CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS VOL. 5 (1930-1934/2002)
1) Dry Well Blues; 2) Moon Going Down; 3) We All Gonna Face The Rising Sun; 4) Moaner, Let's Go Down In The Valley; 5) Jesus Got His Arms Around Me; 6) God Won't Forsake His Own; 7) I'll Be Here; 8) Where Was Eve Sleeping; 9) I Know My Time Ain't Long; 10) Watch And Pray; 11) High Sheriff Blues; 12) Stone Pony Blues; 13) Jersey Bull Blues; 14) Hang It On The Wall; 15) 34 Blues; 16) Love My Stuff; 17) Poor Me; 18) Revenue Man Blues; 19) Troubled 'Bout My Mother; 20) Oh Death; 21) Yellow Bee; 22) Mind Reader Blues.
Fortunately, the final volume of the boxset once again manages to focus on Patton himself rather than friends — although not before making us sit through eight tracks by the Delta Big Four, a vocal quartet that just so happened to get captured in the tin can sometime in May 1930 in the same Grafton, Wisconsin studio; and no, Patton is not playing with them and he certainly is not contributing guitar. If you are a fan of pre-war barbershop quartet music, these recordings are of mildly passable quality, and the four guys harmonize fairly nicely, but personally, I'd rather sit through eight different takes of ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ instead.
Almost everything else is Patton: two more tracks from the June 1930 Grafton sessions (ʻDry Well Bluesʼ and ʻMoon Going Downʼ), and a batch of his final recordings in New York City, produced during a three-day session (January 30-31 and February 1, 1934); Patton died three months later, on April 28, in Indianola, allegedly from heart problems; it is probably a coincidence that one of the last songs he'd recorded was a duet with Bertha Lee on a spirited version of ʻOh Deathʼ, since he was probably used to performing these spirituals on a regular basis, but still a little eerie. (There are also two solo tracks by Bertha Lee appended at the bottom).
There's nothing particularly revealing about that last session, and, in fact, quite a few of the tracks are just rehashes of older recordings (ʻStone Pony Bluesʼ is, obviously, a new take on ʻPony Bluesʼ; ʻHang It On The Wallʼ is ʻShake It And Break Itʼ, etc.), but there's one piece of good news: the quality of the recordings is tremendously superior to the 1929-30 recordings, with very little hiss and crackle to obscure the singing and playing — and given that Patton remained in top performing form until the very end, this probably transforms the 1934 batch into the finest introduction to the man's talents. ʻ'34 Bluesʼ, with its wonderful superimposition of rhythmic strum and melodic lead lines, perfectly illustrates his mastery of the six-string; and ʻPoor Meʼ may be his best (or, at least, best appreciated) vocal performance, with heart-tugging overtones of sadness and melancholy emanating from the ragged-rough crust of his croaky vocals (and once again reminding the modern listener of how much Tom Waits owes to these pre-war moans).
So, is it really a historical accident, caused by the timing of the re-issues, that Robert Johnson had gone on to become a household name, and Patton has to limp in his shadow? At least with this 1934 session in your hands, it is hard to make an argument based on sound quality — these tracks sound as discernible as anything Johnson would go on to record several years later. A more likely theory is that Johnson sounded far more «modern» in the 1960s, when he was «rediscovered» by British and American bluesmen, than Patton — with his cleaner vocals and a sharper, more understandable guitar style that was also easier to relate to Chicago electric blues than Patton's original wild Delta style, where chord strumming, crude bass «pings», whiny high-pitched leads and percussive stomps could replace each other so unpredictably. And that voice, too — of all pre-war blues players, there probably isn't one other (with the possible exception of Blind Willie Johnson) capable of giving you the illusion of taking you back even further, at least into the dark depths of 19th century slavery, if not into the even darker depths of ancient tribal Africa.
So, you could imitate Robert Johnson to a certain degree, but as for Patton, he could only remain a source of admiration and reverence, rather than an active influence. Even Howlin' Wolf, who clearly was influenced by his one-time senior partner, does it a different way — his vocal style was all about, um, carnality, whereas Patton's style could hardly be described as «sexy»: more like something with a direct connection to Mother Earth herself. There may have been others like Charley, walking American highways in the pre-war years; but there hasn't really been another one like him ever since, and there certainly never will be. Which, allegedly, makes this 5-CD set a must-have in your collection, even if it means throwing out extra money for all of Charley's colorful retinue of fiddle players, lady pianists, and barbershop quartets.