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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