Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Deepest Blues and a Hit of Acid Rock Make a Sweet Music Festival in Memphis (1966-1969)


The [Memphis Country] Blues Festival [was] an occasion unto itself, quite unlike any other. The aging troubadours of the first truly American music converge to unfold the eternal story once again. Their audience, happily disregarding the erosions the years have wrought upon these performers, hears what it needs to hear—especially the echoes of an earlier, rougher, more joyous, simpler era. (Choose your own fantasy of the American South during this century's opening decades.) Two of the most important blues festivals in recent memory were the Memphis [Country] Blues Festival and the [1969] Ann Arbor Blues Festival...Stanley Booth's article on the memorable Memphis festival gets inside that event to the meaning of the blues, while Bert Stratton tells what it's like to be 19, totally inexperienced as a promoter/festival organizer, and suddenly to find a full-scale blues festival growing out of your daydreams. 

Even the Birds Were Blue
By Stanley Booth - Rolling Stone - April 10, 1970 

At about five o'clock in the afternoon on the second day of the Memphis Country Blues Festival, the old blues artists Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods were huddled together on folding chairs at the front of the stage at the Overton Park Shell, just getting into "Shake 'Em On Down," when a gang of men began moving a long series of big black amplifier crates from one side of the rear stage to the other. Hearing the clatter, Woods stopped playing harmonica and cast a worried glance backwards over his shoulder.  "I thought it was a big ole train a-comin'," he said. The crates were stamped WINTER, because they contained the many amplifiers of Johnny Winter, the Columbia Recording Company's $300,000 cross-eyed albino Texas electric blues bonus baby, and I mention them because they will serve adequately as a symbol of what nearly killed the Memphis Country Blues Festival in its fourth year.

To understand the Blues Festival, you must know that Fred McDowell, the best living Mississippi bluesman, has been for most of his life a sharecropper, sometimes making a year's profit (after paying his bowman for rent and equipment) of as much as $30; and that Furry Lewis, who is virtually all that remains of Beale Street, worked for the City of Memphis 43 years, collecting garbage, sweeping the streets, and then retired without a pension. No matter how they could play and sing, they were still just a couple of [black men in the South]. They and others like them had been recorded on labels like Bluebird and Vocalion in the early days of race records; then, with the Depression and the WWII recording ban, they were forgotten. Through the days of the first electric blues bands, the Sun Records era of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the late Fifties rhythm-and-blues, and the rock revival of the Sixties, the old men whose music provided the foundation for it all were ignored. When they were not ignored, they were exploited.

Just about the only people who ever really cared for the old Delta bluesmen were a few vintage Southern beatniks. Although struggling for their own survival, they recognized a spiritual tie and responsibility and saw to it that the old men worked whenever possible. Charlie Brown, poet, hermit, actor, snake trapper, entrepreneur, was probably the first to hire the old men for public appearances, at the Bitter Lemon and O So coffee houses in Memphis in the early sixties.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)

David Evans won a Grammy award in 2003 for “Best Album Notes” for the following essay in Revenant 212, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.



Charley Patton died on April 28, 1934, some three months after his final recording session. During the preceding five years he had become the most extensively recorded of the early Mississippi folk blues artists, leaving behind a legacy of fifty-two issued songs as well as accompaniments of other artists. 

Patton was the first recorded black folk artist to comment directly and extensively on public events that he had witnessed or experienced and to treat events in his own life as news. He was also the first recorded black folk artist to mention white people from his own community in his songs, sometimes unfavorably. He did all of this while continuing to live his life in the Mississippi Delta, a region which featured perhaps the most rigid racial caste system in the entire nation.1 

Charley Patton was almost certainly born in 1891, making him more or less a younger member of the first generation of folk blues singers, the originators of this genre. It is known that Patton himself learned some of his music from other artists who were a few years older. He is nevertheless the earliest Mississippi blues artist about whom we have much information, although much of this information comes from the last five years of his life during which he made his recordings. He was extraordinarily influential on other Mississippi blues artists and was a role model in both music and lifestyle for many of them. Among the many artists he is known to have influenced or inspired are Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, “Son” House, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Bukka White, a great Mississippi blues artist eighteen years Patton’s junior, recalled saying as a child that he wanted “to come to be a great man like Charley Patton.”2 White was not alone in his great respect for this man. It is probably fair to say that Charley Patton is the only black person of his generation to live virtually his entire life in Mississippi who still has a national and international impact and whose name and accomplishments are known to many outside his immediate family and community over a century after his birth and almost seventy years after his death. This piece does not purport to be a full-scale biography but is mainly concerned with matters of personality and with reaching an understanding of the social context of Patton’s life and music. It is based largely on the internal evidence in Patton’s songs that contain biographical details and allu¬sions and on interviews with relatives and associates of Charley Patton, particularly his sister Viola Cannon, his niece Bessie Turner, his nephew Tom Cannon, and Tom Rushing, a figure in one of his songs.3 

Previously published accounts4 of Charley Patton’s life, character and personality have been based on the evidence of his records as well as interviews with fellow blues artists (especially “Son” House), friends, relatives, ex-wives, and girlfriends. The first publication to give much significant information about Patton was a booklet by Bernard Klatzko published in 1964 as the notes to a reissue album of some of Patton’s records.5 Klatzko obtained his information during a brief field trip to the Delta in 1963 with fellow researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. Although their interviews of a number of Patton’s relatives and friends were brief and superficial and contained some errors, Klatzko was nevertheless able to piece together an outline of Patton’s life that served as a useful starting point for further research. As for Patton’s lifestyle and personality, Klatzko revealed that he was popular with women and had married several times, that he was fond of drinking liquor and tended to be argumentative. Klatzko also revealed that Patton traveled constantly and was well known in Mississippi. A subsequently discovered photograph showed Patton as having a rather light complexion and curly hair, clearly the product of a mixed racial ancestry. Based on the evidence of Patton’s performing style on his records, Klatzko speculated that the artist felt some sense of outrage, stating, “It must have seemed strange to a man like Patton who looked little different from white men to be relegated to a second-class status. At any rate, Charley’s outrage, whatever sparked it, was released in the blues.”6 Later researchers have largely ignored this speculation or tried to paint a portrait of Patton as a carefree entertainer. 

About the time that Klatzko presented the first factually based outline of Charley Patton’s life, “Son” House was rediscovered. House had known Patton for the last four years of the latter’s life and was a Mississippi blues artist of comparable stature to Patton. House clearly found some of Patton’s character traits hard to comprehend or annoying. He told Stephen Calt and Nick Perls in an interview published in 1967 that Patton was argumentative, far from generous with his money, unable to read and write, and careless about his music, preferring to clown for the audience rather than take care to structure his songs coherently.7 In an article published in the same magazine issue as House’s interview, Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt (writing under the pseudonym of Jacques Roche) work from House’s assertions and paint an unflattering portrait of Patton as illiterate, self-centered, a drunkard, a glutton, and a hustler of women.8 

In the same year Samuel Charters, drawing upon Klatzko’s booklet and an interview with Patton’s last wife Bertha Lee, presented a more favorable image of Charley Patton and tried to interpret the meaning of some of his songs.9 Stephen Calt, however, soon returned to the offensive. In the notes to the then most widely circulated reissue album of Patton’s recordings Calt asserted that Patton “never learned to read or write and passed most of his time . . . in total idleness,” that he was a “perpetual squabbler,” “extraordinarily tight with money,” always courting women and entering sham marriages with them, beating his wives, and “eating out of the white folks’ kitchen.” Calt adds that Patton was “reportedly disavowed” by his daughter from one of his marriages. 10 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Scrapper Blackwell Legacy Celebrated

Scrapper Blackwell - 1959
By Rachel E. Sheeley Staff Writer

Blues guitarist and singer Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell was in his 50s when he met Duncan Schiedt and began telling him stories of his hey-day performing with Leroy Carr.

