A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 2 of 2)
The Biography of Charley Patton (Part 2)
By Grammy Award winning author David Evans - 11/3/05
To read Part 1 - CLICK HERE
To read Part 1 - CLICK HERE
Charley’s popularity among whites, however, was established well before he began his recording career. He was in great demand as an entertainer, and apparently he was reluctant to turn down any request, sometimes booking himself twice in one night. This practice occasionally got him in trouble when crowds wanted to hold him over. There were also problems when whites wanted him on a night when he was already booked to play for blacks. Charley’s niece recalled an incident in which his engagement for a black dance in Blaine was cut short by a rifle toting white man who needed his services at a white dance atop a bridge:
And Uncle Charley sat on that bridge and played for them white folks until about five o’clock the next morning. All them white folks was all on that bridge dancing. Uncle Charley was sitting there making music for them. They done broke up this other dance, and then they put their dance on the bridge. I’ll never forget that...He used to have some tough times. He couldn’t be but one. They tried to make him be two folks and play so much for this one and so much for that one.
THE IDEA of a white man in the Delta hijacking Charley Patton from a black dance to play for whites is enough to boggle the mind. It would be as if a white New York cop hijacked James Brown from a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre to perform at a policemen’s ball. Like the cop, the man in Blaine undoubtedly knew he could get away with it. What is rather incredible is that he wanted Charley so badly, that all the other whites wanted him, and that Charley entertained them until five o’clock in the morning. One wonders if Charley or any of the whites attached any significance to all this. Were the whites drawing Charley into their world for a night? Or was Charley drawing the whites into some inscrutable world that fascinated them but which they didn’t really understand? Was he secretly pleased that the people “were trying to make him be two folks?” The fact that he played on a bridge only seems to add some special symbolic meaning to the whole affair.
The ultimate reasons for Patton’s extraordinary popularity in the Delta are hard to pinpoint. Clearly, Fahey was right, in a sense, in stressing Patton’s role as a consummate entertainer. He could give an audience what it wanted in the way of repertoire and style, and he did many tricks with the guitar, snapping the strings, playing it behind his head and between his legs, flipping it, tapping on it with his fingers, and so forth. But there were plenty of other blues artists who could do tricks and gave audiences what they wanted. Many, like Willie Brown, may have been technically better and more versatile guitarists and were often judged so by their peers. Others, like “Son” House, had better natural voices. But there is something special that seemed to set Charley Patton beyond the others in his own day and which still exerts a great power through his records almost seventy years after his death. There is a special quality of timing in his singing and playing that is hard to define but immediately arrests the attention. Beyond this there is a sense of absolute conviction in his singing and playing. To a greater degree than the others, over a longer period of time, on a more regular basis, and equally in front of black and white audiences, Charley Patton was able to plumb the depths of feeling contained in his blues, spirituals, and other folksongs. Even when he garbled his words or meaning or made mistakes on the guitar, as he occasionally did, the feeling is there: one of overwhelming intensity. It is a feeling that Palmer has aptly called deep blues, a phrase used by blues artists themselves as their ultimate aesthetic criterion for the music and its performers.32 And despite his occasional mistakes and shortcomings, his records reflect a feeling of intense pride in his work. He may have considered his recording sessions to be just another job, he may not have rehearsed his songs as much as he should have, but underlying this casual approach and willingness to please all audiences there was a strong oneness and wholeness of character and talent in a man that people were trying to make into “two folks.”
ONE OF THE most unfathomable aspects of Charley Patton’s life is his actual personality. As already noted, several writers have painted a rather negative picture of the man. This picture, however, is not consistent with the great respect that was accorded to him. His nephew states that he was “friendly with everybody.” Rev. Rubin Lacy, a former blues singer, who knew Charley in the Delta around 1929 or 1930, stated, “I thought he had fine ways and actions. He wasn’t no bad man.... He had a good record. He stood good. He had no bad marks on him. Oh yeah, he was a nice guy.”33 Some of Patton’s alleged failings might be taken another way. For example, “Son” House has stated that he was tight with his money.34 On the other hand, this might be viewed as an inclination to save or not spend his money foolishly. Unlike most blacks in the Delta, Charley had money throughout the year, and there must have been many “friends” who approached him for loans. Knowing from his father how the credit system worked in the Delta, Charley probably wisely chose not to “furnish” his friends for the year.
There is no doubt that Charley Patton drank liquor. Possibly he could have been classified as an alcoholic. The nature of his profession meant that he would always be in an environment where drinking was a normal form of behavior. He must have had many drinks offered to him. But for all the reports of his drinking, there are none that have him “sloppy drunk” or unable to perform at his best. The main reports of heavy drinking come from the last two years of his life, when he knew he had heart trouble. Possibly in these years his consumption of alcohol was no greater than it had been earlier, but he was simply less able to withstand its effects. His sister Viola stated that “he hardly drank at all.”35 Reverend Rubin Lacy’s comment was simply, “Well, his drinking, a lot of us fellows did that.”36 Perhaps the situation is best summed up by Tom Rushing, a former deputy sheriff of Bolivar County whose specific duty it was to arrest the makers of moonshine whisky. Rushing said, “He seemed to be a more or less sober man. I don’t think, probably he would have ever gotten where he did if he’d been fighting that hundred proof corn whisky.”
Charley Patton’s argumentativeness seems to have been confined mainly to his relationships with women. These relationships will be examined shortly. His relatives have stated that he was friendly, and most other musicians agree with this assessment. There are consistent reports, however, that Patton argued frequently with Willie Brown. Brown was an outstanding artist and technically may have been a more accomplished guitarist than Patton. He was not as charismatic, however, and perhaps doubted his ability as a singer, preferring to accompany other artists. Charley was undoubtedly aware of Brown’s ability and may have felt threatened. Other blues musicians in particular rated Brown highly and tended to compare his playing favorably to Patton’s. Patton was proud of his popularity and may have resented Brown’s reputation among their fellow musicians. He and Brown are said to have argued mainly over musical matters. Perhaps, though, their arguments were more in the nature of “lovers’ quarrels.” Patton and Brown did, after all, perform together off and on for about twenty years, the longest partnership in either musician’s career. Patton had partially taught Brown, as he did many other musicians to the end of his career. Even after Brown moved to Lake Cormorant in the northern part of the Delta around 1930, he continued to play frequently with Patton. Patton was furthermore responsible for calling Brown to the attention of a record company, something he did also for such artists as Henry Sims, “Son” House, Louise Johnson, and Bertha Lee.
Patton’s attitude toward and treatment of women may not have been exemplary in all cases, but they become a bit more understandable when one realizes two facts. One is that Charley clearly believed that the Patton family deserved his primary loyalty. His niece and nephew both have said that he was very generous and helpful to his parents and sisters. As a corollary to his attitude that he should help the Patton family, particularly its women, Charley evidently believed that his own wives or girl friends should be self-supporting. He made good money himself and must have thought that he deserved a woman who did the same. “Son” House has said that Patton was the kind of man who liked to have a woman who worked in the white folks’ kitchen. In this way he wouldn’t have to pay for her food, as the woman could bring home enough left-over food from the kitchen to feed them both.37 House may have been generalizing from the particular position of Bertha Lee, Patton’s last wife and apparently the only one House knew. However, even if this was generally the case with Patton, his attitude is quite understandable. As someone with a cash income, Patton was automatically a highly desirable mate. Charley Patton was in a position to have plenty of casual affairs with women, but for his steady woman he probably wanted someone of economic standing similar to his own.
The other important fact to keep in mind is that Charley was extremely attractive to women. He had that special charisma that attaches itself to certain entertainers and causes women to fall at their feet. He was good-looking, made good money, came from a well respected family with good connections, and didn’t have to work under a “bossman.” Charley’s niece described a typical scene:
"You know, women will pull up on musicians, won’t they? I noticed that on TV. Them boys be out there singing, and they just have to hold them back from them. They just be reaching. That’s just the way they was about Uncle Charley. Gather around that buggy. You know, there was more buggies then than there was cars. They gather around that surrey, and they’d just be... “Charley, Charley, kiss me, kiss me!” All that stuff. That make his wife jealous, she quit him. Just a mess, you know."
Although Charley’s act, with all of its movements and guitar tricks, was certainly erotic and his songs are full of references to his enjoyment of women and sex, he must have also been able to convey the impression that it was an act. Otherwise his life probably would not have lasted long. Reverend Rubin Lacy, a former Delta bluesman, neatly summed up the situation:
Charley Patton, just like any other musician, he had sense enough not to pay a whole lot of woman attention, bragging, and trying to act a fool. If I had did that, I’d have been in trouble long ago, wouldn’t have been here now.
