Graded on a Curve: Charley Patton, The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One

Third Man Records has joined forces with the certifiable old-time jukebox that is the Document label to commence a rather stellar series of vinyl reissues, with its first three subjects responsible for some of the most vital music produced in the early years of sound recording. Maybe the most important is Charley Patton. He’s credited as an integral ingredient in the shaping of the blues, but his stuff remains captivating even when heard apart from the circumstances of history. Separating Patton from his legacy is in the end an impossible and undesirable task, however; Patton’s The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One is the first installment in a sequence that will not only bring huge insights to new generations but will additionally provide an inexhaustible source of pure listening pleasure.

For many a young rock-weaned listener who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the first encounter with the blues was provided through the electrified strains that emerged from cities like Memphis, Detroit, and of course Chicago, with the amplified blues holding the closest relationship to the rock music that had absorbed, altered and in some cases betrayed the form.

To ears that held no firsthand experience with the often severe climates that shaped the early portion of last century, the more modern sensibilities of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and even the less urbanized, at times quite eccentric sides issued by guitarists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker still made sense when considered in rock terms, a set of ideas that held a dominant sway on the young minds that so often salivated for insight into the circumstances behind the stuff that helped to define their youthful musical interests.

The sounds that originated from the Mississippi Delta in the ’20s-‘30s, often talked about as a locus for so many of rock’s big advances in the ‘60s-‘70s, represented a distance of only a few decades, but for adolescents hearing them for the first time, the gulf between surface-noise compromised acoustic performances that were reliably rendered solo and the unblemished, full-bodied, full-band recordings of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton could feel huge and unsurprisingly alienating.

In researching it outside of the rock context, the early acoustic blues was often referred to as the “country-blues,” a handle that depending on the reader could greatly lessen its potential allure, forming a faulty association with the country & western genre, a form that for years was incorrectly associated by rock and pop listeners as being retrograde.

But the biggest problem in grappling with the early blues was the often deeply alien nature of its sound; Muddy Waters connected like and indeed essentially played rock ‘n’ roll, but the blues as it stretched throughout the American South via shadowy, uncelebrated troubadours in the years between the two World Wars was often so severe in emotional content and musical structure that one first hearing it frequently proved impenetrable.

Yes, it’s true that with the right guidance or through a smartly compiled and annotated primer, the early blues could be related to an inexperienced rock-fueled receivership with great success. But in the late-‘70s-early-‘80s there seemed a general disinterest in cultivating eager young minds. The acoustic blues was still the stuff of a folk audience, a bunch that often possessed a lingering distaste for rock and amplified music in general.

Many in the folk crowd predictably dismissed the innovations in electricity (and just as importantly, ensemble sound) that emanated from such locales as Sun Studios and Chess Records, leaving it to the unwashed rock fans, many of whom just as predictably ate it up candy. This folkie/rocker divide didn’t necessarily find itself expressed in an overt way, but it was indeed there. However the opposing sides weren’t really at odds so much as simply inhabiting different areas on the same spectrum, so it was almost inevitable that something would end up bringing them together.

That something was Robert Johnson. The initial compiling of the music from this legendary and crucial figure came in 1961 and was specifically targeting Americana-obsessed folk fans. By the time the second volume was issued in 1970, the rock audience had been tipped-off to the guy mainly through the covering and persistent championing of Clapton. Still, it was easier to absorb ol’ Slow Hand’s (or if you prefer, God’s) other blues-based influences like Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson, an electric blues titan that Clapton actually played with in The Yardbirds.

Those two Johnson volumes were adorned with the title King of the Delta Blues Singers and this rather bold claim combined with Clapton’s oft-expressed regard and the relative ease of locating the Columbia-issued records to make a journey into the doomed stylist’s work quite irresistible.

It could prove a slow process; the first time this writer heard Johnson was on a college-radio show, and even after a few years of absorbing the delights of Waters, Wolf, and Hooker, the utter desperation and naked, razor-sharp intensity of the undiluted Delta blues was an experience of deep confusion.

But if bewildering it was even more intriguing, and by the time Columbia packaged Johnson’s complete recordings into a two-CD set, the code was cracked for a large number of hungry rock fans. And once this happened it seemed like the flood-gates were opened. Interest in a slew of once formidable names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Skip James, and Blind Willie Johnson gained momentum and through time well spent the music they made, stuff that once sounded sourced from another world (and in a sense it actually was) became common currency.

With all this exposure, the claims made on behalf of Johnson as champion of the Delta-variety of the early blues began to seem like complete exaggeration. He wasn’t the greatest, but simply one brilliant artist amongst many. The music of the Delta was wildly diverse in its many permutations, so disparate in fact that awarding any one player-singer with an Ali-like title felt, if not ludicrous, than certainly quite suspect.

Nothing made this situation clearer than experiencing the work of Charley Patton. Curiously, the music of this typically mysterious figure was also awarded with labels of great distinction, two of which were King of the Delta Blues (the lack of the appellation Singer surely meant to designate Patton’s stature as an all-around musician) and Founder of the Delta Blues.

