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Charley Patton – The First Rock and Roller?

Charley Patton was the inspiration for every Delta bluesman that followed in his wake and his influence still resonates today

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Charley Patton photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Charley Patton’s legend strides across the Delta like no other Bluesman of his generation. And yet he was already over forty years old, the first time he recorded for Paramount in June 1929 at Grafton Wisconsin.

Patton literally strode across the Delta and beyond, travelling extensively, which in some ways accounts for his influence. Tales of his singing, playing and life are many and they all point to the fact that he was an original, one that many of the younger players looked up too. But above all else Charley was an entertainer. He gave his audiences what they wanted, a mix of predominantly Blues based material that was delivered in showman’s style – so much so that Patton has even been called the first rock and roller.

The influence of Charley Patton

Patton’s influence on many of the other artists that we have come to hold in such high esteem is another reason for his importance. Willie Brown, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Pop Staples and David ‘HoneyBoy’ Edwards all came under Patton’s influence in some way.

“It was him who started me off to playing. He took a liking to me, and I asked him would he learn Me.” – Howlin’ Wolf

Some played with him, some knew him as a friend, others saw him perform or quite simply they aspired to be both as good and as well known as Patton. He was particularly close to Willie Brown who travelled with him throughout the 1920’s playing house rent parties, picnics, juke joints, and workers camps. They often played for white audiences, especially in Lula, while using Dockery Farms as their base, Dockery was where Patton’s father had moved his large family in 1912.

Charley was confident in his ability as a musician, he even got some people’s backs up with his demands to be addressed as ‘Mister Patton’ – a might uppity in some folk’s eyes. Whether it was arrogance or confidence we can never know, but as writer, Paul Oliver attests “Charley Patton is without question one of the most impressive and important of Bluesmen on record…”.

Charley Patton’s style of blues

His reputation among other blues players was as much as anything down to his performing live. Patton has been called a ‘clown’ for the way he sometimes acted when he played, it may be that people have taken this is some kind of implied criticism. It is more likely that it could also be a tinge of jealousy on the part of some of his contemporaries. He was a showman with no equal, of that there is no doubt – but it was also what was required of these entertainers, and in no way should it undermine our view of Patton’s musicianship or his status.

What is clear from listening to his records that he was an original, he wrote wonderful songs and interesting lyrics; he also delivered them with a great deal more panache than any of his contemporaries. Among Delta musicians there was a degree of competition – they made their living from playing live, not from their record sales as there were no royalty payments from their record sales. A player had to give the audience a show, and that is what Charley Patton did better than anyone.

Charley Patton’s recording sessions

After his first Paramount session at Grafton, Charley went back again and added to the 14 sides he recorded in June with another 24 sides in October 1929. Henry Sims a violin player went with him on his trip north and accompanied him on four of these sides. Some of these earlier sides were in fact religious, including the powerful, two part, ‘Prayer of Death’, these Paramount released under the pseudonym – Elder J.J. Hadley.

For Charley’s third release Paramount got highly creative in their marketing, and did his career no harm. They released ‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues’ and ‘Screamin’ and Hollerin’ The Blues’ as ‘The Masked Marvel’ and asked record buyers to guess who the artist was, their prize was another Paramount record of their choice… for free.

A little over 6 months later Patton headed north once again, this time accompanied on the trip by Willie Brown, Son House and Louise Johnson. The consensus is that Charley and Louise were an item at the start of the trip, by the end she had switched her favours to Son – just another story of life on the road!

At this session Charley cut just four sides, it may have been that the cream of his material had been used up; the 1920’s equivalent of that difficult third album. The Depression was also underway and it may also have been the case that Paramount was limiting what it recorded, they did in fact have a backlog of unreleased Patton sides. Nearly four years were to pass before Charley got to record again. He went to New York to sides for Vocalion and cut 36 sides over three days, ten of which were released at the time.

These performances are not as good as Charley’s earlier work, he had a serious heart condition, he had a knife wound in his neck, and was just three months away from his death. His latest, and last, wife Bertha Lee accompanied him on some of these sides; sadly the masters of the unissued sides are missing.

Death of Charley Patton

Patton and Bertha Lee left New York and went back to Mississippi. Three months later on 28 April 1934 the 43-year-old Patton died at Holly Springs near Indianola. At his last recording session he recorded the prophetic ‘Oh Death’

“Oh, hush, good Lordy, oh hush, somebody is callin’ me/Lord I know, Lord, I know my time ain’t long.”

Charley Patton’s acolytes took water from his well, allowing others who followed to drink from their supply of the original Delta blues.

Format: UK English


  1. Will

    April 29, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Patton died in Holly Ridge, not Holly Springs

  2. Guy Hill

    August 1, 2016 at 1:08 am

    How did Charlie Patton die?

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