Certainly any bluesman who played as much for whites had to be especially careful in this regard. He was no doubt as attractive to many of the white women he played for as he was to the black women. However, any display of interest on their part could be very dangerous, and interest on his part could be fatal. No incident of this sort has ever been reported about Patton. There was the problem, though, that he could control his own behavior but could not fully control that of others. There are jealous people everywhere, and Patton ran the danger of becoming the focus of someone’s frustrations and jealousy. This was always his mother’s fear, and in 1929 this fear was realized. The story was recounted by Patton’s niece Bessie Turner:
My uncle, everybody was in love with him. He used to sing, “I got a little old woman, she got two gold teeth.” He had a record [i.e., a song] made out of that. And a man got so jealous because his wife was there dancing, and she had two gold teeth.… He stood on the outside of the door, up there in Mound Bayou. When they stopped playing and the dance was over, Uncle Charley started out. That man hit Uncle Charley with a razor, hit him there [in the neck] and cut him clean around there. And Uncle Charley was just bowing his head down like that. And they brought him on to Cleveland to the doctor. His shoes was full of blood. They had to scoop that blood out of his shoe. [The man] said, “He was trying to take my wife.” That was in 1929. It hurt him bad, cut him from here around there. The doctor said it was lacking a hair of cutting that goozle loose.
Tom Cannon states that the razor attack took place at a house party on the George Carter place near Mound Bayou. After this, Charley frequently wore a scarf to keep the scar from showing. The attack probably took place early in 1929. On a Paramount Records publicity photograph, almost certainly taken at the time of his June 14, 1929, recording session, his short collar and coat are raised considerably on his left side. Patton evidently did this deliberately in order to hide the scar, although it made his bow tie look askew. Charley was lucky to have survived this razor attack, and he bore the scar of it for the rest of his life. Whether it affected his singing is not known. It took place in the year of his first two recording sessions, probably before at least one of them, but his singing sounds strong throughout.
According to Patton family legend, Charley had eight wives. This was probably his own reckoning. Given his popularity with women, he probably had many casual affairs between his marriages and may even have had more than one wife simultaneously in different locations, not to mention the possibility of brief outside affairs. The picture is confused and will probably never be fully disentangled. It is doubtful that he actually went through the legal formalities of marriage and divorce eight times. In fact, I have been able to trace six legal marriage records, but I have not made a complete examination.
Research at the Bolivar County courthouse in Cleveland has revealed four marriage records of Charley Patton, and two more were found at the Sunflower County courthouse in Indianola. None was found at the Coahoma County courthouse in Clarksdale. A thorough search at other courthouses, such as in Greenville, Vicksburg, and Jackson, might reveal further marriage records. On September 12, 1908 in Cleveland, Charley and Gertrude Lewis applied for and were granted a marriage license, but a certificate of marriage was never completed. Patton swore that he had reached the age of twenty-one; he was only seventeen at the time. Gertrude swore that she had reached the age of eighteen. On April 18, 1913, Charley married Dela Scott in Indianola, with Will Dockery listed as a witness. Charley’s marriage to Roxie Morrow was celebrated by Reverend W.C. McCoy. The license was granted on the day of the marriage, November 12, 1918. Charley and Roxie stayed together longer than most of his marriages lasted, perhaps about three years. Tom Cannon stated that they lived on Dockery’s. On December 21, 1921, Charles Patten (sic) and Minnie Franklin were granted a marriage license in Indianola, and were married on January 5, 1922. A marriage license was granted to Charles Patten (sic) and Mattie Parker on June 7, 1924. Tom Cannon recognizes the name Mattie Parker but can give no further details. On April 22, 1926, Charlie and Bertha (or Burtha) Reed were granted a marriage license and married by Reverend D.W. Spearman. The marriage certificate was filed on May 8.
We do not know what Charley’s criteria were for considering a relationship to be a “marriage” or how he distinguished a “wife” from a girlfriend. One would presume, however, that in his mind a marriage had at least the characteristics of a common residence over a period of time, a residence which Charley would call “home” and to which he would return after his trips to play music, and a reasonable degree of faithfulness to one another. He is said to have argued and fought frequently with his women. His nephew states simply, “He didn’t stay with his wives too long.”
Gertrude Lewis was apparently Charley’s first wife. Nothing more is known about her. The 1908 marriage could not have lasted long. His second wife was Millie Bonds, who may have lived on Dockery’s plantation. Millie claimed to have married Charley in 1908, when he would have been only sixteen or seventeen years old. Millie and Charley had one daughter, the aforementioned China Lou. The family lived on Dockery’s. It is not known how long the marriage lasted. Charley remained close to China Lou and visited her often, having established a cordial relationship with her stepfather. Her cousin Bessie Turner stated that China Lou greatly admired her father, learned to sing just like him, and kept some of his records throughout her life. She died of a stroke around 1962, and her mother died around 1968. Both had lived in the town of Boyle, just a few miles west of Dockery’s. Minnie Franklin apparently came from Vicksburg or the hills to the east of that city, perhaps around Bolton. Charley’s sister Viola said that he met her in Merigold in 1921 right after he left Dockery’s.39 Apparently she left with his money and best gun, and Charley followed her to Vicksburg.
Charley had two sons, born in 1916 and 1918, by a woman named Sallie Hollins, whom he met in Kentwood, Louisiana. She moved with her children to Sunflower Plantation north of Dockery’s, although she did not continue to live with Charley there and he seldom visited. A daughter, Rosetta, was born to Martha Christian in Renova on August 10, 1917. Rosetta states that her parents were married at the Cleveland courthouse, although no marriage record has been found there. Nevertheless, a birth certificate for Rosetta exists, listing her father as Charley Patton, aged 32, a resident of Bolivar County, whose occupation was “farimiling” [sic]. Martha was listed as aged 29, a housewife, and a resident of Bolivar County. The birth certificate states that it was a “legitimate birth.” Perhaps Patton overstated his age out of fear of the military draft for World War I. Rosetta’s mother’s family owned land at Renova. She states that her parents’ marriage only lasted a year or two, but that Charley frequently visited her and her mother until around 1932 and would give Rosetta money. On one visit Charley brought a daughter named Willie Mae, slightly older than Rosetta, who lived in Mound Bayou. Charley also told her of a son who died in infancy. Between 1924 and sometime in 1930 Charley is said to have lived with a woman named Sudy, east of Merigold.40 She may have been the same woman as the Bertha Reed whom Charley married in 1926 and with whom he apparently had two children.
Charley apparently left the area around Merigold and Renova in the latter part of 1929 when his first records were released. At this point he apparently became headquartered around Clarksdale or Lula. In October of that year he brought the fiddler Henry Sims from nearby Farrell to his recording session, and “Son” House recalled that in early 1930 Charley was living at Lula. He left Lula in August41 of that year for another recording session with House, Willie Brown, and a young woman named Louise Johnson, whom Patton was trying to court.42 Possibly around 1931 or 1932 he lived with a woman named Lizzie.43 Around this time is when Charley probably lived in the Orange Mound section of Memphis. His last wife was Bertha Lee Pate, whom he had met at Lula. They apparently didn’t begin living together until 1933, when Bertha was about sixteen years old. They moved to Holly Ridge in Sunflower County between Indianola and Leland. Charley’s nephew and niece have stated that he and Bertha were happy together though others have recalled them arguing frequently in public. Bertha Lee herself seemed to have good memories of her brief marriage to Charley Patton.44 Apparently unlike any of Charley’s previous wives, Bertha Lee was herself a blues singer and even played some guitar. Charley probably had a kind of respect for her that he didn’t have for his other wives. He may have treated her as a musical protegée. In turn, she apparently took good care of him at a time when he knew he was suffering from heart trouble. She also seems to have understood his ways and his moods, which may have given her a special hold on him. At least she suggests this in her probably auto¬biographical “Mind Reader Blues” (Vocalion 02650), which she recorded in 1934. [See lyric transcription in the song notes section, disc 5/track 24.]
If, as the song declares, Charley had caused Bertha Lee to worry, she indeed would not have to worry long, for he died three months later. Charley probably knew that the end was near. One of the songs he and Bertha Lee recorded together was a powerful spiritual titled “Oh Death” (Vocalion 02904), containing the frequently repeated line, “Lord, I know my time ain’t long.” Perhaps around March, 1934, “Son” House, Patton, and Willie Brown traveled to Jackson to make some test recordings of “Sanctified” songs. The one-piece House later recalled was a song featuring Charley’s singing called “I Had a Dream Last Night Troubled Me.”45
Patton’s death certificate indicates that the onset of his fatal heart trouble occurred on January 27, 1934. This was just three days before the beginning of his recording session for Vocalion in New York. Probably Charley was experiencing some problems with his health and consulted a doctor to determine if he should make the trip. Charley’s sister Viola stated that a doctor had told him to stop playing music, a warning which may have taken place at this time. Nevertheless, he made the trip to a chilly New York City. His performances sound strong, though a few times he can be heard breathing heavily and he has a little trouble hitting some high notes accurately. In three days he and Bertha Lee recorded twenty-nine songs, a number that indicates that he still had plenty of strength at the time. Eight of the songs they recorded were religious titles, and, as noted above, “Son” House indicates that Patton made some further test recordings of religious songs in Jackson after he returned from New York. Apparently this was only a few weeks before he died.
