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.
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.
Nearly everything known about Patton comes from oral testimony, which is naturally subject to human vulnerability. Besides that, Patton himself undermines the always sorry business of trying to find a portrait of the artist in the work. His tangible anger in combination with his abrasive guttural roar and his variably decipherable pronunciation persuaded certain white listeners that he had climbed out of the ditch to make his recordings. Like a poet, he seems to have sometimes used the first person to relate the experiences of others—”A Spoonful Blues” has a different narrator in every line. Like many male poets he was a tomcat, so that a jealous husband once cut his throat at a party; the fastidious Son House didn’t like Patton’s free-associative methods nor his acrobatic guitar stunts. And so on. Imagine if Jimi Hendrix’s discography consisted only of feeble cassette copies of the first three albums, and his biography was limited to the Monterey guitar-burning incident and the testimony of Cynthia Plaster Caster.
Patton was angry. Patton gargled with lye and gravel. Patton sang about things he saw and felt and also, like many of his contemporaries, threw in verse after verse of free-floating readymade folk-lyric filler. Patton played blues—probably learned blues from the first generation of musicians to employ the 12-bar template—and he also played ballads and rags and white country breakdowns and Tin Pan Alley tunes. He cut and folded songs into other songs, made collages of fragments (“Prayer of Death,” for instance, is woven from at least four distinct elements). He made his guitar talk and shout and pray. Greil Marcus’s line about Robert Johnson, that his guitar could sound like an entire rock & roll band, is even more true of Patton, who could play lead, rhythm, and bass all at the same time and vary them constantly (I still haven’t heard too many bands that sound as full as Patton solo on “Mississippi Boweavil Blues”). He was musically restless, crawling with ideas, profligate with inventions. On the evidence of the unissued takes you strongly suspect that he seldom played a number the same way twice. You figure that in performance he thrived on interruptions and spontaneous dialogue with the audience, so that when he played alone in the studio he needed to supply the voices of imaginary interlocutors.
Like many other artists of his time, from Picasso to Joyce to Buddy Bolden, he was interested in tearing up his material and stitching it back together in unexpected ways, and he also wanted to show things as they looked from the front, back, and sides all at once. He was an all-around entertainer and he was also an oracle. He was haunted. He summoned spirits from the vasty deep. He manages the trick of asserting control while expressing lack of control. His voice can be so threatening it makes that of his disciple Howlin’ Wolf sound avuncular by comparison. He has seen devastation, disaster, horror, anguish. He has been buffeted by winds, traveled outside his body, glimpsed heaven for a minute, died many times before his hour came. He conveys all this while getting people up on the floor to dance. Even after you have absorbed every fiber and strand of this enormous collection of particulars you will still not know Patton, but you will have a sense of the number and variety of his contradictions.