Schiedt was a photographer with a passion for early blues and jazz. He befriended Black-well in Indianapolis during the revival of interest in the musical genres during the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Schiedt talked about Blackwell on Friday night during the Starr-Gennett Foundation's Gennett Records Walk of Fame Music Festival induction and awards ceremony at the Gennett Mansion in Richmond.


The Walk of Fame Festival continues Saturday with an afternoon of free concerts in the Whitewater Gorge Park's Starr-Gennett Pavilion starting at noon. Blackwell is the 32nd induc-tee into the Walk of Fame, which celebrates the musicians who recorded with Gennett Records in Richmond or New York City.

Blackwell, Schiedt said, heavily represents the archetypical legend — he was famous for a short period, forgot-ten by most of the world for more than 20 years, revered by fellow guitarists and experienced a revival of his career before dying as a victim of a mugging.

1959
A self-taught guitarist, Blackwell came to the public's attention as the partner of pianist Leroy Carr in the mid-1920s. Their June 1928 re-cording of "How Long, How Long Blues" was an instant hit.

In telling Schiedt about that era, Blackwell related a story about being sent to a Cincinnati record store to promote their music. Blackwell and Carr were hired to appear in the store window and pretend they were singing their hit while the record played over a loudspeaker.

Schiedt imagines it was one of the first incidents of "lip synching."

Blackwell also made solo recordings at Gennett Records in 1931-1932.

After Carr's death in 1935, Blackwell played in the Indianapolis area but faded from the scene, giving up music.

1960
In 1958, Blackwell was "rediscovered" and re-corded by Colin C. Pomroy (but not released until 1967). Schiedt first photographed Blackwell at a Democratic Party picnic in Indianapolis. "He was so picturesque," Schiedt said. "He got little recognition outside the city (of Indianapolis) and he was so important."

In 1959, Schiedt welcomed Blackwell into a makeshift studio his basement where Black-well recorded an album. It was released on the 77 Records label. Blackwell died in 1962.

"I remember him so well," Schiedt said. "He was a different kind of guy. He was very quiet, but when he played, he was just transformed."

In addition to serving as an expert on Blackwell during the award ceremony, Schiedt received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Starr-Gennett Foundation for his service on its national advisory board, for his work as a jazz historian and author, for his "many contributions to our understanding of the history of jazz" and for "helping define popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries."

Schiedt said he is pleased to be recognized, but feels more fortunate to have been part of the early group that thought it was important to pre-serve and share the Starr-Gennett legacy of recording.

Schiedt said he visited the Starr-Gennett buildings before they were completely demolished.

"Being able to come out on the site and see ... where it all began, it was a thrill to be that close," he said.

Jazz historian and photographer Duncan Scheidt
views a model of the Starr-Gennett building during
the Starr-Gennett VIP Reception in the
Gennett Mansion on Friday. 
He remembers making regular trips to Richmond in the 1980s to meet with like-minded people. He said part of the spark that helped the foundation develop came when Gennett descendant Laurel Gennett Martin be-came involved.

Today, there is an active preservation of the history, the Walk of Fame and the music festival to educate others about Gennett's role.

"We kept our eye on the prize, didn't we?" he said.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

JUG BAND HOLDS SPIRIT OF BLUES CREATIVITY

By Bill Ellis - The (Memphis, TN) Commercial Appeal - May 16, 1998.

Click HERE to help us honor Charlie Burse and Clean Up Rose Hill Cemetery


We live in a funny time. Just as a global philosophy of multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance has taken root, life and its myriad choices have become more and more ghettoized, music especially so.

A recent conversation with bluesman Jerry Ricks raised the issue. He laughed, noting how blues music was more integrated back when African-Americans were the most segregated. Now it seems, in an attempt to appease every demographic (and from a corporate standpoint, to squeeze every dollar from that demographic), we can no longer appreciate or support things of universal value.

The blues is no different. What qualifies as blues music is so narrowly defined by today's market, the individualism and creativity that fostered this uniquely American form have long ago been forced out.

I say this because modern blues, no matter how exciting and adroit it may be (the late Luther Allison comes to mind), doesn't quite compare with the sheer variety and ingenuity of past decades: when Robert Johnson made the guitar a virtuosic equal to the piano, when Muddy Waters discovered electricity, when B. B. King first took the blues uptown.

And when, way back in the '20s, the Memphis Jug Band found high art in the lowest of musical instruments, a blown whisky jug.

Will Shade
Though there were Louisville predecessors such as the Dixieland Jug Blowers and though Memphis-based Cannon's Jug Stompers were perhaps the genre's pinnacle, the Memphis Jug Band was the prototypical jug ensemble. Its combination of guitar, harmonica, fiddle, kazoo, banjo-mandolin, washboard bass and jug was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that produced wonderfully colorful arrangements.

Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band cut nearly 100 sides. They were the first group from Tennessee to record commercially, having been cut by Victor talent scout Ralph Peer, the man who, only months later, would record the Carter Family. The Memphis Jug Band put out some 60 sides on Victor and, after leaving the label in 1930, made more recordings for Champion in 1932 and OKeh/Vocalion in 1934. The versatile group also backed up Memphis Minnie and her first husband, Casey Bill Weldon, on several sessions and recorded under pseudonyms such as the Picaninny Jug Band and the Memphis Sheiks.

The group had many revolving members in its heyday, including Weldon, Furry Lewis, David `Honeyboy' Edwards, Big Walter Horton and Charlie Burse, who, according to some sources, was a gyrating influence on Elvis Presley's stage persona. Through every lineup, the Memphis Jug Band was led by Will Shade (1898-1966), a harmonica and guitar showman with makeshift sensibilities and, whether he knew it or not, a prescient multicultural vision.

Charlie Burse
"After riggin' up a three-piece band I met a feller by the name of Lionhouse but his real name was Elijah; old man of about sixty-five, so me and him got together,'' recounts Shade in Paul Oliver's Conversation with the Blues. ``He was playin' a bottle, wasn't playin' no gallon jug; he was playin' an ole whiskey bottle you pick up anywhere. So we said, `Let's get a gallon jug.' So after we got a gallon jug we commenced to play it an' I dubbed: I played harmonica, guitar and also a can. Some people call it a garbage can but I calls it streamline bass. Streamline bass, but some folks say garbage can. I made pretty good at it. Kep' on playin' up and down Beale Street.''

Like most jug bands, the Memphis Jug Band could play any style the occasion called for. They knew blues, rags, dance tunes, minstrel songs, jazz, country songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes - in short the entire scope of their generation's popular music. There was nothing esoteric about the Memphis Jug band. Their aim was to entertain. They performed for black and white alike at fish fries, dances, clubs, ballgames, and they were the favorite band for hire by E. H. `Boss' Crump at parties and campaign rallies.

