and Edwards, but some or all of their children certainly lived there. This area may have been a haven for upwardly mobile Negroes and families of mixed racial heritage. The large Chatmon family of musicians from this area certainly had such a heritage. Utica Institute, a black college, was located nearby and no doubt served to raise the general educational level of the area. It is interesting to note how many prominent blues artists came from this area. In addition to Charley Patton and the Chatmons, there were Tommy Johnson and his brothers and cousins, Ishmon Bracey, Walter Vincson, Caldwell Bracy, Eugene Powell, Joe and Charlie McCoy, and many others who moved north to the Delta, such as Dick Bankston, Jack Hicks, Henry Sloan, Jake Martin, and his cousin Fiddlin’ Joe Martin.22
Despite the relative degree of freedom and opportunity that may have been found in the hills between Vicksburg and Jackson, there appeared to be even greater opportunities in the Delta to the north. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large parts of the Delta were still swampland. Gradually a system of levees and drainage ditches was constructed to control the spring floods. The swamps were drained and timber interests cut down the larger trees. After this, the land was carved up into large plantations with incredibly rich soil that had been deposited by years of flooding. Almost all of the land was bought by whites, but Negro labor was needed to cut the trees, till the soil and pick the cotton. For people living on eroded farms in the hill country to the South, the Delta must have seemed like a dream come true, a frontier paradise with plenty of opportunities for work, where a man’s labor might earn him a real sense of freedom and dignity.
Along with many others from the hills, Bill Patton, Junior, took his family to the Delta. The year was between 1901 and 1904 and the place where they settled was Dockery’s plantation on the Sunflower River between Cleveland and Ruleville.
Dockery’s was a huge tract of about forty square miles founded in 1895 by Will Dockery.23 Dockery was a paternalistic planter who by all accounts treated his tenants very fairly and frequently gained their loyalty and residency for stretches of many years. His was an extraordinarily well run and efficient plantation with its own dry goods, grocery and furniture stores, railroad station, telegraph office, cotton gin, church, graveyard, and picnic ground for the workers and many other amenities. It was really more like a “company town” in some northern industrial area run by a rather benevolent “boss.” A number of middle-level positions were held by hard-working Negroes, including members of the Patton family. Bill Patton led a sober life, made money, and eventually was able to buy land near the all-Negro Delta community of Renova (located just north of Cleveland) and own a country store there.
Of Bill and Annie Patton’s children, Katie married a man who owned land at Renova. Eventually, they moved north, like many other Delta residents, to the relative “freedom” of Chicago, where she died. Viola stayed on Dockery’s, where around 1904 she married John Cannon, the most prominent Negro on the plantation. John Cannon ran the grocery store on Dockery’s plantation for about fifty years, and Viola was able to bask in the glory of the exalted status of her husband, a black man who had been raised up in the wealthy Dockery family. The Cannons had thirteen children, and Viola lived to a ripe old age. Will “Son” Patton went overseas in 1917-18 to fight for his country and make the world safe for democracy. One wonders how he felt when he returned to the Delta to find things little changed. Will Patton stayed on Dockery’s for a while, probably reveling in the role of war hero. He tried to play guitar, but he could never do more than chord and beat rhythm behind his brother Charley’s playing. As a musician he always remained in Charley’s shadow. Growing older and probably frustrated with life in the South, and having seen something different in Europe, he moved north to Gary, Indiana, where he lived out his days. The family’s “baby boy,” C. Patton, also known as “X,” never found his niche in the system and was accidentally killed when on the verge of manhood. Charley Patton never really found his niche either. He embraced a new form of “black” music, the blues, through which he was able to lead a rambling life, always on the move, very popular among both whites and blacks in the Delta, and never having to commit himself to a permanent status. His “niche” in the system consisted of placing himself outside the system and actually avoiding a niche, never permanently accommodating, never letting himself be pinned down.
He remained to the end The Masked Marvel.