In early April he gave his last performance. It was a dance for whites, probably not too far from Holly Ridge. He had been suffering from bronchitis, perhaps from a winter or spring cold. Bertha Lee stated that he returned home hoarse and unable to talk or get his breath properly. He remained in bed after that and had to sleep with the windows open in order to get enough air to breathe. He was visited by a doctor on Tuesday, April 17, and again on Friday, April 20. Many relatives and fellow blues singers and friends visited him during this final illness. His sister said that an attempt was made to take him to a hospital, but his car was bogged in mud from the spring rains. The end came on the morning of Saturday, April 28, 1934, and he was buried the following day at Longswitch Cemetery, less than a mile from his last home at Holly Ridge. His niece Bessie Turner described his last days and his death:
And finally one morning he went off and composed some records. And he came home with a shortness at his heart. That was on a Wednesday.… Saturday morning he called his wife and said, “I’m fixing to leave you now.” And he started to preaching. He said, “I’ve got to preach the text of the Revelation.” He started to preaching that morning. He preached all that week, and the next Saturday he passed on. And she called us. I was up there in Shaw, Mississippi, then. She called us and told us that he had passed. Us came down there and looked at him. He had the Bible over there in his hand and his hand up there across his breast. He was gone. They had his funeral that Sunday down there at Holly Ridge. He didn’t want to go to no undertaker. He told ‘em, “Don’t carry me to no undertaker.” Said, “Carry me right away from this house to the church and from the church to the cemetery.” He died that Saturday, and we buried him that Sunday, ‘cause he didn’t want to go to a undertaker. That Saturday night they had a big wake for him. A lot of his boys who sang with him was right there too. I’ll never forget the last song they sung, “I’ll Meet You in the Sweet Bye and Bye.” They sung that so pretty and played the music, you know. Couldn’t nobody cry. Everybody was just thinking how a person could change around right quick, you know. Changed right quick and then preached Revelation, the thirteenth chapter of Revelation. It says, “Let your light shine that men may see your good work and glorify our Father which art in heaven.” I’ll never forget it. He said, “Did you hear that? My light been shining on each side. I let it shine for the young; I let it shine for the old.” Said, “Count my Christian records and count my swinging records. Just count ‘em. They even!” And you know he was just smiling, just tickled to death. Looked like he was happy when he was going.
Charley Patton had just reached the age of forty-three when he died. It is not known who preached the funeral sermon or what was said. The funeral was well attended, however. Charley’s nephew says, “They had a big funeral. It was people from every which way, white and black.” A Willie Calvin served as the informant for Patton’s death certificate. Ironically, Calvin gave Patton’s occupation as “farmer,” a type of work that Charley hated and strove all his life to avoid.
AN EXAMINATION of the recordings of Charley Patton yields some important additional insights to his life and character. In striving for such insights, however, one must use considerable caution and be aware of several variable factors. In the first place, blues singers do not always sing about themselves, even when it appears that they do. In many cases they will describe the thoughts or actions of others as if they were the singer’s. Patton did this in at least one song, which will be discussed later, and perhaps in others. Blues singers also borrow verses and whole songs from other singers, frequently by learning them from records. Over a quarter of Patton’s blues recordings, both of his popular song versions, and at least one of his spirituals were influenced by earlier recordings of other artists. Finally, many blues singers, including Charley Patton, make use of a body of traditional verses, shared by hundreds of other blues singers, which they individually rework and recombine to create new songs. Although Patton created a number of highly original verses and songs, he relied heavily on traditional verses as building blocks for his compositions. Thus much of his actual language is not his own but is borrowed from the shared tradition of folk blues.46
Just how Charley Patton created his blues songs is not known for certain. Nevertheless, when one listens to his records, there is a great impression of spontaneity in his singing. Patton draws heavily upon the body of shared traditional verses, but he seems to do so largely at the time of performance. Many of his songs seem only minimally planned or rehearsed, particularly in their texts. Patton seems to have pulled together in advance a melody, a guitar part, and one or more key verses, which would give the song a certain degree of identity, and then added other verses at the time of performance. Hints of such spontaneity are to be found in the fact that there are usually slight variations when he repeats a line as well as many interjected comments. It appears that Patton was often trying to recreate a sense of context and a live audience in the recording studio. This spontaneity and unrehearsed quality is matched in the recordings of only a few other early blues recording artists, among them Patton’s contemporary, Henry Thomas, and two of his disciples, Tommy Johnson and Big Joe Williams.
Patton’s apparent spontaneity, combined with often imprecise diction and a high degree of surface noise on many of his records, has caused some writers to consider him sloppy, illogical, and sometimes incoherent. He does indeed make occasional mistakes in his singing and playing, but it can be shown that many of his songs have a kind of unconscious structure and coherence based on principles of contrast and association of ideas.47 Furthermore, the high degree of spontaneity in his songs provides us with a rare opportunity to glimpse a folk blues artist actually at work on his songs. Even his blues recordings that are thematic from beginning to end convey the impression that they are versions of these songs that happened to be captured in a recording studio, that they are part of a compositional continuum that never resulted in a finished or definitive version. Just as Patton himself was constantly on the move and not content to stay in one place long, so also were his repertoire and his songs themselves constantly shifting. This quality may be annoying at times, but it allows us an insight into the mind and mental processes of one of the most important blues singers of all time and reveals statements and ideas that other blues artists might have suppressed in an effort to make their songs more polished.
The foregoing discussion should not be taken to mean that Patton’s songs and recordings were entirely unplanned and the result of unconscious mental processes. Patton did have a strong interest in composing songs and certainly was capable of doing so in a conscious manner. He simply appears to have had little interest in finalizing his compositions. For him the process was more important than the product. This attitude would explain his apparent casual behavior in the recording studio that so annoyed “Son” House.
Charley’s niece stated, “He’d dream a song, and he’d get up and write them.” Many folk blues artists have made exactly the same statement about their own compositions. Evidently Charley would write down the ideas he had in dreams and probably worked them out in rough form with the guitar. He probably continued to work with the idea as long as it retained its appeal to himself and his audiences. He seems to have been especially fond of composing topical blues about his own troubles and those of his friends and neighbors. These dealt not only with the usual difficulties of the man-woman dynamic but also with such subjects as arrests, a flood, a drought, and human insensitivity.
Prior to his last recording session he seems to have made an attempt to prepare some songs for the studio. He also used his wife Bertha Lee to help him compose. As a blues singer herself, she was no doubt a sympathetic listener and an intelligent critic. His niece stated:
I went over to Holly Ridge to see him and spent a week over there, with him and his wife Bertha. And he composed a blues then, “Good morning, little school girl; I want to have a talk with you.” That was a good one too. He had a hit on that one, “Good Morning, Little School Girl.” He was singing and told us to sit in another room and see how it sounds. You know, he made his own songs. And when he got through with that, a white fellow said, “I’ll give you twenty-five dollars for that one right now. That’s the first record I want, ‘Good Morning, Little School Girl’”.… He’d compose, and his wife Bertha would write them as he named it to her. Then he’d get off to hisself, fasten up in a room and give the tune to it. “Bumble Bee, Bumble Bee,” I remember I was at his house when he composed that one. “Bumble bee, bumble bee, won’t you please come home to me. You got the best stinger of any bumble bee I ever seen.”
THE FIRST OF these songs was not among those that were released from Patton’s 1934 session. If he ever recorded it, he did so under another title. The second song was given to Bertha Lee to sing and was recorded under the title “Yellow Bee” (Vocalion 02650). In fact, it is based closely on an earlier recording by Memphis Minnie. In this case, at least, Patton’s concept of composing did not preclude a wholesale borrowing from another artist’s record. And even while his niece’s statement seems to suggest a more formal approach to composition, the actual results of the final session reveal just as much spontaneity as on his earlier records. In the case of “Good Morning, Little School Girl” Patton seems to have been simply recreating the situation of listening to one of his records, probably to test potential audience reaction and sales of a new song. In the case of “Bumble Bee” he seems simply to have included his wife in his normal process of composition by having her write down ideas as they came to him rather than writing them himself. Perhaps even then he intended that she should sing the song in the studio.
In addition to singing about his own and his friends’ troubles and hard times, Charley Patton had several other favorite themes in his blues and other secular songs. One theme that occurs repeatedly is movement. In Patton’s case it was movement out of necessity. This necessity was both economic and emotional. Charley had a “home” with his parents or other relatives, but he couldn’t stay there and still exercise his talent fully and make a good living. He seems to have been determined to have his talent recognized and not do manual work like an ordinary black man in the Delta. He developed this attitude at a time when Delta society was becoming strictly divided into black and white groups. The kind of ambiguous status that he sought, which would enable him to avoid the status of “nigger,” could only be obtained through movement. Travel for Patton meant freedom and options. It was a bold and potentially dangerous course to take, since it could leave him outside both organized white and black society. Nevertheless, he steered his course quite successfully, choosing a most “black” form of expression, the blues, as a means of escaping the lot of being an ordinary black man. He was certainly not trying to be white, which was obviously impossible under the circumstances. He simply wanted equality and recognition of his individuality and the freedom that was the exclusive property of the whites, yet he also wanted to remain in the Delta, his home. His dilemma was that, in order to maintain this freedom and be “at home,” he had to travel constantly.