Their range was impressive and in hindsight an interracial model for future Memphis music innovations from Sun rockabilly to Stax soul.

There were many other jug groups in Memphis at the time: Cannon's Jug Stompers; Jack Kelly's Jug Busters; the Three J's; Jed Davenport's Beale St. Jug Band (which, according to Lawrence Cohen's Nothing But the Blues, was the Memphis Jug Band in disguise).

But the Memphis Jug Band had a loose, carefree manner and rambling ensemble that was all their own. The music was born of minstrel and medicine show traditions, yet it transcended its environs like all great art does.

Two essential CD compilations are ``Memphis Jug Band'' on Yazoo and ``State of Tennessee Blues'' on Memphis Archives/Inside Sounds. Listen, and the results are anything but ragtag: the beautiful minor IV passing chord in Stealin' Stealin', the unique modal quality of I Can Beat You Plenty (That Hand You Tried to Deal Me), the raucous melodic charm of Cocaine Habit Blues, the major/minor ambiguities of Oh Ambulance Man.

The music still brims with life, humor and historical value. These old folks started it in more ways than one.

Billy Smiley, Sr.

By Thomas Howard - Delta Democrat Times - March 15, 2018

Billy Smiley Sr., a beloved local blues musician who was killed in 2017, will be honored with a special headstone today.

The Mount Zion Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that since 1989 has worked to memorialize the contributions of musicians, will dedicate Smiley's headstone at 4 p.m. today in the Legends section of the Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.

T. DeWayne Moore, executive director of the Memorial Fund, said Smiley is being honored for his contributions to the community and the music of the blues and jazz.

"He's played festivals all over the Delta and worked in multiple Delta schools as the music director. We want to honor Mr. Smiley for his contributions."

The dedication, Moore said, will be lead by Woodrow Wilkins, a Greenville journalist and author, who knew Smiley and followed his music.

"He covered some of the events Mr. Smiley had done," Moore said.

Also present at the dedication will be one of Smiley's sons, local musicians, including Rob Mortimer, and other community members who want to pay tribute to the Greenville musician.

"It's up in the air as to who all will be participating," Moore said, adding he expects many more people to come than those who responded to the invitations. 


Anyone who attends will be given an opportunity to share thoughts or memories of Smiley, Moore said.


After the graveside headstone dedication, folks will be invited to the Walnut Street Blues Bar, 128 S Walnut St., where Smiley's name will be added to the Greenville Blues Walk.

"That's the sidewalk around Walnut Street," said Wilkins, who helped organize the event.

"They get their name and likeness added. It's modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame but for local artists."

Wilkins said Allen Orlieck, who carves the memorial stones for the Blues Walk, will be on hand to display Smiley's stone and install it in the sidewalk.

Since 1989, the Mount Zion Memorial Fund has memorialized and honored musicians in rural communities, where they may not have a marked grave.

Since the founding, the organization has raised the funds to build memorials for 22 blues artists and continues to raise money to expand that list.

However, Moore said, the memorial for Smiley is somewhat different.

"The family paid for it," he said. "This is not one of the ones we paid for. His family contacted us about doing a memorial."















Brief bio about Billy Smiley Sr.

Smiley, a Delta bluesman who loved to put on a show for his audience, succumbed to injuries sustained in a late night stabbing in February 2017. He was 59 years of age.

Hours before the stabbing, several local musicians, including Smiley, Leonard Stevenson Jr., Mortimer and John Horton, were jamming at Walnut Street Blues Bar with a German blues band who was in town filming a German blues documentary
.




Stevenson was later charged with two counts of capital murder in the stabbing deaths of Smiley, 59, and Ronnie Tubbs, 59. All three were involved, at one time or another, in Smiley & The Young Guns.


Smiley, who performed for about a decade with various bands, including The Billy Smiley Band, also taught music in the Greenville Public School District and was the band director at Greenville High School until 2013.

Smiley is survived by his sons, Billy Frank Smiley Jr., of Greenville, Dexter Lee Smiley, of Jackson, Billy Frank Lee Smiley, of Augusta, Georgia, and Elic Bankhead, of Madison, Wisconsin; his daughters, Dorian Weatherspoon, of Dallas, and Ronena Turner, of Oaklawn, Illinois; his brothers, James Alvin Smiley and Dornell Smiley, both of Greenville, and Robert Earl Smiley, of Shelby; his sisters, Lucy Solomon, of Milwaukee, and Barbara Wright, of Greenville; and five grandchildren. 




Smiley played keyboards for Jerry Fair's Cultural Blues Band in the mid-2000s, during
which time he was the band director for Coleman Junior High School in Greenville

Robert Charles: "Let no man on God's earth threaten to take the life God provided for you alone"

After hearing that hundreds of racists had joined in the lynching and mutilation of a black man in Georgia, one man called on his black brothers and sisters to take up arms in self-defense.  "Let no man on God's earth threaten to take the life God provided for you alone, and if someone does, pick up a gun and left them know, we will shoot back."  His name was Robert Charles and he was born in Copiah County, Mississippi. 

A drawing in the newspaper of Robert Charles

On 23 April 1899 Sam Hose, a black farm laborer, was lynched in Palmetto, Georgia, after killing his employer in self-defense. An excursion train was run from Atlanta carrying over a thousand people to watch the spectacle with the guard famously calling, “All aboard for the burning.” Even by the standards of the time (more than 80 black men and women were lynched in the US in 1899), Hose’s lynching was a brutal affair. His ears, fingers, face and genitalia were cut off in front of a jeering crowd of men, women and children. After this mutilation he was burned alive and his charred body cut up for souvenirs. Slices of his heart and liver were offered for sale at 25c a slice.

The killing outraged black America. W E B Du Bois, a successful black academic, was out walking in Atlanta when he was told that Hose’s knuckle bones were on display in a shop down the road. The episode convinced him to leave the safety of the ivory tower and launched him on a career of political activism. Ida B Wells, the great campaigner against lynching, raised the funds to hire a private detective to investigate the killing and went on to write her classic work, Lynch Law in Georgia. And in New Orleans Robert Charles, a black laborer involved in the Back to Africa movement, began urging his friends to arm, both to protect themselves and to prevent further lynching's. 




These were dangerous times. In Louisiana there was a campaign under way to strip black people of the vote. The number of registered black voters fell from 130,444 in 1896 to 5,320 in 1898. In New Orleans the newspapers were warning of a coming race war, with one paper arguing that the “extermination” of the black population would be necessary unless they accepted rule by “an iron hand”, and another advocating either deportation or sterilization. There was a routine, everyday brutalization of black people.

Robert Charles had had enough. On 23 July 1900 Charles and his friend Lennard Pierce were waiting for two women friends when they were approached by three policemen who accused them of loitering. One of the policemen began clubbing Charles, who broke away. The policeman drew his gun and shot and wounded Charles. Charles by now always went armed and he fired back, wounding his attacker, and escaped. Pierce was arrested. Later that day a squad of six policemen went to arrest Charles at the room he rented. Armed with a Winchester rifle, he once again made his escape, killing two of the policemen. He hid out with friends at 1208 Saratoga Street.


