Charlie Patton (1891–1934)

Many consider Charlie Patton to be the "Father of the Delta Blues". He was one of the most important figures in early Delta blues guitar and blues music in general. He influenced and inspired some of the most important early Delta blues men who, in-turn, inspired and influenced many famous musicians who then went on to have a profound influence on the direction of music in general.

Charlie Patton produced an abundance of American music and was a huge inspiration to probably every Delta blues player at that time. The author and journalist for the New York Times and writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, Robert Palmer, recognised him to be one of the most important musicians that America produced in the twentieth century.

Palmer described Patton as a "jack-of all-trades bluesman" because he could play many styles of music including; deep blues, white hillbilly songs, and even nineteenth-century ballads, among other varieties of black and white country dance songs.  

Charlie himself is said to have spelled his name "Charlie", but most sources, including musical releases and his gravestone, spell his name "Charley". We will use the spelling that he chose to use from here on though. 

Charlie was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near the town of Edwards. He lived in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta most of his life. Charlie's birth date is uncertain, but sources say he was born in 1891, although 1887 and 1894 have also been suggested?

Charlie's true bloodline and race are also not entirely clear. Although having been born to Bill and Annie Patton, he was locally considered to have been fathered by a man called Henderson Chatmon who was a former slave. Henderson himself was known to have good technical ability on his instrument and a high level of skill at sight-reading music.

Chatmon's children followed his musical path and many became popular Delta musicians, not only in their own right as solo acts, but also as members of groups such as the Mississippi Sheiks, an influential and very popular country blues guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s.

Although Charlie was considered an African-American, due to his light complexion (unlike the above picture suggests) it had been rumoured that he may be Mexican or even a full-blooded Cherokee. This theory was apparently supported by Howlin' Wolf, although it is generally recognised that Charlie was a mix of white, black, and Cherokee, as one of his grandmothers was a full-blooded Cherokee.

Charlie's family moved 100 miles north in the year 1900 to the famous 10,000-acre Dockery Plantation sawmill and cotton farm near Ruleville, Mississippi. The hugely successful John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf both became influenced here by Charlie Patton along with Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Joe Martin. It was also here at the Dockery that Robert Johnson played after being given his first guitar.

The Dockery is also where Charlie is said to have fell under the guidance of Henry Sloane. Charlie followed Sloane around and received direct instruction from him. Charlie played with Henry Sloane for several years after. Two of Charlie's later associates, Tommy Johnson and Son House, are both to have stated that Charlie Patton "dogged every step" of Sloan's.

By the time Charlie was around 19 years old, he was already an accomplished player, performer and songwriter having already composed "Pony Blues," which was a highly influential song of the time.

Dockery Plantation was a 10,000-acre (40 km2) cotton plantation and sawmill in Dockery, by the Sunflower River between Ruleville and Cleveland in Mississippi. It is recognised to be the birth place of the Delta Blues Guitar Style of playing and blues music in general.

The notable musicians that stayed at The Dockery Plantation included; Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Chester Burnett (Howlin' Wolf). The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

Dockery Plantation - by Carla Batchelor

Charlie Patton's 'Rattlesnake Blues'

Charlie Patton The Performer

Charlie's ability and performances made him very popular across the Southern States. As a result, he was fortunate to be able to play pre-arranged gigs at various taverns and plantations. This was unlike the usual way of the blues players of that time, who generally wandered in an attempt to find work. Charlie also performed every year in Chicago, Illinois, and played at New York in 1934.

Charlie was known for his showmanship long before the great Jimi Hendrix with his extravagant guitar playing. Like Jimi Hendrix, Charlie was known to often play the guitar while down on his knees, or behind his head or back.

At 5' 5", Charlie was a relatively small man, but his voice was said to have been powerful enough to travel 500 yards without a microphone!

Charlie's strong, raspy voice had a powerful influence on his young friend Chester Burnett, who later became famous in Chicago as the Howlin' Wolf!

