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Charlie Patton, better known as Charley Patton (May 1, 1891 - April
28, 1934) is best known as an American Delta blues musician. He is
considered by many to be the "Father of Delta Blues" and therefore one
of the oldest known figures of American popular music. He is credited
with creating an enduring body of American music and personally
inspiring just about every Delta blues man (Palmer, 1995). Musicologist
Robert Palmer considers him among the most important musicians that
America produced in the twentieth century. Many sources, including
musical releases, his gravestone," spell his name “Charley” even though
the musician himself spelled his name "Charlie."
At Dockery, Charlie fell under the tutelage of Henry Sloan, who had a new, unusual style of playing music which today would be considered very early blues. Charlie followed Henry Sloan around, and, by the time he was about 19, had become an accomplished performer and songwriter in his own right, having already composed "Pony Blues," a seminal song of the era.
Robert Palmer describes Patton as a "jack-of all-trades bluesman" who played "deep blues, white hillbilly songs, nineteenth century ballads, and other varieties of black and white country dance music with equal facility".
He was extremely popular across the Southern United States, and — in contrast to the itinerant wandering of most blues musicians of his time — played scheduled engagements at plantations and taverns. Long before Jimi Hendrix impressed audiences with flashy guitar playing, Patton gained notoriety for his showmanship, often playing with the guitar down on his knees, behind his head, or behind his back. Although Patton was a small man at about 5 foot 5 and 135 pounds, his gravelly voice was rumored to have been loud enough to carry 500 yards without amplification. Patton's gritty bellowing was a major influence on the singing style of his young friend Chester Burnett, who went on to gain fame in Chicago as Howlin' Wolf.
Patton settled in Holly Ridge, Mississippi with his common-law wife and recording partner Bertha Lee in 1933. He died on the Heathman-Dedham plantation near Indianola from heart disease on April 28, 1934 and is buried in Holly Ridge (both towns are located in Sunflower County). A memorial headstone was erected on Patton's grave (the location of which was identified by the cemetery caretaker C. Howard who claimed to have been present at the burial) paid for by musician John Fogerty through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in July, 1990. The spelling of Patton's name was dictated by Jim O'Neal who also composed the Patton epitaph.
Only one photograph of Charlie Patton is known to exist, although its authenticity is disputed. The photograph is owned by a collector, John Tefteller.
Patton's ethnicity is the subject of minor debate. Though he was considered African-American, because of his light complexion there have been rumors that he was Mexican, or possibly a full-blood Cherokee, a theory endorsed by Howlin' Wolf. Patton himself sang in "Down the Dirt Road Blues" of having gone to "the Nation" and "the Territo'" -- meaning the Cherokee Nation portion of the Indian Territory (which became part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907), where a number of Black Indians tried unsuccessfully to claim a place on the tribal rolls and thereby obtain land.
Patton's death certificate states that he died in a house approximately twenty miles from Dockery's Plantation in Indianola, Mississippi. Bertha Lee is not mentioned on the certificate, the only informant listed being one Willie Calvin. His death was not reported in the newspapers.
Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton is a boxed set collecting Charley Patton's recorded works. It also featuring recordings by many of his friends and associates. The set won three Grammy Awards in 2003 for Best Historical Album, Best Compilation, and Best Written Notes.
Charley Patton's song "Pony Blues" (1929) was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2006. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."