ALTHOUGH CHARLEY Patton made his mark in the world as an exponent of black music and has come to be viewed as the epitome of the Delta bluesman, it must be kept in mind that his background was far from being typical of the black Delta sharecropper. He was not the stereotyped downtrodden, illiterate fieldhand. His father Bill Patton was quite well off by Delta Negro standards and could eventually buy his own land and a store. Tom Cannon and Bessie Turner state that their grandfather Bill Patton would rent land from Will Dockery for one-fourth of his crop. Although most sharecropping arrangements were made for half of the crop, this was a good arrangement for Will Dockery because he did not have to “furnish” Patton for the year. Instead, Patton had about eight sharecroppers sub-renting the land from him for half of their crop. Patton himself “furnished” his sharecroppers, an arrangement that actually elevated him to the same “bossman” status that Will Dockery and other white planters enjoyed. Bill Patton also owned four large logging wagons and teams and ran a profitable business hauling timber. On Saturdays he cooked and sold fish in a little shop next to the store at Dockery’s. Bessie Turner sums up her grandfather’s existence by stating, “He didn’t do no kind of work, but he just see to the work being done.” Tom Cannon says, “He was a big farmer on Dockery’s.” Bill Patton left Dockery’s sometime before 1918 and bought land on Snake Creek near Mound Bayou. After farming there for a number of years, he returned to Dockery’s for a time and also farmed at Blaine for one or two years in the 1920’s. He probably bought the land and store in Renova in the late 1920’s and apparently died not too long thereafter.
Considering his family background, it should not be surprising that Charley Patton had a rather good education. Bessie Turner said that he and his sister Viola both went to the ninth grade together, far higher than the typical sharecropper’s son could have achieved. Probably most of this schooling took place before Charley moved to Dockery’s, and indeed his formal education may have been cut off at that point due to a lack of school facilities close to Dockery’s in the plantation’s early days. Bessie Turner said that Bill Patton stressed education to all of his children and would have whipped them if they neglected their studies. The educational status of children under the age of ten was not listed in the 1900 census, but both of Charley’s older sisters were described as “at school” with five years of education. The reports that Charley could not read and write, which stem from the testimony of “Son” House, are certainly not true.24 It would seem, however, that Charley did neglect his education in his later years and probably allowed his skills to decline. As a traveling bluesman he probably didn’t have too much need for reading and writing other than handling correspondence about playing jobs and recordings. He did read the Bible, however, but it is not known if he ever read other books or newspapers. While the words of his songs do not display any distinct intellectualism, it must be kept in mind that he participated in a tradition of lyricism that was developed largely by singers far less educated than he. Bessie Turner said of her Uncle Charley’s education, “It was good enough to carry him.” If Charley Patton was no intellectual, he at least had several years of formal schooling and must have added to it an enormous store of what some black people call “mother wit” to carry him to the heights of success and fame that he reached in his life.
In addition to his education in school, Charley Patton also received a thorough religious education and learned the Bible well. His father Bill Patton was an elder of the church on Dockery’s and raised his children in a strict manner. Undoubtedly the young Charley was made to attend Sunday school as well as the regular preaching services. His sister Viola and her husband and children were also all active in the church, as were no doubt his other brother and sister and their children. Charley’s interest in religion continued throughout his life and was not abandoned when he became confirmed in his career as a musician. This fact should be clear from his recording often issued religious sides at three of his four recording sessions. These songs must be considered as a unity with his blues and not as some sort of recording studio afterthought or a mere recollection of songs learned in childhood. Patton continued to perform these songs in family contexts, and in his close-knit family there were many such contexts. He also performed from time to time in church programs, probably alongside local quartets and other soloists. His recorded church songs concentrate on several distinct themes, all of which were clearly important in his life and most of which are also found in his blues recordings. The most important of these themes is death and the afterlife in heaven. Charley had seen a brother and seven sisters die young, had worried about his brother Will dying in battle in France, had survived the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, had been present at many violent and potentially violent scenes at barrelhouses and house parties, and came close to dying in 1929 when his throat was cut by a man who was jealous over the attention his wife paid Charley at a dance. For about the last two years of his life he was aware of his own impending death from heart trouble. Heaven was viewed as an ideal world, free from troubles, a world he could never find in all his wanderings on earth. The second major theme in his religious recordings is the journey to heaven. This preoccupation is paralleled in his blues with their many references to towns, roads, boats and trains, and it was certainly part of his actual lifestyle. Other themes in his spiritual recordings were his personal dignity and determination, worry about his mother, personal depression, the troubles of this world and the comfort found in God and Jesus.
