Oracle Testimony

Charley Patton is a star, specifically one of those stars that are more distinct in your peripheral vision than when you look directly at them in the night sky. Among the first recorded generation of country blues practitioners he was the king. There are testimonials to and recorded evidence of his influence; his greatness can be gleaned from the 50 solo sides, plus two collaborations with Bertha Lee, that were issued over a period of five years up to his death in 1934. But these recordings were badly and cheaply made, no masters have survived, and some of the records are known from just a single heavily battered copy.

There survive one photograph of Patton, a handful of documents (he was a champion serial monogamist who got married at least eight times), and a fund of oral recollections by a range of witnesses—some of them contradictory, many of variable reliability. Other obstacles to full understanding include the fact that although he was a world-historical artist he came in a localized, even provincial package, which means among other things that his pronunciation and many of the allusions in his songs are difficult if not impenetrable for listeners who do not happen to have lived in the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the 20th century. Add to all this the increasingly compelling suggestion that Patton was primarily interested in process, that his recordings are just as semi-improvised as and no more definitive than any performance he executed at a given fish fry in 1917 or 1926 or 1932.

"Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues," the box set that Revenant has devoted to the mystery of Charley Patton, is very nearly the size of the two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, easily the most lavish set I have ever seen in a long career of looking covetously at lavish box sets. It is packaged to resemble a 78 album, complete with slipbox, the seven CDs attached to 10-inch cardboard discs that fit into exact reproductions of the printed sleeves employed by Paramount and Vocalion records. There are large-scale copies of all the ads Paramount took out on Patton's behalf and sheets of stickers of every label of every side he issued. There is a freestanding replica of John Fahey's long out-of-print book about Patton, so fetishistically detailed it includes the library stamp on the copyright page. All this sumptuousness, destined for a limited market given its retail price of something like 175 potatoes, or roughly twice what Patton made in a month (note that "scream and holler" is rhyming slang for "dollar"), has a point beyond the usual targeting of Dutch completists and rockers turned cosmetic surgeons. It is intended to be an appropriate memorial to an artist who will never get his Lincoln Center tribute, and it is also a repository of just about everything known about him, a kind of forensic portrait.

The founder’s one surviving photograph
photo: courtesy of Revenant Records
The founder’s one surviving photograph


Charley Patton
"Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues": The Worlds of Charley Patton

One reason there are seven CDs, for example, instead of the two or three that could handily contain all 52 sides plus the four unissued outtakes (where'd they get those?), is because five CDs are devoted to the entire recording sessions—not just Patton, but the people he brought along to the studio in his capacity as unofficial talent scout: Son House, Son Sims, Willie Brown, Buddy Boy Hawkins, Louise Johnson, Edith North Johnson, and the Delta Big Four. You get some interplay, echoing motifs, a bit of crosstalk here and there, even newspaper headlines being read by impresario H.C. Speir, and maybe you can begin to get an impression of the atmosphere there in the recording studio at Paramount, a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company, in Port Washington, Wisconsin, of all places. Some sonically peripheral business on these sides is detectable maybe for the first time thanks to the amazing job of remastering done on them—the ones that always sounded okay sound brilliant, while "Joe Kirby," say, is at least identifiable as a song rather than a mess of scratches.

The collection is exhaustive and then some, but exhaustiveness per se seems less the point than gestalt. Patton is being summoned, and now and again he walks into the room. The 128 pages of notes—bound into the album, rendering them exceedingly inconvenient for subway reading—include a lot of biographical matter I've never seen anywhere else. Bear in mind that Patton has heretofore been painted as a wastrel, a yokel, all but a beggar, a purely accidental genius. The obsessive and bizarre Stephen Calt, who wrote the notes to both Yazoo anthologies and co-wrote the only full-scale biography, managed to argue for Patton's brilliance at the same time that he dumped all over his personality, on the basis of mere shreds of evidence. "He must have been the very stereotype of the bad plantation nigger"—the sentence compresses whole chapters of speculative defamation. Calt's depiction grafted cartoon beatnik onto racist caricature. The texts here, however, make clear that Patton was literate, a spontaneous if intermittent preacher, maybe the only black man at the time with influence on record company a&r, and, of course, a self-sufficient professional musician, who toured widely, earned respectable amounts of folding money, and drove new cars.

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