Charley Patton Biography (part 3) - Dr. David Evans PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 21 November 2005 00:00
Charley Patton Biography (part 3) - Dr. David Evans
used with the gracious permission of David Evans and Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records 11/3/05

Here are two Charlie Patton ads Alex found in Cedarburg in 2000. These were the first full-body illustrations of Patton to be found. One was used by the Boerner Company from Port Washington to release his 1934 recordings. Paramount by then was defunct.
Here are two Charlie Patton ads Alex found in Cedarburg in 2000. These were the first full-body illustrations of Patton to be found. One was used by the Boerner Company from Port Washington to release his 1934 recordings. Paramount by then was defunct.
There are two main subjects of the songs from this last session. One is Bertha Lee herself and Charley’s evident satisfaction with her. Unlike the women in most of his earlier blues, he has a consistently positive attitude toward Bertha throughout the session. The second main subject is Patton’s relationships with important white people. This topic had emerged briefly in “Tom Rushen Blues” at his first recording session, but there he was adopting another man’s situation as his own. In his songs about the flood and the dry spell he was the spokesman for the entire Delta population, black and white. Even in “Mean Black Moan” he did not take sides in a labor dispute that doubtless had racial implications but concentrated instead on the hardships of the workers out on strike. In his last session, however, he is definitely singing about his own personal experiences and frequently with a tone of bitterness. It may have seemed to him that the delicate balance of forces that had preserved his ambiguous social status was crumbling. He was aware of his heart trouble and was trying to settle down more and stay in one place. This inevitably weakened his social position and forced him more into the typical status of a Delta Negro. At the same time he was performing increasingly for white audiences but finding increasing difficulties in his relationships with whites. Throughout the songs of his last session there is not only bitterness but a sense of an impending great crisis in his life, a sense that the threads that had held his life together up to now were beginning to unravel. Perhaps he knew he was about to die and didn’t care what the consequences of his song-statements might be. At any rate, he was far more directly outspoken at this session than he had ever been before. This was the case both about sex and about local characters and events. It was also the case about the subject of death itself. Charley had recently witnessed a horrible axe murder at a country supper at Four Mile Lake. According to Big Joe Williams, who claimed to have witnessed the event along with Patton, a gambler named Henry Freeman had killed another gambler named Quicksilver over a woman. Patton and Williams, who was playing music with him, were called as witnesses, and Charley made up a song about the event. This was probably the song he recorded entitled “The Delta Murder,” which remained unissued.52 Big Joe Williams recalled one of the verses:53

I know poor Quicksilver gonna hear Gabriel when he sound. He gonna raise up in the grave, but the poor boy got to lay back down.

Patton used the image of an axe in his recording of “Jersey Bull Blues” (Vocalion 02782), but here its meaning appears to be purely sexual. Nevertheless, it is perhaps of some significance that Patton at this point had merged the imagery of sex and violent murder. Charley and Bertha Lee also recorded a spiritual called “Oh Death” (Vocalion 02904). Their version is based on an earlier recording entitled “I Know My Time Ain’t Long” (Paramount 12948) by Charley’s friends, the Delta Big Four quartet. “Oh Death” is one of the most powerful and chilling songs on this subject ever recorded. Patton’s involvement with the song is total, and he must have known that his own time was indeed not long.

Bertha Lee is the focus of several songs from Patton’s last session. Her own singing of “Yellow Bee” (Vocalion 02650), a song based on an earlier recording by Memphis Minnie and one that Charley apparently taught to Bertha prior to the recording session, is frankly sexual and employs imagery of a long stinger, making honey, and buzzing around a hive. Charley’s recording of “Hang It On The Wall” (Vocalion 02931), a remake of a ragtime dance song that he had recorded at his first session in 1929, is also quite sexual as Charley calls out to Bertha Lee, who was probably dancing in the studio. Immediately before this piece Patton recorded “Poor Me” (Vocalion 02651), a tender love song in which he mentions Bertha Lee by name. In “Stone Pony Blues” (Vocalion 02680), recorded earlier in the session and an updated version of Patton’s 1929 hit of “Pony Blues,” Charley seems to be saying in a metaphorical way that he has given up other women and settled down: “I got me a stone pony and I don’t ride shetland no more.” His “stone pony” can be found “hooked to his rider’s door” and “down in Lula town somewhere,” an obvious reference to Bertha Lee whom he had first met in Lula. Later in the song there occurs a stanza that declares that he is not interested in any of the women in his audience:

Well, I didn’t come here to steal nobody’s brown. Didn’t come here to steal nobody’s brown. I just stopped by here, well, to keep you from stealing mine.

No doubt Patton found these lines useful at his live performances to avoid dangerous situations. They contrast markedly with the verse he addressed to the women in his earlier “Pony Blues”: “I don’t want to marry, just want to be your man.” But there is also a hint of trouble in “Stone Pony Blues.” Twice Patton sings the line, “And I can’t feel welcome, rider, nowhere I go.” No doubt Patton’s settling down was beginning to limit his opportunities and forcing him to accept conditions that were not entirely to his liking, conditions that he could always avoid in the past simply by leaving. This same contrast of apparent bliss and ominous foreboding is found in “Love My Stuff” (Vocalion 02782). The first three stanzas border on being positively lewd, as Patton sings of his delight in his hot “jelly,” his “stuff,” and his rider’s way of shimmying. But then the mood suddenly turns grim for the last half of the song. In stanza 4 he mentions an apparition of the devil, but his full meaning is not clear. Then he states that he feels compelled to leave in a hurry, drawing his imagery from the 1927 flood that he had sung about in an earlier record. [See stanzas 4, 5, 6, disc 5/track 18.]

Several of Charley’s songs from his last session mention the activities of white people and Charley’s relationships with them. Big Joe Williams told me that Patton made up “Jersey Bull Blues” (Vocalion 02782) about a bull belonging to his landlord in Holly Ridge, Tom Robinson. The record’s lyrics, however, merely develop a sexual metaphor of a bull for three stanzas before introducing the axe imagery that was discussed previously. Patton probably told Robinson that the song was about his bull as an easy way of paying him a compliment. He also seems to have paid a compliment to a favorite railroad engineer in “Charley Bradley’s Ten Sixty-Six Blues,” a piece that remained unissued. “Son” House has stated that Bradley drove Engine Number 1066 on a route from Memphis to Vicksburg, and everyone liked the way he blew his whistle as his train sped through the Delta.54 Patton had probably ridden the Ten Sixty-Six many times.

Another unissued song, “Whiskey Distillery,” may have mentioned local white people. Its title perhaps suggests a theme such as Patton had developed earlier in “Tom Rushen Blues.” Illegal activities had been very much in the news in the two years prior to Patton’s last recording session. The Depression was at its worst, and many people, desperate for money, turned to careers of crime. People like A1 Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Ma and Pa Barker, and Bonnie and Clyde became household names to millions of Americans and heroes to many as they flamboyantly defied the law. Revenue agents seeking unpaid taxes and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s notorious “G-Men” pursued these criminals relentlessly and were not above using ruthless methods to hunt down or wipe out these fugitives from justice. Things had changed from a few years earlier when an officer like Tom Rushing could quietly arrest a moonshiner or bootlegger and take him in to the county courthouse to pay a fine. Criminals were now more apt to carry and use weapons, and law officers were more likely to get tough first and ask questions later. Charley Patton was evidently concerned about this situation and recorded “Revenue Man Blues” (Vocalion 02931) as a kind of warning to others on the danger of police brutality. “If he hollers and you don’t stop, you will likely be knocked out,” he sings, and “If they see you with a bottle, they will almost break your neck.” The theme is not developed further, however, as Patton reverts to some verses he had previously sung in 1930 in “Bird Nest Bound.” He concludes with a stanza that hints at bad luck and trouble and seems to suggest a series of personal failures.