Besides travel, Patton sang about women, particularly the difficulty of finding a woman who would stick with him and tolerate his lifestyle. No doubt, women wanted him to settle down. But this would have meant giving up his freedom and becoming more like that ordinary black man. He may have made attempts to settle down in some of his marriages, but he never sustained a settled lifestyle. His attitude seems to have been that his talent and freedom were things that a woman should appreciate. If she would keep the home fire burning and remain faithful to him, he would support her and return to her from his travels. In several of his blues he sings a favorite line, “You’ve got a home, mama, long as I’ve got mine.” Patton does not seem to have found such a woman until perhaps at the end of his life. He and Bertha Lee were said to be happy together, although there are also the reports that they argued and fought. As a blues singer herself, she may have understood Charley better than his other wives had. Still, she had to travel with him sometimes to hold the relationship together.
The difficulty of maintaining relationships with women seems to have produced two other themes in Charley’s life and songs: drinking and fighting. These themes had dramatic surface manifestations in his life and seem to have impressed people who knew him. Unfortunately, they also served to obscure his deeper motivations and had the potential to cast a shadow over his personal reputation.
The one remaining great force in Patton’s life and music was religion. We have already noted that the subjects of his religious recordings closely paralleled those of his secular songs, particularly the themes of the journey to heaven, his personal dignity, depression, and the troubles of this world. Religion was very much on Charley’s mind throughout his life, but it was apparently not part of his frequent practice except in performing spiritual songs, a few occasional attempts to preach in public, and on his deathbed.
CHARLEY PATTON’S first recording session for Paramount Records took place on June 14, 1929, in the Gennett studio at Richmond, Indiana. The fourteen songs that he recorded at this session give a remarkable insight into his personality and his main concerns. This is especially true of the first four songs, making it appear that Patton wanted to tell his audience emphatically who he was and what was on his mind. Curiously, he began his recorded legacy not with a blues song about himself but on a more objective and symbolic level with a version of a folk ballad titled “Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues” (Paramount 12805). The boll weevil is a little black insect that bores into the cotton bud (known as a “square”), preventing it from blossoming. It swarmed into Texas from Mexico in the early 1890’s and, moving at a rate of about sixty miles per year, reached Mississippi early in the twentieth century. It devastated the Delta cotton plantations and acted as a great leveler between whites and blacks. Many writers have pointed out how black farmers identified with the boll weevil despite the difficulties the insect created for blacks as well as whites. Despite every effort to control it, the boll weevil survived and spread, defying every force that the rich and powerful planters could muster against it, making its home on their plantations and forcing them to come to terms with it. Charley Patton, in particular, must have identified with this insect that was constantly on the move, looking for a home. Several of his verses clearly reveal the appeal of this subject for him. [See esp. stanzas 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10 of lyric transcription in song notes section, disc 1/track 12.]
The title of Patton’s next piece, “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” (Paramount 12805), suggests that he viewed the song as a kind of generic blues, a general statement of the things that concerned him. Indeed, it does serve as an outline for the topics on which he would elaborate in many subsequent recordings, topics such as the necessity to travel, his mother’s concern about his lifestyle, his search for a “home,” his difficulty in maintaining relationships with women, and the conflict between the blues and religion. [See lyric transcription in song notes section, disc 1/track 6.]
Patton’s next song, “Down the Dirt Road Blues” (Paramount 12854), is brilliant both as a performance and as a composition. According to the recording session ledger, the song’s original title (and probably Patton’s own) was “Over the Sea Blues.” This would have been a better title, as it suggests the expansiveness of Patton’s imagination and that he was capable of thinking in universal terms. The song provides an important insight into Patton’s deepest concerns about his own identity and purpose in life. [See lyric transcription, disc 1/track 3.] The first and last stanza serve to create a framework for the song and state his overriding concern. Patton is going down a “dark road” to “a world unknown.” He doesn’t know what the future holds for him, but he says that he won’t let himself be worried. Stanza 2 and the last line of stanza 5 state that his woman is trying to drag him down and that she doesn’t really care about him or his concerns. He knows that he needs a woman’s company, however, so he will take one with him on his journey. If he can’t take his own “high brown,” he will take another man’s. In the midst of these thoughts about the direction of his life and his relationship to women, he deals with the question of his own identity in stanzas 2-4. He introduces this theme with a remarkable image of frustration and rage (“I feel like chopping”). Then, in a series of extraordinary allusions, he deals with his own racial ambiguity, expressing the problem in terms of racial homelands. “The Nation” means only one thing. It is the Indian Nation, which became part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907. Did Charley make some kind of pilgrimage there earlier in his life, or did his “black Indian” grandmother perhaps take him there for a visit? He seems to be saying so. There are actually communities of black Indians in Oklahoma. In any case, whether he really traveled there or only did so in his imagination, Patton states that somehow he found it impossible to maintain an Indian identity. No doubt this was true. His racial makeup may have been more Indian than anything else, but his only strong cultural link was through his grandmother, and even she had to live out her life in the Deep South where everything was viewed in black and white. Stanza 4 must refer to Europe, the home of white people. Charley Patton had not been there himself, but his brother had fought there in a “white folks’ war” and could hardly have brought back a very favorable report. Charley knew that he couldn’t fully participate in white society, and he seems to be saying it obliquely in this stanza. Stanza 5 must refer to the Delta, the Negroes’ “home,” where “every day seem like murder.” Patton certainly could have played the role of a Negro and probably had to do so at times, but throughout his life he seems to have done everything possible to resist this classification. Patton does not really resolve his dilemma. He simply heads for “a world unknown” and vows not to worry about it.
Patton’s fourth recording was “Pony Blues” (Paramount 12792), his biggest hit and signature song. It deals with the problem of establishing and maintaining relationships with women and opens with a traditional stanza that seems to take up where the previous song left off. In the fourth stanza Patton expresses his preference for brownskin women in a striking simile and spurns black women. In his sixth and final stanza he opts for temporary relationships with women without the legal obligations of marriage. Each stanza reflected real patterns in Patton’s life. [See lyric transcription, disc 1/track 1.]
Patton’s next three blues all deal with relationships with women and merely elaborate ideas he had already expressed. The last of these, “Pea Vine Blues” (Paramount 12877) takes its title from the Pea Vine railroad line, so called because of its winding route. This line was originally constructed by Will Dockery to connect his plantation with the nearby town of Boyle.48 It was taken over by the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad and extended to Rosedale. Patton merely uses the line as a setting for his song and does not elaborate further on it. His second stanza does, however, foreshadow the epic two-part “High Water Everywhere” (Paramount 12909) that he would record at his next session:
And the levee’s sinking, and I, babe, and I... Spoken: Baby, you know I can’t stay. The levee’s sinking; Lord, you know I ain’t gonna stay. I’m going up the country, mama, in a few more days.
IN HIS NEXT recording, “Tom Rushen Blues” (Paramount 12877), Charley Patton gave the first indication of his propensity for making a song out of “anything that come kind of odd” (his niece’s description). Perhaps for the first time in recorded blues a singer mentions local white people in a song and even offers some unfavorable criticism of one of them, Tom Day, the town marshall of Merigold. The discussion of national political issues is fairly uncommon in the blues, but discussion of local issues and politicians is almost non-existent. To do so was quite daring for a man who had lived in the Delta a long time and expected to stay there. Perhaps it is of some significance that, after his first recording session, Patton seems to have increased his traveling and was seen less often around Dockery’s, Cleveland, Merigold, and Mound Bayou. [See lyric transcription, disc 1/track 8.]
The melody and some of the lyrics in stanzas 1 and 4 are taken from an earlier recording by Ma Rainey, “Booze and Blues” (Paramount 12242), but most of the language is Patton’s own. The real Tom Rushing was born in 1898 near Tylertown, Mississippi, and moved with his parents to the Delta around 1910 when the boll weevil devastated the family farm. He was in a marine officer training program during World War I and served in the navy during most of the 1920’s. In 1928 he married and returned to the Delta, settling in Merigold. He immediately became a deputy for Sheriff Joe Smith of Bolivar County. His main duty was breaking up moonshine stills and arresting the moonshiners who made it and the bootleggers who sold it. He remained a deputy sheriff until 1932, when Prohibition was repealed. Bonded whiskey became legal again, and the Delta counties voted almost immediately to allow its sale. Moonshining and bootlegging decreased dramatically, and Rushing found that he couldn’t make as much money as before. He took a job as a tractor salesman and around 1944 bought a farm east of Merigold on the Sunflower River from his savings.
Rushing thought well of Patton, and the feeling was probably mutual, as Patton gave Rushing a copy of the record that he kept for many years. It would appear that Rushing was, as he stated, “a pretty important figure among the Negroes,” and Patton wanted to honor him in a song. On the other hand, Halloway (the song’s moonshiner) was a friend of Patton’s and probably an “important figure” in his own right. Patton probably sympathized with his plight and wanted to call attention to it in a song. He apparently did so by merging his own character with Halloway’s. He does this in stanzas 1, 4 and 6, which are sung in the first person as if Patton were singing about his own experiences. This is a common technique of blues composers, but Patton may have been induced to compose in this way because Ma Rainey’s record, which influenced his own, is also composed in the first person. As a final ironic footnote to this story, Tom Rushing’s farm became Mississippi’s first legal winery in 1977, specializing in fine wines made from Mississippi’s native Muscadine grape.