All of these were important themes in his own life. It is of interest to note that none of his recorded spirituals contains denunciations of various sins, a topic which is otherwise a common theme in the black spiritual song repertoire. Patton was certainly self-righteous enough in his blues, but as one who might have been viewed as a “sinner” by other churchgoers, he probably would have considered it hypocritical to denounce drinking, fornicating, dancing, and other sins. Bessie Turner recalls several other spirituals that Charley Patton sang in addition to the ones he recorded, all of which dwell on these same themes. Among them are “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “Old Ship of Zion,” a favorite hymn (which he would have sung unaccompanied), and a song he composed or adapted with reference to the 1927 flood called “God Will Take Care of You.” The lyrics that Mrs. Turner could remember were:
As you travel in the land, man don’t understand, But God will take care of you, God will take care of you. Through every day, along the way, God will take care of you, God will take care of you. Your troubles may be heavy but your burden will be light. God will take care of you, God will take care of you.
Charley, of course, also recorded a two-part blues about the flood with far more specific detail, “High Water Everywhere” (Paramount 12909). He was also well known for his ability to make the guitar imitate the voice of a man praying, a virtuoso technique he displayed on “Prayer of Death, Parts 1 and 2” (Paramount 12799).
Charley not only performed and recorded religious songs but for most of his life wrestled with what he thought was a calling to be a preacher. This must have been a genuine concern to Patton and should not be dismissed as casual fits of remorse, as some writers have done. Charley preached on a number of occasions, and his sister Viola stated that he even taught others to preach. His niece Bessie Turner states:
He started to preaching and quit. Let me tell you what happened one time. He was young, and everybody went to hear Uncle Charley, because he done put that guitar down then. He was going to preach up there in Mound Bayou.25 That night people was at the church like that, you know, because he was a guitar picker that had quit, and he was going to preach. Uncle Charley got right at the church and seen all them people. He looked in there and said, “Sure, I’m gone!” Went out in the cornfield and stayed out there all night long. He did that, and grandmama and them sat out there and waited on Uncle Charley to come in the pulpit to preach and ain’t seen Uncle Charley til next morning. He did that. And the next time he preached. The next time he made up his mind, and he went on up there, and he preached like he’d been preaching for ten years. He knowed that Bible just like that. It was the thirteenth chapter of Revelations. He preached it down to the eighteenth, from the thirteenth chapter down to the eighteenth chapter of Revelations. I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget his hymn:
Jesus is my God, I know His name. His name is all my trust. He would not put my soul to shame, Or let my hopes be lost.That was his hymn. He’d sing that hymn all the time when he got up in church. He could just take his time and say his prayers so good. The next thing you know, he was back on that guitar.
Patton recorded a brief sample of his preaching in the midst of his singing of “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die” (Paramount 13031). Although he stumbles in his delivery once, the recording shows him to have been a more than capable preacher. His imagery is excerpted from Chapters 1, 4, 21, and 22 of the Book of Revelation, Patton’s favorite book of the Bible, and dwells on the appearance of God and the holy city of heaven. But Charley Patton ultimately made his greatest mark in blues.
PATTON SHOWED an early interest in the guitar, and around the age of fourteen he obtained his first instrument. This was given to him by his father, who had at first strongly opposed Charley’s interest in music and whipped him with a bullwhip. Charley first played with members of the Chatmon family and probably other local musicians around Bolton and Edwards. His sister Viola recalled three Chatmon brothers, including Ferdinand (born in April 1885) and Ezell who was probably older, along with their father Henderson Chatmon, comprising a band of mandolin, fiddle, guitar and bass violin. In later life Charley frequently returned to his boyhood home and no doubt continued to play with these musicians. The Chatmons were an important musical family, and a younger set of Chatmon brothers would later become the famous band and recording unit, the Mississippi Sheiks.
The role of the guitar in the string band music that the Chatmons played was lar¬gely restricted to playing chorded rhythm and bass runs. Charley’s sister stated that he didn’t really learn to pick a guitar until he moved to Dockery’s. There he came under the influence of older musicians living on the plantation who were al¬ready developing a blues style of guitar playing: a Mr. Toby, a man named Bonds whose daughter Charley married, and most importantly a man named Henry Sloan.