Oh, I wake up every morning now with the jinx all around my bed. Spoken: Oh sure. I wake up every morning with the jinx all around my bed. Spoken: You know, I had them jinx (. . . ?) I have been a good provider, but I believe I’ve been misled.

If Patton’s references to whites were brief or obscure in these songs, they were quite explicit and detailed in “High Sheriff Blues” (Vocalion 02680). It contains the melody and guitar part and a few of the verses that he had used in 1929 in “Tom Rushen Blues.” It also deals with a jailhouse experience, but this time it is Patton’s own. Bertha Lee stated that she and Charley were both jailed in Belzoni following a row at a house party and that it was none other than W. R. Calaway of the American Record Company who bailed them out.55 Belzoni is the county seat of Humphreys County, which lies just to the south of Sunflower County where Patton was living at the time. Humphreys County has a rather unsavory reputation among blacks for race relations, and it was not one of Patton’s more frequented parts of the Delta. Unlike the case in most of the other Delta counties, Patton was probably not very familiar with the law officers there. In the song he protests his treatment in the jail. He evidently needed either whiskey or medical treatment, or both. Charley knew he had heart trouble by this time, and he had increased his drinking, perhaps to try to blot his troubles out of his mind. [See lyric transcription, disc 5/track 13.]

Patton must have been demoralized by being thrown in jail in a relatively strange place like Belzoni, but he was probably hurt far worse by being told to stay off Dockery’s plantation. The man who told him to leave was Herman G. Jett, who served for forty years as the general manager or overseer of the plantation and was a good friend of Will Dockery. The incident evidently took place at the end of 1933 or in January of 1934, not long before Patton’s final recording session, for he describes it in his “34 Blues” (Vocalion 02651). Charley’s nephew Tom Cannon, who lived nearly his entire life on Dockery’s and as of the late 1980s still occasionally did work there, described what happened:

He had done lived on Dockery, was growed up on Dockery, had been there for years. After he [Charley’s father] moved off, Charley come back in there. Sometimes he would pick a little cotton on Dockery, but the biggest he did was put out music. As long as his daddy was there on Dockery, he didn’t say anything to him about coming back and forth on Dockery. But he [Charley] carried a couple of men’s wives off from Dockery, and they were tore up about that. And when Mr. Jett met him coming on the place, Mr. Jett told him that he didn’t want him hanging around Dockery no more. Then he put out that record about Herman Jett.… He had fun out of Mr. Jett when he sent him that record back after Mr. Jett told him that. He had been around Mr. Jett ever since he was a boy up until a man. Mr. Jett laughed. He wasn’t mad at him. They didn’t have no falling out.

Jett may have laughed about the incident, considering it all in a day’s work, and as a lifelong Dockery worker Tom Cannon perhaps underestimates Charley’s reaction. His “34 Blues” is anything but mild in its criticism of Jett. [See lyric transcription, disc 5/track 17.]

Charley is saying that the year 1934 had started badly for him. We don’t know if he really was broke at Christmas time. It seems unlikely, as the workers on the farms had just received their settlements, and there were probably plenty of parties where Charley could have made money. The white folks too had sold their cotton and were probably in a mood to celebrate with music. But the general economic climate of the country was bad. It was still a time of severe economic depression, and Charley was most likely taking the role of spokesman for the poor people of the Delta. This view is strengthened by his third stanza, in which he calls attention to the pathetic plight of women and children who can’t afford to buy a railroad ticket and are forced to try to bum rides on freight trains. Herman Jett, on the other hand, owned two cars and could afford to burn up his gasoline on something as trivial as riding around in the fields behind one of the farm workers. (Harvey Parker was a tenant on Dockery’s and an old friend of Charley Patton.) Charley had been driven from the home where he had grown up, and his pride had been wounded. Rather than swallow this bitter pill in silence, he contradicted his opening line and “told everybody.” This song was on the first record that Vocalion released from the session. We must admire Patton’s bold move in referring to Mr. Jett by his first name and sending him a copy of the record.

