Charley Patton

(died 1934)

Though some of the details of Charley Patton's life are not definitively known, like his race and the exact year of his birth, what is agreed on is the impact he had on American Blues music. Often called the "Father of the Delta Blues," Patton influenced bluesmen from Robert Johnson to Howlin' Wolf; the Blues writer Robert Palmer went so far as to call him one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century.

Born in Mississippi to sharecropper parents, Patton was raised in part at the Will Dockery Plantation in the Mississippi Delta. A huge operation, the plantation employed over 2,000 workers, many of whom played music in their leisure time,  making for an ideal place for the incubation and dissemination of the Blues. Patton learned to play by watching older guitarists, and soon began writing his own compositions and playing area shows. Patton's sound featured raw, emotive singing and melodic, polyrhythmic picking, often accompanied by Patton’s percussive tapping on the guitar’s body.

Patton made his first recordings in 1929. Issued as 78s by the Paramount label. They were quite successful, and as Patton’s popularity spread so did his influence, with many trying to copy his loud, gravelly voice, his intricate guitar style and his showmanship, which extended to stage maneuvers like dropping to his knees in mid-song and playing behind his back.

Short and frail, Patton had a light complexion and features that prompted speculation that he was partially white, Mexican or Native American (or perhaps even a full-blooded Cherokee). While the details remain uncertain, one fact that is known is the date Patton died: April 28, 1934, when he was still a relatively young man. His tombstone is inscribed: “The Voice of the Delta – The Foremost Performer of Early Mississippi Blues Whose Songs Became Cornerstones of American Music.”