Charley Patton, also known as Charlie Patton, was the first and finest blues musician to emerge from the Mississippi Delta region. Patton influenced many blues musicians from the Delta, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. The Delta Blues eventually branched into Memphis Blues, Chicago Blues and rock music. As the “Father of the Delta Blues”, Patton is one the most important American musicians in the twentieth century.
Patton was not the first Delta blues musician to make a record, but he earned a reputation by creating a large body of music and inspiring his fellow musicians. He made his first recording in June 1929 and cut fourteen songs for the Paramount label.
Pattons’s first and biggest hit was “Pony Blues,” which showcases Patton’s characteristic trademarks: powerful vocals, heavily accented guitar rhythms and unusual vocal phrasing. The song was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2006. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The initial session was so successful that Patton was invited four months later to Paramount’s new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded twenty-eight additional tunes. However, the original plates used to produce these records did not survive when paramount went out of business. The sound of these recordings are poor quality, because they are made from played out records. Many of Patton’s recordings have been lost forever.
Another interesting recording by Patton is “Down the Dirt Road,” which showcases the rhythmic complexity of his music. Patton sings one rhythm, taps another on the top his guitar, and plays a third on the strings. He was truly a master musician who played slide guitar either on his lap like a Hawaiian guitar and fretted with a pocket knife, or in a conventional manner with a brass pipe for a bottleneck. He also popped his bass strings like modern funk bass players.
Born in Hinds County, Mississippi in 1891, Charley was one the son of sharecroppers Bill and Annie Patton. His family of seven moved 100 miles north to the Will Dockery Plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi in 1900. The plantation supported more than 2,000 workers, who were paid in the plantation’s own coins. As well as a railroad terminal, it had its own general store, post office, school, doctor, and churches. The workers’ quarters included boardinghouses, where they lived, socialized and played music. The plantation became a hub for informal musical entertainment, because of its central location in relation to Sunflower County’s black population of some 35,000 in 1920.
Henry Sloan gave Patton guitar lessons on the plantation. Sloan had a new, unusual style of playing music which is considered to be very early blues. Never working much on the farm, Patton decided to pursue a life in music. By the time Patton was about 19, he had become an accomplished performer and songwriter. Patton showmanship made him a popular performer in the region among both whites and blacks. He often played with the guitar down on his knees, behind his head, or behind his back.
Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5 and 130 pounds his gravelly voice could be heard over long distances without amplification. Patton played scheduled engagements at plantations and taverns. He played the full range of music required of a popular rural entertainer. Only half of his fifty-seven records can be considered blues. The others are a mix of gospel and religious music, ballads and ragtime. He lived a hard-drinking rough and tumble life, marrying several times, and had many affairs.
Patton settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi with his common-law wife and recording partner Bertha Lee in 1933. Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934. He died two months later of heart failure on April 28, 1934. A memorial headstone was erected on Patton’s grave at Holly Ridge in July 1990 and paid for by musician John Fogerty through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
The Delta Blues was created by African-American musicians who lived and worked on the plantations in north Mississippi. The music evolved from church songs, prison songs, African rhythms, and early American folk traditions. It incorporates complex vocal rhythms and syncopation and is spoken, sung, and “hollered.” Songs were about life, love and the hardships of being black in the early twentieth century in the Southern United States.