It’s June 1929. A young man in his early thirties takes the long train ride, 750 miles, from Jackson, Mississippi, to Richmond, Indiana. It’s so hot in the coach compartment the ground outside hardly seems to move outside the open windows. The train route runs from Jackson up to Memphis where it picks up the Mississippi River and follows it all the way to Cairo, just to pick up extra humidity. The ride takes two days and one night with stops and in the summer of 1929 there wasn’t a cool spot on the entire ride, even at night. When the young man arrives in Richmond on June 14 he’s exhausted, hungry and damp.
Charlie Patton and a fellow blues dude named Walter Hawkins walked the mile from the station to the Starr Piano Co. backed by the Whitewater River. Owned by the Gennett family, they had their own recording company with the studio in the back of the piano factory. Gennett had already recorded Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael. They were well known for jazz but it was Paramount Records recording north of Chicago, and owned by the Wisconsin Chair company in Grafton, Wisconsin, that had specialized in recording the blues. But they had never recorded anything from the rich Mississippi delta where blues had its own distinct rhythm and flavor.
In Jackson a man named H. C. Speir owned a mercantile and record store on Farish Street in the black neighborhood of Jackson. He moonlighted at night as a talent scout for blues record companies, searching for the next great thing. And he found a few. Speir had a metal disc machine in his store he would use to record artists who came from all around, then sent the discs north to the record companies to arrange for formal recordings. Bluesmen like William Harris, Son House, Skip James, Joe (who was also blind) Reynolds, Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter and Willie Brown were auditioned by Speir and sent to recording studios. Speir also auditioned Jimmy Rodgers and turned him down. HC must’ve been hung over that day. Happens to the best of us.
Charlie Patton lived 140 miles away from Jackson on the Dockery Plantation in a remote part of the delta near Ruleville. Patton had been playing for years around the area in dances and beer halls and had heard of this guy in Jackson who could get you recorded. Charlie and Speir connected somehow and Speir drove three hours to the plantation to listen to Charlie and loved what he heard. He sent a disc to Paramount who wanted to record Patton as their first entry into the Delta Blues.
But as it happened Paramount in 1929 was moving out of Chicago and into a new studio back at its home base in Wisconsin. Weird move but there you go. (They went out of business 6 years later, go figure.) So Paramount made a deal with Fred Gennett from Gennett studios to set up sessions and record discs while they moved. The deal was Gennett was paid 40 dollars by Paramount for every track recorded, a pretty nifty sum per song in 1929. So when Charlie walked into the Gennett studio on that sweltering day in Indiana Fred told him “Give us everything ya got.” And he did. 14 of the 60 recordings Patton would make in his life were done that one day in June. June 14, 1929 has been called the day that changed the blues. OK, I’m calling it that. Sue me.
Patton was known for his stage antics, including playing the guitar between his legs, behind his back and behind his head (right, Jimi?) and his recordings really showed his mastery of the guitar and slide as well as chord voicings and sheer vocal power. Listen to the little guitar trinkets in this recording from that day in Richmond.
Now, a note for y’all. These are not great recordings. When Paramount went boing in 1935 they sold off all their metal masters for scrap and many ended up lining chicken coops. All that remain are a few old 78’s which are pretty battered. So you have to listen to hear what I’m talking about.
During the vid is a cartoon of Patton with his guitar over his shoulder by R. Crumb. Anyone who doesn’t know who dat guy is needs to ask me.
This next cut recorded at Gennett you can hear his guitar playing accompanied by hitting the top of his guitar in an alter rhythm that seems to be off the cuff. Also from 1929 ‘Screamin and Hollerin Blues’.
There are videos all over the internet on how to play this next song with the slide. Most are done with an expensive steel guitar with a resonator which captures the sound Patton got with a cheap rudimentary instrument. And a few of the vids even include the vocal. It’s actually worth listening to a few of those then go back to Patton’s recording to understand how instrumental he was. Folks are still today posting videos on how to play like him. Here’s ‘Banty Rooster’.
Patton’s use of syncopation on the strings and guitar, the call and answer of his voice and the slide underlined this style called Delta Blues. In this recording of ‘Spoonful Blues’ you can hear him talking back to himself as well as leaving off the signature title at the end of a phrase to finish with the slide.
By the way, this is not about drug use like Howlin Wolf’s later ‘Spoonful’. Listen and use yer imagination.
This next is ‘Shake it and Break It’. I included this because Charlie had the heart of a bluesman but he used vaudeville and humor in a lot of his stuff. This recording is an example of his rag style. By the way, if Country Joe ever said he didn’t use this for his Vietnam anthem recorded at Woodstock he was a liar.
After the Gennett/Paramount recordings Charlie became a star. Suddenly he was no longer an itinerant performer, but typically booked for plantation dances, dance halls and entertainment palaces all over the South with an annual concert in Chicago and recording sessions in New York. Stories from the newspapers and accounts of his performances spoke of his ability to not only pack them in but hold his audiences spellbound. I’ve read in enough places to make it at least half true that he could be heard up to 500 yards away at an outside county fair without amplification. Plantation owners would kick him out because workers would stop working when they heard him start to play. Patton could rev the crowd into barrelhouse frenzy then calm everyone down with a couple of gospel selections and still enrapt the audience. Apparently playing behind yer head would always wow ‘em.
In 1933 Charlie married his common law wife and sometime recording partner Bertha Lee Pate and settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi. He’d been diagnosed with a heart ailment but the resting was too late. Charlie Patton passed on April 28, 1934. But not before recording this with his wife Bertha, his last recording, a few months before his death. From 1934 ‘Oh Death’.
Only 4 recordings remain of these two together and it’s sad. She was really good.
Charlie was buried in an unmarked plot on a plantation in Holly Ridge. In 1990 John Fogerty heard there was no marker and researched Patton’s death. He found a cemetery caretaker in Holly Ridge who claimed to have been at the burial. Fogerty paid for a gravestone and its erection. Good onya John. Good onya.
[In case you’re wondering—sources differ as to how Patton spelled his first name. Some say that Patton himself favored “Charlie”—but having been immortalized in stone, it’ll likely be passed down as “Charley”–-Ed.]