The hunt for this “black fiend” was joined by hundreds of armed vigilantes who unleashed a pogrom on the streets of New Orleans. A 75 year old black man, Baptiste Philo, was shot dead, as were two other people unfortunate enough to be caught by the vigilantes. A white sailor who objected to the lynchings had to be rescued by the police to save him from being strung up, but was fined $25 for “incendiary remarks”. According to William Ivy Hair, the historian of this episode, white hatred made an outbreak inevitable at this time and if it had not been Charles then some other pretext would have sparked off an attack on the black community.


By 26 July an informer had told the police where Charles was hiding out. The police laid siege to the house, reinforced by hundreds of armed vigilantes, watched by a crowd estimated at 20,000. Charles shot it out with a thousand hate-filled gunmen. Between 3pm and 5pm he fired some 50 times, killing five of his attackers and seriously wounding another seven. 1208 Saratoga Street was riddled with over 5,000 bullet holes. Unable to finish him off, the building was fired to smoke him out. Charles came out, gun in hand, and was shot dead. He was shot over 30 times and then the crowd rushed forward to stamp and trample his corpse until he was unrecognisable.

Any expression of sympathy with Charles placed the speaker in danger. The day after the final shootout a black man in Houston, Texas, who spoke up for him, was shot dead in the street. And attacks continued throughout the rest of the year. The black population had to be terrorised to ensure that Charles did not set an example. Nevertheless there was widespread admiration and support for him. The man who informed on him was shot dead by one of Charles’s friends later in the year. And his exploits inspired a blues song, the Robert Charles Blues, that became too dangerous to perform and has been lost.

In the Philippines, where US troops were fighting Filipino rebels, the rebels put up placards asking black troops why they were fighting for the people who had killed Sam Hose and Robert Charles. Ida Wells, herself an advocate of armed self-defence, memorialized Charles in her Mob Rule in New Orleans. She wrote, “The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to people of his own race Robert Charles will always be regarded as the hero of New Orleans.”

For more read William Ivy Hair’s Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Louisiana State UP, 2008)


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Houston Stackhouse

Houston Stackhouse circa 1960s (Photo: George Mitchell)


THIS WEEK on BLUES UNLIMITED!


THIS WEEK on BLUES UNLIMITED!
It Must've Been The Devil Goin' Up The Country:
The Big Road Blues of David Evans
Join us as we aim the spotlight on the legendary field recordings of David Evans. An intrepid researcher, most of what he captured in the mid 60s and early 70s are fascinating documents of a time and place that otherwise
might’ve been lost to history.
Don’t miss this special episode of Blues Unlimited!


Pictured: Napoleon Strickland playing the fife while Othar Turner dances. Near Senatobia, Mississippi, 1970. Photo by David Evans. 

The Most Amazing Interview with Fred McDowell You Never Read


Photograph taken by George Mitchell circa late 1960s


By Barry Foster, an undergraduate at Bowling Green University in 1971
in the Journal of Popular Culture 5:2 (1971).

Click HERE to read about our dedication of his headstone

During the current blues revival, there have been certain traditional bluesmen to rise to the forefront. Mississippi Fred McDowell is one of them. Fred is the innovator of the "slide" or "bottleneck" guitar, and has played and visited with such current superstars as Johnny Winter and The Rolling Stones.

BF: How long have you been playing the blues?

FM: Well, I'll tell you, off and on—I started when I was a boy about 14 years old. After I learned how a little bit, I quit, you understand, because I wasn't interested in no guitar much no how. So I quit . . . my mother she asked me to quit playing because she wanted me to go to church, you understand. So I quit playin, and when I got started back again I was just about grown, you see, and—it's about six years ago 'fore I got more interested in a guitar than I was then, you understand, see, 'cause there have never been no-body down through my home—you sec my home is in—you see everybody calls me Mississippi Fred McDowell, but my home is in Tennessee. Rossford, Tennessee where I was born and raised. But after my mother passed, well I have a sister lives in Mississippi, you see, and she and I stay close together that's why Pm down there now, you understand. I likes it okay, it's good. I like that better than I do my own home, now.

BF: How did you develop the "bottleneck guitar"?

FM: How I come by that, I was a small boy—my uncle was a guitar player and he played with a beef-bone not a bottleneck —a little round bone come out of a steak. He filed it real smooth and he played with it on this finger (pointing to his pinkie), sec I play it with my ring finger and that's why I said if I ever learn to play the guitar that's what I'm going to get me, a bone. But I didn' get a bone, I started out learnin' how to play with a pocketknife. Well, you see you can't make a chord with a pocketknife—see, you got to hold it this way (between his ring and small finger). When you're playin' the guitar—see you ain't got no action with these fingers here at all (pointing to his first two fingers), you see. So I discovered that bottleneck, an' made it myself.

BF: What do you think of people who have modified the "bottle-neck" guitar style, say like Johnny Winter?

FM: Well, I tell you, nothin' but it's good. See, Johnny Winter, me and him plays together a lot, and he really can use it and also J. B. Hutto, Muddy—but they all don' play with a bottleneck, they play it with a bar, you see. But it sounds good to me, I like all music. I don' care who's playin' it, just like those words I put on "1 Don't Play No Rock'n' Roll," see a lot of people think just because I play blues that I don' like rock'n roll but it's a mistake. You see—that's just a good hit for me on my album, you understand, 'cause I like all music, I don' care who's playin' it. Whatever you play, you feel it and if it sound good to you, it sound good to me too, you understand. That's the way that goes.


BF: Then you like the electric things that BB King has been doing.

FM: Sure, sure yeah. You see, 1 used to play acoustic all the time 'till about three years ago.

BF: Do you write most of the songs you do, or are they traditional blues handed down, or exactly what?

FM: 1 don't write any songs. I makes my own words—just a sound to my music, I don't write no songs.

BF: So once you've done them, they're gone. Like the things you did tonight we'll probably never hear again.

FM: Who won' hear it again? Well, here, you know, when you play music, man—this is the way I play, I play what I feel. See, I sing these different words with feelin' to them 'cause I feel them myself because of this—see, you come up, probably you don' know what a hard time is, see I do. See, you get to thinkin' how you been used, you understand, now that's where the blues come from. Now the blues, where it first started from, when I was comin' up as a boy they didn' call what we's singin' now the blues, you know what they call it? They call it the reel, well they change that name from the reel, to the blue, that's what that is.

BF: Do you think that a lot of the feeling is gone out of music?

FM: No, it's comin' back in. You take like four years ago, and I'm from Mississippi, see, I live about 40 miles on this side of Oxford, but I played at Ole Miss at the university there about every other month, and it's gettin' popular there. See, they don' care nothin "bout the rock'n'roll, they call me an' say we'll get you on such and such a night. They done fell in love with the blues, they changed from what they were. And they seem to enjoy it better.

BF: Do you think the blues has had much of an effect on rock music?

FM: Yeah, it's taken a big turn. That's correct. That's true. Because they're gonna pay more attention, and they're gonna listen more to it than they did when rock was first startin' out. Still, you're always gonna find somebody who likes rock-'n' roll. Because, you know why? Because its a fast piece, and it's a fast dancin' piece and you can do more things with it. All of it's good, hell, I like it all. BF: Do you think the volume of rock, in decibels, has hurt it at all?

