BluEsoterica *** Jim O'Neal

Charley Patton

The following essay is based on the article “Revisiting the Worlds of Charley Patton” in issue #252 of Living Blues, part of LB’s Paramount Records: A Centennial Celebration series. A slightly different version and an essay on “Modern Chicago Blues: Delta Retentions” will also be published in a June 2018 University Press of Mississippi book, Charley Patton, Voice of the Mississippi Delta

The version you can read here on the web will be updated as new facts, observations and theories come to light, and I’ll also be posting other bits and pieces about Charley Patton, including interpretations of his lyrics.

The University Press book is an expanded edition of a book (Charley Patton: The Voice of the Delta) first published in Belgium in 1987 that was based on presentations at a 1984 Charley Patton conference organized by editor Robert Sacre in Liege, Belgium. For that conference my topic was “Modern Chicago Blues: Delta Retentions.” Living Blues was in transition at the time, as Amy van Singel and I had transferred publication rights to the University of Mississippi in 1983, after we and our editorial staff, including Bruce Iglauer and Paul Garon, had published LB in Chicago since 1970. In 1986 I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, to work more closely with the new publication staff. The move brought me in closer touch than ever with blues in the Delta, and in 1987 I moved to the Delta (Merigold and then Clarksdale, both towns once frequented by Patton).

I had recognized Patton’s importance when I was in Chicago, but I had not appreciated his magnificence until I delved deep into his music and his life story after I moved to the Delta. I focused on documenting, recording and promoting the blues artists who were still playing in the Delta, but I also began gathering more and more historical information. In 1990 I accepted an offer to write a chapter on Patton for a book of essays edited by Pete Welding and Toby Byron called Bluesland. I embarked upon a new Patton quest, gathering recollections from older Delta residents, family members (Tom Cannon, Big Amos Patton and Rosetta Patton Brown) and others who recalled Patton from their youth, while compiling more data from county courthouses, marriage license applications and census entries. I had already met Tom Rushing (of Patton’s Tom Rushen [sic] Blues) in Merigold, and I later interviewed “Rooster” Holloway, whose father, a local bootlegger, was also immortalized by Patton in the song. (See the following “Tom Rushen Blues” section for some previously unpublished research and an example of the reminiscences I was able to record.) A thread that ran through many of the comments I heard was that Patton was someone these informants (who were mostly teenagers and young adults when they knew him) looked up to, rather than the contentious squabbler that some of Patton’s contemporaries (who were often also his rivals) depicted in various published accounts I had read.

Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow’s book, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton, was published in 1988 when I was in Clarksdale. Despite its editorial biases and factual errors (including names of people and places that were becoming familiar to me in Mississippi by then), it provided a valuable framework for more research, along with David Evans’ essay in the original 1987 Belgian edition of The Voice of the Delta, John Fahey’s 1970 Charley Patton book, Bernard Klatzko’s liner note booklet from the seminal OJL reissue LP The Immortal Charlie Patton, Number 1, and various Wardlow interviews. (Charlie or Charley? Opinion is divided as to which may be correct; Patton signed his name as Chas Patton on his World War I Army registration card, and marriage licenses spell it Charlie, Charley, Chas or Charles.) As it turned out, my proposed Patton chapter was so long that there was no room for it in Bluesland (full title: Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters; with my chapter it would have been Thirteen), but I did get a shorter version of it published as a liner note booklet to a Japanese two-CD Patton compilation. For that CD set I also spent a month listening to Patton’s songs with headphones to do the best I could to transcribe his lyrics—not an easy task. I doubt any of us will ever decipher some of the words, although earlier transcriptions helped and I realized that Patton’s pronunciation and accent were familiar to me on some level because he grew up in Hinds County, adjacent to Simpson County, in the same part of Mississippi where my mother’s family had lived since the 1800s and where I once spent a lot of time with older relatives. My grandmother, Ione Turner Burns (born 1888), even remembered black fiddle players (including Uncle Joe Young and Jimmy Stewart) who played on her parents’ farm (the sweetest music she ever heard, she told me).