Sloan was born in January 1870, in Mississippi, and was living in 1900 in the same community as the Patton and Chatmon families, west of Bolton. He moved to Dockery’s about the same time as the Pattons, between 1901 and 1904. Charley received some direct instruction, observed and imitated the playing of the older men, and played behind Sloan’s field hollers. Sloan and Bonds stayed on Dockery’s a number of years, and Charley had a lengthy opportunity to absorb their music. Evidently, at some point he surpassed them in ability and reputation, probably by 1910, as he was influencing other musicians like Willie Brown at that time.
Charley and his guitar were virtually inseparable. He rarely worked in the field, but he did help his father haul logs. Even on these jobs he was apt to carry his guitar in the wagon. Blues singer J.D. Short recalled seeing Charley with his guitar on a logging job near Hollandale, Mississippi.26 Patton’s illegitimate son Willie Williams was born in Kentwood, Louisiana, a sawmill town where Charley had gone to play music and probably do timber work on the side. Sawmill locations and logging imagery occur in a number of Patton’s blues, such as “Down The Dirt Road Blues,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “Hammer Blues,” “Joe Kirby,” “Green River Blues,” and “Jersey Bull Blues.”
The only other instrument Charley is known to have played is the kazoo. His playing was fondly recalled by his sister and niece. Although he never used a kazoo on any of his recordings, one of his disciples, Tommy Johnson, did record at least one piece with it. It is interesting to note that one of the functions of the kazoo is to disguise the voice. It springs from African musical tradition, where it is frequently used to supply the voice for masks in ritual contexts.27 Charley himself was a master of voice changes, and his recordings are full of interjections in which he imitates the voices of women and members of an audience. It is, then, hardly surprising that The Masked Marvel should have played a kazoo.
Charley’s niece gave the following account of how he learned to play guitar and sing blues, pieced together from what her uncle and her mother told her:
He started playing a guitar when he was seven years old, and he growed up on picking that guitar and he went to earning his money. If you called him, and he’s a little boy ten years old, and you put on a dance – at that time they had them house dances – they’d send for him. Well, he done made his money that night. Somebody else would hear it, and they liked it. Well, they’d call him, and he be done made his money. Grandmama says, “I can’t do nothing with him. I reckon he was called to pick that guitar.” His brother couldn’t do nothing but second behind him.… Uncle Charley said the way he learned, you know, folks in the country would always have Saturday night breakdowns. And Uncle Charley would get up out of the bed at night and go out the window. He was a little boy then, seven years old. Go out the window and sit down there and listen at them.… And some of the boys, different ones, had guitars, young men, and they would let him rap on it. The mens would be playing for the womens dancing. He kept on worrying Grandpapa, and Grandpapa got him a guitar, and he started to learning then.… My Grandmama didn’t never like it, but Grandpapa said, “Well, that’s all he going to be, ‘cause it just worries him to death.” Said, “I’m gonna get him a guitar.” Said, “I’m gonna let him learn at home, ‘cause he gonna be slipping off from home, and I don’t want that.” Said, “Let him learn. If that’s his game he want to play, let him learn just like anybody else. It ain’t gonna hurt him.” Grandmama scared he’s gonna get killed somewhere. She worried over him a lot, but after she see that that’s what he’s determined to do, let him do it.… And the man what learned him how to start to playing a guitar, he was a Bonds. But Uncle Charley started going there. As soon as he got out of school, he’d go on down there. Finally Uncle Charley went to work on it.… That’s when he got my cousin [i.e., China Lou], by one of the Bonds daughters.… He went to going with Miss Millie.… See, us wasn’t getting out nowhere. We just knowed they was making music.... Henry Sloan, he’s the one that learned Uncle Charley how to really play the guitar. Henry Sloan, he was a little old brownskin man, low.… [He played] “Alabama Bound.” “Rooster crowed and the hen looked around; if you want anything, you got to run me down.” All that kind of song. We weren’t mixing in there, you know. We just hear it off, you know. We’d get in the cottonfield, get in the back yard, and listen at them over on that hill in that big old house over there. They’d be singing, “You see my black cow, tell her to hurry home; I ain’t had no milk since the cow been gone.” Lord, I don’t know, just some of everything. He sung just like him. Uncle Charley had a good voice. He really could sing. He took after him, Henry Sloan. He was a settled man when he learned Uncle Charley, because he had been playing for years, I reckon, before I was born . Mama and them knowed him before she married Papa [ca. 1904].… Uncle Charley was picking guitar good then. He’d [Sloan] go in and eat, and he’d be walking toward the house, singing, and Uncle Charley’d be picking the guitar.