FM: Yeah, 'cause you see, last year, I was in Ann Arbor, I came from Toronto with John—I went up with him in the bus, an' come back in the car with him. Well that Sunday there's a rock festival, a blues festival over there where they give it the year before last. (At this point, Fred relates a story about a killing at the festival and expresses the feeling that this had a lot to do with the cancellation of another Ann Arbor Blues Festival)

BF: Well there are going to be some blues festivals this summer somewhere aren't there? 

FM: But not there (Ann Arbor). I don' know, I would tell you yeah-I know we're going to be into somethin', I don' know what the hell it is, that's week after next in Philadelphia, I don' know what that is. Then we're supposed to be in Washington, D. C., I know that's a blues festival, goin' to hold it there in that hotel where they had it last year you understand. BF: Since the last Ann Arbor Blues festival, a lot of the traditional blues men have passed on, do you see this as an end to traditional blues, or will there be people to carry it on?

FM: Yeah, I'll tell you, yeah because they likes it, they're just like me, and I don't think they're gonna change (talking about J. P. Hutto, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, etc.).

BF: Do you see any difference in Chicago blues and urban blues?

FM: Yeah, because I'll tell you, see, I play jus' a straight thing, but they get so many different beats, sorta halfway into rock and halfway into blues. An', you see, it's not their own tune, now you take Elmore James—everybody plays blues in Chicago, they got his lick in there, they got his run. Now they change the words, an' they change .the beat, but that's still his sound, you see. An' you can't find now, you can't find a one, —'cause I been with him, an' I've traveled with him in Germany and I've traveled with him everywhere, on the busses, and they have tried it and they've tried to play it but they can't do it. 'Cause they don't know how the guitar's tuned. BF: With your new album on Capitol, and Columbia's releases of old blues material, do you see a coming traditional blues revival?

FM: On my album "1 Do Not Play No Rock'n'Roll," that cat that plays bass . . well that white boy, that's the first time lie ever saw me, and the first time I ever saw him, he's backin' me on that bass—and he's good. 'Cause he can play any kind of thing that you want to hear, and he knows exactly what beat to get, and what to play.

BF: Did you know Bessie Smith, or did you ever hear her sing?

FM: No, I heard her, but not in person. I ain't gonna tell no lies and say yeah, I know her—no I don' know her. 'Cause I was small when Bessie—See, Bessie was singin' with W. C. Handy an' them at that time you see, an' I wasn' nothin' but a little boy. But I can remember this, see, W. C. Handy had a home band, he had a few guitar players with him you understand, that played with the band, and they used to run a train that they called "The Excursion," that was on the Fourth of July, that's for the white people, see, you'd have a picnic on the Fourth day of July where they'd get them bands, from Mem. phis, and they'd get that train to bring trainloads of people to Rossford, Tennessee—that's my home, and we'd slip down there stand around there and sit on the fence—you couldn't go over there. BF: How do you feel about people that have taken the blues and covered it with white artists and studio musicians?

FM: Well, some of them have been sold for a lot more money, but you take like last year, you take Johnny Winter, see Johnny has a good manager, and Johnny had stuff that some of the people, they'd really like it, you understand. Well, he come in to a good pile of money. Well everybody at that festival, they didn' pay him much attention 'cause they didn' like what he did. Well hell, they was wrong. They were tellin' me, "You know who should have had that money? Y'all, you an' Muddy an' them, Of supposed to have it." No, I didn' neither. If we shoulda had it, we woulda got it through by our manager And if people—like he made that hit, that was his hit, not out one you see. But they couldn't see it that way, they wouldn't have much to do with him. Me and him, we went aroun' an' got drunk—damn 'em, he had that money in his pocket.

BF: Who are your favorite blues artists, that is, who has most in-fluenced your sound?

FM: I like BB, I like Lightnin', I like the 'Wolf, I like all of them, really.

BF: It must be nice to play a club where you know that your audience really knows the blues.

FM: Yeah! You know one thing? Ever since I've been here, they listenin', but a lot of time, you got to talk to people, and get them to understand what you doin'. Now I have been that-a-way, see, I'd get good applause, but they just didn't understand what the blues was all about until I stopped and talked to them. Tell that the words mean this, and to listen at the words and listen at the guitar, and every word that I said. Then I'd play one or two more pieces, you could tell the difference, they'd start gettin' with the music, 'cause they'd be gettin' to understand what you doin'. Now you hear me sing, that guitar will say every word I sing, see I learned how to play like that. I can't play a guitar without singin' to it. That's just my way you understand, you see. I don't out-play nobody, and I don't try to out-play No-body, 'cause that's nothin' but shit, you sec. When you ask somebody to play with you, and run off and leave them, that just makes them feel bad. I wan' to ask you a question, do you think a white per-son can play the blues as well as a colored person?

BF: No way.

FM: You wrong, see, I had this person ask me in Seattle, he said Muddy said that a white person couldn't play the blues like a colored person, but if he can't play the blues like a colored person, what do you want with that harp player with him? That's all he's playin' is the blues, and he got him back there playin' with him. I'm going to tell you this, see, I've done traveled as much as Muddy, and I saw these two brothers, and Muddy or no damn body could have beat them playin' the blues to save your life. I don't give a damn where you come from. See, know music man, and there were two guitar players, and this other boy played this here thing that you lay across your lap. . . .

BF: A dobro.

FM: Yeah, boy, that son-of-a-gun would bust your heart with that there thing, those boys behind him with that guitar. Boy if you think they couldn't play the blues—boy, you wrong! tell you and Muddy both that.

BF: At least I know I'm in good company when I'm wrong.




Augusta Palmer The Blues Society

Monday, February 12, 2018

Finding Blind Willie Johnson



The cenotaph placed in Blanchette Cemetery.
"Two Blues Fans Fill in the Gaps of Blind Willie Johnson and Get Historical Marker Approved" - Jazz News - February 18, 2010.

It all started with the music. His voice came from a place unknown, it was a low growl that powerfully came from the depths of his throat. His sound, his words, soul-reaching and stricken with alms for the Lord and the weary stuck in the hearts and minds of all those who heard him. From the mid-1920s, Willie Johnson played the streets of Marlin, Temple, Waco, and later Beaumont, Texas. He generously shared his talent with the world, to whomever might listen, standing there holding his guitar, with a tip cup hanging on the neck, playing bottleneck slide.

"Blind" Willie Johnson can be considered one of the first true troubadour's of blues and gospel music in modern times. He led the way for other musicians who would famously call the road their home. He had no one, he was alone, and had only his music to share with everyone he came across in his brief life. His life is important to all those who have felt like orphans in this world. His life is a legacy for blues history, gospel history, Texas history, and black history. His life is our history. He traveled from city to city, trying to find a warm bed and meal for the night. And even though his stay in these towns may have been brief, his music and soul leaves a permanent and lasting impact on this world. And here's to those brave people, like Willie, who took a risk to give their talents to this world, even though it may have meant sacrificing an easy life for themselves.

In 2007, Anna Obek and Shane Ford began a trip to find the graves of Texas blues musicians. They traveled around the state and the last site they visited was the grave of "Blind" Willie Johnson in Beaumont, Texas. As with the other graves, they had done some research as to where Mr. Johnson was buried. There was not much information to go on.  "It is for Willie, and those like him, that we have dedicated ourselves to this cause, " Obek and Ford said.

