Who is Henry Sloan? and was he the real “Father of the Delta Blues”?

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One of the earliest figures in Delta Blues history is Henry Sloan, an African-American musician who lived on the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. Sloan could be the real “Father of the Delta Blues,” because he was an original innovator of this style and taught Charley Patton and many others to play.

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Henry Sloan would entertain workers on the Dockery plantation and local Juke Joints

Researcher David Evans said Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870 and by 1900 was living in the same community as Patton near Bolton, Mississippi. Sloan moved to the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, between 1901 and 1904. This is the same time as the Patton family moved there.

Very little is known about Sloan or his life. What is known is that he taught Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House and many others. Most of Sloan’s music students recognize him as the originator of what became the Delta blues style.

In a previous blog I wrote that W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”

It’s quite possible that Sloan was the musician W.C. Handy heard playing guitar at the train station near Dockery Farms in 1903. The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy composed his “Yellow Dog Rag” in 1914 which later became “The Yellow Dog Blues”.

Sloan was a labourer who worked part time as musician. He was probably at least twenty years older than Patton. Sloan taught Patton and they played together for a while until Patton became so popular that he went on the road to perform for a wider audience.

Several musicians, including Tommy Johnson, said some of Patton’s songs such as “Pony Blues” were Sloan’s songs. Patton played these songs with very few changes.

Some reports indicate that Sloan also left the plantation, possibly moving to Chicago, although this cannot be confirmed and there were no further reports of what happened to him.

Evans research found that Census records suggested Sloan and his family were living around West Memphis, Arkansas in 1920. He may have been the Henry Sloan whose death, aged 78, occurred in Crittenden County on March 13, 1948.

Charlie Patton wrote songs about his impending death: Who was he living with when he died?

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Common belief has it that Charlie Patton died at his home in Holly Ridge, Mississippi while being attended to by his common-law wife Bertha Lee. However, some researchers now dispute this version of events.

Lee and Patton death

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934. The songs Patton and Lee produced during this session reveal that they were concerned about his heart trouble and worried about his impending death.

The duo created a balanced female-male sound on these recordings, especially the gospel recordings such as “Oh Death.”  In this song Patton joins Bertha Lee in singing:

Just look, just look, just look, see what the Lord done, done

Just look, just look, just look, what the Lord done, done

Just look, well, Lordy, just look, just look what the Lord done done

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

It was soon one morning, oh, Lordy, when death come in the room (x3)

Lord, I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long

Another song recorded by Patton, “Poor Me” captures his masterful guitar technique, unique vocal style and sublime lyrics which foreshadow his death. Patton creates a strange melancholy mood, which is combined in a tender love song. He mentions Bertha Lee by name.

Yes on me, it’s poor me, you must take pity on poor me

I ain’t got nobody, take pity on poor me

You may go, you may stay,

but she’ll come back some sweet day

By and by, sweet mama, by and by

Don’t the moon look pretty shinin’ down through the tree?

Oh, I can see Bertha Lee,

Lord, but she can’t see me

It is hard to say exactly what Patton means to say in this song. One interpretation could be that he is looking forward to them being together again forever in heaven. Until that time, he is watching over her. But, a more literal meaning seems to hint at a break up and reconciliation. Given, the volatile nature of the relationship, this was probably an ever-present possibility.

An interview of Lee in 1965 by Sam Charters in The Bluesmen (Oak 1967, page 56) said Charlie died while lying across her lap. Lee moved to Chicago in 1949 and remarried. She was widowed again when her second husband died. It is unknown what became of her singing career. It seems possible that she was moved by Patton’s death to rededicate herself to gospel music, and spiritual life. She died on May 10, 1975.

Patton’s death certificate shows that he died in Indianola on April 28th 1934, and not in Holly Ridge, where his grave is located. The informant listed on the certificate is WIllie Calvin, which some researchers say was Patton’s current wife. This contradicts Bertha Lee’s version of events. Some researchers now claim Patton left Bertha Lee, or she left him, after returning from New York. As a result, he started a relationship with Willie Calvin.  Given, the time that has passed since Patton’s death it is hard to determine which version of events is true.

Bertha Lee and Charlie Patton: A turbulent and volatile relationship which created a lot of great music

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Bertha Lee was a classic female blues singer in the 1920’ and 1930’s from the Mississippi Delta, who was Charlie Patton’s common-law wife. Their relationship was volatile and turbulent, but was musically very creative and productive. Lee sang on twelve of Patton’s recordings, including the final session months before his death in 1934.

Bertha Lee

Lee and Patton made the long train trip to New York to make their last recording session at Paramount on Jan. 31, 1934.  These recordings clearly document Lee’s talent as a singer. In the song “Mind Reader Blues,” Lee chastises Patton, with her sultry voice, as he lovingly accompanies her on the guitar. Patton had a long-established habit of being a womanizer. The lyrics are auto-biographical and in the fourth verse Lee sings:

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula (Mississippi) town,

I remember a day when I were livin’ at Lula town,

my man did so many wrong things ’til I had to leave the town.

Bertha Lee Pate was born in Flora, Mississippi in 1902 and moved with her family to Lula as a young girl. Lee met Patton in 1930 and the couple settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi in 1933. We are not sure what Patton did that they had to leave Lula Town. However, we do know their relationship was volatile and turbulent.

For example, both of them were incarcerated in a Belzoni, Mississippi jailhouse after a particularly harsh fight. Delta Blues musician Son House recalls another squabble in which Lee pinned Patton to the floor and pummelled him with her fists. However, Lee showed Patton more loyalty than any of his friends or lovers. She left stable employment in Lula to travel with Patton. Lee’s talent was recognized by Patton. But, his heart trouble may have spurred Lee to develop her singing, as a way of giving his voice a rest during performances.

Another song called “Yellow Bee” was recorded at the last session in New York City. This tune is loosely based on a popular song by Memphis Minnie called “Bumble Bee”. Patton apparently taught Lee the song prior to the recording session. The song is clearly sexual in nature and employs imagery of a long stinger, making honey, and buzzing around a hive. Lee sings lovingly to Patton, who responds to her come on in his asides during the tune.

The recordings of Lee and Patton that survive today are very poor in sound quality, because the re-released versions were produced without the original metal masters. They were sold off as scrap when Paramount went out of business. The current recordings were produced using the original 78s that were made of inferior pressing material and are scratched from being heavily played.

Patton was in poor health when he made the recordings and died three months later. Despite his heart trouble, Patton was very productive in the studio. He made 29 recordings, but only 12 were commercially released. According to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, at least ten of Lee and Patton’s recordings from 1934 are missing. But, it is still possible they may exist somewhere, like someone’s attic. The rest of the recordings are believed to be lost.

The number of titles Patton and Lee produced in the last session suggests that if Patton had lived he would have released more records with Bertha Lee. In addition, they would have appeared together to sing these songs in live performances. This would have led to Bertha Lee’s further success as a recording artist.

Charlie Patton Father of the Delta Blues: One of the most important American musicians in the Twentieth Century

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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.

Father of the Blues Charlie Patton

Father of the Blues Charlie Patton

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.

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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.

Charlie Patton Grave 2

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.