The Guitar & the New World
A Fugitive History                                  by Joe Gioia

Charlie Patton and The Indigenous Roots of the Blues

Hell yeah, I play guitar!  You know who taught me how to play? Charlie Patton! Charlie Patton was an Indian and he was the baddest motherfucker in the world. -- Howlin’ Wolf



From Chapter III, "Hey-Hey"

              The WPA guide [to Mississippi] also says that three thousand Choctaws, in spite of the 1830 treaty, “refused to leave Mississippi [and] still till the soil of their ancestors.” The number of Choctaws who stayed is by some estimates thought to have been as high as seven thousand, living in the deeper reaches of the Yazoo delta, too hard to reach on land too wet to plow. The Creeks, a people composed of the shattered clans of other tribes, were sent west from Alabama in 1836, though several hundred of them managed to stay right where they were.

              ... In examining the particular nature of Delta-style blues, early researchers soon focused on one man, Charlie Patton, whose recordings and performances inspired a generation of musicians (chief among them Howlin’ Wolf and Roebuck “Pops” Staples) before his 1934 death. … Patton’s music has a frantic extravagance; his deep voice divides again and again into a variety of growling vocal effects, spoken, sung, and sometimes groaned. His guitar playing, like the way he’s holding the guitar in that picture, confounds contemporary analysis—strange pitches and loping tempos. Crowned the King of the Delta Blues fifty years after he died, Patton inspired younger players with his skill as an entertainer and by the rambling, irresponsible, dandified figure he cut.

              … Indian songs, [Alice] Fletcher noted, were often specific testimonies of the singers themselves, using words that were often “taken apart or modified so as to make them more melodious." Vocal techniques included tremolo effects and falsetto and bass singing. Descriptive mimicry, of voices and rhythms, also played a significant role. The songs used a pentatonic (five note) scale, a de facto blues form, and abrupt modal jumps, to tonic fifth and seventh (so called blue) notes, were employed frequently in the transcriptions made by Fletcher’s assistants. "[Many songs] are furnished wholly with syllables which are not parts or even fragments of words but sounds that lend themselves easily to singing.”
That the above also describes something a lot like yodeling, or moaning, should not be overlooked. Indeed the vocal techniques of such Delta performers as Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Patton, Ishmon Bracey, and Robert Johnson are all characterized by techniques Fletcher observed among Omaha singers. Another blues player, a street preacher from Texas, Blind Willie Johnson, recorded only religious numbers and was noted for his open-tuned slide guitar playing and growling singing voice. (Johnson’s growl especially resembles the throat-singing still extant in remote parts of Asia.)

              … In citing the use of mimicry in Omaha singing, Fletcher noted that “A man, when accepting the gift of a horse, will render his song of thanks as if he were singing it while riding the animal; his notes will be broken and jarred in pitch, as if by the galloping of the horse. or, as in the Mekasee songs, the warrior will so manage his voice as to convey the picture of the wolf trotting or loping over the prairie.”
A stunning illustration of exactly the sort of mimicry Fletcher documented can be heard in Charlie Patton’s signature song, “Pony Blues,” in which he varies the beat and vocal inflection in several passages to give the feeling of a trotting horse:

Got a bran’ new-ooo-ooo-ooo Shetlan’, man, already trained.
Bran’ – new – Shet – lan’ – bay – bee – al – ready – traaaaain. Gonna get in the saa-dle, ti-en-up on your reins.
 

... Let us also note that Muddy Waters’s near Mississippi neighbor, and chief professional rival in Chicago, Chester Arthur Burnett, was called Wolf by his grandfather, a Choctaw named John Jones, Wolf said, for the animal which still prowled the Delta when Chester was a boy. (He added Howlin’ when he turned pro.) These two names, drawn from early encounters with the natural world and kept by those men through life as formative signs of power and accomplishment, are, of course, Indigenous emblems and eventually came to be more real than their Christian names, now known to only devoted fans.

Above: Photo of Rosetta Patton Brown, last surviving child of Charlie Patton
© Bill Steber, from
his fantastic photo essay Blues Highway.