The Unsimple Charley Patton

Charley Patton

Standard Patton history tells us he was the stereotypical hard-living blues man, given over to cigarettes, women, and whiskey. Some of his lyrics are a bit randy. But, then, Patton’s father was an elder in a Baptist church and his religious training made an impact on Patton. As a result Patton mixed a fair number of spirituals into his repertoire, including Prayer of Death 1, Prayer of Death 2, and You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Go to Die. They don’t sound perfunctory or forced, either. You’re Gonna Need Somebody is a version of the traditional You’re Going to Need Somebody for Your Bond. In both versions, the sinner is a convicted criminal and Jesus is a bondsman or lawyer (yes, a lawyer, so take that!) releasing him. (Clearly Patton emphasizes justification over union…) In Patton’s version, the song begins then just stops while Patton, without musical accompaniment and in the cadence of a preacher belts out:

Well, friends, I want to tell you, they tell me when he come down his hair gonna be like lamb’s wool and his eyes like flames of fire, and every man gonna know he’s the son of the true living god. Round his shoulders goin’ to be a rainbow and his feet like fine brass. And my friends, I wanted you to know again, He said that He going to have a river waters that’s flowing through the garden ‘clared the preacher. And he’s gonna have a tree before the 12 manners of food, and the leaves gonna be healing damnation, and the big rock that you can sit behind, the wind gonna blow at you no more. And you gonna count the four-and-twenty elders that you sit down and talk with, and that you can talk about your trouble that you come—the world you just come from.

It is reported that Patton repeated these or very similar words for a week on his deathbed at age 43.

Bob Dylan is reported to have said “If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs.” Dylan did do a cover of Patton’s High Water Rising but one has to wonder if something else is going on in this quote. Could it be that Dylan was being strategic? Yes, indeed, it could be that Dylan was pointing to someone – anyone – whose singing was less intelligible than his own. In a bit of understatement, blues historian Robert Palmer elaborates “Patton often seemed to alter the stresses of conventional speech for purely musical ends.” (Deep Blues, paperback p. 66) As a result, Patton sends today’s listeners to the internet to do “Patton lyrics” searches.

His voice is expressive, commanding, and deep, with all the gravel you would ever want in a blues voice. Close your eyes and you just know you’re listening to a black man who’s at least six foot three and 250 pounds. Now look at his picture. Something you can’t tell from the picture is how short he is: 5’ 5” or thereabouts. But that’s not what has you scratching your head. He has a flattened nose, a somewhat fair complexion and wavy hair. How does one put that voice and those physical features together in one man? The most commonly accepted explanation is that he is part black, part white, and part Cherokee. As you listen to Patton you try to match that picture with his voice and it’s just impossible. Then you muse to yourself: what was it like being so ethnically ambiguous in the early 20th century deep South?

Don’t expect a band when you listen to Patton; it’s just Charley and his guitar. But that doesn’t make his music simple. It’s been described as “driving, percussive guitar style… often improvisatory lyrics, complex rhythmic dynamics, an unequalled ‘talking’ bottleneck and a deep reservoir of melodic hooks…” There’s a couple fun quirks in Patton’s music. One is a technique in which Patton lets his guitar “say” words. Another is a spoken voice which inserts itself in various places. Both can be heard in Spoonful Blues :

In all a spoon’, ’bout that spoon’
The women goin’ crazy, every day in their life ’bout a… (guitar “says” spoonful)

It’s all I want, in this creation is a… (guitar “says” spoonful)
I go home (spoken: “wanna fight!”) ’bout a… (guitar “says” spoonful)

Doctor’s dyin’ (spoken: “way in Hot Springs!”) just ’bout a… (guitar “says” spoonful)

These women goin’ crazy every day in their life ’bout a… (guitar “says” spoonful)

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: “yes, I will!”) just ’bout a… (guitar “says” spoonful)
Oh babe, I’m a fool about my… (guitar “says” spoonful)

All this – Patton’s sinner/saint dichotomy, his voice, and his unique musical qualities – are there in every song. It may be blues, but it’s not simple.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Unsimple Charley Patton

  1. You can really hear Dylan in a couple of those Patton links. I did not know Dylan was so influenced by him. I did read a biography of Dylan my senior year of high school and have always been intrigued by him. That movie where 5 or 6 different actors played him was quite good I thought, but if I remember correctly, did not get very good reviews. I though Kate Blanchett (yeah, that’s right, a woman) played him best. Dylan was a master at hoodwinking the press- especially those from Rolling Stone magazine. Blanchett portrayed a couple of those press interviews in a masterful way.

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