IT IS IMPORTANT to realize that Charley Patton considered music to be a career, a profession. It was not a part-time or spare time activity. It was his livelihood, and he rarely did any other kind of work except to help his father. No doubt, like many other professional musicians, he would have considered it a blow to his dignity to have to do any other type of work. His work for his father was mostly done when he was still developing his reputation prior to the early 1920’s and was probably done mainly out of a sense of family responsibility and when his father was short-handed for a logging or farming task. Even beyond his attitude of professionalism, Charley evidently believed that the life of a musician was his “calling.” At least, this is the term his mother is said to have used, the same term that one uses for the preaching profession. If Charley ever had any doubts about this calling, they were strictly over the issue of whether he had a higher calling to preach the gospel.
The triumph of Charley Patton over his environment and social system was that he was able to live at least as prosperously as his father, and have a maximum of physical mobility. A Negro landowner had no mobility in this potentially hostile environment, and a renter could only exercise his mobility once a year following his financial settlement with the “bossman.” Charley was his own bossman. His niece described his situation by saying, “He just left when he got ready, because he didn’t make no crops. . . He was a free man.”
There was, of course, a heavy price he had to pay for his freedom. He had to travel frequently to make money, and he was never able to establish a permanent home or a stable family life. One might wonder why he didn’t simply move north, as his brother and sister eventually did. The racial climate was milder in the North, and perhaps he could have become a star there like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, or Tampa Red, or taken a factory job and played music on the side. Probably he would have done this if he thought he could live better up north, but the greatest demand for his services was apparently in the Delta. He could make plenty of money there, and he had plenty of friends and relatives in the region. His decision to remain in the South and pursue the career of a musician must be viewed as a step toward greater freedom than he had grown up with, an extension of a family pattern. Perhaps his parents secretly realized this when they finally acquiesced in his decision.
There were four contexts in which Charley Patton played most of his music: cafes and juke houses (also known as juke joints and honky tonks), stores, house parties, and picnics. A cafe was a small restaurant catering to black customers, serving sandwiches and hot meals, perhaps fried fish or barbecue. A juke house also served food, but the emphasis was more on music and dancing. In effect, a cafe by day might become a juke house by night. These establishments were operated by blacks and were located in the towns as well as in populated rural areas. During most of the 1920’s and until 1932, it was illegal to buy or sell liquor in America. Plenty of illegal drinking took place, but at the cafes and juke joints it was generally done on the outside or in a back room, and the liquor was sold by a bootlegger who was usually not formally associated with the cafe owner. During the daytime Patton probably played mainly for tips, as eating was then the main order of business. Saturday and Sunday afternoons would have been the best times, as most people ate at home on weekdays. On weekend nights the owner would probably charge admission at the door, and this would be Patton’s payment for the night. When he had to travel any distance, he was probably guaranteed a minimum payment. Although Tom Cannon stated that Charley “had a place to play near about every night in the week,” he probably seldom played on weekday nights, unless he was in a large city, as most people had to go to bed early and work the next day.
Playing at a store was similar to playing at a cafe or a juke house. Most stores, however, were operated by whites and Chinese. During daytime business hours Charley would play on the outside for tips from the customers. The store owner would probably give him cold drinks and perhaps a little money if he had a lot of customers that day. A number of rural stores also had a cafe/juke house area in a back or side room. For example, Charley played in the back of a white-operated store at Holly Ridge, his last residence, and the owner sometimes accompanied him on the fiddle.
A house party was basically a private home temporarily turned into a juke house. The head of the house hired the musician, charged admission, and sold food, with a bootlegger selling liquor outside. House parties were sometimes called “country suppers.” A picnic was an outdoor version of the same thing, held in the warm months. Just as white store owners sometimes operated cafes for blacks, so also did large white landholders sometimes sponsor picnics for blacks.
