Hush, Luster said. Looking for them ain’t going to do no good, they’re gone.
—William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
They forgot [the ghost] like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized that . . . they couldn’t remember or repeat a single thing she said.
—Toni Morrison, Beloved
The ghosts have been here all along, since the founding of the country, but we’re a willful, practical people and tend to ignore them, to move on. They’re in our stories, beginning with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the title character ventures into the woods and finds his town’s church deacons and drunks, whores and virgins, even his own dead mother and father, participating in a Black Mass, one that welcomes him and his wife as initiates. The writer Flannery O’Connor called the South Christ-haunted, saying, “The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows….”1 Shadows of who we were and still might be. Our ghosts come to us misunderstood, unwelcomed, willfully unrecognized. Ourselves made strange. They come to us as promises betrayed. They come to us in blackface and in mountain speech; in fife and drum, and the voice of the preacher warning of and summoning God’s judgment; they come in the steady beating of a cloven hoof and in piercing, unclassifiable songs about a last kind word and a motherless child.
Do you remember the day, baby, you drove me from your door?
A people whose founding dream was to cast off all ghosts finds it has only created more.
An Absence of Meaning Opens a Rift in Time
Steven Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions—a book about the discovery of the New World and the sense of wonder it inspired—makes the case for an anecdotal history. In the end, it’s often all we have. When we encounter the Other, Greenblatt says, all the normal ways we categorize experience fail us—the dividing lines between pleasure and pain, longing and horror, closeness and distance dissolve. We momentarily lose our way. Our descriptions of what we see and hear become anecdotal, incomplete, contingent, ghostlike. This, says Greenblatt, is the effect of wonder.2
Jean de Léry, a French pastor and early explorer of the New World, knew something about the experience of wonder. When he visited the Tupinambá tribe in Brazil in 1557, he witnessed large groups of men and women singing a call and response between their respective houses as part of what he took to be a worship service. De Léry’s initial fear and amazement come through in his account, written twenty years later, and quoted by Greenblatt:
While we were having our breakfast . . . we began to hear in the men’s house a kind of murmur, like the muttering of someone reciting his hours. Upon hearing this, the women (about two-hundred of them) stood up and clustered together, listening intently. The [singing] men little by little raised their voices, repeating this syllable of exhortation, “He, he, he, he”; the women, to our amazement, answered them from their side, and with trembling voice . . . “He, he, he, he,” [and] let out such cries, for more than a quarter of an hour, that as we watched them we were utterly disconcerted. Not only did they howl, but leaped violently in the air; they made their breasts shake and foamed at the mouth. . . . I can only believe that the Devil entered their body and that they fell into a fit of madness.
But then, strangely and abruptly, de Léry’s categories melt away and he becomes transfixed:
At the beginning of this witches’ Sabbath . . . I had been somewhat afraid; now I received in recompense such joy, hearing the measured harmonies of such multitude, especially in the cadence and refrain of the song . . . saying, Heu, Heuaure, heura, heuaure, heura, heura, oueh—I stood there transported with delight. Whenever I remember it, my heart trembles, and it seems their voices are still in my ears.
The Great Migration and the tide of modernism that pushed it along made everyone travelers, strangers in a strange land, even if it was your own. Made the heart tremble. The ears ring.