Charley Patton followed this topical blues with two lighter pieces in a ragtime style, both dealing primarily with the pleasures of sex. In one he states that he will fight and kill for his “spoonful.” Patton concluded the session with four spiritual sides, including the two-part “Prayer of Death” (Paramount 12799), in which he demonstrated his technique of making the guitar say prayers. The songs cover the full range of his favorite religious themes, including death and the journey to heaven, the troubles of this world, depression, trust in God, and his personal dignity.
Patton’s first records sold rather well, and he was called back to the studio only some four months later in October, 1929. In the meantime he seems to have relocated his base of operations from the Merigold and Mound Bayou area to the Clarksdale area. The session was held at Paramount’s main studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, and to it Patton brought fiddler Henry Sims from the little rural community of Farrell near Clarksdale. His total of twenty-four recorded songs, combined with fourteen from his first session, made him Paramount’s most prolific recording artist for 1929, an indication of the confidence that the company had in his sales potential.
Most of Patton’s songs at the second session were blues and spirituals, but he also recorded two older folk ballads and versions of two popular songs that had been hits earlier in the 1920’s and were probably especially popular with white audiences. One of them, “Runnin’ Wild Blues” (Paramount 12924), may have had a certain autobiographical application to Patton’s lifestyle, but his text is rather garbled. The folk ballads, “Elder Greene Blues” (Paramount 12972) and “Frankie and Albert” (Paramount 13110), along with “Jim Lee, Parts 1 and 2” (Paramount 13080 and 13133), all draw heavily from the black folksong tradition and may represent an early stylistic level in Patton’s music, the kind of material he learned from Henry Sloan and other mentors. “Elder Greene Blues” is, in fact, related melodically to versions of “Alabama Bound,” a song that Patton’s niece identified in Sloan’s repertoire. Although the song is thoroughly traditional, Patton may have felt some personal identification with the theme of “Frankie and Albert,” which deals with the violent conclusion of a lovers’ triangle, but his text is rather confused as a narrative account. “Elder Greene Blues,” about a backsliding churchman, is also quite traditional, but it too contains verses that Patton could have identified with, particularly this one:
I love to fuss and fight, I love to fuss and fight,
Lord, and get sloppy drunk off o’ bottle and bond,
And walk the streets all night.
Most of Patton’s blues from his second session deal with the usual themes of travel and women troubles. In some of these, however, are embedded a few topical references. In “Circle Round the Moon” (Paramount 13040) and “Hammer Blues” (Paramount 12998) there are brief mentions of serving a sentence on a road gang and being shackled in preparation for a train ride to Parchman Penitentiary in northern Sunflower County. It is not known whether these verses refer to an experience of Patton or of one or more of his friends. If he did serve a jail sentence, it was probably a brief stretch on a county road gang for something such as public drunkenness or simply possessing liquor and not a sentence at the state penitentiary at Parchman, which was for more serious crimes. In all of the information on Patton’s life gathered so far, no one has mentioned a serious crime or long jail sentence on his part. Another blues, “Joe Kirby” (Paramount 13133), contains a cryptic reference to the owner of a plantation near Tunica, Mississippi. According to “Son” House, Mr. Kirby was a popular figure among the local blues artists, but it is at present impossible to know what Patton meant when he sang, “Some people say them Joe Kirby blues ain’t bad.”
Of all Patton’s blues on the themes of women and travel from his second session, perhaps the most interesting textually is “Rattlesnake Blues” (Paramount 12924). [See lyric transcription, disc 2/track 4.] While the precise events underlying this song are unknown at present, Patton’s general meaning is clear enough. The song opens with a remarkable simile. The coiled rattlesnake is the perfect symbol for someone who is both ready to defend himself against attack and ready to strike without warning. No doubt Patton saw himself as a man who was always ready. One should also not fail to recognize the latent sexual symbolism of the rattlesnake. Patton’s readiness, then, enables him to “snake” his way through the world around all obstacles. In the next two stanzas he suggests the southern and northern limits of his world. Shelby, Illinois, must be the town of Shelbyville in that state. It is not known what connection Patton had with this town, but for his audience it no doubt serves more as an expression of great distance than of a literal place on the map. In fact, Patton had already been much farther north than Shelbyville. In these two stanzas Patton also states that he travels because his woman keeps company with another man, perhaps while he is absent. Nevertheless, he seems to have no particular animosity for the rival and is even willing to shake hands with him. Evidently his rage is reserved for the woman with “a heart like a piece of railroad steel.” Vicksburg, in stanza 4, is an image of “home,” a safe place where Patton had friends and relatives and would be treated well. It is meant to contrast with the distant places mentioned in the two preceding stanzas. The final stanza contains another remarkable simile, this time applied to his woman and meant to balance the simile in the first stanza as well as provide further motivation for his travel. This is a brilliantly structured and brilliantly performed blues, all the more extraordinary if it was indeed composed spontaneously.
Patton’s best known song from his second session is the epic two-part blues about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, “High Water Everywhere” (Paramount 12909). This flood, which took place in April and May of 1927, was the worst on that river in modern history. Heavy spring rains had caused the river and its tributaries to swell up and eventually burst the levees. The first break came at Dorena, Missouri, then at Pendleton, Arkansas, sending waters swirling through much of eastern Arkansas. Perhaps the worst break occurred on April 21 at Mound Landing, eighteen miles north of Greenville, Mississippi, flooding much of the Delta. Further breaks occurred in Louisiana, as the waters rushed toward the Gulf of Mexico. In all, sixteen and a half million acres of land were flooded in seven states, over 162,000 homes flooded and 41,000 buildings destroyed, over 600,000 people made homeless and without food, and between 250 and 500 people killed including officially 78 in Arkansas and 125 in Mississippi.49
Blues about this flood were recorded by such popular artists as Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Barbecue Bob. Charley Patton and Greenville-based singer Alice Pearson, however, are probably the only blues artists ever to record a song on this theme who actually experienced the flood. But there is a directness and sense of personal involvement and real drama that is found in Patton’s recording and nowhere else. While the other artists expressed sorrow and sympathy for the victims, Patton’s narrative conveys a very real sense of fear, confusion, menace, and rage. Patton’s nephew has placed him at the little community of Gunnison near the Mississippi River, when the flood struck, while his niece placed him about ten miles further east at the town of Shelby. Both places were affected by the flood, though not as severely as towns like Rosedale, Greenville, and Leland. Dockery’s, Mound Bayou, and Merigold did not experience any significant flooding. Although Patton himself may not have felt directly the worst effects of the flood, he did know hundreds of its victims and had traveled all over the territory that was devastated. Thus he could compose and sing about the flood from a level of personal experience that the other blues recording stars could not muster. [See lyric transcriptions, disc 2/tracks 1 and 2.]
Part 1 of the song is set in Mississippi and portrays mainly the sense of confusion and mounting fear of someone caught in the Delta with the water rising around him in all directions. Patton’s description is not tied to any one location. Instead he becomes a kind of “Delta everyman” constantly changing his mind about where to go as he hears fresh reports of rising water. This must have been the real experience of thousands of people like Patton. His phrase, “I’ll tell the world,” in the last line of stanza 1 should probably be taken quite literally. The attention of the world was fixed on this disaster, and Patton here sets himself up as a spokesman for thousands of Delta residents who had no other voice to tell their story to the world. Following an amusing mistake in the first line of stanza 6, he introduces a remarkable image of entire counties being literally carried away by the water and deposited on the shore of another county. The mood of fear and confusion in Part 1 changes to a mood of stark terror in Part 2. No longer is one able to compare reports and ponder where to go to find higher ground. Now the water is up to the singer’s bed, and the only hope is for rescue. Part 2 is set in Arkansas and evidently is based on the experiences of friends of Patton (cf. stanza 2), although typically Charley sings some verses in the first person as if he himself had experienced the events. In fact, he alternates between the viewpoints of a rescuer and one of the rescued. In truth, there wasn’t much difference. Those with access to boats became rescuers. Those without boats hopefully became the rescued. Charley paints a grim picture of islands being created and then submerged by the rising water, rescue boats blowing horns and people unable to hear them, a lifeboat itself sinking in the flood, and reconnaissance airplanes flying overhead unable to offer direct assistance. One lifeboat did, in fact, sink when it was drawn into a crevasse in the levee near Helena, Arkansas, drowning eighteen refugees. The mood of helplessness that Patton depicts of both the victims and the rescuers is awesome and terrifying. The final chilling stanza, with its imagery of complete devastation and an absence of life anywhere, is one of Patton’s greatest musical moments and one of the greatest in all of recorded blues.
Charley Patton recorded one final topical blues at his second recording session, a piece called “Mean Black Moan” (Paramount 12953). It deals with the consequences of a railroad strike in Chicago and is thus the only topical blues by Patton that is not set in the Delta. [See lyric transcription, disc 2/track 13.]