BESSIE TURNER, Patton’s niece, described free picnics given by Will Dockery for his renters and workers:
He [Dockery] liked for all his folks to be nice, lively, have parties. He’d give free picnics and things like that and got Uncle Charley to play. Had a platform built for them to dance on the Fourth of July. The dance started about one o’clock and ended up the next morning. Start on the Fourth and end up on the fifth, dancing out there, right at that grove.… That’s where Uncle Charley have made many a tune.… That’s where the parties used to be. All through the year they have parties. Mr. Dockery put on big barbecues, and Uncle Charley used to play. All his Negroes would be there. Homer Lewis, and Willie Brown, Mr. Henry Sloan,… Mr. Bonds. They had a group, some blowing a little old horn (i. e., kazoo)… and Uncle Charley picking guitar and one playing the accordion, Willie Brown and him picking guitar. Mr. Homer Lewis,… he played the accordion.
Tom Cannon describes his uncle’s playing for house parties, stores, and juke houses:
It’d be hundreds of people at these places. Couldn’t half of them get in the house. They had these here juke houses. They’d be so crowded till you couldn’t even stir around in there. He played on the inside. Just like on a Saturday a whole bunch would get together, and he’d play at Dockery’s at the big store. There used to be a big brick store there at Dockery’s. He’d sit out there on the store porch. People all from Lula, Cleveland, everywhere.… Just like he playing for one of them places, they would charge so much at the door. They’d have it in one of these big buildings, and they’d charge ‘em at the door.… They’d have a stage. He’d be playing on the stage.
THERE WERE OTHER contexts in which Charley Patton performed occasionally. His sister Viola stated that he played in medicine shows, but he is otherwise not remembered for this form of entertainment. In these shows he probably would have been on salary and under a “bossman,” which would have been against his nature. He could probably make as much money on most Saturday nights as he could in a week on a medicine show. He was frequently hired to play at birthday and wedding parties. At these he would be paid a guaranteed fee, and the host would give away refreshments to the invited guests. Charley also made money by giving guitar lessons to youngsters, and at one point he moved to the Orange Mound section of Memphis where he became a guitar teacher.28 Between paying engagements he would often play for children at the houses where he stayed, as described by his niece:
Uncle Charley could take the guitar and make it talk. He could take a guitar and put it behind his head and take his fingers.… He could use a guitar any kind of way and pick it, swing it over, and never lose the tune, pick it on down. Yeah, he could play it.What you want with a rooster, he won’t crow ‘fore day? What you want with a rooster, he won’t crow ‘fore day? What you want with a woman, won’t do nothing she say?He used to sit out on the porch, and us children would be under the shade tree singing right along with him. We used to have some good times with Uncle Charley when mama be gone. Us be dancing down. He said, “Oh, your mama gone. Get out there and shake your hips, ya’ll. Let me see what you can do.” Mama didn’t want us to learn all that. Mama said, “You ain’t gonna be a rascal like Charley, on his way to hell.”.… He used to play “A, B, C, D,” all like that. He’d play alphabets for the children, and they would dance. Ooh, man, they would shake it up!
IT WOULD be futile to attempt a complete chronicle of Charley Patton’s movements and residences. Various reports have him living two places at once. We do know that he spent his earliest years between Bolton and Edwards and then on Dockery’s plantation. By all accounts these two areas and Vicksburg remained his main “hangouts” for the rest of his life. The reason was simple. He had plenty of relatives and friends in all of these places. His sister lived on Dockery’s, as did his father and mother and another sister and brother for many years. At other times they lived nearby in places like Mound Bayou, Renova and Blaine. Charley himself is frequently described as living in Mound Bayou and nearby Merigold as well as at Dockery’s. Between Bolton and Edwards and at Vicksburg he had aunts and uncles and cousins as well as his grandmother in Vicksburg. He was welcome to stay at all of their houses, and some of them no doubt helped him to secure work playing music. Probably he had several routes that he followed, between Helena and Natchez along the Mississippi River, between Lula and Hollandale along Highway 61, between Drew and Inverness on Highway 49, and between Jackson and Vicksburg on Highway 80. With the exception of Helena, which is in Arkansas, all of these places are within seven counties. These areas were heavily populated and growing all the time. By the 1920’s transportation by automobile and rail was easy, and there was little likelihood that Patton would become stranded in some unfamiliar place. His nephew Tom Cannon describes his pattern of travel:
[Charley was well known] all over the Delta and the hills [i. e., east of Vicksburg]. He’d go back and forth down in the hills, stay months at a time. He would go all out in the country on these different plantations. People was on these big plantations then. They would give what you call a supper. They’d come and get him and carry him back out there to play for ‘em.… He lived in many different places.… Where he could make the most money at, that’s where he would stay for a while. He’d never stay nowhere a long time, but he did go back and forth to these different places and get his music. Just like he’d have certain nights to play in Cleveland, he’d be there playing. Maybe they’d have him down to Greenville the next few nights. He’d stay gone near about all the time.
