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Marsked Marvel contest poster: Guess who he is?

Charley Patton, Bluesman {format} {format} 5:04 Barrett Golding

The man who made The Blues Man myth.

Broadcast: Mar 18 2004 on NPR Day to Day Subjects: Blues, Music, Historical

Profile: Life and legacy of Delta bluesman Charley Patton

March 18, 2004 from Day to Day

MADELEINE BRAND, host: At the turn of the century in the Mississippi delta, a new American sound could be heard coming out of picnics, parties and juke joints. A century ago, this music had no name. We now call it the blues. Producer Barrett Golding reports on the legacy of one of the godfathers of the Delta blues, Charley Patton.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CHARLEY PATTON (Musician): (Singing) I'm about to go to jail about this (unintelligible).


Having trouble making out these lyrics?

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

GOLDING: Well, you're not alone.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) ...Unintelligible) one thing.

GOLDING: Even when this record first came out in 1929, people couldn't understand Charley Patton.

Mr. BOOKER MILLER (Guitarist): I tell you what Charley had, he--just like you hear him singing there, he had a growl in his voice, you know what I mean? He didn't just speak clear like you or me.

GOLDING: Guitarist Booker Miller traveled and played with Patton.

Mr. MILLER: Man, he had a voice. He had a voice. And I did love to hear that voice.

(Soundbite from song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) There's women going crazy every day of their life.

Mr. COREY HARRIS (Guitarist and Singer): He was a master at rhythm, you know, very rhythmic, percussive.

GOLDING: Guitarist and singer Corey Harris.

Mr. HARRIS: He has a lot of tunes where he'd pinch a string.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. HARRIS: Charley Patton is, like, one of the bedrock individuals at the foundation of the 20th-century guitar style, you know, and also blues songwriting, and had a great influence on so many people, you know? He taught Pop Staples, who recently passed, how to play guitar. Robert Johnson learned from him. Honeyboy Edwards learned from him and played with him. You know, Son House was very much influenced by him.

Mr. HOWLIN' WOLF (Blues Musician): Man come through there picking a guitar called Charley Patton, and I liked his sound.

GOLDING: Howlin' Wolf recalls he was plowing mules on a plantation when Patton stopped by.

Mr. WOLF: So I always did want to play a guitar. So I got him to show me a few chords, you know? Every night that I'd get off from work, I'd go over to his house and he'd learn me how to pick the guitar. So I got good with it. I been playing ever since.

Mr. POP STAPLES (Blues Singer): Oh, yeah. Yeah, Charley Patton. We stayed on the same plantation.

GOLDING: Pop Staples of The Staple Singers...

Mr. STAPLES: Charley would play, play those breakdowns, you know? You know, Saturday-night suppers--in those days, that was swinging music, what they call it now. That would really swing.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) You can ...(unintelligible) you can hang it on the wall. A lot, a lot of dancing going on. You can ...(unintelligible) you can hang it on the wall.

Mr. HONEYBOY EDWARDS (Blues Singer): All the music about blues come out the delta nearby, off them plantations.

GOLDING: Honeyboy Edwards was another of the blues singers who roamed Mississippi in the 1920s.

Mr. EDWARDS: So I'm from the delta, the delta where they picking a lot of cotton and you gambling at the house, drinking whiskey, playing guitars, having a good time, eating barbecue. Put a whole hog on the barbecue grill, two men to turn it, and mopping it down with that hot sauce. It was good. Yeah. It was good, yeah.

(Soundbite of song)

PATTON: (Singing) ...(unintelligible) when the sun go down (unintelligible).

GOLDING: Honeyboy Edwards says if Charley Patton was in the crowd, there was bound to be trouble.

Mr. EDWARDS: He was a hell-raiser. He'd fight and drink a lot of white whiskey. He would drink himself dangerous.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. FRANCIS DAVIS (Author, "The History of the Blues"): Patton was kind of a man of mystery, a figure of legend, even in his own time. I think it's significant that he made records under the name the Masked Marvel because, you know, no one really quite knew who he was.

GOLDING: Francis Davis, author of "The History of the Blues," says Patton's a legend because we don't know much about him.

Mr. DAVIS: We know that he lived on various plantations, usually got into trouble. He was almost like a resident musician, almost like a resident songster on one of the plantations. He would often get in trouble for, as I think one plantation owner who fired him put it, you know, keeping the women up all night and making them useless for work the next day.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Now we'll sing a little song like this...

Mr. JIM O'NEAL (Living Blues Magazine) Apparently he was married numerous times.

GOLDING: Co-founder of Living Blues magazine, Jim O'Neal.

Mr. O'NEAL: I found a lot of marriage certificates in the state of Mississippi. It wasn't just him shacking up, he actually went through the process of getting a marriage certificate at least eight times. And I haven't found any divorce papers yet.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) I miss you all night long, oh, sugar.

GOLDING: Bigamist or not, Patton had a religious side.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) I hear you calling, O Lord.

GOLDING: He made records as the Elder J.J. Hadley.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Well, lordy...

GOLDING: He sang gospel with one of his wives, Bertha Lee.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON and Ms. BERTHA LEE: (Singing in unison) Still, still one morning...

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Oh, Lordy, when...

Mr. PATTON and Ms. LEE: (Singing in unison) ...I'm up in my room.

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Oh, Lordy, why...

Ms. LEE: (Singing) Still one morning when I'm up in my room.

GOLDING: Charley Patton's death, like his life, was the stuff of legend.

Mr. EDWARDS: Charley Patton, he died in 1934. Charley got cut on his neck, and he was just fighting with somebody, and Charley was 46 years old when he died, in 1934.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Oh, hey.

Ms. LEE: (Singing) Oh, hey.

Mr. PATTON and Ms. LEE: (Singing in unison) Somebody is calling me.

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) Oh, Lordy...

BRAND: That report from Barrett Golding, and it comes to us from the Hearing Voices radio project.

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.