Peter May Finds Solace with Patton

JERI ROWE - Greensboro News & Record - February 1, 2001 

Peter May closes his eyes and scrunches his face when he recalls his trip last September to Mississippi.

He hears the industrial whirring of a huge cotton gin and sees a small, white-plank church bathed in a van's headlights. As he walks toward the clouds of cotton dust, he looks for the sight he wants to find: the grave of legendary blues musician Charley Patton.

He grabs his guitar and camera from the van and ambles into a cemetery choked with knee-high weeds. He stumbles, looks around, stumbles again. Then, he sees in front of him, chiseled in granite, the words, "CHARLEY PATTON, THE VOICE OF THE DELTA."

He found it. His home.

"Come on up and talk to us, Charley,'' May says, smiling.

May is 35, a short, slender man with long, boyish, brown bangs. He rolls his own cigarettes, shaves every few days and helps his wife, Susan, take care of their four daughters, ages 5 to 11. He sells tires by day; he plays the blues by night.

And May can play. He plucks the guitar strings like some jazz-cat drummer and sings in a bar-worn, scruffy voice about leavin', liquor, redemption and a girl named Laura Mae.

Hear for yourself Friday at The Garage in Winston-Salem, Sunday at The Blind Tiger in Greensboro or next Thursday at Ziggy's nightclub in Winston-Salem. Or simply pick up his latest release, ``Black Coffee Blues,'' a CD of haunting authenticity filled with the ghosts of Patton, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Those were the very ghosts May has wanted to find. In September, he spent 14 hours on the road with three friends. They traveled through the Deep South to pay respects to the people who had created the music they all loved.

"Breathing that same air and walking on that same ground, it gives you a perspective you can't find in North Carolina,'' May says.

May discovered Patton through listening to bluesman Skip James. Then May created his own school to understand the man who had helped create Mississippi's rural blues, the foundation of today's rock 'n' roll.

May read books. He listened to Patton's recordings. He went to a blues workshop in Connecticut and took private lessons in Massachusetts. Then he sat on his bed for hours, playing Patton's tunes over and over until he got them right.

Finally, for his own self-styled graduation, he went on a blues pilgrimage to a cemetery south of Indianola, Miss.

When he found Patton's tombstone, he felt dazed at first. But that feeling vanished when he saw a ``tall boy,'' a 22-ounce Budweiser can, near Patton's grave. He tossed it, thinking of a line from the old blues song ``One Kind Favor'': ``See that my grave is kept clean.''

Then he lit one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, knelt beside the grave and, inside the blinding swath of the van's headlights, began to play ``Down the Dirt Road Blues.'' The tune seemed appropriate as he sat alone in the dark beside a dirt road in Mississippi.

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm worried now. But I won't be worried long.

"It seemed like the air just soaked up that music,'' May says.

May often wonders why he - a preacher's son from Winston-Salem - has become so intrigued by this black-born music. He hasn't an answer. But like many of us, he enjoys the search. Especially that night in Mississippi.

"This music is about freedom,'' he says. ``When you listen to it, there's always some kind of line about going down the road and being by myself. It's like you've been somewhere, and you think, 'I am somebody.' And man, I think I need that freedom. It's liberating.''



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