Through Clarksdale fireman and blues buff Robert Birdsong I met Patton’s daughter Rosetta Patton Brown and was later honored to deliver her substantial royalty checks from the reissue of her father’s music by P-Vine Special Records in Japan. (She used a little of the money to buy her first CD player so she could hear her daddy’s songs again.) I assisted Skip Henderson of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in placing a headstone for Patton in 1991 in Holly Ridge and wrote the inscription for the stone. Rosetta and Pops Staples attended the headstone dedication, as did Creedence Clearwater Revival icon John Fogerty, a primary donor to the fund; Fogerty said he likened the importance of Patton’s work to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I left Clarksdale in 1998 to relocate to Kansas City, but my fact-finding mission on Mississippi blues has continued all along, especially through my work co-writing texts with former LB editor Scott Barretta for the Mississippi Blues Trail historical marker project. The first marker on the trail was placed on December 11, 2006, at the Holly Ridge cemetery where Patton is buried. Patton’s life and music has also been discussed on later markers at Dockery, Lula and other sites.

The Mississippi Blues Trail research led to clues on Patton’s probable birthplace and birthdate. The date had been widely accepted as April 1891 based on the 1900 census and on the age cited on Patton’s death certificate. But one day, while looking at that census entry for the umpteenth time, I noticed that the census enumerator had listed the Patton children in chronological order by birthdate, yet something was amiss. Charley’s sister Viola had told David Evans, Klatzko and Wardlow that Charley was her older brother. But in the 1900 census entries, Viola’s birthdate was cited as June 1887 while Charley’s was April 1891. The most logical explanation, based on similar confusion I had seen in other entries, was that the enumerator must have transposed the entries on Charley and his next sibling Viola, having written Viola’s name before Charley’s. The 1887 birthdate—which concurs with what Viola told Klatzko and Wardlow in 1963—is also closer to July 12, 1885, the date cited on Patton’s World War I registration from September 12, 1918 (another piece of evidence that had not been uncovered in early Patton research). However, even the entry on the registration must be questioned: Charley’s age is given as 34, which would place his birth year as 1884. But in an e-mail, Evans wrote me that he originally calculated the date as 1881, although he now believes 1885 or 1886 are more likely: “The 1881 date came via Viola. She told me in August 1967 that she would turn 85 on Feb. 18, 1968.  She said Charley was two years older.”  And Viola’s own birth date could be anywhere between 1881 and 1891 according to census and social security records; on her headstone the date is 1885. Official documentation on African Americans is notoriously inconsistent in such early records. (See Evans’ chapter, “Charley Patton: The Conscience of the Delta,” in The Voice of the Delta in for more discussion of the family history.)

With help from Hinds County historian Ed Payne, I was able to determine that the Patton birthplace cited in the Calt-Wardlow book as “Heron’s Place” was the plantation of Samuel L. Herring between the towns of Bolton and Raymond, and that location on Sam Herring Road—surprisingly not identified or sought out by the myriad of blues pilgrims searching for Robert Johnson’s grave, the crossroads and other sites of blues lore—became the site of a Mississippi Blues Trail marker in 2014.

The most surprising and most visible public recognition of Charley Patton was soon to follow. Unaware of some of the promotional efforts the Mississippi Blues Trail had undertaken, I was taken aback while driving through Southaven, Mississippi, just south of Memphis on Interstate 55. Beside the highway, clearly visible at the top of a huge lighted display sign for the Tanger Outlets shopping mall, was the image of the first Charley Patton marker. More Mississippi Blues Trail markers were depicted in the mall. The display was still there the last time I was at the mall in 2016. Charley Patton’s name is up in lights.


Tom Rushen Blues

David Evans’ essay in The Voice of the Blues includes a good discussion of Tom Rushen Blues and the recollections of Tom Rushing himself. Here is more on the song, Charley Patton, the Rushing family and events in the Delta; never published, it was written in 1991 as part of my Patton chapter intended for the book Bluesland:


Books full of analyses and transcriptions of Patton’s songs have already been written. But to examine just one, Tom Rushen Blues, from his first session on June 14, 1929, in Richmond, Indiana, makes for a fascinating subject on one level after another. It was first of all, a blues record, of course, issued as the B side of Pea Vine Blues on Paramount 12877, and a piece of 1920s rural black dance music. Its melody and some of its verses were derived from a 1924 Ma Rainey record, Booze and Blues.  Its revamped slice-of-life lyrics, however, made it into a personal Patton memoir of events in Prohibition-era Bolivar County, Mississippi. The record also gave Patton a public forum to comment on local law enforcement and to immortalize the deputy sheriff, the marshal, and the area’s resident bootlegger. As an archival document, Tom Rushen Blues has in turn become the focus of some involved research and speculation. The mystery has unraveled bit by bit as various investigators have tackled the topic over the past 30 years. The study has produced a wealth of biographical, historical and sociological insights into Charley Patton and his world as it was then. Strains of the story have even carried over to the present day. The lyrics, based on Evans’ transcription, are as follows:


          I lay down last night, hoped that I would have my peace . . . eeeh.