Charlie's Last Years

In 1933 Charlie settled down at Holly Ridge, Mississippi in Sunflower County with Bertha Lee, his common-law wife and recording partner. He died on April 28, 1934 at the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola also in Sunflower County. He is buried in his hometown, Holly Ridge. Patton's death certificate states that he died of a Heart disorder relating to the mitral valve.

A memorial headstone was erected on Charlie's grave in 1990 which was paid for by the Creedence Clearwater Revival front man John Fogerty through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. Charlie's grave was identified by the cemetery caretaker C. Howard who claimed to have been present at Charlie's burial.

Charlie's Recognitions

The Mississippi Blues Trail

As recognition to his powerful influence and importance as an outstanding early bluesman, the Mississippi Blues Trail placed its very first historic marker on Charlie Patton's grave. This is a sure indication of Charlie Patton's significance to the origin of Delta blues and the evolution of 'the blues' in general.  It should also be mentioned that fellow blues musicians, Willie Foster (1921–2001) and Asie Payton (1937–1997) are also buried in the same cemetery. Asie Payton also lived in the community for most of his life. 

A second historic marker, in honour of Charlie Patton, was also placed by the Mississippi Blues Trail in Boyle, Mississippi where the Peavine Railroad connects with Highway 446. This marker honours the memory of the original lyrics of Charlie's "Peavine Blues".  This song describes the railway branch of Yazzo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, that travelled south from Dockery Plantation to Boyle. The marker highlights that a common theme of blues songs came from the idea that the railroad was seen as a symbol for travel and escape. 

Recording Recognitions

Taken from original recordings of Charlie's from 1924 and other associates of his up until 1969, a boxed set entitled "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues; The Worlds of Charlie Patton" was released on 23rd October 2001. The set consists of seven compact discs and includes interviews and historical data. At the 45th Grammy Awards the set won three awards; Best Historical Album, Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package, and Best Album Notes. 

Also in 2001, a three disc collection of Charlie Patton recordings was released by Catfish Records, entitled "The Definitive Charley Patton". 

The National Recording Preservation Board annually select recordings that they consider to be culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. In 2006 they selected "Pony Blues", a Charlie Patton classic, for inclusion in The Library of Congress National Recording Registry. The song was written by Charlie when he was around nineteen years old, and it was recorded and released in 1929.

There are also other Charlie Patton recordings that have been released and made available at main outlets online. 

Tributes to Charlie Patton

  • Alan Wilson and Canned Heat did covers of "Pony Blues", "Shake It and Break It" and "Yellow Bee".
  • Also, Bob Dylan dedicated "High Water (for Charlie Patton)", on his 2001 album "Love and Theft" to Charlie.
  • American country blues recording and international touring artists, The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, produced a tribute recording to Charley Patton entitled "Peyton on Patton" which was released July 19, 2011. The album entered the Billboard Blues Album Chart at number seven.
  • Francis Cabrel, a French singer-songwriter refers to Charlie on his 1999 album "Hors-Saison" in the song "Cent Ans de Plus".
  • Gomez, and Indie rock band recorded a song on their 2006 release "How We Operate", entitled "Charley Patton Songs".
  • There is a picture of Charlie in the recording studio used for "Icky Trump", a White Stripes album, which can be seen on their website, in the background of their short demonstration video.
  • Jule Brown recorded an updated arrangement of Patton's "Green River Blues", on their 2006 release "Smoke and Mirrors".
  • Charlie's life was narrated in a comic book by Robert Crumb.
  • The new York City Punk/Blues band of the 1980's, Hi Sheriffs of Blue was named after the Patton song "High Sheriff Blues".
  • Conclusion

    Charlie really was one of the very first well-known great Delta Blues players. Due to his influence on people like Son House, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in turn, including many others, he was quite possibly the most significant and important figure in the history and development of Delta blues music.

    Thank you Charlie Patton.

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