Few people have had as large an impact on American music as Charley Patton, the Father of Delta Blues. Not only was Patton the first blues superstar, but many other forms of music, among them gospel, R&B, soul, and especially rock and roll, show the direct influence of his work.
Patton was born to Bill and Annie Patton around 1891 near the central Mississippi towns of Bolton and Edwards. He showed an early predilection for making music, and he learned to play the guitar as a very young child. But Patton grew up in a hardworking farming and religious family, and his father considered playing the guitar a sin. Despite frequent punishments for playing music, Patton continued performing ragtime, folk songs, and spirituals at picnics and parties in Henderson Chatmon’s string band, most likely for all-black audiences at first and then for whites who could afford to pay better.
Seeking to capitalize on the economic opportunities that the Mississippi Delta had begun to offer planters and day laborers, Bill Patton packed up his family in 1897 and relocated north to Will Dockery’s farm in Sunflower County. There, Charley Patton turned his musical ability toward the blues. He began to study the raw and rhythmic blues-playing technique of guitarist Henry Sloan, eventually crafting an inventive style that incorporated heavy bass notes and playing slide guitar with a knife.
In the twenty-two years that followed his arrival at Dockery Farms, Patton never completely disavowed his religious upbringing. He oscillated between the roles of hard-drinking, womanizing rambler and God-fearing preacher. The rambling bluesman in him won out most often, but even then he stayed close to home, never traveling farther than western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, or northeastern Louisiana to play gigs. While Patton was in Jackson in the summer of 1927, Henry C. Speir, a white music store owner, arranged for him to go to Richmond, Indiana, where on 14 June 1927 he recorded fourteen songs in a Gennett Records studio. That session produced some of his most celebrated work, including “Pea Vine Blues,” “Tom Rushen Blues,” and “Pony Blues,” which became an immediate “race record” hit. Later that year Patton traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record with fellow Delta bluesman and fiddler Henry “Son” Sims. Patton recorded several more times, with his final session taking place in New York City in January 1934.
Ever the Delta performer, Patton sang and recorded songs that included people, places, and events in his community. “Tom Rushen Blues” bemoaned the possibility that a friendly sheriff might be replaced by one less amenable to public drunkenness: “Laid down last night, hopin’ I would have my peace / I laid down last night, hopin’ I would have my peace / But when I woke up Tom Rushen was shakin’ me.” In “Green River Blues” Patton sang, “I’m goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”—the junction of the Southern (Yazoo) and the Dog (Mississippi Valley) railroad lines just a few miles south of Dockery Farms; in “Pea Vine Blues” he sang about a lover leaving on a train that ran to and from Dockery: “I think I heard the Pea Vine when it blowed. / I think I heard the Pea Vine when it blowed. / It blow just like my rider getting’ on board.” “High Water Everywhere (Parts 1 & 2)” is about the Great Flood of 1927 that devastated much of the Mississippi Delta. Patton sang in a loud, rough voice, and many of the lyrics in his recordings are nearly incomprehensible.
Patton also recorded religious songs such as “You Gonna Need Somebody When You Die” (under the pseudonym Elder J. J. Hadley), “Oh Death,” and “I Shall Not be Moved.” His recordings earned him widespread recognition, but his impact on American music stems primarily from those with whom he played, such as bluesmen Tommy Johnson, Son House, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters, among others. Bukka White once declared that his ambition in life was “to be a great man—like Charley Patton.” Other blues musicians copied his style, and it can be reasonably argued that consciously or unconsciously, every rock and roller has been influenced by his style and music. His influence also extends farther: gospel patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who also grew up on Dockery Farms, once said that Patton “was one of my great persons that inspired me to play guitar. He was a really great man.”
Patton died in Indianola on 28 April 1934, shortly after returning from his final recording session.
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- David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in Folk Blues (1982)
- David Evans, Blues World (August 1970)
- Gérard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997)
- Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music (1977)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981)
- Gayle Dean Wardlow, Blues Unlimited (February 1966)
- Gayle Dean Wardlow and Edward M. Komara, Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues (1998)