Father of The Delta Blues
We always site blues legends like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, or B.B. King as the early blues innovators, which they are in every sense of the phrase. But, who influenced them? After all, like everything else, blues music has evolved over many years and has sprouted into various forms.
Due to the nature of the time period, technology was very basic and they did not have means to record high quality music, if at all. Therefore, we are left with very little evidence of the early blues players and they often become forgotten as time passes.
One of these great bluesmen is Charley Patton. Patton’s early history is a bit shaded and his exact date of birth is unknown. Historians predict that he was born somewhere around 1891 in a small region of Mississippi. His race and who he was raised by are also surprising mysteries surrounding Charley Patton. In his local community, it was rumored that he was fathered Henderson Chatmon, a former slave, who raised a lot of children you became musicians like Charley.
Although it has been highly disputed over the years, Patton is considered to be of mixed race: with white, black, and Native American ancestors. A major reason for all of this confusion about his life is because of limited tools to record information, lost records, and lack of photo evidence. In fact, there really is only one visible image of Patton circulating the internet today. This fact makes him elusive and that much more interesting. It is said that he moved to Mississippi to a cotton farm and developed his unique style of music.
Patton is considered to be the father, or even grandfather, of Delta blues, first because he was older than most of the artists who had recordings in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 20s and 30s. The techniques and styles he implemented are considered “normal repertoire” for Delta blues and have been replicated by many blues artists over the years.
Listen to a Charley Patton tune. The gravely, raw, and pure vocals cut right to your core and embody everything we associate with the blues. Standing at only five feet, five inches tall and weighing a slender 135lbs, it is hard to image this low growl sound came from Charley Patton. Patton’s guitar playing is so rhythmically strong that you can interpret a drum beat even though it isn’t there. It is said that Patton was “one of the original architects of putting blues intro a strong, syncopated rhythm.”
This is why Patton is so impressive; he didn’t have anything to base his sound on because no one was doing what he was doing. The pulse he releases from his instrument and his vocals is infectious and inspired an entire movement and defined a genre of music.
Charley Patton isn’t a main stream artist, especially in today’s society. But, back in his day, he was widely popular and recorded many hit songs that are still highly regarded as classic blues songs in the music community. He was also known for his entertaining live shows and energetic showmanship. You wouldn’t guess by listening to his music, but Patton would excite his audience by stomping his feet wildly, playing his guitar on his lap, and behind his head! We always thought Hendrix was the pioneer of behind the head playing.
Among blues musicians, Charley Patton is an important figure and is “almost universally hailed as the founding, defining genius, the source of a musical lineage that runs through Johnson to the Chicago masters and on to encompass virtually everything now called blues.” According to the White Stripes guitarist and record label owner Jack White, “Patton is the great grandfather of all American and Western music that has stood the test of time.” In his words, the blues sparked many other styles of music and helped to shape even current music.
Charley is not only popular for his own style and music but also for the musicians he helped shape. People like Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Son House acted like his “disciples that took his music and spread it across the Delta, to Chicago, and the rest of the world.”
Another great blues musician who was inspired by Charley Patton is Taj Mahal. He describes him as a “force of nature with an incredible voice.” Patton would sing in a way that sounded like he was calling and responding with himself. He would sing a line, then in the next would alter his voice slightly as if answering a question. This vocal technique was used by slaves in the field but was not heard on recorded music.
Without Charley, the blues might have taken a whole different turn. I encourage everyone to listen to his music and take a glimpse into musical history!