Johnny Shines said that when he and Robert Johnson went to play in Chicago and New York in the 1930s, his parents warned him about the dangers of white people in the North. Whatever he did, they said, stay away from those round holes in the road—if he fell in, white students down there would cut you up and “see how you were made.” To test the theory, Shines said, every time he saw a manhole in Chicago, he’d jump up and down on its cover. And Canada was no better: people there, it was said, had eyes in the middle of their foreheads to follow you around, see what you were up to.3
America’s own voices come to us strange, unaccounted for: Charley Patton, a combination of street musician, charlatan, rounder, clown, mentor, and performer of genius. So enigmatic that people thought he was from somewhere else (“Up North,” Willie Brown, his protégé and playing partner, had guessed). Patton’s own dissolving of the categories, recombining the sacred and profane, confounded those who knew him and helped shape a musical form that has influenced all the popular music that came after: Skip James’s Other-influenced work, with James alone of all the Mississippi musicians plotting his own greatness as an artist, feeding everyone on “babe’s milk,” possibly hiding who he really was; little-known Lottie Kimbrough, a Kansas City vaudeville blues singer and cross-over rural “songster,” whose keening, unclassifiable “Lost Lover Blues” features bird calls and yodeling, and who, like Patton and James, also recorded for Paramount Records, her own promotional photo replaced by a photo of her more attractive sister. Who’s to know? And Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, Paramount’s musical ciphers who leave behind songs that seem, as writer Greil Marcus says, “as old as the Earth.”4
Paradoxically, the more we find out, the less we know. America’s rich musical traditions are so varied and numerous, and its artists so randomly discovered—a left turn down a country road, directions to this plantation rather than another, a tent show, a street corner—that their origins become even more mysterious and remote. We’re left surrounded by the resonant absences of all we might have heard, a rift in time, unsounded notes yet ringing in our ears.
And we find our intentions can’t always be dovetailed with what we do.
Jean de Léry, the French pastor in the New World, whose only intent was to beat back the Devil, to save indigenous souls, leaves behind an account of transcendence brought about by the voices of the people he sought to save. Paramount Records itself, whose only goal is to turn a profit, to survive another day, becomes an accidental medium for ghost voices—intimations of all that we’ll never hear—and suspends them there in the shellac.
Last Kind Words
My, my. A body does get around.
—William Faulkner, Light in August
Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two ghost voices recorded by Paramount in the label’s last years, long played and sang in the Mississippi Delta of the imagination. Their six sides, which include the mysterious and incomparable “Last Kind Words Blues” and “Motherless Child Blues,” were recorded in Paramount’s new Grafton, Wisconsin, studio in 1930–31, along with four other sides. “If Geeshie Wiley did not exist,” said blues historian Don Kent in his liner notes to Mississippi Masters: Early American Blues Classics 1927–1935 (Yazoo, 1994), “she could not have been invented.” Wiley and Thomas seem to stand on the threshold between older, black secular music and the blues. The haunting strangeness of their recordings is such that it makes you wonder what might have been. But the Depression came, Paramount collapsed, and these six sides are all we’ll ever have.
After Wiley and Thomas left Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1931, they disappeared. These songster women, who seem perhaps to represent a whole other lineage of Mississippi songmaking—so good, so otherworldly, it had to come from Mississippi, didn’t it?—fell through a rift in time. Into that anonymous dark.
Still, stories circulated. Some said they’d seen Geeshie years later, playing in medicine shows and circuses in the Delta. Mississippi blues singer Ishman (or Ishmon) Bracey, who recorded for Paramount in 1930, claimed Wiley was from Natchez, Mississippi. Herbert Wiley of the 1960s Mississippi blues band, The Checkerboards, told researcher Ted Gioia that Geeshie Wiley was part Indian, a cousin on his father’s side, from North Carolina where his father’s family supposedly owned a 1,500-acre farm. Geeshie died there, he said, in 1938 or 1939. Writer and cultural critic Greil Marcus asked, in a 1999 Oxford American piece, “Who Was Geeshie Wiley?” and questioned the little we knew. Even her name—thought by some to be associated with the South Carolina Gullah-speaking former slaves—isn’t a dependable guide to her origins: Geeshie is also a derogatory word in the South for black people whose speech is hard to understand. And did Paramount even get the phonetics right? While “Geeshie” is used on the face of all her records, on her vocal duet with Elvie Thomas, “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” Thomas refers to her as “Gitchie” or something like it.5
Little to nothing was known of Thomas herself other than that her first name was thought to be spelled “Elvie,” but Wiley referred to her on record as “Slack.”