These descriptions were used by the Yazoo label as titles for compilations of Patton’s work, the later a 2LP set in 1970 and the former a CD collection two decades after, and like the declaration made on behalf of Johnson, they can surely connect as record-company hyperbole meant to entice buyers flipping through LPs for something they just can’t do without.

Except that in Patton’s case, calling him Founder (or the minor variant Father) of the Delta Blues actually comes fairly close to flat objectivity. While Freddie Spruell is generally thought to be responsible for the first recording of the style in 1927, his precedent followed shortly thereafter by Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, and Garfield Akers, none of these talented players expressed the depth of artistry that’s in evidence on the songs Patton cut for Gennett and Paramount in 1929, an achievement that remains basically unmatched.

While Tommy Johnson was a superb, extremely versatile singer and Son House an intensely gifted player, neither possessed Patton’s combined talents as vocalist and guitarist or the sheer reach of his repertoire. What’s more, research has uncovered that Johnson and House were both essentially Patton protégés, something they shared with other Delta bluesmen like Willie Brown, Henry Sims, and Fiddlin’ Joe Martin.

The entirety of Patton’s recorded output has been compiled onto CD numerous times, with the best example being Revenant Records’ award-winning and rather exquisite 7CD set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, a collection infused with music by his contemporaries and songs and interviews from those he influenced. Those on a budget could also seek out less elaborate packages or the single volume sets issued by Document Records.

Those with an interest in the American music captured onto 78s in the first half of the 20th century will likely know Document as the instigator of a truly titanic and admirable undertaking, that of making available every blues and old-time recording known to exist. That’s a lot of CDs, so many in fact that Document’s quest is frankly best considered, at least by those of us not currently residing in rustic mansions or abandoned warehouses, in its purely digital form.

However, the news that Document was going to team up with Jack White’s Third Man Records to issue the complete recordings of Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and The Mississippi Sheiks was greeted with all the appropriate hoopla, for music of this undiminished importance and constantly increasing vintage positively begs for top-notch presentation on the vinyl format.

That’s what made Yazoo’s aforementioned Founder of the Delta Blues such a kick. But here’s the rub; Patton’s complete works, some of the most amazing music produced in the last hundred years, while again collected in a studious, loving manner lots of times, has never really been corralled in such a deluxe manner on multi-volume vinyl.

Yes, the Italian Monk label dumped Patton’s stuff in rather willy-nilly fashion onto four albums a couple years ago, but needless to say their endeavor radiated quite the mercantile vibe, and while not odious, it was somewhat underwhelming. Not so with the first volume of The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order; it offers everything from Patton’s inaugural Gennett session and the first song from his second date with Paramount with the promise of more on the way.

By the time Third Man and Document are finished with his legacy, any fresh-faced newbie with the gumption and a little extra spending cash (on top of everything, these babies are very well priced, especially for 180gm pressings) can pick these up and be privy to the linear progress of a true musical giant.

Right from the start it’s apparent why Patton’s music has survived and grown in reputation, for “Mississippi Boweavil Blues,” even after its familiarity to these ears over the span of nearly a quarter century, still feels almost ready to burst at the seams with the barely harnessed energy of its dense, minimal content. Patton’s voice is rough but fleet and possessed with an unpolished soulfulness that connects him to yet another of the musicians that fell under his vast influence, Chester Burnett aka The Howlin’ Wolf.

And the guitar playing, knotty but riveting in its dynamic vigor as it shrewdly builds in intensity and momentum, combines with Patton’s voice to provide a three minute taste of flat-out mastery in the very first song the man ever recorded. It’s a tune so killer that it also turns up on the Harry Smith-compiled old-time bible The Anthology of American Folk Music, and for good reason. While the singing and the guitar still relate very heavily to right now, the content of Patton’s lyrics is very much of its specific moment; that damned boweavil was eating up the cotton and bumming almost everybody out.

This contrasts rather well with “Tom Rushen Blues,” a rather laid-back if still powerful tale of law-enforcement troubles. While the slide guitar in this song is a treat, it’s really the emotion in Patton’s voice and the humor in his lyrics that make the tune so illuminating. While many persist in thinking that old-time music is an artistic manifestation of a much simpler world, in reality it wasn’t really less complex but just different; it was an environment where Charley Patton could poke-fun at the police who gave him a hard time and also come up with a splendid piece of ragtime-descended party motion like “Shake it and Break it (But Don’t Let it Fall Mama).”

That song is one of the easiest points of entry into Patton’s work. It swaggers, it sways and it shows the absolute breadth of which he was capable. “Going to Move to Alabama,” where Patton joins into a wickedly rich tandem with fiddler Henry Sims, isn’t far behind. But with time however, all of the sixteen tracks on The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume One will open up into full flower, combining together into the initial statements from a musician with very few peers.

Maybe the icing on the cake here is the promise that these Patton volumes and indeed all of records released in tandem with Document will stay in print for as long as Mr. White’s enterprise remains in business. If he keeps making decisions like this, it seems certain that Third Man’s solvency will last quite a long time.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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