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Debate in the Delta

Who was the king of blues singers? An exhaustive new set makes the case for obscure Charley Patton.

January 27, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

Almost everything about pop music is subject to debate--from naming the best Beatles album to figuring out whether Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" or the Crows' "Gee" was the first true rock 'n' roll hit.

It has long been possible, however, to take comfort in at least one certainty: Robert Johnson was the king of the Delta blues singers.

Thanks to a small but enormously influential body of work in the late 1930s, Johnson, the illegitimate son of a Mississippi sharecropper, helped inspire generations of blues and rock musicians, from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones. The latter's version of Johnson's "Love in Vain" is a masterpiece of romantic anguish.

Bob Dylan even toasted Johnson, who died in 1938 at age 37, by featuring a Johnson album prominently in the cover photo of his 1965 album "Bringing It All Back Home."

So why is there suddenly all this talk about Charley Patton?

Dylan contributed to the buzz last fall by dedicating a song to Patton in his Grammy-nominated "Love and Theft" album. He piqued curiosity even more by declaring in an interview that if he were just making records for his own pleasure, he would "only record Charley Patton songs."

Revenant Records, a tiny, Austin, Texas, label founded by the late guitarist John Fahey, has now stirred the Patton fires further with a seven-disc boxed set, "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton."

The project seems absurdly ambitious at first glance--the packaging is so lavish that the set weighs 7 pounds. The price is equally hefty--about $175 in most stores.

"Screamin'" contains not only all 50 or so recordings Patton made between 1929 and his death from heart failure in 1934, but also nearly a dozen more recordings he played on (or "possibly" played on). There is also a disc devoted to some of Patton's peers (including Ma Rainey and Furry Lewis) and followers (Howlin' Wolf, the Staple Singers), as well as a paperbound copy of Fahey's 1970 master's thesis on Patton.

It's hard not to be intrigued.

Patton recorded with the same raw, primal approach as Johnson, but seven years earlier. As you hear him drawing from the various pop, folk and blues strains of the time, you get the sense of someone instinctively trying to stitch together a new art form.

"What Patton portrays brilliantly is the uncanny feeling that the real forces controlling him are not forces outside himself, but dimly beheld, obscure 'jinxes' which hang over him and cloud his thoughts like a pall," Fahey wrote in his thesis.

It sure sounds as if we've got another debate on our hands.

The enthusiasm of Dylan and Fahey aside, Patton is little known outside hard-core blues circles, partly because his music isn't as easy to absorb as Johnson's and because it hasn't been promoted as aggressively by a major label.

A Grammy-winning, two-disc Johnson retrospective, "The Complete Recordings," has sold more than 2 million copies since its release by Columbia Records in 1990.

Patton recorded the bulk of his material in 1929 for Paramount Records, which closed a few years later and sold Patton's original recording masters for scrap. The material then went into public domain, meaning any label could pick it up.

That free access would seem to be a help in getting someone's music exposed, but it has the opposite effect. No major label wants to invest in re-releasing the old Patton records because budget labels would be free to release the same material and profit from the major label's promotion campaign. There's also the problem of sound quality. Without the master recordings, labels would have to turn to scratchy old 78s as source material.

Patton's name has popped up enough in blues histories for roots-minded music fans to search out his records on small, indie labels, including Yazoo and Catfish, but Patton's vocals are frequently so hard to decipher that most listeners probably just wrote him off.

Even on the new set, which benefits from sonic upgrading, it's virtually impossible to follow Patton's vocals because of his careless diction and tendency to drop syllables or even whole words. Thankfully, the Revenant team includes lyrics as part of its obsessive attention to detail, as well as detailed accounts of each song.

As folk-music scholar Dick Spottswood points out in one of the set's historical essays, there is a strong sense of spontaneity to Patton's recordings--as if they were always works in project with the recording session version being no more definitive than the version he might sing a week or year later in a club.

Using the perspective provided by the set's essays, you can follow Patton's musical path with far more ease and appreciation than before--and it's a fascinating journey.

Patton, who was born in rural Mississippi around 1890, was already a popular entertainer throughout the Mississippi Delta by the time he started recording for Paramount in June 1929. His first singles sold so well in the South that he was brought back four months later to record more songs.

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