The events underlying this song have not yet been fully investigated, but it probably concerns a railroad shop workers’ strike in 1922. Whether Patton composed this piece at the time is not known. It is also not certain whether Patton understood the issues that provoked the strike or whether he even cared. He seems much more concerned about the consequences of the strike. In the first place, it inconvenienced him, perhaps interfering with his travel plans. But he is also concerned about the plight of the workers who are hungry and unable to pay their rent. They seem to be literally oppressing Patton with their “mean black moans,” lying in front of his door and standing around his bed. The language of this piece is remarkable, as the striking men are merged with their own complaints or “moans” and Patton himself assumes the persona of a striker’s wife and then of one of the strikers in stanzas 5 and 6. We have seen this technique before in “Tom Rushen Blues.” Patton, the Masked Marvel, was a master of changes of voice and character, imitating the voices of women, friends, and members of an audience in his vocal asides and jumping from one persona or perspective to another in his singing. It is a compositional technique that defies completely all the logic of western literary and artistic expression, yet it is remarkably effective in Patton’s hands.
Patton’s third recording session was held in August,50 1930, again in the Paramount studio at Grafton, Wisconsin. He brought with him singer/pianist Louise Johnson, along with “Son” House and his old partner Willie Brown. Patton only recorded four songs; all have Willie Brown playing second guitar and are among Patton’s finest performances. Interestingly, this is the only session where he recorded no spiritual songs. Paramount was feeling the Depression and experiencing financial difficulties. Perhaps they wanted to stick with Patton’s blues, which had enjoyed the greatest success in the past.
Two of Patton’s blues from this session deal with the usual themes of women troubles and travel. “Moon Going Down” (Paramount 13014) is mostly about travel, but it does contain a reference to the burning of a mill in Clarksdale. The theme is not developed, however. “Bird Nest Bound” (Paramount 13070) draws some of its lyric material from an earlier recording by Ardell Bragg, “Bird Nest Blues” (Paramount 12410), but Patton greatly transforms the original into a song that expresses a longing for a permanent home. “Some Summer Day” (Paramount 13080) also draws its melodic and some of its lyric material from another record, the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ On Top of The World” (Okeh 8784), recorded earlier in the year. It mentions a woman’s man who went off to prison, but the theme’s relation to Patton’s life remains a mystery. Patton’s remaining song from this session, “Dry Well Blues” (Paramount 13070), deals with another natural disaster in the Delta, a drought that was taking place at the time.51 Patton views the situation, as usual, in personal terms while at the same time identifying with the people of Lula. His concern is with the breakup of a happy domestic situation. The dry spell caused everyone to lose their homes, their money, and their women. These were all things that Patton valued highly, and they were important themes in his life and songs. [See lyric transcription, disc 5/track 1.]
The text alternates between scenes of “before” and “after,” while Patton alternately moves between his own persona and that of a typical resident of Lula. It is highly unlikely that Patton himself was raising cotton and corn or tending trees at Lula, though he may have been “living at ease” through his usual earnings as a musician. He uses the imagery of farming in order to give the song greater appeal to his Delta audience. He paints a picture of “citizens” who probably also “lived at ease,” who had cooperated in drilling a well for the town and obtained enough water for individual irrigation channels. Intertwined with the theme of the loss of this water supply is the theme of the loss of the town’s women. Thus, by fastening on a topical event, Patton makes literal truth out of one of the most common traditional blues stanzas:
You never miss your water until the well goes dry.
You never miss your rider until she says good-bye.
In several of the blues from Patton’s 1930 session there is a suggestion that he is tiring of the constant travel and tempestuous relationships with women. He seems to want to find a permanent home and a woman with whom he can settle down and “live at ease.” Apparently, however, he found it impossible to make Lula his home. The drought that he sang about may have had something to do with this, but we have elsewhere noticed in Bertha Lee’s “Mind Reader Blues” that he apparently got in some kind of trouble there and was forced to leave town, as was Bertha Lee herself. Just what happened and when this took place are not clear. The years 1931 and 1932 are obscure in Patton’s life story. He probably tried to settle in Memphis sometime during these years and made money giving guitar lessons and performing locally. The Depression had set in, however, and money was extremely scarce. Charley probably suffered some tough times, at least to a moderate extent, and he apparently returned to his usual pattern of moving about the Delta. He occasionally played with “Son” House and Willie Brown, who had settled in Robinsonville and Lake Cormorant respectively, in the northernmost part of the Delta.
If Patton failed to find a permanent home during this period, he did find a rather compatible mate in Bertha Lee, one who could both create a home life for him as well as sometimes travel with him to perform music. In 1933 they settled in Holly Ridge in a house owned by a white man named Tom Robinson for whose family Bertha Lee became the cook. By 1934 the American record industry was beginning to make a comeback from the worst effects of the Great Depression. W.R. Calaway, who had formerly worked for Paramount, was now working for the American Record Company and contacted Patton about recording once again. Charley and Bertha Lee traveled by train to New York and between January 30 and February 1 recorded twenty-nine songs. Only twelve of these were ever released, probably because of Patton’s death three months after the session and the poor sales of the initial releases. Unfortunately the remaining masters were lost or destroyed. Two of the twelve issued songs are spiritual duets by Charley and Bertha, and two others are blues vocals by Bertha. The remaining eight pieces are blues and a ragtime dance piece sung by Charley.
There are two main subjects of the songs from this last session. One is Bertha Lee herself and Charley’s evident satisfaction with her. Unlike the women in most of his earlier blues, he has a consistently positive attitude toward Bertha throughout the session. The second main subject is Patton’s relationships with important white people. This topic had emerged briefly in “Tom Rushen Blues” at his first recording session, but there he was adopting another man’s situation as his own. In his songs about the flood and the dry spell he was the spokesman for the entire Delta population, black and white. Even in “Mean Black Moan” he did not take sides in a labor dispute that doubtless had racial implications but concentrated instead on the hardships of the workers out on strike. In his last session, however, he is definitely singing about his own personal experiences and frequently with a tone of bitterness. It may have seemed to him that the delicate balance of forces that had preserved his ambiguous social status was crumbling. He was aware of his heart trouble and was trying to settle down more and stay in one place. This inevitably weakened his social position and forced him more into the typical status of a Delta Negro. At the same time he was performing increasingly for white audiences but finding increasing difficulties in his relationships with whites. Throughout the songs of his last session there is not only bitterness but a sense of an impending great crisis in his life, a sense that the threads that had held his life together up to now were beginning to unravel. Perhaps he knew he was about to die and didn’t care what the consequences of his song-statements might be. At any rate, he was far more directly outspoken at this session than he had ever been before. This was the case both about sex and about local characters and events. It was also the case about the subject of death itself. Charley had recently witnessed a horrible axe murder at a country supper at Four Mile Lake. According to Big Joe Williams, who claimed to have witnessed the event along with Patton, a gambler named Henry Freeman had killed another gambler named Quicksilver over a woman. Patton and Williams, who was playing music with him, were called as witnesses, and Charley made up a song about the event. This was probably the song he recorded entitled “The Delta Murder,” which remained unissued.52 Big Joe Williams recalled one of the verses:53
I know poor Quicksilver gonna hear Gabriel when he sound. He gonna raise up in the grave, but the poor boy got to lay back down.
Patton used the image of an axe in his recording of “Jersey Bull Blues” (Vocalion 02782), but here its meaning appears to be purely sexual. Nevertheless, it is perhaps of some significance that Patton at this point had merged the imagery of sex and violent murder. Charley and Bertha Lee also recorded a spiritual called “Oh Death” (Vocalion 02904). Their version is based on an earlier recording entitled “I Know My Time Ain’t Long” (Paramount 12948) by Charley’s friends, the Delta Big Four quartet. “Oh Death” is one of the most powerful and chilling songs on this subject ever recorded. Patton’s involvement with the song is total, and he must have known that his own time was indeed not long.
Bertha Lee is the focus of several songs from Patton’s last session. Her own singing of “Yellow Bee” (Vocalion 02650), a song based on an earlier recording by Memphis Minnie and one that Charley apparently taught to Bertha prior to the recording session, is frankly sexual and employs imagery of a long stinger, making honey, and buzzing around a hive. Charley’s recording of “Hang It On The Wall” (Vocalion 02931), a remake of a ragtime dance song that he had recorded at his first session in 1929, is also quite sexual as Charley calls out to Bertha Lee, who was probably dancing in the studio. Immediately before this piece Patton recorded “Poor Me” (Vocalion 02651), a tender love song in which he mentions Bertha Lee by name. In “Stone Pony Blues” (Vocalion 02680), recorded earlier in the session and an updated version of Patton’s 1929 hit of “Pony Blues,” Charley seems to be saying in a metaphorical way that he has given up other women and settled down: “I got me a stone pony and I don’t ride shetland no more.” His “stone pony” can be found “hooked to his rider’s door” and “down in Lula town somewhere,” an obvious reference to Bertha Lee whom he had first met in Lula. Later in the song there occurs a stanza that declares that he is not interested in any of the women in his audience:
Well, I didn’t come here to steal nobody’s brown. Didn’t come here to steal nobody’s brown. I just stopped by here, well, to keep you from stealing mine.