The last kind words I heard my daddy say
Lord the last kind words I heard my daddy say
If I die, if I die in the German War
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother-in-law
The haunting quality of Wiley and Thomas’s output—and most if not all of their six extant tracks seem to have been played as a duo—is difficult to describe, partly because there’s nothing like it in recorded country blues, no real context for what you’re hearing. “Last Kind Words Blues” begins, as writer and researcher John Sullivan describes it, “in a big plonking, menacing E.” A painful memory, you might think, loping after its owner. Then a jangly minor A. Disquieting. Insistent. As far as we can tell, most of the early blues was not played in minor keys,6 so this would have sounded otherworldly even to Paramount scout H. C. Speir, who was the label’s “man on the street” in Mississippi. Speir had already discovered the strange, protean power of Charley Patton and would soon be visited in his furniture store/record shop by an even odder bird, Skip James.
Maybe these two women—in front of a microphone for the first time inside the new Grafton studio everyone calls “the barn”—are taken by surprise by what’s coming out of them, startled by the urgency of it. One looking to the other, thinking, It didn’t sound like this when we auditioned. Maybe the long train trip to all-white Grafton has put them out of sorts. We imagine them leaving the Delta, maybe leaving their boyfriends, passing through Chicago on the way, thinking how a body sure does get around.
“Last Kind Words Blues” is lyrically strange too, since it doesn’t follow the A-A-B form of standard blues songs. Its form is virtually unrecognizable to us now. Many people thought Wiley and Thomas represented a peculiar offshoot of an older musical Delta that died out, its shape likely molded from clay of the original medicine and minstrel shows that toured the South. But really, it seemed anybody’s guess.7
The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe [face?] from the other side
You immediately notice something different at work in “Last Kind Words Blues,” something tied to the song’s structure and lamentations, something that seems less about the separation in this life from the dead and more about the ways she’s already haunting her own life from the other side. As Greil Marcus says, the “last kind words” she hears aren’t about kindness at all—“kind words” here means the last “natural” words she heard him say while alive—and all that comes after in the song is “unnatural,” or communing with the dead. She’s not seeking solace. She’s telling us what it feels like to look back at your life as something you used to inhabit. I can stand right here and see my babe [or is it my face?] from the other side. She’s gone over that river deep and wide with him, with his memory, but still persists, still stands here. She’s haunting herself, just as voices and tropes of earlier song traditions speak through her voice, in an unfamiliar, older way. What we’re left with in “Last Kind Words Blues” is less a blues song than a vision. And what did their contemporaries think of it, you wonder? These minor chords, this odd form, and such strange new laments?
What you do to me baby, it never gets out of me
I believe I’ll see ya, after I cross that deep blue sea
But in a way, Geeshie Wiley is already across.
A body does get around.
The Secret Cause
Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.
—James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Elvie Thomas sings solo only once on record, the shattering “Motherless Child Blues.” Wiley’s guitar accompaniment begins slowly, dirge-like, and gains speed. Thomas’s voice comes out of vapors, relaying a few other last kind words:
My Mother told me just before she died
My Mother told me just before she died
My Mother told me just before she died
My Mother told me just before she died
Oh Daughter Daughter please don’t be like me
Oh Daughter Daughter please don’t be like me
Oh Daughter Daughter please don’t be like me
To fall in love with every man you see
We’re years down the road, now, you’d think, the mother’s words echoing in the daughter’s ears. Wiley’s accompaniment mimicks the mother’s refrain, a kind of gentle warning and rebuke, all in one, for what she knows is inevitable: the daughter’s betrayal of the promises she’s made. She will love every man she sees.
