Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Charley Patton, who may have been born in 1887, or 1891 0r in April or May, depending on the source, died on this date in Indianola MS in 1934.
He left a rich legacy of music, recorded on the Paramount label, so we know what he sounded like, at least on record. He was a small man with a huge voice whose unamplified singing and guitar playing could fill a plantation hall or jukejoint. He would play one song for as long as 45 minutes, "trance music," if the dancers kept dancing.
Although he was himself mentored by another guitar player named Henry Sloan, who, as far as I know, went unrecorded, we think of Patton today as the "Father of Delta Blues", the inspiration for Robert Johnson, Son House, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and many, many others. He was, in fact, the very persona of the itinerant, hard- drinking, womanizing, charismatic Bluesman, a convenient description for a man who was actually very complicated and contradictory. But people love those types of descriptions, and they tend to stick.
There are only two known photographs of Charley (or Charlie) Patton. The one above was shown cropped on many of his Paramount ads, until the original full- length portrait was discovered very recently. What a beautiful photograph! Check out those shoes! Judging from this, Patton, who's grandmother was a full- blooded Cherokee Indian, was a handsome, clean- shaven man. In the other picture however, he's a heavy set, mustachioed individual. I wasn't able to find a reproduction, and many think it might not actually be Patton.
Son House, who was his contemporary and even recorded with him, remembered him as more of a showman than a musician. Patton had all the tricks, playing behind his back, throwing his guitar up and catching it, etc. House disparaged his musicianship until a collector played some of Patton's 78's. House acknowledged Patton's virtuosity, saying, "I didn't remember him being that good."
The illustration is from R. Crumb's great distilling of the Calt/ Wardlow Patton biography.