Perfect Sound Forever

Charlie Patton

by Kevin Cenedella
(December 2010)

It always amuses me when I first expose other people to Charlie Patton's music. I always talk him up. Explain how he was the first rock star, how his music is so powerful and profound that it can bring one to tears in an unguarded moment. Then, the music plays. He voice growls and moans over the hisses and pops accumulated over 80 years. Usually, a bemused expression comes over their faces. Charlie might as well be singing in a different language. Quickly, they become disinterested or uncomfortable. Seemingly unwilling to devote the time and effort to translate his snarls and chokes. Then they usually seem to look strangely at me. They are thinking, no doubt, "How can you like this?"

However, this has never stopped me over the years. Through the course of my work, I once met a man named Charlie Patton. Before our meeting, I thought to myself that they must be kindred spirits. I was hoping that by sharing the name, this man had no doubt encountered this music. I thought maybe the modern Charlie Patton's life may have changed slightly for the better if he was exposed to his namesake's work. I hoped that maybe he had been helped along in his journey by my hero. Our meeting was about to conclude and I asked him. "Do you know that you have the same name as a famous Delta Blues musician?" Without skipping a beat, he replied: "Yes. I have listened to his music. Couldn't understand a damn thing he was saying! Hated it. "

I did not quibble with the man. Although, I was slightly hurt, I understood where he was coming from. Charlie Patton does not make it easy for modern listeners to like his music. Even many blues fans find it puzzling. He rarely sticks to a 12-bar format. He drops and adds bars haphazardly. He mumbles and whispers. He laughs at his jokes planted within songs, only you never heard the joke. Often, his voice will trail off and he will let his guitar finish a line for him.

The subject matter is another issue altogether. Although Charlie recorded most of his work in the 1930's, his images stretch back even further than that to the 1800's. Charlie sings of bull cows, roosters and horses. He sings about knowing the calls of certain trains that ran through Mississippi by the sound of their whistles. He sings of Indian territories that have not yet become states. He sings of hard labor on the Dockery Plantation. The plantation he grew up on. Yes, a plantation.

I suppose that is one of the things that drew me to him. The way I figured it, Charlie Patton had about as much in common with me as an Egyptian pharaoh. Yet, through the miracle of recording, I was able to know him and his world intimately. I was able to know his virtues and vices, his fears and doubts. I always thought it a privilege to be able to decipher his songs, although on many of his recordings, I must admit I still do not know what he is actually saying. However with Patton, that hardly matters. His emotion is conveyed through grunts. His feelings are revealed through tension and release. You almost glimpse him through the thick fog of almost a century.

Over time, seeing Charlie Patton the person became my real focus. But, beyond his songs, how was I to know what he was actually like? The details of his life are sketchy. A date of birth is not known. He roamed from town to town. He gave no interviews. He died in obscurity in an unmarked grave. John Fogerty was the one who gave him a headstone much later. That fact speaks for itself. Charlie Patton was "rediscovered" in the '60's based on the recordings he put out 30 years earlier. These recordings were magnets for those seeking authenticity. His voice became a siren for those fleeing from the notion of Sonny and Cher. Soon, people were flooding Dockery Plantation with letters, asking if he was still alive. Many began to search for him like I have. They would find a man and world full of contradictions.

In reference to Charlie Patton, the word 'innovator ' might be a misnomer. Quite frankly, we do not really know what came before him. There could have been dozens of bluesman as talented as Charlie Patton and we never would have known because they never recorded. The stars were aligned for him. He came along at exactly the right time. Recording in general was in its infancy in the late 1920's. The recording of "race records" had become a novelty. Store owners found to their surprise that black consumers bought more records than white consumers. Charlie was discovered by a local talent scout and he recorded prolifically for Paramount Records in short bursts. His recordings sold well. But his personality and music left the record label with a bit of a problem.

Charlie Patton could not be labeled. He would record spirituals and dirty blues in the same day. He was as comfortable recording the popular ballads of the time as he was recording his brilliant but dirty originals. He would sing of Jesus and salvation in one breath, and in the next, he would speak of cocaine and whiskey. The contrast was so stark that eventually, the record label came up with a novel solution. Another person was invented to be the 'good' Charlie Patton. He was called Elder JJ Hadley. The bluesman interested in debauchery would retain his given name. This contradiction was the tip of the iceberg.