Although Charley’s main “beat” was in the northwestern quarter of Mississippi, he was no stranger to places farther afield. His ex-wife Millie Torry stated that he spent some time at Dermott, Arkansas, across the Mississippi River from Greenville, after he left her. This may have been around 1910. Charley also mentions in one of his records having friends around Blytheville and Joiner, Arkansas, located north of West Memphis toward the Missouri border. As mentioned, for a time in the early 30s he lived in Memphis giving guitar lessons. He also played in cities to the north and south where friends and relatives had settled. Feeling nostalgic for real downhome blues, they would summon him by letter or telegram, as his niece described:
He traveled lots up the road, Milwaukee and Chicago and St. Louis. He used to get letters from everywhere, all over the world. He’d get letters that they wanted him.… They used to call him, send him telegrams and tickets, pay his way on the train to come up there, him and Willie Brown. They’d be up there for a week’s play, put on programs for the whole week. He couldn’t keep a wife for running so.… Charley used to go up to Gary too. He used to put on a week’s program up there. He’d go up there and stay and play. He’d go to St. Louis and different places and down in Vicksburg. That was his hangout, was down there in Vicksburg. They’d just worry him to death. They find out he was at home, they’d just worry him to death. Down there in Vicksburg and New Orleans, just different places. He was just a traveler.
BLUES SINGER David Edwards has confirmed Patton’s trips to Chicago, stating that he would be booked there about twice each year.29 Patton’s illegitimate son Willie Williams stated that Patton also performed at a logging camp in Albany, Georgia. Williams’ mother met Patton in the years before World War I in Kentwood, Louisiana, another logging town where Patton had gone to play music. In addition to these trips, he traveled to Richmond, Indiana, twice to Grafton, Wisconsin, and to New York City for recording sessions. It is doubtful that he felt uncomfortable in cities. In many ways the Delta itself was like a huge city by the 1920’s. The towns were close together, many of them separated by only five to ten miles, and a large proportion of the countryside was under cultivation and dotted with sharecroppers’ cabins. For many black farmers fleeing the hill country, the Delta plantations served as a kind of rural factory preparing them for the eventual transition to true city life in Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, or elsewhere in the North.
Charley Patton made a good income from his music. Other blues artists like “Son” House are in agreement on this fact. Jake Martin, who was older than Charley and raised in the same area west of Bolton, coming to Dockery’s himself in 1916, and who played guitar and kazoo in many of the same contexts as Charley, stated that he himself would make a minimum of ten dollars a night and once made as much as seventy-five dollars. Martin did farm work, raised a family, and did not pursue a musical career as seriously as Charley did. Still, he emphasized that one could make much more “doing nothing” than he could farming. It is likely that Charley Patton had an average income between fifty and a hundred dollars per week, all from “doing nothing.” In contrast, a successful sharecropper might be lucky to clear a few hundred dollars once a year before Christmas at settlement time and make a little extra money during the off-season for arduous work at a levee, lumber, or railroad camp. Otherwise the sharecropper had to support himself and his family on the meager “furnish” provided by his bossman, which was charged against his settlement at the end of the year. Charley’s niece described the kind of money he would make from music:
He have a sack of money every time he would go and come back, and he would take that money and pin it to his pajamas and sleep with it under his legs. Then his wife would call me and say, “Come here and look at this sack of money Charley got between his legs.”
His nephew describes his prosperity:
After he left his daddy, he didn’t do nothing but play music. He made a good living. He stayed in good shape. He made an excellent living, ‘cause he would help his sisters. He’d make it and he’d distribute it around amongst them. He’d make ‘em all happy. He kept a car. First car he ever drove was a Model T Ford. He’d get a new car every year. He first started getting little old T Models. Then the year he died he had just got a new Chevrolet.
