This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” which hits newsstands May 5.
It’s pretty commonplace to think of Robert Johnson as “The King of the Delta Blues,” if not simply as the source from which all blues derive. But we often ignore the truth when the legend becomes more compelling. I mean, how can you not be sucked into a story in which a musician seemingly struck a deal with the devil to achieve greatness? But what if there was someone born before Johnson who sang with the hair-raising knowledge that he, too, was hellbound? It’s no myth. Johnson had a mentor. And his name was Charley Patton.
They refer to Johnson as “King of the Delta Blues,” but no less a blues scholar than the late Robert Palmer called Patton the “father” of that self-same music. Even atheists might find this team positively religious when it comes to the origins of the blues. You’ve got your Father and Son right there. The Holy Ghost? Maybe it was a guy named Henry Sloan, whom Patton learned from circa 1900. Sloan, too, played what was just beginning to be called the blues. Patton, born in Hinds County, Mississippi, apprenticed under Sloan, and it was not long after studying with Sloan that Patton composed “Pony Blues,” a song that still gets covered over a century later.
Perhaps what’s most striking about Patton is his all-encompassing eclecticism. First is his genetic makeup, which was so offbeat that a photo of him looks like a composite sketch by a police artist. Patton was known to be a mix of Black and Caucasian ancestry, with Native American and possibly Mexican blood bubbling in there too – enough different trace elements to piss off every racist group in the country. This diversity of races is reflected in his music.
Although he’s known to be a blues man, Charley (even the spelling of his first name is in question; some spell it “Charlie”) mixed his music with strains of “deep blues, white hillbilly songs, nineteenth century ballads and other varieties of black and white country dance music,” according to Palmer.
Patton, unlike his young fan Johnson, was also popular nationally during his brief life. He played in cities like Chicago and New York, and unlike most itinerant musicians of his time, whether gigging at a tavern or on a plantation, Patton’s performances were scheduled and promoted ahead of time – a big deal in those wandering minstrel days.
Then there’s the music. Patton sang in a pained, pointed moan, his rough edges acknowledged later on as an influence on all estimable blues howlers. Listen to “Spoonful Blues” as a good example of Patton’s oeuvre. In addition to his nimble, crazy-ass picking and slide playing, there’s a menacing quality to Patton’s voice in this sharp-edged little ode to addiction. He doesn’t just talk about “killing” for artistic effect – he sounds like he would, too.
Another startling song of Patton’s, one that sounds old-as-Methuselah and new-as-tomorrow, is “Going To Move To Alabama.” With an almost rocking beat, a swinging fiddle and a rough but listenable vocal, you can see why Patton fascinates musicologists and musicians alike. The melody, which incorporates elements of country, sounds a lot like the more popular Jimmie Rogers and seems to anticipate both Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” and even rock and roll, all blended into one intoxicating, kickass, three-minute record. In other words, Americana goes back farther than The Band, if you’re keeping score. Also, if you think a guy named Hendrix was the first flashy showman who plucked a guitar, think again. Patton was known to play on his knees, behind his back and over his head.
One can only imagine the thrill his audiences must’ve felt when this remarkably talented man pulled such eccentrically balletic moves on stage. They say that raspy voice of Patton’s could be heard for hundreds of yards during these performances, and that somewhere out there, a young Chester Burnett, one day to be known as Howlin’ Wolf, very possibly picked up that sound. The call of the wild? That came from a wild man known as Charley Patton.