According to Mr. Johnson's death certificate, Johnson is buried in "Blanchette Cemetery" in Beaumont, Texas. There is a lot of confusion as to where "Blanchette Cemetery" is actually located. Finding "Blanchette Cemetery" seemed to be the main question. Anecdotal evidence suggested that "Blanchette Cemetery" was somewhere on Hegele Street in Beaumont. They did have some research experience so they got a map from the Jefferson County Clerk's office detailing the "Blanchette Cemetery". With map in hand, they set out to the edge of the railroad tracks on Hegele Street. They discovered an area in shambles. Instead of locating a grave, there was only a patch of land with broken, rotted headstones, caskets above ground and an unkempt lawn. None of the broken headstones yielded Mr. Johnson's name.




After realizing that Mr. Johnson had no headstone, Ms. Obek and Mr. Ford began a campaign to preserve his legacy. They departed Beaumont very disappointed. If Johnson was indeed buried in "Blanchette Cemetery" there was no trace of him now. They decided then and there that it would only be proper for this man who affected them so much to have a memorial. They knew first that they had more research to conduct to make sure the memorial would be placed in an accurate location. They walked Commerce Street in Marlin where Mr. Johnson played and areas of downtown Beaumont in order to find out more about Mr. Johnson's life.

For the next two years, they began collecting documents from the Jefferson County Clerk, obtaining maps and deed documents, as to gather more information on "Blanchette Cemetery". As is turned out, there were several "Blanchette Cemeteries." Time continued on, with little to no results, as to his exact burial site. It seemed impossible, due to the fact that the graves were shallow and with the storms that had come and gone, caskets were known to travel.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Charley Patton: A Look Under The Mask!

By Elijah Wald, in Sing Out! the Folk Song Magazine 46:2 (Summer 2002).

On September 14, 1929, exactly three months after Patton's first recording session, Paramount launched the "Masked Marvel" campaign. Following Patton's relative success With his first two releases, "Pony Blues" and "Banty Rooster Blues," followed by the two-part "Prayer of Death," Paramount felt confident in his ability to sell records and released the first two songs he ever recorded with a special offer: If the listener could identify the singer on the album, then they could fill out the coupon that came with the record, send it in and get a free album of their choice. Patton's raw singing made it easy for those familiar With his earlier recordings but confused some first-time listeners who assumed that the distinguished figure with the mask was a Hollywood film star.

A Look Under The Mask! 

Who was Charley Patton, and what the hell was he singing about? There are infinite arguments about Patton's lyrics. His growling, slurred diction, and the fact that his recordings were often made on mediocre equipment and survive only in scratched and beaten copies make words and phrases utterly indecipherable. Combined with the gaps in what we know of his life and character, this creates an almost irresistible opportunity for historians to shape him into whatever they want him to be. Take the first line of "Down The Dirt Road Blues," one of his earliest and greatest recordings: Is he a haunted, Delta mystic singing, "I'm going away to a world unknown," as transcribed in the liner notes to an ornate new box set and a half-dozen websites? Or is he a popular country entertainer singing, "I'm going away to Illinois," a common theme of the great exodus of black Mississippians to Chicago? There is no "right" answer, but how one hears a line like this can be emblematic of the whole way one looks at blues.

For some forty years, "Delta blues" has been used as a synonym for the most tortured and soulful strain in American music. Never mind that the region produced gentle, light singers like Mississippi John Hurt, country string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, racy comedians like Bo Carter, slick, jazzy performers like Joe and Charlie McCoy, and smooth, urban stars like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy -- or that (with the exception of Hurt) these were the Delta's biggest record-sellers. In popular legend, the Delta blues scene was dominated by haunted, Devil-harried guitarists whose records remain the gold standard for "deep" blues. Robert Johnson is the most famous name in this pantheon, but among aficionados Charley Patton is almost universally hailed as the founding, defining genius, the source of a musical lineage that runs through Johnson to the Chicago masters and on to encompass virtually everything now called blues.


Born in 1891, [we are now very sure he was born in 1886] Patton was older than the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, and he seems to have developed many of the themes that are now considered basic to the Delta blues repertoire. His trademark guitar arrangements were adopted by Tommy Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown, as well as younger players like Howlin' Wolf, Roebuck "Pop" Staples, all of whom hung around him in order to master the pieces he had turned into local hits. He apparently gave formal lessons to some of them, using teaching as a secondary source of income in the weekdays between juke joint performances.

And yet, when we define Patton as the brilliant progenitor of blues as we know it, we are to a great extent limiting him, locking him into a stylistic straitjacket he never wore when alive. Of course, he was a great blues player. His basic blues themes -- the "Spanish tuning" arrangement he recorded first as "Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues," and that reappeared as "Future Blues," "Jinx Blues," and "Maggie Campbell" when recorded by Willie Brown, Son House, and Tommy Johnson respectively, or the basic blues in "E" he called "Pony Blues," which was reshaped by Brown into "M&O Blues" and Johnson into "Bye and Bye" -- are masterpieces, and no other solo player has matched his controlled and inventive rhythmic variations. Still, when historians base their assessment of Patton's work on these pieces, they are seeing him through a prism of blues fandom that barely existed in his day and shortchanging both his talents and the broader world in which he lived.

Great as they are and much as they have been imitated, those classic arrangements represent only one side of Patton's recorded repertoire, and undoubtedly an even smaller proportion of what he played at live appearances. Remembered by history as a blues musician, Patton had grown up in the pre-blues era, and he played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Even though his recording career was sparked by the blues craze, only about half of his roughly fifty records can reasonably be considered part of that then-modern genre. The others are a mix of Gospel and religious music, ragtime comedy like "Shake It And Break It," ballads like "Frankie And Albert 1. ," older slide guitar standards like "Bo Weavil" and "Spoonful," and a couple of unclassifiable pieces that seem to be his reimaginings of Tin Pan Alley pop numbers. "Some Of These Days" and "Running Wild."

This was not a particularly unusual repertoire for the time and place. Back in those days before recorded entertainment, rural musicians were expected to perform whatever their audiences cared to hear, and many of them mastered an extraordinary range of styles, from minstrel comedy to square dance accompaniments. Even Robert Johnson, twenty years younger and a child of the blues era, made a street corner specialty of songs like "Ain't She Sweet" and cowboy numbers. By the time Johnson recorded in the mid-1930s, though, producers were pushing black guitarists to stick to blues. Patton first recorded in 1929. and was one of the last rural African-Americans to have a chance to preserve his broader range of material on commercial recordings. Unfortunately, his non-blues material has generally been relegated to the background of his story, as if it were far less important than his blues work -- some scholars have even argued, with virtually no evidence, that his non-blues repertoire was simply learned for white audiences. This has unfairly limited his appeal to modern listeners. Promoted as the deepest, rawest Delta bluesman of them all, Patton is rarely heard by people who are not already hardcore blues fans.