Besides his car, Charley’s main possessions would have been his clothes and his guitars. Tom Cannon adds:
He always wore a suit every day of his life. I never saw him with nothing but a suit on the whole time I knowed him.... He wore his suits and shined shoes, and a different woman every year, two a year sometimes. He just was a special person amongst people. He didn’t go like no working man.... He’d travel around in his car, drive around mostly by car until he’d get ready to go up north some¬where. He’d leave his car at his brother’s, and he’d catch the train back in them days....
He kept two or three guitars. He had ‘em fixed up. On one of his guitars he had a lot of gold pieces plastered all on it. He had ‘em real fixed up to play ‘em. He kept some special stuff to play with.... He had gold coins all the way around his main box he used all the time. He had three. He kept his boxes dressed up. He was dressed up himself all the time. He loved his good clothes and shoes. He wore a Stetson hat.
THERE IS no doubt that Charley Patton was a famous man in the parts of Mississippi where he lived and made music. His fame was well established there even before he began to record his music in 1929. He is well remembered by other blues artists as well as by the people who comprised his audiences. The degree of enthusiasm for Charley Patton in the Delta probably rivaled that in a later era for artists like Elvis Presley and James Brown. His fame was so great that he spawned at least one imposter, as recalled by his niece. There can be no doubt that during his lifetime he was the “king” of the Delta blues. If he had lived into the 1940’s, he would almost certainly have been sought out for field recordings by researchers from the Library of Congress. In the 1950’s he probably would have played a significant role in the American folk music revival, and in the 1960’s he undoubtedly would have become known internationally. Unfortunately, he had to leave these roles to longer-lived contemporaries like Leadbelly and to his successors such as Big Joe Williams and Howlin’ Wolf.
Even in his own lifetime Charley Patton had established a fame among Delta whites almost equal to his fame among blacks, and there are suggestions in his recordings that he was reaching for an international fame that would come to him only posthumously. It was not uncommon for black musicians to perform for white audiences in the South on a local basis, but it was rare for them to have a broader regional fame among whites. Only a few, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith, were known nationally among whites at this time. Tom Rushing, the Deputy Sheriff of Bolivar County, says, “He was a pretty prominent Negro among the people, and everybody liked him.” Rushing compared his fame to that of the international track star Jesse Owens, whom Rushing was also proud to have met at a track meet at Mound Bayou in 1934. (A picture of Rushing and Owens shaking hands was printed in the local newspaper.) Rushing observed that both were southern boys who came from obscure rural backgrounds and became world famous. Joe Lavene, who was in the record business in Clarksdale, recalled following Patton to large picnics where he played and selling his records there in large quantities. White musicians played with him, including the fiddler who owned the store at Holly Ridge and a young harmonica player recalled by his sister Viola. His niece stated:
The biggest he played was white. The white nation would be calling him. They wanted him. And then he was teaching boys how to play. He done a lot of that too, young boys, youngsters, how to pick a guitar, you know, white and colored. But there was more white than there was colored. It was up there in Memphis. He used to be out there, out in Orange Mound. He used to teach them how to pick guitar, a bunch of the white and colored.… They was paying him to teach them how to pick guitar.
Charley played frequently for white house parties, picnics, dances, and wedding parties. Near the end of his life he was playing for whites on the majority of his jobs, and his widow Bertha Lee stated that his last performance was at a white dance.30 Even his recording sessions, supervised by white talent scouts and engineers, apparently turned into parties. H. C. Speir, who owned a music store in Jackson and first recommended Patton to Paramount Records, enjoyed being entertained by Patton, and Bertha Lee recalled that, after they finished their 1934 recording sessions, they would have dances in the studio for Vocalion recording executive W. R. Calaway and others.31 His popularity with white audiences increased after he began his recording career in 1929 and appeared to be gaining a national reputation.
Charley’s niece stated that the whites liked his blues as well as his “love songs”:
The biggest he played was for whites. [He played] all them kind. That’s what they liked, the blues. And then he had love songs too, “I’ll miss you, honey, when you’re gone,” all that, just different things. “I dreamed of you last night; I woke up this morning, the sun was shining bright; I thought about you; You ought to been lying on my right.” Just a lot of old love songs. He put out a lot of good songs. He used to sing “Good Morning, Little School Girl.” He loved that song. That was for the young folks too.