Blues Waters Run Deep in Son of the Delta
By Parry Gettelman - The Orlando Sentinel - Jan 1998
Most younger blues fans were introduced to the music through rock 'n' roll radio. Blues-rock artists such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan eventually led them back to the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and then maybe even further back to early pioneers such as Robert Johnson, Son House and Charlie Patton.
Growing up near Clarksdale. Miss., however, Jas. (a k a Jimbo) Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers heard the original versions of songs like "Love in Vain" before hearing the super-star covers. Through the radio and his father's record collection, he developed an early love of Patton, Johnson, Jimmie Rogers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly and other giants.
But although he can't remember a time when he wasn't steeping in the blues, Mathus grew up not realizing that he had a personal acquaintance with Charlie Patton's daughter and sole heir. Mathus knew Rosetta Patton Brown only as the kind lady who started working for his aunt and uncle when his younger cousin, William Hardin, was born, and who baby-sat William and Jimbo.
Charlie Patton was the first great star of the Delta blues and an influence on Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and many others. However, he had died way back in 1934, and his daughter never thought to mention him to any-one in Mathus' family.
"I don't even know how many people in her community knew," Mathus said from Carr-boro, N.C., where he and his blues side project, the Knock-down Society, were rehearsing for a tour that brings them to Orlando's Sapphire Supper co Club Monday.
Mathus finally learned about Brown's illustrious heritage 6 through a group of Japanese blues fans who came to the U.S. on a pilgrimage.
"They are really fascinated with blues, rock 'n' roll and Elvis, all this kind of stuff," Mathus said. "A lot of the more adventurous tourists venture down to the Delta and go to different places, like Muddy Waters' birthplace, Charlie Patton's grave, Sonny Boy Williamson's birthplace and different spots in Clarksdale, this kind of thing."
Brown was still living in Patton's old house, the one she was raised in, and the tourists came to pay homage, an interpreter in tow, Mathus said. "She let them up on the porch, and she said they smiled and bowed and sat around and grinned a little while," Mathus said. "She said they were real nice — and they brought her a royalty check from this Japanese label." The visit did not go unremarked. "Word just got around that Rosetta's daddy's famous, and then it got around who it was," Mathus said.
Mathus didn't spend too much time in contemplation of Brown's parentage at first. She was just a member of his own extended family, whom he continued to visit whenever he was home in Mississippi. But after she suffered a stroke two years ago and became unable to work, he started thinking about how she had never received any U.S. royalties from her father's work. And he decided to make an album to help get her some money. "I was in a position to help her, and since I knew her, I asked if it was all right, and she thought it would be great. So we did it." Mathus left Carrboro, where the Squirrel Nut Zippers are based, for Clarksdale, his old stomping grounds and home of the Rooster Blues label.
He put together a band, the Knock-down Society, that included Zippers bassist Stu Cole, former Blind Melon drummer Glenn Graham, Rebirth Brass Band founder Wolf Anderson, veteran jazz musician Jack Fine and Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of noted musician-producer Jim Dickinson and erstwhile members of Gut-. bucket. The Knockdown Soci-ety also recorded some tracks in New Orleans. The Society's lineup was somewhat flexible, especially in Clarksdale. "We were sitting out in my grandmother's carport rehearsing, and we ended up having a big party out there," Mathus recalled, letting loose with a long chuckle. "We had a bunch of people driving by, and of course, in Clarksdale, there's not that much else to do. So they saw signs of life and started flocking around." The resulting Songs for Rosetta includes some of the tunes Patton used to do, some traditional blues numbers and some Mathus originals. Brown was pleased with the album, Mathus said, although not excited per se.
"She's pretty mellow," he explained. "She doesn't get excited too much — she was born in 1917." Brown isn't really a blues fan, but she likes singing in the church, Mathus said. "She said one time she likes playing and singing almost as much as preaching. But preaching was first," he recalled. In fact, Mathus said, Brown told him her father never played the blues when he played around his daughter —only gospel tunes. He didn't live with the family after separating from his wife but used to come visit and bring them money when he was playing in the area. The original tunes were all written with this project in mind, Mathus said. They wouldn't work for the Zippers, in any case, because he considers that strictly a jazz-influenced group. (And their old-timey jazz has proven surprisingly commercial with their second album nearing platinum status).
The Knockdown Society is more wide-ranging, and the live show will include everything from country blues to electric blues to R&B, he said. The touring version of the Knockdown Society includes fellow Zipper Cole, Greg Humphries of Hobex ("he's got this great voice!") and the Dickin-son brothers, whose latest band, the North Mississipi All-Stars, will open the bill with their hill-country style blues (a la R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Mississippi Fred McDowell). Also in the lineup is Mathus' neighbor, mandolin player Hawkeye Jordan, who made his recording debut at 50 on Songs for Rosetta.
"This is his first tour. He is real excited," Mathus said. "But he's always excited!" Actually, Mathus himself is plenty excited. He doesn't expect to make much money, taking an eight-piece band on the road, but he's glad to have the chance to do this during a three-month hiatus from the Zippers' busy schedule. "It's going to be great, a once-in-a-lifetime thing to all get together and do this," Mathus enthused. "It's going to be really good. The poster says 'a musical jubilee,' and I think that probably sounds about right."