In fact, in many ways, Patton's recordings are more like Lead Belly's than like Robert Johnson's, and it would be easy to assemble a collection of his work aimed at folk and old-time country fans. In rural Mississippi, blacks, as well as whites, danced hoedowns and square dances, and when Patton used a sideman -- even on blues records -- it tended to be a fiddler, Son Sims. (Sims was still going strong in the 1940s, leading a country dance quartet that included Muddy Waters on guitar.) On the four of their duets where Sims took the lead, it is an education to hear how Patton plays. The songs are all blues in some sense, but the boom-chang pattern of his guitar accompaniments sounds a lot like hillbilly playing, albeit with a leavening of hot, syncopated bass runs. It does not sound white, exactly, but if a modern bluegrass group reworked these songs, Patton's guitar would fit right in.

Patton's way with pre-blues, "songster" material is even more interesting, and it is not a stretch to say that, had things worked out differently, he could have appealed to the same audience that made Lead Belly a folk icon. Admittedly, his recordings do not include a "Goodnight Irene" or "Midnight Special," but it is worth remembering that Lead Belly only learned the latter song after being taken up by John Lomax as a folksong demonstrator. We have no idea how much more "folk" material Patton might have known, or how he might have adapted his formidable skills to suit a Greenwich Village audience. He was a notably versatile performer and musician and, unlike virtually any major blues singer besides Lead Belly, he was given to composing lengthy ballads about current events in his world, just the sort of thing the New York crowd would have prized and encouraged. His most famous topical song, "High Water Everywhere," is a six-minute description of a Mississippi River flood, telling of the suffering caused throughout the Delta, and leading his listeners on a journey through the devastation:

The water at Greenville and Leland, it done rose everywhere,
I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me it's water there.

He had a gift for personal narrative and seems to have enjoyed documenting events that touched his own experience, and which would have been particularly interesting to his local audience. For example, he wrung wry humor from two of his own run-ins with local lawmen, in "Tom Rushin' Blues" and "High Sheriff Blues." Recorded five years apart, these were essentially two variations on a single musical theme. Far from being bitter, passionate heart-cries, they used a lilting melody that would have fitted the smooth style of a Leroy Carr, or even a Gene Autry, and Patton sang with relaxed ease over a slide guitar line that shadowed his voice:

Lay down last night, hoped that I would have my peace, mm-mmm (2x)
When I woke up, Tom Rushin' were shaking me.

The song is full of local color, mentioning Tom Day, the town marshal of Merigold, Mississippi, and a bootlegger named Holloway who was apparently one of Patton's running buddies. As for the title character, Tom Rushing (his name was misspelled by whoever took down the title for Paramount Records) was a deputy in Bolivar County, and when some blues experts tracked him down in the 1980s he recalled Patton coming to see him after the record was released and presented him with a copy. He considered this an honor, and described Patton as an important local figure -- indeed, he compared him to the track star Jesse Owens.

Much has been made of the isolation of the rural Delta, and the poverty and racism that overshadowed the lives of black farmers and musicians. It is important to remember, however, that this was not the whole story, that a singer like Patton could have a relatively friendly (though obviously unequal) relationship with a white deputy, and that his arrest could lead to songs that show humor as much as despair. It is also worth noting that Patron's song, despite its personal details, was a reworking of "Booze And Blues," recorded by the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey, with a jazz group directed by bandleader Fletcher Henderson. That is to say, far from being an oppressed rural primitive, Patton was a professional musician using a modern pop style to tell a story that would interest and amuse local fans, both black and white.

"Tom Rushen Blues" combines Rainey's verses about the misery of being stuck in jail without a drink with wry digs at the local power figures. Marshall Day, for example, would not have been somebody for a black sharecropper to trifle with in 1930s Mississippi, but Patton jokes that his badge is not a permanent possession and, "If he loses his office, now, he's running from town to town." Likewise, in his Depression lament, "34 Blues" Patton mocked Herman Jett, the white foreman who had ordered him to leave his home plantation, Dockery's Farm, apparently because he had become involved in a marital dispute (Once again, he sent a copy of the record to Jell, who was amused):

Herman got a little six Buick, big six Chevrolet car (2x)
(Spoken: My God, what sort of power! 3. )
And it don't do nothing but follow behind Harvey Parker's plow.

In both of these songs, Patton's singing is notable for how laid-back and relaxed he sounds. Though he was famous for the volume and strength of his voice, which made it possible for him to be heard over a crowded room full of dancers despite the lack of amplification, and to keep this up for hours on end, many of his records find him in a quieter mood. His voice remains gruff, but he has no need to shout in the intimate surroundings of a recording studio, and his playing is equally gentle. This is particularly true of his slide work. In most cases, Patton used the slide in the old-fashioned, voice-like manner of the pre-blues era. It is the same sound one hears in Lemon Jefferson's "Jack O' Diamonds," or Mance Lipscomb's work, rather than the hard, slashing style associated with Delta masters like House, Robert Johnson, and Waters.

A perfect example of this is Patton's very first recording, "Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues." This is a cousin of the song that Lead Belly and others made into a folk standard, a ballad of the boll weevil, a tough little bug that was destroying cotton crops and impoverishing farmers throughout the South. Patton sings a particularly minimalist version of the song, essentially a single musical line punctuated with slide riffs, but full of the grudging, comic admiration for the pest that has led commentators to consider the song a veiled protest in which the bug represents the rebel urges of black sharecroppers:

Boll weevil left Texas, Lord, he bid me fare thee well, Lordy.
(Spoken: Where you going now?)
"I'm going down to Mississippi, going to give Louisiana hell," Lordy.

It is interesting that Patton (or the recording agents) should have chosen this as his first song to record since by 1929 such older, "folk" material was already riffling out of favor on what was then called the "race" market. The accepted commercial wisdom of the time was that, while white rural Southerners were eager to buy "old fashioned songs," their African American neighbors wanted hipper, contemporary material like the smooth blues ballads of Leroy Carr or the double-entendre hokum of Tampa Red. Both of these artists had breakthrough hits in 1928 and, combined with the economic conservatism that came with the Depression, essentially wiped out the market for idiosyncratic rural geniuses, which Blind Lemon Jefferson had pioneered only a couple of years earlier. Patton was the last Jeffersonian to make a significant impact on the blues market, and it is worth noting that only a half-dozen of his earliest records sold at all well, and even these almost exclusively in rural areas. (Jefferson, by contrast, was a big seller in country and city alike.)

Back home in Mississippi, the story was somewhat different. Here, recordings might slightly enhance a musician's reputation, but they were in no way vital to local success. Son House, for example, was a very popular juke joint player, though he was a complete failure as a recording artist, his records selling so poorly that hardly any survived to be found by later collectors. Patton did much better, releasing 26 records to House's four, but there is no reason to think that the recordings made up a significant part of his income, or that the failure of his later records to sell implies any lack of work on the local dance and picnic scene. On the contrary, all reports suggest that he remained a favorite performer right up to his death in 1934, and could easily have kept working and recording had his health not given out.

Indeed, one of the most misleading myths about the rural blues players is that they were all down-and-out ramblers, or sharecroppers trying to pick up a few extra bucks. It was a picture conjured up by John Lomax when he presented Lead Belly in overalls as an ex-convict and was reinforced by the poverty in which many old blues singers were living at the time of their rediscovery in the 1960s, but in no way matches the life they led in the music's heyday. Patton, for instance, always appeared in a nice suit, and according to some reports was given to buying a new car every year. He was not rich, exactly, but certainly was doing far, far better than the black farm workers who came to the jukes on Saturday night, and probably earned more than a good many of the white country folk who hired him to play at their dances and outings.