* * *

CHARLEY PATTON did not leave Mississippi, nor was he spared to see a brand new year. In his last years his music had become very popular with Delta whites, and the difficulty he had in maintaining the same freedom and security that whites enjoyed must have weighed heavily upon him. During his final recording session he was openly criticizing the social status quo in the Delta. His last playing job was for whites, and one wonders what songs he performed there. Did he sing “High Sheriff Blues” and “34 Blues”? Did the white folks understand what he was singing about? Did they care? Charley Patton has been dead for almost seventy years, and it is over a century since he was born. He was one of the originators of the blues, one of the first generation of blues artists, yet he also seems to have anticipated the internatio¬nal interest in blues that is now taking place around a hundred years after he and others began to create this music. Charley Patton was indeed the “great man” that the young Bukka White thought he was. He will be remembered and discussed worldwide for his own brilliant accomplishments, while the other “great men” of the Delta that he sang about will be remembered only because they figured in Charley Patton’s life and songs.

ENDNOTES 1 For insight into the social conditions and caste system of the Delta during the 1930’s see the following works: Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968); John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937); Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941); and David L. Cohn, Where I Was Born and Raised (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967).

2 Samuel Charters, The Bluesmen (New York: Oak Publications, 1967), p. 34. For similar statements by other Delta bluesmen see Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Viking, 1981), pp. 61-63.

3 Viola Cannon and Bessie Turner interviewed by David Evans and Marina Bokelman, Greenville, Mississippi, August 22, 1967; Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans and Marina Bokelman, Dockery, Mississippi, August 25, 1967; Bessie Turner interviewed by David Evans and Bob Vinisky, Greenville, Mississippi, March 10, 1979; Tom Rushing interviewed by David Evans, Robert Sacré, and Bob Groom, Cleveland, Mississippi, April 9, 1985; Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans, Robert Sacré and Bob Groom, Cleveland, Mississippi, April 9, 1985. Tom Cannon interviewed by David Evans and Michael Leonard, Cleveland, Mississippi, December 8, 1986. I am grateful to Michael Leonard for further help in research at the courthouses in Belzoni and Cleveland, Mississippi, in December, 1986.

4 5 For my earlier assessment of Patton’s career and music see “Charlie Patton’s Life and Music” in Charlie Patton, Blues World Booklet No. 2, ed. Bob Groom (Knutsford, England; Blues World, 1969), pp. 3-7 (reprinted in Blues World, No. 33, Aug., 1970, 11-15). See also David Evans, “Blues on Dockery’s Plantation: 1895 to 1967,” in Nothing But the Blues, ed. Mike Leadbitter (London: Hanover, 1971), pp. 129-132.

6 5 Bernard Klatzko, notes to The Immortal Charlie Patton, Origin Jazz Library 7, 12” LP, 1964. A reprint of this document is included in this set.

6 Ibid.

7 Nick Perls, “Son House Interview - Part One,” 78 Quarterly, 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), 59-61.

8 Gayle Dean Wardlow and Jacques Roche, “Patton’s Murder - Whitewash or Hogwash?,” 78 Quarterly, 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), 10-17.

9 Charters, pp. 34-56.

10 Stephen Calt et al., notes to Charley Patton, Founder of the Delta Blues, Yazoo L-1020, double LP, ca. 1967.

11 John Fahey, Charley Patton (London: Studio Vista, 1970). A reprint of this book is included in this set.

12 Ibid., pp. 29, 26.

13 Palmer, pp. 48-92. R. Crumb has published “Patton,” an illustrated biography of Charley Patton in Zap Comix, No 11 (1985), based largely on the account in Palmer’s book. Subsequently this and other Crumb strips on blues figures were collected in R. Crumb Draws the Blues (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1993).

