Charley Patton Reviewed
Charley Patton (et al.)Screamin' & Hollerin' the Blues -- The Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant)
It's more than chance, but not much more. There are a number of reasons why a prewar Delta bluesman like Robert Johnson found posthumous fame while Charley Patton's celebrity was all but buried with him. Johnson spread his music well beyond Mississippi, while Columbia Records had the sense to preserve his work. He had the Faustian legends surrounding his life. His album was strategically placed on the cover of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home in 1965. None of this happened to Patton, the Delta's first known blues star. Patton was a performer who whipped his crowds into a fervor, flinging his fluid guitar lines and exaggeratedly loud voice to packed houses throughout the region. Yet Patton never ventured very far, and by most accounts, led the nondescript life of a hard-drinking misogynist. When he finally got around to recording in 1929, his label Paramount was already in decline, limiting their distribution and cheapening manufacturing materials. The depression shuttered the label in 1932, and they sold their masters for scrap, leaving all evidence of Patton's work on a small number of well-played 78s. Those 52 sides, along with a wealth of associated material, fill out the deluxe 7-CD set Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues. No matter how astonishing this music is, sound quality isn't one of its virtues. And Patton's work was astonishing. His guitar playing was rhythmic and intricate; his slide work both delicate and gritty. And his voice, though largely put on with a vaudevillian flare, was convincing. Patton had an edge not heard before in blues music, the combination of his voice and the grind of his strings impossible to ignore. He was among the first singers from the folk/blues tradition to comment on current events, and to speak openly about racial discrimination. Since Patton's music belongs to the public domain, much of it has been available; in fact, there's at least one other complete collection of his recordings on the market. This, however, is clearly the one to own. Packaging is usually beside the point, no matter how elaborate, yet the attention to detail that went into this booklet, replicated to look like 78s, is remarkable. Calling it a labor of love is an understatement. This borders on fanaticism. Revenant had John Fahey as one its founders. Fahey wrote his dissertation on Patton, and he and partner Dean Blackwood had long planned this box set; it was well underway at the time of the guitarist's untimely death in February. With more than 100 dense pages in essays and ad reproductions, not to mention the reprint of Fahey's 1970 Patton bio in its entirety (and for 78 fetishists there's also a complete set of Paramount label stickers), it's easy to see how this project took well over two years to complete. That said, its eccentricities can be maddening. With its immense girth, it's hard to read the damn thing. And does it make sense to include a lot of material just because Patton might have been on the record? Or to have "orbit" recordings of Patton's peers, such as Son House, Tommy Johnson, Booker (Bukka) White, and latter-day devotees like Howlin' Wolf, plus an entire disc devoted to interviews? Yet one listen to the riveting recordings within and you understand the enthusiasm. Songs like "Rattlesnake Blues," "Prayer of Death," "Magnolia Blues," and "High Water Everywhere" hold their own with the best of Robert Johnson's work. People are just beginning to realize his worth. Just ask the Minnesotan who once drove a whole new generation to Johnson's door. What does Bob Dylan claim he'd record exclusively if making albums solely for his own pleasure? "Charley Patton songs."