But I did not listen what my mother said
But I did not listen what my mother said
But I did not listen what my mother said
That’s the reason why I’m driftin’ here today
Baby now she’s dead, six feet in the ground
Baby now she’s dead, she’s six feet in the ground
Baby now she’s dead, she’s six feet in the ground
And I’m a child, and I am driftin’ round
And you might think, as you listen to it, that despite what she says, the daughter isn’t lamenting her own failure to listen as much as her mother’s painful foreknowledge that she won’t—the mother knowing her daughter will be just like her, already is. That she could see a future the daughter couldn’t. That’s the lament and the greatness of the song. The gap between. As another great chronicler of American Otherness, novelist and short story writer Denis Johnson, says, “The great pity of a person’s life on this earth [isn’t] . . . that we all end up dead . . . it’s that he can’t tell me what he’s dreaming and I can’t tell him what’s real.”8 Thomas is singing about the gaps between who we are and what we want. Between cold fact and dreams. Between us and the divine. Unbridgeable? Maybe. But in “Motherless Child Blues” you can feel the urgency and power growing in Thomas’s voice, Wiley’s accompaniment, and you might wonder if both of them know the “secret cause” of the daughter’s driftin’ <ap>round: that what we do might just be inexplicable, a mystery that we chase down all our lives. Our own Otherness. In trying to name the “secret cause”—our separateness from ourselves, from each other, from the Divine—the song crosses over, echoes back, joins the living and the dead.
Return of the Repressed
In the end, like so many American stories, it turns out the things we thought we knew were simply invented. Conjured out of thin air. As John Sullivan now tells us, Wiley and Thomas weren’t from the Delta at all. They were Texans from the black settlements that dotted the outskirts of Houston, where no one in later years (except one) thought to look. They lived and likely both died near there, not too far from the Texas Gulf Coast, a world away from the Delta and the plantations like Dockery that would give rise to Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Pops Staples.\
Elvie’s first name was actually “L.V.,” one of Paramount’s many transcription errors on labels. What did it matter? Paramount likely thought. This too shall pass.
Geeshie’s first name was Lillie Mae. Her friend L. V. was the one who called her “Geeshie” or —as perhaps more accurately transcribed from the spoken intro to their duet on “Pick Poor Robin Clean—Geechie.
She and L. V. were friends and playing partners (and possibly more, Sullivan’s research suggests) who used to play jukes and country suppers in and around Houston and all the way to the Brazos River.9
It was a rough life. It could take it out of you. L. V. no doubt saw people go to pieces, maybe even get cut to pieces, in jukes and at country suppers. L. V., who it turns out had spent some time in prison in her youth,10 gave up country blues singing sometime in 1937 to “join the Master and follow after him,” as she told music historian Mack McCormick in 1961, words typed on pages that fell into the anonymous dark, too, remaining there until now. Who knows why? Maybe by the time lots of people were asking about “Geeshie” and “Elvie,” McCormick had forgotten what he had. Maybe he did it out of spite, or fear of being overwhelmed by what people want from you. Ghosts are hard on you, demanding. But also easily misplaced, lost in the ephemera, the skin of the day.
Unlike the daughter in “Motherless Child Blues,” L. V. had her own story to tell, didn’t live out someone else’s. She joined the church, sang in the choir for years. Sister Thomas, by all accounts, was well liked. Beloved. When Mack McCormick asked her about the old music, she didn’t want to talk about her “sinful days,” but in the end she couldn’t help herself. She said she played with Texas Alexander and Sippie Wallace. Mr. Art Laibly, recording director from Paramount, had come down to Houston to hear Lillie Mae, and then Lillie Mae and Mr. Laibly dropped by L. V.’s house, where they both played for him. When pressed, L. V. rattled off the names of a few of the old songs they’d recorded, but she didn’t even remember “Motherless Child Blues.” In the interview, L. V. mentioned that she and Lille Mae recorded many more sides at Paramount’s studio in Grafton than the six we know about, but was fairly emphatic about there having been only one such session (while researchers believe there were two); what is clear is that nothing from this other trove was ever released, and any metal masters from such recordings would certainly be long gone. Thrown off a roof into the Milwaukee River, maybe, or used to patch a hole in a chicken coop, or sold off for scrap metal.
In the interview, L. V., who died in 1979, said that she lost track of Lillie Mae Wiley sometime in the mid-1950s.
What L. V. mainly remembered from her playing days was “there always were songs about goodbye, so long.”
The Gap Between
A person doesn’t change just because you find out more.
