I do not want to imply that you should spend 175 US$ for a 7-CD box set … after all, it is your money, not mine. All I know is that I wanted Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, Revenant Records' latest extravaganza, bad enough to lose sleep over it while I waited for the mailman to bring it to my door. Quite simply, it is the most amazing box set ever devoted to a single blues artist, period. Famous music writer Greil Marcus summed it up best: "The eighth wonder of the world." Let's examine this beaut in detail.
First of all, as you can see from the picture, this set comes in the guise of an old-time album … an album of 78-rpm records, that is. Since CDs are much smaller than 78's, they are neatly attached to cardboard discs that fit exactly in the slots (or pockets) that were used before the 50s to store records. The rest of the "album" is filled with 128 pages of notes, essays, interviews, lyric transcriptions, etc. And, for the child in every collector, there are 17 additional sheets, containing peel-and-stick exact replicas of every label sticker ever used on Charley Patton's original 78s, along with six full-page prints of Paramount's ads for Patton's records.
Plus, neatly tucked inside the cover of the "album," as additional mementos, are exact replicas of Bernard Klatzko's sleeve notes from Origin Jazz Library's long-playing album from 1964, The Immortal Charley Patton, which represented at the time the first biographical "essay" on Patton's life, and of John Fahey's 1970 book, simply titled Charley Patton, published in London by Studio Vista, which was the first book-length essay on Patton ever written (it was a revision of Fahey's 1966 M.A. thesis). Reading this book, and then David Evans' essay (one of the three major essays included in the box set's notes, reprinted from a 1987 book, The Voice of the Delta, edited by Robert Sacré), and then John Fahey's re-examination of Patton, written specifically for this box set slightly before his death, you not only learn all there is to know about "The Founder of Delta Blues"' life and music, but you also witness first-hand how music appreciation and blues "scholarship" evolve through time.
You haven't even listened to one single note from this set, and you have already spent many hours, immersed in Charley Patton's life and times. (As can be deduced from the preceding description, tremendous care went into every aspect of the making of this set, including in the text editing. There are no typos, and barely a mistake or two in the lengthy listings given in the appendices).
This labor of love was the idea of John Fahey, himself a very gifted musician and an avid collector and fan of Patton's music; to him, Patton was simply the most vibrant, urgent blues singer, and he admired his guitar technique. Nowadays, casual blues fans can hardly fathom anything pre-dating Robert Johnson, but actually, Patton was a full generation older than Johnson. Indeed, Robert Johnson greatly admired (and sought to copy) Son House, who was a slightly younger colleague of Patton's.
Why is it that Patton's music is not as well known today as Johnson's, why are there fewer covers of his songs? First and foremost, there is the problem of intelligibility. Patton recorded his masterpieces for Paramount, a company that used cheap materials in the manufacturing of its 78s; though Patton recorded only seven years before Johnson (Patton, in 1929 and 1930, and then in 1934 for Vocalion --- Johnson, in 1936 and 1937), the sound from their records, to modern ears, mark them as from a totally different time zone. (It is also the reason why Ma Rainey, who also recorded for Paramount, is anthologized much less frequently than Bessie Smith). If you add to that the fact that Patton had very poor diction (his lyrics are simply hard to get), you get a sense of why Robert Johnson sounds "more modern" by a mile.
In addition, though Patton and Johnson were of the same tradition of bluesmen who made up songs as they went from a well of traditional blues lines, phrases and licks, the former had a tendency to build songs that sounded looser, less rehearsed (less complete) than the latter's, which explains why they were rarely covered. Of course, the fact that rock icons such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards kept talking about how great Johnson was when they discovered him in the 60's helped his case tremendously.
The preceding paragraph is not meant to lessen Patton's importance, relevance or greatness; it only serves to warn untrained ears that they will suffer. Then again, if you're reading this, chances are you know and like old, worn-out, pre-war blues records, and especially those of Charley Patton. And you might be wondering, since Yazoo and Catfish put out "Complete Charley Patton" packages before and they both fit on 3-CD box sets, why does it takes seven CDs here?" Well, dare I say it, there is much, much more. Read on.
Charley Patton got his first chance to record his songs in June 1929; he was either (depending on who you believe) 38 or 42, he had been playing music most of his life and was a very popular and successful entertainer. He came ready to make up lost time. Since 1926, when the first "country bluesmen" had been recorded, many stars had been made, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, and Patton probably (and rightfully) thought he was just as good as them. 14 songs were recorded in a single day (!), including classics like "Pony Blues," "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" and "Mississippi Boweavil Blues."
Patton was a slim and small man, probably weighing no more than 135 pounds, but his voice was as booming and menacing (and loud!) as that of a man twice his built. In fact, the much larger and imposing Howlin' Wolf considered Patton his idol and probably sought to emulate his menacing voice.
In addition to these 14 titles, Disc 1 includes four tracks cut on that very same day by Buddy Boy Hawkins, on the basis that on one of those songs ("Snatch It and Grab It") he is accompanied by an unidentified second singer. It might be Patton, since he was there, and even though it doesn't sound like him, we don't know for sure. So for the sake of completeness, it is included here along with the other three songs Hawkins recorded that day.
In October 1929, Patton came back to the studio, as his first records were selling fast. Probably because he was paid a little supplement if he helped H.C. Speir (who acted as talent scout for Paramount) find other talents, Patton came accompanied by a fiddler he had known for many years, Son Sims. This time, Patton recorded 24 songs, probably over a couple of days, and backed Sims on guitar on four more cuts.