No doubt Patton found these lines useful at his live performances to avoid dangerous situations. They contrast markedly with the verse he addressed to the women in his earlier “Pony Blues”: “I don’t want to marry, just want to be your man.” But there is also a hint of trouble in “Stone Pony Blues.” Twice Patton sings the line, “And I can’t feel welcome, rider, nowhere I go.” No doubt Patton’s settling down was beginning to limit his opportunities and forcing him to accept conditions that were not entirely to his liking, conditions that he could always avoid in the past simply by leaving. This same contrast of apparent bliss and ominous foreboding is found in “Love My Stuff” (Vocalion 02782). The first three stanzas border on being positively lewd, as Patton sings of his delight in his hot “jelly,” his “stuff,” and his rider’s way of shimmying. But then the mood suddenly turns grim for the last half of the song. In stanza 4 he mentions an apparition of the devil, but his full meaning is not clear. Then he states that he feels compelled to leave in a hurry, drawing his imagery from the 1927 flood that he had sung about in an earlier record. [See stanzas 4, 5, 6, disc 5/track 18.]
Several of Charley’s songs from his last session mention the activities of white people and Charley’s relationships with them. Big Joe Williams told me that Patton made up “Jersey Bull Blues” (Vocalion 02782) about a bull belonging to his landlord in Holly Ridge, Tom Robinson. The record’s lyrics, however, merely develop a sexual metaphor of a bull for three stanzas before introducing the axe imagery that was discussed previously. Patton probably told Robinson that the song was about his bull as an easy way of paying him a compliment. He also seems to have paid a compliment to a favorite railroad engineer in “Charley Bradley’s Ten Sixty-Six Blues,” a piece that remained unissued. “Son” House has stated that Bradley drove Engine Number 1066 on a route from Memphis to Vicksburg, and everyone liked the way he blew his whistle as his train sped through the Delta.54 Patton had probably ridden the Ten Sixty-Six many times.
Another unissued song, “Whiskey Distillery,” may have mentioned local white people. Its title perhaps suggests a theme such as Patton had developed earlier in “Tom Rushen Blues.” Illegal activities had been very much in the news in the two years prior to Patton’s last recording session. The Depression was at its worst, and many people, desperate for money, turned to careers of crime. People like A1 Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Ma and Pa Barker, and Bonnie and Clyde became household names to millions of Americans and heroes to many as they flamboyantly defied the law. Revenue agents seeking unpaid taxes and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s notorious “G-Men” pursued these criminals relentlessly and were not above using ruthless methods to hunt down or wipe out these fugitives from justice. Things had changed from a few years earlier when an officer like Tom Rushing could quietly arrest a moonshiner or bootlegger and take him in to the county courthouse to pay a fine. Criminals were now more apt to carry and use weapons, and law officers were more likely to get tough first and ask questions later. Charley Patton was evidently concerned about this situation and recorded “Revenue Man Blues” (Vocalion 02931) as a kind of warning to others on the danger of police brutality. “If he hollers and you don’t stop, you will likely be knocked out,” he sings, and “If they see you with a bottle, they will almost break your neck.” The theme is not developed further, however, as Patton reverts to some verses he had previously sung in 1930 in “Bird Nest Bound.” He concludes with a stanza that hints at bad luck and trouble and seems to suggest a series of personal failures.
Oh, I wake up every morning now with the jinx all around my bed. Spoken: Oh sure. I wake up every morning with the jinx all around my bed. Spoken: You know, I had them jinx (. . . ?) I have been a good provider, but I believe I’ve been misled.
If Patton’s references to whites were brief or obscure in these songs, they were quite explicit and detailed in “High Sheriff Blues” (Vocalion 02680). It contains the melody and guitar part and a few of the verses that he had used in 1929 in “Tom Rushen Blues.” It also deals with a jailhouse experience, but this time it is Patton’s own. Bertha Lee stated that she and Charley were both jailed in Belzoni following a row at a house party and that it was none other than W. R. Calaway of the American Record Company who bailed them out.55 Belzoni is the county seat of Humphreys County, which lies just to the south of Sunflower County where Patton was living at the time. Humphreys County has a rather unsavory reputation among blacks for race relations, and it was not one of Patton’s more frequented parts of the Delta. Unlike the case in most of the other Delta counties, Patton was probably not very familiar with the law officers there. In the song he protests his treatment in the jail. He evidently needed either whiskey or medical treatment, or both. Charley knew he had heart trouble by this time, and he had increased his drinking, perhaps to try to blot his troubles out of his mind. [See lyric transcription, disc 5/track 13.]
Patton must have been demoralized by being thrown in jail in a relatively strange place like Belzoni, but he was probably hurt far worse by being told to stay off Dockery’s plantation. The man who told him to leave was Herman G. Jett, who served for forty years as the general manager or overseer of the plantation and was a good friend of Will Dockery. The incident evidently took place at the end of 1933 or in January of 1934, not long before Patton’s final recording session, for he describes it in his “34 Blues” (Vocalion 02651). Charley’s nephew Tom Cannon, who lived nearly his entire life on Dockery’s and as of the late 1980s still occasionally did work there, described what happened:
He had done lived on Dockery, was growed up on Dockery, had been there for years. After he [Charley’s father] moved off, Charley come back in there. Sometimes he would pick a little cotton on Dockery, but the biggest he did was put out music. As long as his daddy was there on Dockery, he didn’t say anything to him about coming back and forth on Dockery. But he [Charley] carried a couple of men’s wives off from Dockery, and they were tore up about that. And when Mr. Jett met him coming on the place, Mr. Jett told him that he didn’t want him hanging around Dockery no more. Then he put out that record about Herman Jett.… He had fun out of Mr. Jett when he sent him that record back after Mr. Jett told him that. He had been around Mr. Jett ever since he was a boy up until a man. Mr. Jett laughed. He wasn’t mad at him. They didn’t have no falling out.
Jett may have laughed about the incident, considering it all in a day’s work, and as a lifelong Dockery worker Tom Cannon perhaps underestimates Charley’s reaction. His “34 Blues” is anything but mild in its criticism of Jett. [See lyric transcription, disc 5/track 17.]
Charley is saying that the year 1934 had started badly for him. We don’t know if he really was broke at Christmas time. It seems unlikely, as the workers on the farms had just received their settlements, and there were probably plenty of parties where Charley could have made money. The white folks too had sold their cotton and were probably in a mood to celebrate with music. But the general economic climate of the country was bad. It was still a time of severe economic depression, and Charley was most likely taking the role of spokesman for the poor people of the Delta. This view is strengthened by his third stanza, in which he calls attention to the pathetic plight of women and children who can’t afford to buy a railroad ticket and are forced to try to bum rides on freight trains. Herman Jett, on the other hand, owned two cars and could afford to burn up his gasoline on something as trivial as riding around in the fields behind one of the farm workers. (Harvey Parker was a tenant on Dockery’s and an old friend of Charley Patton.) Charley had been driven from the home where he had grown up, and his pride had been wounded. Rather than swallow this bitter pill in silence, he contradicted his opening line and “told everybody.” This song was on the first record that Vocalion released from the session. We must admire Patton’s bold move in referring to Mr. Jett by his first name and sending him a copy of the record.
* * *
CHARLEY PATTON did not leave Mississippi, nor was he spared to see a brand new year. In his last years his music had become very popular with Delta whites, and the difficulty he had in maintaining the same freedom and security that whites enjoyed must have weighed heavily upon him. During his final recording session he was openly criticizing the social status quo in the Delta. His last playing job was for whites, and one wonders what songs he performed there. Did he sing “High Sheriff Blues” and “34 Blues”? Did the white folks understand what he was singing about? Did they care? Charley Patton has been dead for almost seventy years, and it is over a century since he was born. He was one of the originators of the blues, one of the first generation of blues artists, yet he also seems to have anticipated the internatio¬nal interest in blues that is now taking place around a hundred years after he and others began to create this music. Charley Patton was indeed the “great man” that the young Bukka White thought he was. He will be remembered and discussed worldwide for his own brilliant accomplishments, while the other “great men” of the Delta that he sang about will be remembered only because they figured in Charley Patton’s life and songs.
1 For insight into the social conditions and caste system of the Delta during the 1930’s see the following works: Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968); John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937); Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941); and David L. Cohn, Where I Was Born and Raised (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967).
2 Samuel Charters, The Bluesmen (New York: Oak Publications, 1967), p. 34. For similar statements by other Delta bluesmen see Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Viking, 1981), pp. 61-63.
3 Viola Cannon and Bessie Turner interviewed by David Evans and Marina Bokelman, Greenville, Mississippi, August 22, 1967; Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans and Marina Bokelman, Dockery, Mississippi, August 25, 1967; Bessie Turner interviewed by David Evans and Bob Vinisky, Greenville, Mississippi, March 10, 1979; Tom Rushing interviewed by David Evans, Robert Sacré, and Bob Groom, Cleveland, Mississippi, April 9, 1985; Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans, Robert Sacré and Bob Groom, Cleveland, Mississippi, April 9, 1985. Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans and Michael Leonard, Cleveland, Mississippi, December 8, 1986. I am grateful to Michael Leonard for further help in research at the courthouses in Belzoni and Cleveland, Mississippi, in December, 1986.