—Graham Greene, screenplay for The Third Man
On December 13, 1931, Lillie Mae Wiley killed her husband. Took a knife and stabbed him between his shoulder blade and neck. Thanks to expert sleuthing by John Sullivan and others, we have Thornton Wiley’s death certificate to tell something of the grim tale. This is only some nine months after what researchers believe to have been the time frame of her last Paramount session with L. V. Thomas in Grafton, where they recorded “Pick Poor Robin Clean” and “Eagles on a Half.” Your mind can’t help but spool out scenarios, causes. Did Thornton Wiley beat her? Did she catch him with another woman? Did she live out the lyrics to “Skinny Leg Blues,” where she warns her man that she’ll cut his throat and look down in his face while he dies?
Or was it the “secret cause,” the one that all our great art, all our stories and songs speak to—including the masterpieces “Last Kind Words Blues” and “Motherless Child Blues”? The things about us that are inexplicable, mysterious, even to ourselves. The self divided. The ghost self. The Other.
Maybe that’s why L. V. left it all behind, went off to follow the Master.
The sleuths found what may be Geeshie Wiley’s Texas death certificate, too. Dated July 29, 1950, it lists the cause of death but not the reason: blunt trauma to the head. But is this even our Geeshie—the right Lillie Mae Scott (as she was then known)? There were others, and the trail from our earlier Lillie Mae to this Lillie Mae has gone a bit cold. We simply don’t know.
We know so little about a person’s life in the end: some certificates, some dates, fading memories, ephemera. Everything tantalizingly Other, a river deep and wide we can’t cross. Except through their art, their music.
Who was Lillie Mae “Geeshie” Wiley?
One of the greatest country blues musicians who ever lived.
Energy is Eternal Delight.
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Mississippi Delta. 1929. Dockery Plantation. All this was swampland once, knotted with cyprus and gum, its cane breaks and thickets choked with mosquitoes. Unforgiving, inaccessible, nearly forgotten. White men like Will Dockery arrived here in the last days of the nineteenth century and with black laborers wrenched it out of the wilderness. Black laborers, only a generation removed from the Civil War, drained the swamps, harvested or burned off the trees, and the cotton grows man-tall here now, as if it were meant for this place all along. Black sharecroppers and their families work these fields. They hear the whistle of the Pea Vine train throughout the day and into the evening, the Pea Vine tracks connecting this near-feudal world with the other at the Illinois Central Line, where the Great Migration northward continues unabated.
If you’ve driven several hours to get to the Dockery Plantation, as has H. C. Speir, the Paramount talent scout and record-store owner from Jackson, all of this is familiar territory. The system, as it’s known, has been in place for so long it’s easy to forget that many of these black workers aren’t even from the Delta, but rather come from hardscrabble, denuded Mississippi Hill Country farmland, where wages are scarce.11 It’s funny, you might think, turning onto the cratered dirt plantation road, how certain things can seem inevitable that aren’t. How a few chance events can send people one way or another. Speir himself had gone to college at Mississippi State (Mississippi A&M at that time), then worked for Columbia in a New Orleans factory making portable record players, and now finds himself running a store selling furniture and records, and visiting plantation frolics on Saturday nights in search of talent, trying to feed the blues guitarist craze that Texas’s Blind Lemon Jefferson had begun a few years earlier. You have to be careful at these frolics, Speir knows, because once the corn liquor flows, fights and sometimes shootings and stabbings follow. “Blowing off steam,” the plantation owners call it. The danceable blues music that Speir is interested in promoting to Paramount and other labels is only a few decades old—he heard early versions from his own backyard as a boy.12 Sometimes Speir can’t quite explain its appeal, even to himself, but there’s a power in it, a kind of electricity that prickles your skin, makes the hair on the back of your neck rise. It’s strange music, hoot-owl-like, completely unlike the ragtime, pop, and leftover minstrel songs Speir is most familiar with commercially. The blues singer’s concerns are smaller, more personal, and yet more universal at the same time. All that alluvial Delta mud has shaped into place names and feelings, with a modern beat to make them move. And with Charley Patton, the gravel-voiced guitar player Speir has traveled hours to see, that doesn’t even begin to tell the story: Patton pounding on his guitar as if to drive out something alive hidden inside. Picking it behind his head. Riding it like a mule. A clown, Son House and a few others will say later. But there’s a mesmerizing ferocity to his playing and singing, even when he’s drunk, which is often. A showman. Joking, laughing, calling out dances to the dancers: “You can shake it, you can break it, you can hang it on the wall,” he sings. But there’s something else that sets him apart, that erupts in him. He’ll play a song about a man needing his spoonful of cocaine or his rider, or a dishonest woman reaping just what she’s sowed, everyone pounding the floor in time to Patton’s beating on the box, everyone’s blood running high. He’ll laugh the way he does. Wink at a married woman, tell her she sure looks fine this evening. And then, in the middle of his sly teasing—the kind that will one day invite a near-fatal knife slash to his throat—it’s as though that alive something inside his guitar finally rattles loose.
