Personalities | Charley Patton | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

Although not really the ‘Founder of the Delta Blues’, as one reissue album title touted, Charley Patton more than anyone defined not only the genre but also the image of the hard-living, rambling Delta bluesman, leaving trouble in his wake as he rolled from plantation to plantation and woman to woman.

His rough vocal timbre – combined with the poor sound quality of the few surviving Paramount 78s he recorded – may have caused some listeners to regard him as primitive, yet even guitarists such as John Fahey, who wrote the first book on Patton, have been awed by both the power and the complexity of his music.

A Formidable Bluesman

Under the influence of an older guitarist named Henry Sloan on the Dockery Plantation, Patton, probably born in 1891 in Bolton, Mississippi, developed into the most famous and formidable Delta bluesman of the early twentieth century. By his biographers’ accounts, he was leading the way long before his belated recording debut in 1929. Patton, of mixed black, white and Native-American ancestry, was an animated performer who clowned with the guitar and beat on the instrument for percussive effects. He taught or influenced guitarists such as Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Howlin’ Wolf during his stays in the Dockery area, and later, further north in the Delta, added Son House, Robert Johnson and others to the list. Tommy Johnson used some of Patton’s themes on his own Victor recording debut in 1928.

Patton’s Lasting Influence

Patton’s first Paramount disc, ‘Pony Blues’/‘Banty Rooster Blues’, was his biggest hit. His recorded repertoire drew from traditional black folk songs, white pop tunes, religious songs, dance pieces and frolics, as well as his own creative wellspring as a composer and storyteller. His records are noteworthy for his descriptions of topical events, such as the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, and for the local lore and real-life characters that he worked into songs such as ‘Tom Rushen Blues’ and ‘High Sheriff Blues’. He died in 1934, but his influence persists into the twenty-first century; Bob Dylan included a tribute song – ‘High Water Everywhere (For Charley Patton)’ – on his 2001 album Love And Theft.

‘If I were going to record for just my pleasure I would only record Charley Patton songs.’
Bob Dylan

Classic Recordings

‘Banty Rooster Blues’, ‘Down The Dirt Road’, ‘High Water Everywhere’, ‘Pony Blues’, ‘Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues’, ‘Shake It And Break It’, ‘Tom Rushen Blues’

‘Dry Well Blues’

‘High Sheriff Blues’, ‘Stone Pony Blues’

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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