“Down the Dirt Road”

by

Charley Patton and Bertha Lee by Robert Crumb

edited from “Charley Patton: Folksinger,” by Elijah Wald

Patton’s way with pre-blues, “songster” material is even more interesting, and it is not a stretch to say that, had things worked out differently, he could have appealed to the same audience that made Leadbelly a folk icon. Admittedly, his recordings do not include a “Goodnight Irene” or “Midnight Special,” but it is worth remembering that Leadbelly only learned the latter song after being taken up by John Lomax as a folksong demonstrator.

We have no idea how much more “folk” material Patton might have known, or how he might have adapted his formidable skills to suit a Greenwich Village audience. He was a notably versatile performer and musician and, unlike virtually any major blues singer besides Leadbelly, he was given to composing lengthy ballads about current events in his world, just the sort of thing the New York crowd would have prized and encouraged.

Patton’s masterpiece is “Down the Dirt Road,” which for sheer rhythmic complexity is the most striking performance in the whole of blues. At times, Patton seems to be singing one rhythm, tapping another on the top his guitar, and playing a third on the strings, all without the slightest sense of effort. This is the work that distinguishes him from his peers, and that sets his circle of Mississippians aside from all the other players in the early blues pantheon. While no other player equalled his abilities, Mississippi consistently produced the most rhythmically sophisticated players in early blues. Perhaps this was due to the regional survival of African tradition exemplified by the “fife and drum” bands of the hill country to the Delta’s east, perhaps to the proximity of New Orleans and the Caribbean, perhaps in a large degree to the influence of Patton himself. 

His rhythms are a world–or at least a continent–away from the straight-ahead, 4/4 sound that defines virtually all modern blues. That is why so few contemporary players can capture anything of his greatness. There is the tendency to play his tunes for driving power, missing the ease, the relaxed subtlety that underly all of his work. It is a control born of playing this music in eight or ten-hour sessions, week after week and year after year, for an audience of extremely demanding dancers, and of remembering centuries of previous dance rhythms–not only the complex polyrhythms of West Africa, but also slow drags, cakewalks, hoedowns, and waltzes.

Charley Patton plays “Down the Dirt Road”:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s