He starts in on a sacred song, one that he’ll soon record under the pseudonym of Elder J. J. Hadley, “Prayer of Death,” stealing everybody’s high. People stop dancing. They back up against walls, confused. Patton finds his way into “You’re Gonna Need Someone When You Die,” his face expressionless, a mask. Same mask he wears when he demands that others at Dockery call him Mr. Patton or when he claims he’s a church deacon. Now, mid-song, he’s preaching, telling the frolic congregation that when He comes, you can sit behind a big rock and the wind won’t blow on you no more and you can tell the troubles of your former life to the four-and-twenty Elders. Patton working himself into a corner with Jesus, you might think, just as Son House and Skip James would later. The return of the repressed. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it’s older than that. “Old as the Earth.”13 As in Geeshie Wiley and L. V. Thomas’s mysterious music, maybe what we hear in Patton is the old pagan ecstasy, “the cloven hoof beating time,” as John Fahey said.14
If you were watching Patton from the back of the room, as H. C. Speir is now, maybe it would occur to you that unlike everyone else there, Patton doesn’t hear any difference in his songs, his pining for his God and his cocaine and his rider, that for Patton the sacred and profane are one and the same. Energy is eternal delight. We know it when we hear it, though we might mistake it for something else.
Patton himself has been mistaken for all sorts of things, a shape-shifting figure whose ancestry is disputed to this day. Many people thought his coppery complexion and features came from “being mixed up with Indian somehow,” as Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards said. Others claimed he was Mexican or part white and possibly an illegitimate son of the musical Chatmon clan (a rumor the Chatmons help along), of the great Mississippi Sheiks string band. What is clear is that he enjoyed keeping people guessing. Like any other performer, he knew it only increased his notoriety.15
Word had it he beat his women with a guitar. Word had it he kept running off with married women from Dockery Plantation until they exiled him. What was it he’d say to them that made each one think they were the one?
“He’s the biggest liar ever was,” Son House said of Patton. “And he’s proud of it . . . a sworn liar . . . I didn’t believe nothing he said, no kinda way.”16
Now, people on the floor are hollering for “Down the Dirt Road Blues” and “Pony Blues,” a few of his standards. They’re getting restless, maybe a little uncomfortable, their Saturday pushing up against their Sunday, wondering who forgot to tell Charley what day it was. But Patton keeps on, his voice booming like a preacher’s, so wide and sonorous that if you were standing outside and had never laid eyes on his slight body, you’d think he must be a huge man, that he must fill the whole room.17
It’s hard sifting through the various layers, the strata, of Charley Patton. The story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads to play guitar is possibly the most pervasive of all blues tall tales (interestingly, bluesman Tommy Johnson, who wound up recording for Paramount in Grafton, became attached to this bit of myth by his brother Ledell years before the more famous Johnson). But as Robert Palmer makes clear, Patton appears much closer to the African source material for this story—Legba, a Yoruba African trickster god associated with crossroads.18 Legba had a sense of humor. Was unpredictable. Loved to sow chaos and confusion. Keep them guessing was his motto. Christians in the Americas, unable to assimilate the complex otherness of Legba, simply did away with his sense of humor, energy, and delight, made him into a somber and threatening shadow of himself—the Devil. But Patton seemed to see Legba in full.
