A winning celebration of a talent that shouts loud from the past.
Ninian Dunnett 2012-02-22
History slips away from us pretty fast. There’s only one photograph of Charlie Patton: a stone-faced fellow in a suit and bow-tie, fingers poised over his guitar fretboard like he’s waiting for a manicure. What he looked like smiling, we can only guess. We can’t even get his name right on album covers. Still, the music of this stern-looking man is the closest connection we have to the birth of the blues, and therefore to the making of pop as we know it.
Born in 1891, Patton grew up on the Mississippi Delta plantations at a time when the music was likelier gospel or country hoedowns than that new-fangled fad, the blues. Becoming a local star, though, he was formidable in shaping the genre. By the time he recorded these songs (from 1929 until just before his death in 1934) he had already popularised a compelling style that would spread through younger men like Son House, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, all the way to the 60s blues boom.
And, actually, it’s not hard to imagine Charlie Patton smiling as he made his wage playing for house parties, dances and picnics. His rasping bullfrog voice is rich and insistent, and he was a famous showman, playing the guitar behind his back and improvising topical lyrics of Delta life. His instrumental technique marshals a rhythmic dance of throbbing bass, strummed chords, fingerpicked lead, sliding high notes and percussive tapping. There’s an urgent, dynamic variety, even on the wailing one-chord Mississippi Boweavil Blues.
Remastered versions of Patton’s old 78s have been around for a number of years, but there are limits to what technology can do; the tracks fog and swirl with the eerie percussion of a gramophone needle on scratched shellac. Still, this is a winning celebration not just of our musical ancestry, but of the larger-than-life personality – part high priest, part comedian, part lothario – that bewitched biographers like John Fahey and Robert Crumb, and prompted Bob Dylan to confess that if he was playing music just for his own pleasure, Patton’s songs are all he would ever sing.