4 For my earlier assessment of Patton’s career and music see “Charlie Patton’s Life and Music” in Charlie Patton, Blues World Booklet No. 2, ed. Bob Groom (Knutsford, England; Blues World, 1969), pp. 3-7 (reprinted in Blues World, No. 33, Aug., 1970, 11-15). See also David Evans, “Blues on Dockery’s Plantation: 1895 to 1967,” in Nothing But the Blues, ed. Mike Leadbitter (London: Hanover, 1971), pp. 129-132.
5 Bernard Klatzko, notes to The Immortal Charlie Patton, Origin Jazz Library 7, 12” LP, 1964. A reprint of this document is included in this set.
7 Nick Perls, “Son House Interview - Part One,” 78 Quarterly, 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), 59-61.
8 Gayle Dean Wardlow and Jacques Roche, “Patton’s Murder - Whitewash or Hogwash?,” 78 Quarterly, 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), 10-17.
9 Charters, pp. 34-56.
10 Stephen Calt et al., notes to Charley Patton, Founder of the Delta Blues, Yazoo L-1020, double LP, ca. 1967.
11 John Fahey, Charley Patton (London: Studio Vista, 1970). A reprint of this book is included in this set.
12 Ibid., pp. 29, 26.
13 Palmer, pp. 48-92. R. Crumb has published “Patton,” an illustrated biography of Charley Patton in Zap Comix, No 11 (1985), based largely on the account in Palmer’s book. Subsequently this and other Crumb strips on blues figures were collected in R. Crumb Draws the Blues (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1993).
14 Palmer, pp. 56-57.
15 Alan Greenberg, Love in Vain (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 38-45, 95-105, 109-118.
16 Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (Newton, NJ: Rock Chapel Press, 1988).
17 Fahey, op. cit.
18 18 Perls, p. 61.
19 Jacques Roche, “The Words,” 78 Quarterly, 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 51-52, 54, Stephen Calt, “The Country Blues as Meaning,” in Country Blues Songbook, ed. Stefan Grossman, Hal Grossman, and Stephen Calt (New York: Oak Publications, 1973), p. 22.
20 Fahey, pp. 60, 62, 65.
21 Pete Welding, “David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards,” in Nothing But the Blues, ed. Mike Leadbitter (London: Hanover Books, 1971), p. 135. See also Palmer, p. 89.
22 For more information on these artists see Evans, “Blues on Dockery’s Plantation: 1895 to 1967.”
23 For more information on Will Dockery and his plantation see Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891), Vol 1, pp. 652-653; and Marie M. Hemphill, Fevers, Floods and Faith: A History of Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1844-1976 (Indianola, Miss.: Marie M. Hemphill, 1980), pp. 403-405.
24 On Charley’s application for a marriage license to Gertrude Lewis in Cleveland, Mississippi, on September 12, 1908, he made his mark (X) by his name recorded by the court clerk. Tom Cannon states that Charley must have been “pulling somebody’s leg.” Probably the clerk, a Chas. Christmas, simply wrote Patton’s name on the form and asked him to add his mark, assuming that he was illiterate.
25 Bessie Turner may have meant Renova, where her brother recalled Charley preaching in a church located on land owned by the family. Tom Cannon states that Charley did most of his preaching in parts of the hill country where he was not well known as a blues singer.
26 Charters, p. 37.
27 Henry Balfour, “Ritual and Secular Uses of Vibrating Membranophones As Voice-Disguisers,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 78 (1948), 45-69.
28 This phase of his career must have been brief, as he cannot be clearly identified in Memphis city directories during the years 1924-1934.
29 Welding, p. 135.
30 Charters, p. 56.
31 Ibid., p. 54.
32 Palmer, ibid.
33 Reverend Rubin Lacy, interviewed by David Evans, John Fahey, and Alan Wilson, Ridgecrest, California, March 19, 1966.
34 Perls, p. 59.
35 Klatzko, ibid.
36 Lacy, ibid.
37 Perls, p. 59.
38 Lacy, ibid.
39 Klatzko, ibid.
41 See Endnote 51.
42 Perls, p. 61.
43 Palmer, pp. 70-71.
44 Charters, p. 56.
45 Perls, p. 60.
46 For a discussion of the workings of this folk-blues tradition see Evans, Big Road Blues.
47 See, for example, ibid., pp. 146-150; and David Evans, “Structure and Meaning in the Folk Blues,” in Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 432-434.
48 Hemphill, pp. 403-404.
49 For a concise description of the flood and its effects see Pete Daniel, Deep’n As It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
50 See Endnote 51.
51 Elsewhere in this set the other authors have used June as the likely date for the Patton sessions in which “Dry Well Blues” was recorded. An examination of the Clarksdale Daily Register newspaper for the months of June-August, 1930, sheds some light on events underlying “Dry Well Blues” and incidentally helps us to date the Paramount recording session. The paper begins to take notice of continued unusually hot and dry weather on June 26, but only in a rather light hearted editorial. Not until July 8 is there a front page article with a tone of alarm, “Dry Spell For Delta Without Any Surcease.” Headlines continued to recount the disaster through August, with the August 8 headline reading “Crop Is 500,000 Bales Short” and a story on August 15 reading “Drought Takes Huge Farm Toll.” There can be little doubt, then, that Patton’s recording session took place no earlier than late June and most likely in July or August. “Son” House stated in 1964 that it was in August. (“Son” House, interviewed by Alan Wilson, November 5, 1964, Cambridge, MA.)
Meanwhile, the Daily Register on July 15 ran an official notice of intention to issue $5,000 in municipal bonds, entitled “Bond Issue for Improvement, Repair and Extension of the Water Works System of the Town of Lula, Coahoma County, Mississippi.” On July 20 it published a short article titled “Lula Booms,” that stated, “In keeping with the progress of Lula, one of the most progressive of the small towns of the Delta, officials have added a street sprinkler, that is keeping the streets dust free and adding much to the pleasure of living in that wide-awake town. The town has recently issued a few thousand dollars in bonds and is boring a second artesian well to supply the demands of a growing town.” On the same day the paper’s headlines read “62-Day Drought Hangs On.” On August 1 it reported that the water lines of Vicksburg had gone dry, and on August 10 it ran an editorial titled “When the Well Goes Dry.” Against this background we can possibly detect a subtle subtext of social criticism in Patton’s song. While the white “citizens” are confidently buying municipal bonds and boring a second well to add to their “pleasure of living” by keeping their streets dust free and maintaining their irrigation channels, the ordinary men and women are losing their trees, crops, homes and families. For the most part, Patton is simply reporting facts, but it is hard to imagine that he was not struck by the contrast of the confidence shown by the “citizens” and the devastation wrought by God’s hand.
52 Four Mile Lake is located in Humphreys County a few miles northeast of Belzoni. Courthouse records reveal that James Manuel (evidently the man that Williams knew as “Quicksilver”) was accused of murdering Henry Freeman. Williams stated that the two men (whose identities he evidently reversed) fought over a woman named Velma Larry, and she is listed as a witness for the defense. Charles Patton [sic] and Bertha Lee Patton are listed as witnesses for the state, but Joe Williams was not listed as a witness for either side. An indictment was filed against Manuel and a bench warrant issued for his arrest on March 6, 1934, in the Circuit Court of Humphreys County. He was arrested the following day. Charley and Bertha Lee and the other state’s witnesses were called to Belzoni on March 12, and the trial was apparently held on March 15. There is no record of a verdict, and no newspaper accounts that would further clarify the situation. Although the indictment was issued in March, the crime could have been committed any time after December 20, 1933, when the court was last in session in Belzoni. The court next met on March 6, the day that the arrest warrant and subpoenas were issued. Thus, it is quite possible that the murder took place before Patton’s recording session began on January 30. [Booker Miller’s account of the event which occasioned the song “The Delta Murder” is quite different. See interview of Miller on disc 7. –Ed.]
53 Big Joe Williams, “Big Joe Talking,” Piney Woods Blues, Delmark DL-602, 12” LP (1958). Williams’ statement contained the first published information about Patton’s life.
54 Fahey, p. 110.
55 The incident referred to in “High Sheriff Blues” probably stems from the murder of Henry Freeman. As suggested above, this murder, to which Patton and Bertha Lee were witnesses, could have taken place before Patton’s recording session. My guess is that James Manuel and all of the witnesses were arrested at the scene of the crime and brought to the Belzoni jail until the details could be sorted out. Thus Charley and Bertha would have spent some time in jail until Mr. Calaway got them out. R. Carlos Webb was a deputy sheriff of Humphreys County and probably the man who made the arrests at Four Mile Lake and brought Manuel and the witnesses to the jail at Belzoni. John D. Purvis was the sheriff. Purvis was probably convinced by Calaway that the Pattons were of good character and not directly involved in the crime, and he evidently ordered Webb to release them (“let poor Charley down”). Patton’s attitude seems to be critical of the fact that he was placed in jail by Mr. Webb, but he apparently is grateful to Sheriff Purvis for letting him off to travel to his recording session. As in the earlier “Tom Rushen Blues” the reference to thirty days in jail should probably be taken merely as a figure of speech and not literally.