He has seen devastation, disaster, horror, anguish. He has been buffeted by winds, traveled outside his body, glimpsed heaven for a minute, died many times before his hour came. And he conveys all this while getting people up on the floor to dance.
— Luc Sante on Charley Patton
I can write you poems
Make a strong man lose his mind
— “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Bob Dylan
The blues isn’t really such evil music, by and large. (It’s old gospel that scares the hell out of me.) The blues isn’t even so dark, or so low-down sad. I mean, it is but it’s not. The blues is a lot. The blues is the gamut. The blues has scope. The blues is Blind Willie McTell singing, “I drink so much whiskey, I stagger when I sleep,” but it’s not a moan from the depths of humanity. It’s Blind Willie saying, Keep ’em coming, barkeep. Blind Willie said his dreams were “dark and cloudy, my mind’s going to my feet,” which sounds like a Bob Dylan lyric from “Time Out of Mind.” More sad times, sounds like. But a bit later in that same song, “Dark Night Blues,” he says, as an aside, “Ah, play it, Mr. McTell…” The man’s an entertainer, foremost. They most all were. When you hear “Dark Night Blues,” you’ve just been winked at by a blind man.
Now, Robert Johnson, he really was haunted. Or anyway, he looked haunted, sounded haunted, sang haunted songs. “Me and the devil, were walking side by side,” he sings, sounding like he could tell you the brand of Scratch’s cologne.
Robert Johnson, he was a man on the run, stopping only to check his heels for hellhounds, take a swig of poisoned busthead, maybe sing you a haunted little song about those devil blues. And yet …
Busthead. Writing. Robert Johnson singing, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot / yes, she got ’em for sale.”
Then there’s Charley Patton, my favorite. Charley was everything and all. Charley was mighty and mythic. Charley with his gravel chant, thumping on his Stella guitar, populating his songs with people he’d give voice to, characters and shit-talkers, all the while keeping the song chugging. He could have given guitar lessons to trains.
Lots going on, then, in a Charley Patton song. Real life. Evil doings. Charley would have brought a knife to the cross roads, would have cut a better deal.
But Charley, he was a showman, too. Would play that Stella between his legs and behind his head. Charley was it. He was a one-man combo. He was wit and sage wisdom, he was rhythm and ruckus. He was the true king of the blues, a pure product of the Delta, and yet from a world unknown.
Coffee with a swig. Writing. Charley Patton, my favorite blues singer, singing, “You can snatch it, you can grab it, you can break it, you can twist it / Any way that I love to get it.”