He hid his complexities—even from most of his contemporary musicians—behind a clown mask. Patton making faces, mumbling, telling jokes, imitating people’s voices, making the guitar into a prop, banging on the box to keep the beat, playing it behind his head, riding it like a horse until it throws him. Patton was a consummate entertainer who’d resort to anything to keep his audience happy, and then pivot, confound them with “Jesus Is a Dying Bed Maker” or his up-tempo, syncopated version of “I Shall Not Be Moved,” back them up against the wall. Many of his contemporaries, at least in their later years, mistook the clowning for who he was. Son House didn’t even seem to like Patton’s songs very much (at least before he listened to them again decades later), saying Patton just indulged himself too much, was “self-conceited,” more concerned with throwing his guitar in the air and stringing together mumbled lyrics that made no sense. “He’d make a song out of anything,” House said with disgust. Hayes McMullen had another complaint: “Everything Charley played, he played in the same tune,” as if Patton were stuck in some eternal orbit around one song. But in the 1960s, when House heard the songs again on record, he was “genuinely startled by their excellence.” Both had conveniently forgotten the atmosphere of the frolics they used to play—loud and liquor-fueled. Dancers’ feet banging on boards, people shouting, and the performers keeping the tempo, shouting out words that dancers could relate to. Patton knew the requirements, knew how to keep the blood high, and as Robert Palmer says:
[Patton] would often keep a single guitar pattern going for 30 minutes or more, building a cumulative, almost hypnotic effect and stringing together verses that might or might not relate to each other in a literary or linear fashion. Some of his records reflect this casual method of organization, and certain guitar parts repeat from record to record, indicating that what appear to be separate songs because of the limits imposed by recording are in fact fragmentary examples of the kinds of music making that could go on “in the same tune” as long as it held an audience’s interest.
So why did Son House and others disparage Patton’s playing? How could Patton’s own contemporaries so misread what he was doing? Maybe they were willfully recasting their parts in a play no one else knew much about? They’d get some distance on Patton (he was dead, they were alive, after all) and make their stars shine more brightly? Or were their comments shaped by their questioners’ own obsessions with authenticity, the need to separate “serious” blues musicians from the pretenders? Or maybe House and McMullen didn’t even understand what Patton was doing in the first place?
Patton’s great difference as a musician—and his influence that crept through the Delta, making its way to Robert Johnson, electrifying Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples and Bukka White—was in the layered rhythms he absorbed from pre-blues music, music closely associated with African polyrhythms. Palmer says that Patton stacked his rhythms, just as African drumming does, creating a uniquely dense sound, strata of complex rhythmic patterns. One reason Patton’s sound seems so different is that in other blues, such as the Texas blues played by Paramount’s best-seller Blind Lemon Jefferson, the changing rhythms are strung end to end in a linear way, syncopated as in jazz or popular dance music. Patton’s layers of rhythms are exceptional even within the rhythmic-centered Delta blues—and so is his frequent use of thirteen-and-a-half-bar verses instead of the more traditional twelve-bar ones. According to anthropologist and blues researcher David Evans, Patton’s rhythmic density and odd thirteen-and-a-half-bar verses are deeply connected to pre-blues music found in the Mississippi Hill Country where Patton’s family came from, just east of the Delta. There, older black music—based in one-measure figures that produced thirteen-and-a-half-bar verses derived from African folk drumming—was preserved in amber in the fife-and-drum bands, and eventually was transferred to the guitar, after young Hill Country musicians had first mastered “a homemade, one-stringed children’s instrument called a jitterbug.” The musicians of the Mississippi Hill Country, like Patton, produce thirteen-and-a-half-bar verses and “rhythmic density,” possibly representing “a direct link from polyrhythmic folk drumming of the nineteenth century, [Patton], and the blues that came after him.”
