Charley's Life


Charley's Life

Charley's Photos

Charley's Life Photos

Charley's Lyrics

Charley's Dictionary

Charley's Daughter




I'm goin' away, to a world unknown



In 1927, backwater done rose all around Sumner now, drove me down the line. When the wowda (water) done overflowed in my town, everyone got worry an’ started to leave to other towns. But it turn out dat the wowda spread all over the place. Now, look-a here now at Leland, river was risin' high. So, I planed to go to Greenville but the wowda done go there too. I thought maybe that Vicksberg hadn’ been touched but it had wowda there too! Sharkey County and everything was down in Stovall; I felt like I couln’ go no where. Tallahatchie and old Jackson Road was flooded an’ I jus’ don’ know where to go. Maybe I'll go where it's high. Maybe I will go to the hilly country, but, they got me barred. I guess I can say I'm goin' away, to a world unknown.


Way down in Lula, hard livin' done hit in 1934 when a drought come an’ parched up all the trees. The town almos’ went under when that drought come. The farmahs, was a-doin’ real good ‘till it wouldn’ rain. By and by, the farmahs los’ all their business and had gone broke. Well, I had no more money an’ I felt like my hope gone too. Boy, they tell me the country, Lord, it'll make you cry. The feil’s was all dried up an’ brown. Even the bayou had no wowda (water). The womens an’ mens in town woul’ fight wit’ each other, an’ browl. Me an’ my Doe woul’ fight all the time. Lordie, I wish it woul’ jus’ rain fo’ one day.

By me ~ All spelling, speach and grammar is how Charley might have talked.

(May 1, 1891-April 28, 1934) Charley Patton was an American Delta blues musician, and one of the first mainstream stars of that genre. Patton, who was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near Edwards or Bolton, lived most of his life in Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta, was extremely popular across the U.S. South, and (in contrast to the itinerant wanderering of most blues musicians of his time) was invited to perform at plantations and taverns. He is considered by many to be the "Father of Delta Blues".

He is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta blues man (Palmer, 1995). Palmer considers him among the most important musicians that America produced in the twentieth century.

Patton was born in Southern Mississippi, near Edwards at an uncertain date. In 1900, however, his family moved 100 miles north to the legendary Dockery Plantation sawmill and cotton farm near Ruleville, Mississippi. It was here that both John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf fell under the Patton spell. It was also here that Robert Johnson played his first guitar.

At Dockery, Charlie fell under the spell of Henry Sloan who had an unusual new style of playing music which we would recognize today as very early blues.

Charlie followed Henry Sloan around like a puppy and by the time he was about 19 in 1910 he was an accomplished performer and composer, having already composed his theme song "Pony Blues".

Long before Jimi Hendrix he was the entertainer's entertainer with dazzling showmanship, often playing guitar on his knees and behind his head, as well as behind his back.

Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5 and 135 pounds, the sound of his whiskey-and cigarette-scarred voice was rumored to have carried for over 500 yards without amplification. This gritty voice was a major influence in the singing style of one of his students, Howlin Wolf.

Patton died on the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola from heart disease on April 28, 1934 and is buried in Holly Ridge (both towns are located in Sunflower County).

1891 - Charley Patton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi near Edwards or Bolton.

1895 - The Patton family moves near Edwards Depot.

1900 - Moves to Dockery's plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi

1905/1907 - He gets guitar lessons from Earl Harris of Cleveland, and learns You Take My Woman and Maggie 1908 - Lives with Millie Barnes, and has a baby girl named Willie Mae

1910 - Some of his songs include: Pony Blues, Banty Rooster Blues, Mississippi BoWeavil, and Down The Dirt Road

1916 - Offered a position in W.C. Handy's band

1922 - Marries Mandy France on Oss Pepper's plantation

1926 - Willie Brown becomes his duet partner

1929 - Records fourteen titles for Paramount Records at Richmond, Indiana

1932 - Final Paramount recording is released

1932 - Marries an overseer's daughter in Morgan City, Mississippi

1933 - Almost killed when his throat is slit near Holly Ridge

1934 - (January 30 - February 1) - Records twenty-six titles for ARC in New York

1934 - Dies of heart failure on the Heathman-Dedham plantation

On June 14, 1929, Charley Patton descended into Richmond’s “Starr Valley” and stepped inside the recording studio along the railroad tracks. The man who many call "King of the Delta Blues," the greatest of all the blues performers from Mississippi, had come to Richmond to make his own recordings for the very first time. With his guitar in hand, Patton leaned into the microphone and began to sing: "It's a little bo weevil, she's moving in the air, Lordy/You can plant your cotton and you won't get half a cent, Lordy".

Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues ignited the short (1929-34) but significant recording career of Charley Patton, who was born in 1887 on a farm between Edwards and Bolton, Mississippi. Although details of his earliest years are sketchy at best, he seems to have been born into the Chatmon family, his birth father Henderson Chatmon having sired Lonnie and Sam, of Mississippi Sheiks fame, and hokum blues specialist Bo Carter. His mother was Amy Patton, who with her husband Bill Patton and young Charley, moved to the Dockery Plantation outside Ruleville, Mississippi in 1897. It was in the communal setting at Dockery that Charley received his musical upbringing and learned and created the songs that would carry him through the rest of his life. He learned to play guitar here, and between Dockery and the Webb Jennings Plantation in the nearby town of Drew, there resided a veritable Who's Who of blues musicians. Pioneers of the idiom such as Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Dick Bankston, and Roebuck "Pops" Staples (patriarch of The Staples Singers) were within easy reach during these years. In this environment, musical cross pollination was likely, and it is clear that Patton influenced them all. Son House would come down to visit from his home in the Clarksdale area, and he admits he learned from Patton. The great Howlin' Wolf was another Dockery denizen, and took guitar lessons from Charley Patton. Wolf’s vocal style even resembles Patton’s gravel-throated rasp.

Patton had a varied repertoire from which to draw by the time he left Dockery not only blues songs, but ballads, ragtime numbers, and traditional tunes born of both black and white cultures. Bill Patton was an elder at the church on the plantation, and though by no means a religious man, Charley was schooled in spirituals. More than a mere blues singer, Charley Patton was a songster, a man who easily tapped into this diverse background, all the while creating his own songs. Throughout the early 1920s he came and went from Dockery, plying his craft around the Mississippi Delta at fish fries, dances, and jook joints, on the streets, and even at logging camps in the region. He is remembered as a great entertainer, one who delighted audiences with his "clowning," dancing on his guitar, or playing behind his back.

Patton moved to Merigold, Mississippi in 1924 and took up housekeeping with one of his common-law wives while maintaining the life of a troubadour. Five years later he left Merigold for Clarksdale and at this time came into the acquaintance of one of the most important figures in 20th century American music, H.C. Speir. Speir was a white man who ran a furniture store on Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi. He sold Victrolas and as was the custom of the time, phonograph records to play on the machines. Because he catered to a black clientele, his market was in "race" records, which featured the blues and sanctified sounds of African-American culture of the period. More significantly, Speir scouted talent for early race labels, including Gennett, which recorded William Harris, Speir’s first “find,” in 1927 in Birmingham, Alabama. H.C. Speir's other "discoveries" include many of the biggest names among blues, hillbilly, and even gospel pioneers. The shape of the musical landscape we know today would be far different if not for Speir. Patton came into contact with Speir, who was impressed enough to dispatch Charley north to commit his songs to shellac. Paramount utilized Marsh Laboratories in Chicago as their recording studios, but decided to construct their own facilities in Grafton, Wisconsin, not far from company headquarters in Port Washington. During this transitional period, Paramount contracted with Gennett Records to record Paramount artists, and as a result, Charley Patton came to Richmond’s Whitewater Gorge in the late spring of 1929.

