Charlie Patton
(1891 - 1934)

Among Mississippi singers of the first blues generation, Charlie Patton was far and away the most celebrated in his own community. Perhaps in a reaction to the idolatry surrounding Robert Johnson, he has since inspired a uniquely fierce devotion in many blues lovers. His singing - gruff, barking, extraordinarily resonant - and his richly accented, percussive guitar-playing put him among the most influential blues artists of his time and region.

His songs, such as Pony Blues or High Water Everywhere seem to burst from the very bedrock of the blues, yet like any musician of his day, he responded to, and worked with, the other music around him; blues ballads, popular songs and sacred songs. Nevertheless, Patton is best remembered for his blues, which is all the more extraordinary when you decipher them (if you can - he is one of the hardest blues singers to understand), for they are as specifically local as a telephone directory. Hearing his songs is like spending an afternoon travelling the backroads with a local historian . . . "Look, this is where the flood reached in '27... and that's the juke joint with the prettiest girls . . ."

There's a house over yonder
painted all over green
Some of the finest young women
Lord, a man most ever seen

A highly particularized landscape, but what immediately seizes the listener is not so much the detail as the shock effect, the striding guitar rhythms, the voice as thick as molasses. Men like Booker White and Howlin' Wolf heard it once and were changed forever. In a world where plantation workers might be less valuable than the mules they drove, it was something to imprint yourself so boldly on a landscape, to assert your individual worth.

Patton spent much of his life on the Dockery Plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi, but he played throughout northern and central Mississippi, building himself a name which won him a recording session with Paramount in 1929. He went on to make over 50 recordings. Unfortunately, many of these have been lost.

In the early thirties he settled down in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. In 1934 he went to New York for his last sessions, joined on some sides by his singing wife, Bertha Lee. He died of a heart condition several months later.

Apart from Pony Blues, the songs of Patton's time and place that have become standards belong rather to Tommy Johnson or Big Joe Williams. His songs survived less as a repertoire than as a sound effect echoing through the years not only in the South, but in the new Chicago blues. His stylistic legatees include Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Copyright 2003 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Blues in Popular Music