Patton’s voice was long a curiosity because of its power and his strange enunciation, which frustrated Son House as much as it baffled him. His voice shaped the singing of his lyrics—some borrowed, some invented—to fit the rhythmic effect he was trying to produce. He stretched syllables, chiseled out spaces between words, and like a ventriloquist created multiple voices that seemingly no one had heard before. In “Spoonful Blues,” he eliminates the word spoonful and instead says it through his slide guitar, imitating his own voice. There are four voices in all here: the slider, a woman’s falsetto, a lower voice, and Patton’s own, each answering the others, the call and response that’s deeply embedded in African music.
Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare
Hitch up my pony, saddle up my black mare.
I’m gonna find a rider, baby, in the world somewhere
Back at the frolic, Patton is playing his standard, “Pony Blues,” and the dancers are pounding the boards. Smoke haloing the lights. Standing near the door, hands in the pockets of his blue business suit, a white man Patton doesn’t recognize. On the floor, one of the dancers has had a fight with her boyfriend. He’s drunk and unhappy with something she said to him. He’s pacing along the wall, looking Charley’s way, then hers, as she sidles up beside Charley, playing down on one knee the way he does. Hello Central, what’s the matter with your line? he shouts. The woman—light-skinned, with long delicate fingers—has taken his chair now, swaying there, giving him the look he sees a dozen times a night, a look he’ll describe so many times to Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Son House that it sticks in their craws. She about ate me up, he’ll say. Boasts partly because by talking he hopes to understand it. He doesn’t really know his own moods, or why he loves the ones he loves, if he loves them at all. He’s a dozen people if he’s one. He’ll leave all his women save one in the end, even Bertha Lee, whom he’d fought with, gone to jail with, sung with. Bertha who makes up a story after that has him dying in her arms because, well, shouldn’t it have happened that way? The rounder coming home? But Charley Patton would never make a song out of that.
Somethin’ to tell you when I get a chance
Somethin’ to tell you when I get a chance
I don’t want to marry, just want to be your man
Ready if you are, Patton says, looking over at the woman. Then he takes a measure of the pacing man along the wall, glances at the door, wonders about the logistics.
Charley beats on his box, picks it. The woman’s eyes following along, her body swaying there in the chair but already with him, both of them halfway out that door.
1. Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 45.
2. Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonders of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 14–16.
3. Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Feel Like Going Home, DVD, directed by Martin Scorsese (Sony Music Distribution, 2004).
4. Greil Marcus, “Who Was Geechie Wiley?” Oxford American, Summer 1999, 27–28.
5. Gayle Dean Wardlow, Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues, edited by Edward Komara (San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1998), 72 (Bracey); Steve Sullivan, Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song, Volume 2 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 36 (Wiley); Marcus, “Who Was Geechie Wiley ?” 27–28.
6. John Sullivan, “Unknown Bards: The Blues Becomes Transparent about Itself,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2008, 86.
8. Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” in Jesus’ Son (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992), 8.
9. John Sullivan, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” New York Times Magazine, 13 April 2014. The discussion in the following paragraphs draws on this source, which is available online: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/magazine/blues.html?_r=1
10. Alex van der Tuuk, email correspondence with author, January 2014.
11. Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (Newton, NJ: Rock Chapel Press, 1988), 68–69.
12. H. C. Speir, interview by Gayle Dean Wardlow, CD #7, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant Records, 2001).
13. Wardlow and Calt, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton, 19–20, 29.
14. John Fahey, liner notes, American Primitive, Volume I: Raw Pre-War Gospel 1926–1936 (Revenant Records, 1997), 15.
15. Wardlow and Calt, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton, 43.
16. Ibid., 41.
17. Booker Miller, interview by Gayle Dean Wardlow, CD #7, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant Records, 2001).
18. Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 60, 64–67. The discussion in the following paragraphs drawn on this source.