Patton laid down some of his finest and best-selling sides on June 14, 1929, a total of fourteen in all. Singing along with his guitar, Charley told animated tales of bo weevil and his wife gone to wreak havoc through the land of King Cotton, and autobiographical tales of trying to keep one step ahead of the local sheriff. "When you get in trouble, there's no use of screaming and crying...mmmmm/Tom Rushen will take you back to Cleveland a-flying," he sang in Tom Rushen Blues, about real-life Sheriff O.T. Rushing. In Pea Vine Blues, Patton’s lyrics are about a branch of the Southern Railroad that connected Clarksdale with Greenwood, and ran through many of the towns in which he lived and traveled. Pony Blues, the first song actually released from the Richmond session (b/w Banty Rooster Blues), was a number known to Patton for many years. Charley's hard-living lifestyle was reflected in his selection of other songs to record. The lyrics of Spoonful Blues deal with the protagonist's willingness to kill his lover's man over cocaine. The bawdy Shake It And Break It But Don't Let It Fall Mama features choruses such as: "You can snatch it, you can grab it, you can break it, you can push it/Any way that a fellow can get it./I ain't had my right mind, since I blowed in town./My jelly, my roll, please mama, don't you let it fall".

In contrast, the remaining songs in the session were concerned with mortality and spiritual matters. Prayer of Death, in two parts begins with a somber introduction spoken by Charley: "The Prayer Of Death. Tone (toll?) the bell! Time to just tone (?) the bell again. Tell them to sing a little song like this". The first side contains sparse lyrics, while the second opens with lines alternately sung and spoken, then continues: "Ever since my mother's been dead/Trouble's been rolling all over my head/I've been 'buked and I been scorned/I've been talked about sure as you're born," and after a repeat, "Hold to God's unchanging.../Pin your hopes on things eternal." In the final two numbers, Charley Patton seems to find even more solace in life everlasting. Lord, I'm Discouraged finds him lamenting, "Sometimes I get discouraged. I believe my work is in vain. And then, hope. But the Holy Spirit whispers, and revive my mind again." The chorus: "There'll be glory, what a glory when we reach that other shore./There'll be glory, what a glory, praying to Jesus evermore./I'm on my way to glory, that happy land so fair/I'll soon reside with God's army, with the Saints of God up there".

Charley Patton may have seen the Light, but he continued to live hard and fast. He had a large appetite for alcohol, and troubles with the law were not uncommon. His throat was slashed badly in a 1930 altercation in Cleveland, Mississippi, from which he recovered. Around this same time in Lula, Mississippi, Charley met and "married" the last of his common-law wives, one Bertha Lee Pate, a blues singer half his age, and theirs was a tempestuous relationship. The old jailhouse still stands in Belzoni, Mississippi where Charley and Bertha Lee were both incarcerated following a particularly bad fight. Charley recounted the story in his High Sheriff Blues.

Patton recorded many more records for the Paramount and Vocalion labels in the next few years, at Grafton, Wisconsin, and at studios in New York City. He was often accompanied by Son Sims on fiddle or Willie Brown on second guitar. Bertha Lee added vocals to some of the dates as well. Patton and Bertha Lee traveled to New York for what would be his final sessions on January 30th and February 1st in 1934. The couple had settled in tiny Holly Ridge, Mississippi in 1933, and by this time Charley was suffering from a heart ailment that left him chronically breathless and often drained after performances. Upon Charley’s return from the sessions in New York City, his health began to deteriorate rapidly, and he was hospitalized in Indianola, Mississippi on April 17, 1934. He died at a house at 350 Heathman Street in Indianola on April 28, 1934. He is buried next to a cotton gin in a Mississippi Delta cemetery in Holly Ridge.

Charley Patton was a giant of American roots music, a major influence on his contemporaries and on the generations that followed. Performers who left the South in the Great Northern Migration carried Charley’s music to cities such as Detroit and Chicago, where it was handed down and adapted in ensuing decades. Patton left indelible impressions on Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, and Honeyboy Edwards, who is still alive and playing to this day, not to mention the more contemporary Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan, whose Frankie And Albert, Dirt Road Blues, and High Water (for Charley Patton) pay tribute to Patton’s music. Although Patton never officially recorded for Gennett Records, he did make his debut recordings in the Gennett studio and significantly contributed to the rich Gennett legacy as a result.


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