The ancient, eternal blues of Charley Patton rise out of history and pierce the shadows with an astringent light. “I’m goin‘ away, to a world unknown,” Patton sings in his gravel-pit voice, and I understand. “Can’t go down the dark road by myselfI don‘t carry my rider, gonna carry me someone’s else,” he groans, and, though I‘ve heard those words a thousand times in a dozen different tunes, I sense their meaning anew. Patton rasps, “My babe got a heart like a piece of railroad steel,” and I needn’t know which way the Pea Vine line runs to know what he‘s talking about.
Recorded seven decades ago, Patton’s biting, lyrical music has retained poetic force and emotional impact. However, until just recently, the Mississippi blues progenitor — who died of heart disease on April 28, 1934, presumably aged 43 — has remained obscure to all but the most committed modern listeners, despite his inescapable impact on an entire school of musicians. The handle his record label used to identify him in a guess-the-artist contest — “the Masked Marvel” — is all too appropriate.
Blues connoisseurs have long known his work: His 1929 recording “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” was included on Harry Smith‘s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and in 1961 Origin Jazz Library made Patton the subject of the first LP devoted to a single prewar bluesman’s work. Yet, among the established classics of Delta blues, Patton‘s music has always been the hardest to hear: Masters for his 1929–34 Paramount and Vocalion records no longer exist, and CD transfers of collectors’ scarred Patton 78s have only emphasized the harshest aspects of his demandingly sharp-edged, husking style.
But Patton is working his way back into the mass consciousness. Tom Piazza contributed a prescient essay about him to this summer‘s music issue of the Oxford American. Telarc Records brought on the inevitable tribute album, Down the Dirt Road, a compilation of dully faithful readings from the Patton songbook. And Bob Dylan laid down his imprimatur with “High Water (For Charley Patton)” on his current album “Love and Theft”; the title is a bow to “High Water Everywhere,” Patton’s epic account of the 1927 Mississippi River flood.
Patton‘s music at last began to appear this year in a form that contemporary listeners can absorb. This spring, the English blues label Catfish Records issued the three-CD set The Definitive Charley Patton, which sought to sonically upgrade those battered sides once and for all. That noble effort, recommended to those who want Patton’s recordings and nothing more, has been incontestably trumped by Revenant Records‘ seven-CD box Screamin’ and Hollerin‘ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.
This lushly packaged collection is the final magnum opus of Revenant’s eccentric founder, guitarist John Fahey, who died on February 22 after open-heart surgery. Fahey‘s broodingly beautiful ’60s solo recordings for Takoma took Patton‘s ominous finger-picking and silvery slide work as their principal template; he also wrote his master’s thesis (published in 1970 as a paperback in England) about the Delta musician. Fahey had tried to present his avatar‘s “raw music” in broader terms on his label before: The 1997 Revenant compilation American Primitive Vol. 1 placed three Patton tracks among other prewar gospel blues recordings. But Screamin’ and Hollerin‘ the Blues attempts, through a mountainous assemblage of musical and historical evidence, to formulate an almost cosmic reading of Patton’s life and work, and it largely succeeds.
The facts are laid out in notes by Fahey, blues scholar David Evans and collector Dick Spottswood. Believed born in 1891, Patton learned primeval blues from a musician named Henry Sloan, who frequented Will Dockery‘s plantation near Cleveland, Mississippi, where Patton’s family lived. Patton‘s father was a farmer and lay preacher, but Charley would have none of those ways; by 1908, he was earning money playing music, and he became a full-time musician when most regional performers plied their trade as a sideline to sharecropping.
The archetypal itinerant bluesman, Patton was a familiar figure at parties and barrelhouses across Bolivar and Sunflower counties. He was wildly popular with black laborers, with white plantation owners who vied for his services, and especially with women (public records reveal he was married eight times, and his lovers were countless). He began recording late, in 1929 — three years after pioneering country blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake cut their first sides — when talent scout H.C. Speir brought him to Paramount Records, the “race records” imprint of a Wisconsin furniture company. By that time his signature songs and style had already been absorbed by such younger musicians as Tommy Johnson, Son House and Bukka White. Some of their recordings of Patton’s material predated his own.
Patton‘s 1929–30 Paramount 78s are striking in their sophistication and diversity, which were appropriate in a musician necessarily adaptable to the desires of his jukehouse audiences. He performs crowd-pleasing adaptations of blues hits like the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin‘ on Top of the World” and Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues,” and even pop songs like Sophie Tucker‘s “Some of These Days,” gospel numbers like “I Shall Not Be Moved,” hip-busting dance tunes like “Shake It and Break It (But Don’t Let It Fall Mama),” and bottleneck showcases like the vertiginous guitar-and-voice dialogue “A Spoonful Blues.”
Singing in an impenetrable, stentorian moan that could rise to a girlish croon or drop to a muttered croak, Patton forged a succession of songs — “Pony Blues,” “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” “Banty Rooster Blues,” “Magnolia Blues,” “Green River Blues” — whose melodies and lyrics became the currency of recorded Delta blues, and of much that followed. He was at his apex when he ripped his material from the oft-harrowing details of his own life. “High Water Everywhere” is his masterpiece, a factually inaccurate but overpowering description, filled with panic, terror and dread, of the drowned Mississippi countryside. (It had a lesser sequel of sorts in “Dry Spell Blues,” an account of the catastrophic drought of 1930.) The consummate rounder, he wrote memorably about his jail time in “Tom Rushen Blues,” a hat-tip to the Bolivar County deputy sheriff (which was remade by Robert Johnson as “From Four Till Late”); in 1934, he reconfigured the tune as “High Sheriff Blues,” which recounted the drunk and disorderly events leading to his signing by Vocalion producer W.R. Calaway, who bailed him out of the Belzoni, Mississippi, slammer.
By the time Patton reached Vocalion, he was played out. His heart ailment had worn him down, and sometime in the early ‘30s he nearly perished after his throat was cut from ear to ear by a jealous husband or (some said) by Bertha Lee, the last of his many “wives.” On his ’34 recordings solo and with Lee, he‘s a wasted wraith with one foot in the grave. One of his last recordings was a gospel tune: “Oh Death.”
To present a comprehensive view of Patton’s creative milieu, Screamin‘ and Hollerin’ the Blues piles on context to sometimes distracting lengths: Sides by Buddy Boy Hawkins, Edith North Johnson and the Delta Big Four are included, though Patton‘s presence on these tracks is minimal or nonexistent. Other material is more useful, like the dazzling June 1930 material cut by Willie Brown, Son House and pianist Louise Johnson at a Paramount session shared with Patton, and a CD of related songs by artists considered in Patton’s “orbit,” ranging from Tommy Johnson and Rube Lacy to Howlin‘ Wolf and “Pops” Staples. The latter two musicians are heard, along with scout Speir and Patton colleague Booker Miller, on a full disc’s worth of interviews.
The Revenant set, elegantly housed in an embossed slipcase and designed to resemble an album of 78 rpm discs, is so opulent it verges on the pornographic. Blues freaks will slaver over the full-length reprint of Fahey‘s long-out-of-print book, the color reproductions of 78 labels, and the way the CDs are mounted on full-size cardboard reproductions of 10-inch shellac discs.
It’s all meant to be monumental. In his valedictory essay, Fahey writes, “Patton‘s recordings have meant so much to me for so long it is almost as if he were a constant companion to me.” By creating what amounts to a temple for Charley Patton, Fahey sought to reassert the full import of his soul mate’s accomplishments. This astonishing set doesn‘t just bring home the drama and historical resonance of Patton’s legacy, it‘s an impressive headstone for Patton’s acolyte and student as well.