14 Palmer, pp. 56-57.

15 Alan Greenberg, Love in Vain (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 38-45, 95-105, 109-118.

16 Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (Newton, NJ: Rock Chapel Press, 1988).

17 Fahey, op. cit.

18 18 Perls, p. 61.

19 Jacques Roche, “The Words,” 78 Quarterly, 1, no. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 51-52, 54, Stephen Calt, “The Country Blues as Meaning,” in Country Blues Songbook, ed. Stefan Grossman, Hal Grossman, and Stephen Calt (New York: Oak Publications, 1973), p. 22.

20 Fahey, pp. 60, 62, 65.

21 Pete Welding, “David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards,” in Nothing But the Blues, ed. Mike Leadbitter (London: Hanover Books, 1971), p. 135. See also Palmer, p. 89.

22 For more information on these artists see Evans, “Blues on Dockery’s Plantation: 1895 to 1967.”

23 For more information on Will Dockery and his plantation see Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Mississippi (Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891), Vol 1, pp. 652-653; and Marie M. Hemphill, Fevers, Floods and Faith: A History of Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1844-1976 (Indianola, Miss.: Marie M. Hemphill, 1980), pp. 403-405.

24 On Charley’s application for a marriage license to Gertrude Lewis in Cleveland, Mississippi, on September 12, 1908, he made his mark (X) by his name recorded by the court clerk. Tom Cannon states that Charley must have been “pulling somebody’s leg.” Probably the clerk, a Chas. Christmas, simply wrote Patton’s name on the form and asked him to add his mark, assuming that he was illiterate.

25 Bessie Turner may have meant Renova, where her brother recalled Charley preaching in a church located on land owned by the family. Tom Cannon states that Charley did most of his preaching in parts of the hill country where he was not well known as a blues singer.

26 Charters, p. 37.

27 Henry Balfour, “Ritual and Secular Uses of Vibrating Membranophones As Voice-Disguisers,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 78 (1948), 45-69.

28 This phase of his career must have been brief, as he cannot be clearly identified in Memphis city directories during the years 1924-1934.

29 Welding, p. 135.

30 Charters, p. 56.

31 Ibid., p. 54.

32 Palmer, ibid.

33 Reverend Rubin Lacy, interviewed by David Evans, John Fahey, and Alan Wilson, Ridgecrest, California, March 19, 1966.

34 Perls, p. 59.

35 Klatzko, ibid.

36 Lacy, ibid.

37 Perls, p. 59.

38 Lacy, ibid.

39 Klatzko, ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 See Endnote 51.

42 Perls, p. 61.

43 Palmer, pp. 70-71.

44 Charters, p. 56.

45 Perls, p. 60.

46 For a discussion of the workings of this folk-blues tradition see Evans, Big Road Blues.

47 See, for example, ibid., pp. 146-150; and David Evans, “Structure and Meaning in the Folk Blues,” in Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 432-434.

48 Hemphill, pp. 403-404.

49 For a concise description of the flood and its effects see Pete Daniel, Deep’n As It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

50 See Endnote 51.

51 Elsewhere in this set the other authors have used June as the likely date for the Patton sessions in which “Dry Well Blues” was recorded. An examination of the Clarksdale Daily Register newspaper for the months of June-August, 1930, sheds some light on events underlying “Dry Well Blues” and incidentally helps us to date the Paramount recording session. The paper begins to take notice of continued unusually hot and dry weather on June 26, but only in a rather light hearted editorial. Not until July 8 is there a front page article with a tone of alarm, “Dry Spell For Delta Without Any Surcease.” Headlines continued to recount the disaster through August, with the August 8 headline reading “Crop Is 500,000 Bales Short” and a story on August 15 reading “Drought Takes Huge Farm Toll.” There can be little doubt, then, that Patton’s recording session took place no earlier than late June and most likely in July or August. “Son” House stated in 1964 that it was in August. (“Son” House, interviewed by Alan Wilson, November 5, 1964, Cambridge, MA.)

