Charley Patton has been called the Founder of the Delta Blues. He blazed a trail as the music's preeminent entertainer and recording artist during the first third of the 20th century. Born between Bolton and Edwards, Mississippi, in April 1891, Patton was of mixed black, white and native American ancestry. In the early 1900s his family moved to the Dockery plantation. Patton's travels took him from Louisiana to New York, but he spent most of his time moving from plantation to plantation, entertaining fieldhands at jukehouse dances and country stores, acquiring numerous wives and girlfriends along the way. The emotional sway he held over his audiences caused him to be tossed off of more than one plantation, because workers would leave crops unattended to listen to him play.
Although Patton was roughly five feet, five inches tall and only weighed 135 pounds, his gravelly, high-energy singing style made him sound like a man twice his size. An accomplished and inventive guitarist and lyricist, he was a flamboyant showman as well, spinning his guitar, playing it behind his head and slapping it for rhythmic effect. He also preached in local churches, played for the deacons of New Jerusalem M.B. Church here and recorded religious songs, folk ballads, dance tunes, and pop songs.
His most popular and influential record was the
Paramount release that paired "Pony Blues" with "Banty Rooster Blues." Other Patton songs were noteworthy for their references to specific people, places and topical events in the Delta. "High Water Everywhere," a dramatic two-part account of the death and despair wrought by the great 1927 flood, is often regarded as his masterpiece. His songs offered social commentary and provided propulsive music for dancing. Patton sometimes employed multiple spoken voices to create his own cast of characters. While he was an inspiration to many musicians, including Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Bukka White, Honeyboy Edwards, and even Bob Dylan, the individualistic quality of his singing and playing was so inimitable that relatively few blues artists ever attempted to record Patton songs. Patton's last wife, Bertha Lee, lived with him in Holly Ridge and recorded with him at his final session in New York for Vocalion Records in 1934. Patton died of mitral valve disorder at the age of 43.