Personalities | Charley Patton | Delta Blues Pioneer | Guitar Heroes

The first great Delta-blues singer, Charley Patton (c. 1887–1934) developed a raw, driving and percussive kind of guitar playing that was a seminal influence on the following generation of Mississippi blues singers, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

All the elements that became integral to the Delta blues – different guitar tunings and picking techniques along with the bottleneck slide – were developed by Patton, who sang in a heavily accentuated growl that made his words hard to decipher but compelling to listen to.

Born near Edwards, Mississippi, in 1887 or 1891 (accounts vary), Patton moved north with his family to Dockery Farms plantation and grew up listening to field hollers and levee-camp moans as well as gospel, ragtime, country folk and novelty songs. He learned guitar in his late teens from itinerant musicians such as Willie Brown and Henry Sloan, who travelled around the plantations.

By the early Twenties Patton had several distinctive songs in his repertoire including ‘Pea Vine Blues’ (about a local railway line), ‘Spoonful Blues’ (extolling the pleasures of cocaine), ‘Tom Rushen Blues’ (chronicling his run-ins with a local sheriff), ‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues’ (a humorous take on the scourge of the cotton plantations) and his signature tune, the socially aspiring ‘Pony Blues’. He was an extrovert showman, playing his guitar behind his back or with his teeth and hitting the guitar body for rhythmic emphasis.

He was already a local legend by the time he made his first recordings, including his first and most successful, ‘Pony Blues’, in Richmond, Indiana, in 1929. It was backed by ‘Banty Rooster Blues’, a description that could have applied to Patton himself, a snappy dresser who had several wives. A second session later that year produced ‘High Water Everywhere’, a vivid commentary on the devastating Mississippi floods of 1927.

By his final recording session early in 1934 in New York, Patton’s lifestyle was beginning to catch up with him. His voice had deteriorated after his throat was slashed (reportedly in a fight over a woman) the previous year, and the songs included two religious numbers performed with his then wife, Bertha Lee. Patton died later that year from a heart attack in Holly Ridge, Mississippi.

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