Forgotten Gems: John Fahey’s “Charley Patton”

If he’d never picked up a guitar, John Fahey probably could’ve been a great writer. He probably wished this was the case. His first book proper, an unusual and quite entertaining memoir, was titled unambiguously How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

However, before he wrote this, Fahey was a masters student at UCLA. And like Harry Smith, Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and others, canvassing black neighborhoods door to door asking residents if they had any old 78rpm “Race Records” they’d be willing to part with. Interestingly Fahey was good friends with Barry Hansen, the man who eventually became known to insomniacs with radios as Dr. Demento.

It was during this period that Fahey produced, for my money, his best piece of writing: his masters thesis on king of the delta blues Charley Patton. This masters thesis has since been unearthed and published in paperback.

Charley Patton was possibly the wildest of the old blues guys, though details are scarce. Nobody knows when Patton was born. Fahey tracks down people including siblings and women Patton was supposedly married to and none of them remember much of anything besides that Patton drank a lot and played the guitar like he was possessed. Decades and decades before Jimi Hendrix, Patton would dance around his guitar as played it, play it behind his back, and do all sorts of other tricks while gigging with medicine shows. Patton had several wives of questionable legitimacy-when Fahey mentions them in the text the word “wife” is always in quotation marks. He drank a lot, caroused, and for the most part never the left the state of Mississippi.

According to legend, Patton died when his throat was slit with a broken bottle by a jealous woman. Fahey uncovers the even stranger truth-Patton’s final “wife” and frequent performing and recording partner Bertha Lee, did in fact slash Patton’s throat with a bottle, but Patton survived and the two were still a couple when Patton died from a heart condition couple months later.

Of course, any facts uncovered in the book are questionable; though Fahey takes the necessary steps and tracks down the people who were left who knew the man, Patton seemed destined from the beginning to exist as an enigma. Paramount sometimes wouldn’t even bother putting Patton’s name on advertisements for his 78s and just called him “The Masked Marvel”.  The question of Patton’s race and parentage has never been satisfactorily resolved. Whoever his ancestors were, they managed to get Patton in the right place at the right time so he could help birth the blues.

The awkwardness of the graduate school thesis form works to Fahey’s advantage. Fahey’s never really took academic writing very seriously. His early albums all had liner notes detailing the fictional history of a blues player who never existed named Blind Joe Death. When Fahey first released his own material he would supposedly press it on 78s under that name and hide them in record store and Salvation Army bins hoping to trick some unsuspecting musicologist into “discovering” Blind Joe Death. The last chapter of Charley Patton, on Patton’s lyrics, a subject neither Patton nor Fahey seemed to care about, becomes a masterpiece of brutal absurdist humor disguised as academic dryness for this reason. Fahey plays it so straight that it can’t help but come off as ridiculous. He’s trolling his thesis adviser, and this leads to passages like this one, on the use of interjections in Patton’s 78s:

Patton uses the words ‘Lord’, ‘Lordy’, and ‘babe’, ‘baby’ in most cases for metrical reasons to fill in a portion of the melody. An outstanding example of this is in ‘Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues’, in which ‘Lordy’ or ‘Lord’ occurs 28 times. In no case is either of these words essential to or even a rational part of the text. In ‘It Won’t Be Long’ there are 14 occurrences of ‘baby’. This word is not essential to the text. In fact, the use of it in this song creates confusion by giving the impression that the singer is speaking to someone. But the stanzas indicate that he is not.

Technically accurate and exact, in Fahey’s voice it almost becomes too dry and loops around back to where it seems more like he’s hiding something. A put-on that never actually appears is felt like a phantom limb. The resultant tension produces hilarity like this chart detailing discordance and assonance between the content of what Patton is singing and the the melodic approaches taken to the material:

The descriptions of Patton’s sometimes less than coherent felt jumbling of learned verses and folk chestnuts seem to prefigure the emergence of hip hop freestyles. The record company would call the probably sloshed Patton into the recording studio and Patton would shout and growl whatever verses came to mind and sometimes intersperse spoken vamping over a fairly repetitive musical figure and somehow magic happens.

A short entertaining and thorough read for any fans of the blues or fingerstyle guitar.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I enjoyed your account of John Fahey’s account of Charley Patton, who is, unquestionably, a genius.

    1. They were both geniuses for sure. Very different, but both major points in the history of US music.

      1. Yes, indeed. I love John Fahey’s playing, too. He’s brilliant. Now, you’ve got me in the mood for Charley Patton. Just listened to a track on YouTube. Thank you!

  2. […] pre-War American blues, jazz, and folk music. People like John Heneghan, John Fahey (who wrote his UCLA masters dissertation on Charley Patton), Pete Whelan, John Tefteller, Marshall Wyatt, James McKune, Harry Smith, Nathan Salsburg, Jonathan […]

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