It’s difficult for the modern listener to fully appreciate what Charley Patton’s music must have meant to people who lived when it was made. First is the problem of time. Although we can connect to music before our time, there’s something different between being there in the moment and listening through the earpiece of time. A young kid who today hears Elvis Presley for the first time might enjoy the music, but can the music really have the kind of meaning it must have had for a listener in 1954 hearing him for the first time?
Charley Patton, whose birth date is unknown and who died on died April 28, 1934, is often called “The King of the Delta Blues.” He was a huge star in the South in the late 1920’s. He’d pack any place he played, and audiences loved him. By all accounts the 135-lb and 5-foot-5-inch man was a great guitar player and entertainer. He was a big influence on younger blues men who would become legends themselves, like Robert Johnson and Son House.
Another reason it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the value of his music is that there are a limited number of his songs preserved for us. And those songs we can hear are poor quality copies of heavily played and scratched 78 rpm records. Paramount, the recording company that made his records in 1929 and 1930 went out of business and sold the metal masters of the records as scrap metal. The masters of the recordings of the popular and influential Patton ended up lining chicken coops. Too bad he was born before the time when anyone can post anything on YouTube.
Here’s one of his songs from one of the copies of those scratched up records. Don’t worry if you can’t pick out the words in the rambling song about cocaine addiction. Just feel the music. Try your best to close your eyes, sway your body, and hear the music as it was heard for the first time . . . when the haunting music meant the world to those who heard it.
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