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.

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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.