Charlie Patton sang like a lion. If you had never met the man, you might think he was huge. When I first heard him, I pictured Albert King holding an acoustic guitar. Surely he was 6 foot 5 and tipped the scales at 300 pounds. Nope. Try 5 foot 5 and 135 pounds. Yet his voice was said to carry 500 yards without amplification. As I looked at his only known picture for the first time, I wondered how that voice came from that body. The picture just led me to ask more questions.

Surely, Charlie Patton was an African American, right? He was a sharecropper in Mississippi who lived on a plantation and sang the Delta Blues. But his origins are unclear. His contemporaries say he was at least part American Indian. In his song "Down the Dirt Road Blues," he spoke of visiting and getting kicked off of "the nation," a reference to the Cherokee nation, which would soon become Oklahoma. Some said he was part Mexican. Patton himself hinted that he might see himself as distinct and separate from African Americans. In his most famous song, "Pony Blues," he sang:

A brown skin woman like something fit to eat
But a jet black woman, don't put your hand on me

However, these distinctions probably didn't matter to anyone but Patton. He was treated as a black man in the Deep South. He endured all the injustice and inconvenience that the label came along with.

In terms of music, one might ask how Patton saw himself. Those seeking musical purity in him might like to believe that Patton saw himself as a folk singer, as someone who played music for music's sake, someone whose motivation was spiritual and not material. However, it is clear that Patton played primarily for money and status. He truly was the first rock star. He was paid relatively handsomely for his recordings. He was a drunkard who caroused with countless women (he married at least six times). He became so cocky that he referred to black workers on Dockery Plantation as "boys." He was even so sure of himself that he even put down white law enforcement officers in his songs. His persona was a template for every rock star to come. "It" all went to his head relatively quickly.

The larger than life image he had for himself translated into performance. Thirty years before Jimi Hendrix picked up a guitar, Charlie Patton played his guitar behind his back, between his legs, and over his head. He beat this guitar like a drum, all the while stomping his feet to the beat, thus creating rhythms on top of rhythms, while at the same time, singing and playing guitar masterfully. Patton was also said to be a master at improvisation. As the night would grow later and Patton would get drunker, he was bound to bless his audience with a sort of freestyle. He would make up lyrics spontaneously while playing for extended periods. When asked about the nature of these jams, master bluesman and contemporary Son House was evasive. Apparently, the content was shocking enough that House, who killed a man, dared not repeat it lest he offend his interviewer!

However, this is one only one side of Patton. Patton grew up in a time and place where the Devil was real. He was not only real in the metaphysical sense- most people of Charlie's ilk believe that Satan walked the earth and was as touchable as the guitar they held. In Patton's songs, he's constantly sinning, but just as often, he's repenting. He looks for salvation not only from his social position, but from the devil himself. The thing that intrigues me most about Patton is the guilt that comes through in his songs. He feels horrible about the things he's done. He sings so passionately about meeting God and not the Devil on judgment day that he almost seems sincere enough to will it to happen. He sings often about this mother as the mask of the outlaw and miscreant falls easily away. He sings sorrowfully on "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues":

My mama is gettin old, her head is shinin grey
Don't you know it would break her heart, to know I'm livin this way?

It always interesting when artists let their guard down like this. It gives us a sense of perspective. We can contrast what they feel with how they actually act, or compare what they were with what they actually became. For most other musicians, we can use facts to do the contrasting for us. For instance, it is amusing to know that Keith Richards was a choir boy who actually sang for the Queen of England on a special occasion. We have to reconcile this image with that of the outlaw and drug addict. However, Patton leaves us with few facts to go on. We do not know if he was a mama's boy, or even what his childhood was like. But this is how I like to see him. I can imagine him clinging to her as a toddler. I can imagine him as a young man far from home, wishing he was closer to her. I can imagine him trying to put down the bottle and the guitar to get back into her good graces. Having to imagine adds to the mystery and allure of Patton and the Delta Blues in general. I am almost glad there is so little information about him.

So we are left to put together the many different pieces of Charlie Patton. He died in 1934, a relatively young man. It is up to us individually to decide how we want to see him. He is almost a blank slate for our own projections. He can be big or small, black or Indian, a saint or a sinner. However, there is no doubt about what he meant to music. Without Patton, there would have been no Robert Johnson. Without Robert Johnson there would have been no Chuck Berry. Without Berry or Johnson, there would have never been Keith Richards or Eric Clapton. That is about as close to a fact you will ever get when discussing Charlie Patton.

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