Meanwhile, the Daily Register on July 15 ran an official notice of intention to issue $5,000 in municipal bonds, entitled “Bond Issue for Improvement, Repair and Extension of the Water Works System of the Town of Lula, Coahoma County, Mississippi.” On July 20 it published a short article titled “Lula Booms,” that stated, “In keeping with the progress of Lula, one of the most progressive of the small towns of the Delta, officials have added a street sprinkler, that is keeping the streets dust free and adding much to the pleasure of living in that wide-awake town. The town has recently issued a few thousand dollars in bonds and is boring a second artesian well to supply the demands of a growing town.” On the same day the paper’s headlines read “62-Day Drought Hangs On.” On August 1 it reported that the water lines of Vicksburg had gone dry, and on August 10 it ran an editorial titled “When the Well Goes Dry.” Against this background we can possibly detect a subtle subtext of social criticism in Patton’s song. While the white “citizens” are confidently buying municipal bonds and boring a second well to add to their “pleasure of living” by keeping their streets dust free and maintaining their irrigation channels, the ordinary men and women are losing their trees, crops, homes and families. For the most part, Patton is simply reporting facts, but it is hard to imagine that he was not struck by the contrast of the confidence shown by the “citizens” and the devastation wrought by God’s hand.

52 Four Mile Lake is located in Humphreys County a few miles northeast of Belzoni. Courthouse records reveal that James Manuel (evidently the man that Williams knew as “Quicksilver”) was accused of murdering Henry Freeman. Williams stated that the two men (whose identities he evidently reversed) fought over a woman named Velma Larry, and she is listed as a witness for the defense. Charles Patton [sic] and Bertha Lee Patton are listed as witnesses for the state, but Joe Williams was not listed as a witness for either side. An indictment was filed against Manuel and a bench warrant issued for his arrest on March 6, 1934, in the Circuit Court of Humphreys County. He was arrested the following day. Charley and Bertha Lee and the other state’s witnesses were called to Belzoni on March 12, and the trial was apparently held on March 15. There is no record of a verdict, and no newspaper accounts that would further clarify the situation. Although the indictment was issued in March, the crime could have been committed any time after December 20, 1933, when the court was last in session in Belzoni. The court next met on March 6, the day that the arrest warrant and subpoenas were issued. Thus, it is quite possible that the murder took place before Patton’s recording session began on January 30. [Booker Miller’s account of the event which occasioned the song “The Delta Murder” is quite different. See interview of Miller on disc 7. –Ed.]

53 Big Joe Williams, “Big Joe Talking,” Piney Woods Blues, Delmark DL-602, 12” LP (1958). Williams’ statement contained the first published information about Patton’s life.

54 Fahey, p. 110.

55 The incident referred to in “High Sheriff Blues” probably stems from the murder of Henry Freeman. As suggested above, this murder, to which Patton and Bertha Lee were witnesses, could have taken place before Patton’s recording session. My guess is that James Manuel and all of the witnesses were arrested at the scene of the crime and brought to the Belzoni jail until the details could be sorted out. Thus Charley and Bertha would have spent some time in jail until Mr. Calaway got them out. R. Carlos Webb was a deputy sheriff of Humphreys County and probably the man who made the arrests at Four Mile Lake and brought Manuel and the witnesses to the jail at Belzoni. John D. Purvis was the sheriff. Purvis was probably convinced by Calaway that the Pattons were of good character and not directly involved in the crime, and he evidently ordered Webb to release them (“let poor Charley down”). Patton’s attitude seems to be critical of the fact that he was placed in jail by Mr. Webb, but he apparently is grateful to Sheriff Purvis for letting him off to travel to his recording session. As in the earlier “Tom Rushen Blues” the reference to thirty days in jail should probably be taken merely as a figure of speech and not literally.
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