Likewise, although Patton's success was undoubtedly due in part to his astonishing abilities as a guitarist, and the depth and soul of his blues singing, it also owed a lot to his professionalism and skill as an entertainer. Friends interviewed in later years would comment on his dependability, the fact that he always showed up on time and took care of business. His performances were masterpieces of showmanship: he was famed for tricks like playing behind his head or between his legs, to the point that some rival musicians disparaged him as a mere trickster. Unfair as this seems to modern listeners, it highlights an important point: To his live audiences, Patton was not the subtle player and singer we hear on the records, nor particularly noted for his soulful depth. He was a man who banged out loud rhythms, shouted so he could be heard to the back of the room, and was a dazzling showman -- despite his older, acoustic repertoire, he can in some ways be considered a predecessor to Little Richard and James Brown.

All of Patton's varied skills come out on the records, though not necessarily in the ways one might expect. For example, the power of his voice is often most evident in his Gospel work.

(Much has been made of the absolute divide between secular and religious music in African American culture, so it is worth pointing out that, though Patton released his first Gospel record under the alias "Elder J.J. Hadley," his five other religious records came out under his own name to no apparent protest from the church folk.)

Clearly inspired by the ferocious, shouting style of the Texas "street corner evangelist" Blind Willie Johnson, Patton delivered his best Gospel sides with fervor and vocal volume that is unmatched on any of his blues recordings. Some of his showmanship also comes through in the brief sermon he delivers on "You're Gonna Need Somebody When You Die" (a reworking of Johnson's "You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond"). The Johnson connection further highlights a fact is often forgotten by Mississippi blues patriots: Texas was a deep blues country as well, and few if any Delta guitarists were unmarked by Johnson's and Jefferson's hugely popular recordings. This was a quickly-moving musical world, in which styles shifted dramatically in a few years' time, influenced by all the new sounds streaming in with traveling shows, records, and radio. When we listen to Patton sing his quirky reimagining of Running Wild," it is the sound of a man raised on 19th-century country dances, hearing a song once or twice on the radio, then coming up with his own variation to record and ship to stores throughout the country.

Which brings us to the hippest sound in Patton's repertoire, those blues songs that have made him a musical legend. Because, unlike Lead Belly, Patton did not find a white folk audience, and his recordings were directed at contemporary African American rural pop music buyers. And, great as his musical range was and whatever he may have done at live shows, it is those records that earned him a reputation outside the Delta. Those songs were adopted by other players, and that is the bedrock of his enduring fame.

If one had to pick out one characteristic of Patton's work that is unique and -- despite many attempts both then and now -- inimitable, it is the rhythmic control he displays on his greatest blues recordings. Take "Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues." the first recorded version of his trademark "Spanish" guitar arrangement. His playing is never hurried, and the rhythmic power comes not from direct forward momentum (as in Willie Brown's magnificent reworking, "Future Blues," now a staple of Rory Block's repertoire), but from the constant variations and surprising accents. He keeps pausing in his playing, creating moments of tension, then coming back with completely different emphasis. Meanwhile, his relaxed vocal sets up still another level of complexity, sometimes joining the guitar, sometimes working in polyrhythmic counterpoint.

In these terms, Patton's masterpiece is "Down The Dirt Road," which for sheer rhythmic complexity is the most striking performance in the whole of blues. At times, Patton seems to be singing one rhythm, tapping another on the top his guitar, and playing a third on the strings, all without the slightest sense of effort. This is the work that distinguishes him from his peers, and that sets his circle of Mississippians aside from all the other players in the early blues pantheon. While no other player equaled his abilities, Mississippi consistently produced the most rhythmically sophisticated players in early blues. Perhaps this was due to the regional survival of African tradition exemplified by the "fife and drum" bands of the hill country to the Delta's east, perhaps to the proximity of New Orleans and the Caribbean, perhaps in a large degree to the influence of Patton himself.

It is a mistake to view this music through the prism of modern blues, to see Patton and his peers as the progenitors of the first electric Chicago bands, and thus of the boogie bands that fill suburban bars outside every American city. His rhythms are a world -- or at least a continent -- away from the straight-ahead, 4/4 sound that defines virtually all modern blues. That is why so few contemporary players can capture anything of his greatness. There is the tendency to play his tunes for driving power, missing the ease and relaxed subtlety that underlie all of his work. It is a control born of playing this music in eight or ten-hour sessions, week after week and year after year, for an audience of extremely demanding dancers, and of remembering centuries of previous dance rhythms -- not only the complex polyrhythms of West Africa, but also slow drags, cakewalks, hoedowns, and waltzes.

There is a lot more to be said about Patton's blues work, but most of it has been said many times, in articles, essays, liner notes, and books. The debates come hot and heavy, scholars fiercely arguing over whether his lyrics are consciously obscure and poetic or simply careless, whether he carefully composed his songs or often assembled them on the spot. Some base involved theories on what they perceive to be a constant "angry" tone in his singing, which I do not even hear, or find clues to his deepest fears and desires in lyrics which I assume he picked up from other singers. They may perfectly well be right. The important thing is not to be scared off by the myths or debates, and to give the music a chance. In his lifetime, people listened to Patton because his music was fun and exciting, and he pleased audiences of varied colors, tastes, and economic backgrounds, finding something in his repertoire for each of them. Luckily, much of that range has been preserved on record, and it is too varied, interesting, and important to be left to the small circle of prewar blues fans.

Suggested Listening

There are numerous Patton reissues, but these are the ones to consider seriously:

The best place to start is still Founder Of The Delta Blues (Yazoo #2010). Though somewhat weighted towards blues work, it includes most of the songs mentioned in this article, well-programmed and with fine sound quality, and gives an excellent overall picture of Patton's work without drowning the listener in an embarrassment of riches. The only major omission is that it has none of his religious work. For those who have assimilated this album and wish to explore further, King Of The Delta Blues (Yazoo #2001) has most of the remaining sides.

The Definitive Charley Patton (Catfish #180) is a more ambitious choice, all of Patton's songs on three CDs, with a 24-page booklet and excellent sound quality. For casual listeners, I do not generally see the advantage of "complete" sets rather than astute selections, but in Patton's case, it can be argued that he was a varied enough artist to deserve this treatment and that one cannot fully appreciate him without it. If one wants the complete picture, this is a very reasonably-priced, well-presented set, and well worth hearing.

For fanatics, millionaires, and those wanting to buy an amazing present for a manic record collector, there is Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues (Revenant #212). A truly astonishing object, this includes seven CDs, with all of Patron's recordings, a first-rate selection of work by his associates, a disc of interviews with people who knew him, and bizarre ephemera like his record producer reading newspaper headlines -- but the CDs are the least of it. Packaged like an old 78 album, the set has 128 pages of notes (many printed so small, in such faint blue ink as to be virtually illegible), a copy of John Fahey's often illuminating, often unreadable 1970s book on Patton, life-size stickers of all of Patton's record labels, and so on and on ... Those of us who need to own this is probably seriously demented, but we are out there.

There is also a Patton tribute album, Down The Dirt Road: The Songs Of Charley Patton (Telarc #83535), but no one should consider this an introduction to his work. Patton had some fine songs, but it is his playing and singing, not his gifts as a composer, that make him one of the giants of American music.