Among the songs recorded at this session, the two-part "High Water Everywhere," stands as Patton's magnum opus. But not everything the singer recorded was as good as on his first visit. That's because, on eight of those 24 songs, he is accompanied by Sims, who wasn't as good an improviser as Patton, making for stiffer, less spur-of-the-moment creations.
The songs Patton recorded during that second visit, along with the total Sims output, are spread out over Discs 2 and 3, in addition with four tracks cut during these same days by pianist Edith North Johnson, on the basis that on one of these songs ("That's my Man"), she is accompanied by a guitarist who might be Patton. By now, you're getting the gist of it --- Revenant has chosen to put out everything Patton did AND might have done, whether as featured artist or as accompanist.
Four of the tracks Patton recorded during this second 1929 session have survived in alternate takes. Of course, they are included here, but in order to make your listening experience more enjoyable, they have been tucked away as bonus cuts, not at the end of the last track, as is customary, but before the beginning of the first track. To hear them, you insert the discs (there are two bonus tracks on Disc 2, two more on Disc 3), push Play, and then press and hold Rewind; your system will rewind to the beginning of Track 1. Then keep rewinding past it, until you get to the beginning of the hidden tracks. That's the theory of it, but it doesn't work on every CD player; in fact, both sound systems at home, plus my Discman and the built-in CD player in my computer, refused to do it because the Rewind function on them only skips track by track, settling to time 0:00 of every one. Only on a cheap "ghetto blaster" type of apparatus did I find a Rewind button that actually rewinds the songs (you hear the music "playing backwards," and when you get to a blank, you let go of the button, and Eureka, you've found the (very well) hidden tracks.
By the time of Patton's second session, the big crash of 1929 had hit. This meant his records sold less and less, as prospective buyers simply had no more money. Since no master tapes have survived, compilers rely on surviving 78-rpm copies found by canvassers and collectors. Since later records sold more and more poorly, fewer and fewer good copies of them have been found, meaning that the sound of Discs 2 and 3 is not always as good that of Disc 1.
That trend is also apparent on Disc 4, which contains almost all the recordings made on Patton's third visit to the studios in the summer of 1930. This time, Patton came with many friends --- guitarists Son House and Willie Brown, as well as pianist Louise Johnson, who was apparently romantically involved with Patton at the time. Patton recorded only four songs, all with Brown playing second guitar. Brown also recorded four sides (two are included here, the other two have never been found) and House probably eight (only six have survived, plus a test pressing of "Walkin' Blues," with either Brown or Patton backing him). Four sides by Johnson have also surfaced (one of those comes with an alternate take, but this time it is not hidden --- why not?).
All the surviving sides from this Delta super-session of sorts are included on Disc 4, except for two Patton sides, "Dry Well Blues" and "Moon Going Down," which start off Disc 5. Why weren't they included on Disc 4? After all, at a total length of 50:16, it still has plenty of room for two more 3-minute songs.
The "problem" lies with Patton's last recording session, in January-February 1934. Even though 29 songs were recorded over a 3-day period by Patton and his common-law wife Bertha Lee, only 12 have survived (eight solo Patton tracks, two duets and two songs by Lee, accompanied by Patton), which is not enough to fill out Disc 5. Again, no master tapes exist. Luckily, Vocalion records were made with better materials, and the surviving 78s sound pretty good. Hence the presence of the two 1929 cuts that start off the disc.
Disc 5 is also flawed by the presence of some filler. When Patton and his gang went to Grafton, Wisconsin for the 1930 super-session, they were driven by one Wheeler Ford, leader of a quartet called the Delta Big Four. A few weeks before Patton, Brown, House and Johnson went into the studio, Ford and his Delta Big Four had a chance to record eight sides on the basis of a strong recommendation by Patton to talent scout H.C. Speir. Their output, very ordinary, is included on Disc 5, even though Patton was not present. It serves to "separate" the two 1930 Patton sides from his 1934 recordings, but it greatly lessens the experience of this Disc.
An even worse offense is the inclusion of two tracks featuring H.C. Speir himself, reading the headlines from a local paper, presumably to test some recording apparatus. If ever there were tracks made to be hidden before the beginning of a record, it's these two. Instead, there they are, tracks 11 and 12, almost seven minutes of boredom, totally out of place on this (or any other) disc. If you add to this the fact that Patton himself, only a couple of months away from his death and already greatly diminished, does not grasp every fiber of your body as he did before, you get the weakest, least enjoyable disc in the whole package.
All the songs come with complete lyric transcriptions and copious notes by Dick Spottswood, who often points out their similarity with some other sides recorded in the same period, showing possible sources for some of Patton's images or melodies.
Since not every one of us is endowed with a voluminous pre-war blues library, the compilers have chosen to offer us a sixth Disc filled with some of these sides, to help for cross-referencing, to be sure, but also as an introduction to Patton's contemporaries. This disc, a real best-of, is just as entertaining as Discs 1 or 4, and it has two previously-unreleased tracks, one by Blind Joe Reynolds (a 1929 record, thought to be lost until a copy was recently unearthed), and a live taping of the Staple Singers from 1957, one of only three post-war cuts.
Disc 7 is filled with interviews of people who knew Patton and, although interesting, it won't get played too often.
All this, with its rare flaws and (excessive?) wealth of sounds from a different age, comes with a price --- between 150 and 175 US$. Should you buy it? If you love pre-war blues and you want more than just Charley Patton's music, something comprehensive enough that you will get a real sense of Patton's time and place, go ahead. If, after reading this lengthy description, your appetite has not been fully whetted, you should probably steer clear. But you won't know what you're missing.
--- Benoît Brière
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