Down the Dirt Road
The Songs of Charley Patton
While Robert Johnson captures the popular fancy, he had to learn to play guitar somewhere (unless you buy the Crossroads myth…). That somewhere, to some extent, is Charley Patton. Born in 1887 in Mississippi, Patton only graced the earth for 43 years, dying a few months after a recording session in New York (that yielded, in true “spooky blues” style, the song “Oh Death”). His output is scant, only around 60 songs or so, and they are split between eerie bottleneck blues and gospel numbers. It’s his arrangement of “I Shall Not Be Moved” that you are most familiar with, which is done well on this tribute CD by Paul Rishell and Annie Raines.
As brilliant and influential as he was, Patton is still rather unknown to the world at large, when compared to the Robert Johnsons and Son Houses of the blues scene. All this might be changing, however. The new Bob Dylan album, Love And Theft, features the song “High Water (For Charley Patton),” and a new seven-CD box set has been released on Revenent. So perhaps this tribute record is right on time. It serves as a good introduction to Patton’s music, and enables the novice listener to hear the songs without the limitations of the originals — which, having been originally released on 78s, haven’t aged well. The artists here play it rather straight — no prettying up the songs with elaborate backing or hip-hop beats, which is a relief. Standouts include Graham Parker on “Poor Me” and Steve James’ “Elder Greene Blues.” “Some of These Days” features Guy Davis, T-Bone Wolk, and Mark Murphy, with Levon Helm of The Band on drums. It’s a pity that Helm no longer has a singing voice, because his Arkansas-bred twang would do Patton justice.
If you don’t know Charley Patton, shame on you. If you’d like to learn, this is a good place to start. Once intrigued, move on to the various collections of his work available on Yazoo and other labels. You won’t be sorry.
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