          I lay down last night, hoped that I would have my peace . . . eeeh.

          But when I woke up, Tom Rushing was shaking me.

          Once you get in trouble, there’s no use of screaming and crying . . . mmmm.

          When you gets in trouble, there’s no use of screaming and crying . . . mmmm.

          Tom Rushing will take you back to Cleveland a’ flying.

          It was late one night, Holloway was gone to bed  . . . mmmm.

          It was late one night, Holloway was gone to bed  . . . mmmm.

          Mister Day brought whiskey taken from under Holloway’s head.

          Ah, boozy booze, ah Lord, to carry me through.

          It take a boozy booze, Lord, to carry me through.

          Thirty days seem like years in the jailhouse where there is no booze.

          Got up this morning; Tom Day was standing ’round . . . mmmm.

          Got up this morning; Tom Day was standing ’round.

          Say, if he lose his office now, he’s running from town to town.

          Let me tell you folks here just how he treated me . . . mmmm.

          I'm gonna tell you folks here just how he treated me . . . mmmm.

          And he brought me here, and I was drunk as I could be.


It was long taken for granted by blues scholars that Patton was put in jail for drunkenness by “Tom Rushen” and that “Holloway,” whoever he was, had also been caught with whiskey by “Mister Day.” On a brief field research trip in 1963, Bernard Klatzko and Gayle Dean Wardlow came to a house on a dirt road near Merigold. In his liner notes to the first Patton reissue album (The Immortal Charlie Patton on OJL Records), Klatzko recounted: “I noticed the mail box read: Mr. Halloway [sic]. The words to Patton’s Tom Rushen Blues flashed in my mind . . . Could it really be THE Halloway. That would be fantastic! . . . A tall, dark, heavy but rather young looking man greeted us. ‘Where can we find Mr. Halloway?’ I asked. ‘I’m Mr. Halloway.’

          “‘Did you know that Charley Patton sang about a Mr. Halloway in one of his songs?’ I asked hopefully.

          “‘Sure, but he was singing about my father. My father’s dead. He used to make whiskey in those days.’ Halloway answered with a big grin—his only reaction to a rather startling question.

          “‘Who was Tom Rushen,’ I pursued further.

          “‘Tom Rushen was the sheriff of Merigold. Mr. Day was the sheriff before him.’ Halloway explained, anticipating a question about Mr. Day. Mr. Day’s losing his position would explain another verse in Tom Rushen.”

          Klatzko’s account provided a basis of research for years to come. Wardlow and Stephen Calt later learned that “Tom Rushen” was Paramount Records’ misspelling of Tom Rushing. In King of the Delta Blues they wrote: “An apparent arrest for drunkenness led him to concoct a sedate blues that smacks of an attempt to curry favor with the recently-installed high sheriff of Merigold, O.T. Rushing . . . Patton’s Merigold crony Willie (Have Mercy) Young recalled Rushing as a ‘right young law’ . . . Like his brother, who worked as the bookkeeper of Dockery’s plantation, he was renowned for his athletic prowess, which he turned to good account on his job. ‘He was a law who wouldn’t shoot you for nothin’,’ Young said appreciatively. ‘ . . . I don’t care what you done: if you outrun him, he let you go.’ . . . Instead of elaborating on his own confinement, Patton devoted three couplets to the doings of Rushing’s deputy, a man named Days, who had arrested one of his friends for bootlegging and apparently aspired to become sheriff.”

          David Evans took the search a step further by actually interviewing O.T. “Tom” Rushing in 1985. Rushing was living on the family land near Merigold, where, ironically, his grandson Sam was operating the Winery Rushing, Mississippi’s first legal winery since Prohibition (when it was Tom’s job to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol). Tom Rushing explained that he had been a deputy sheriff in Bolivar County when Tom Day was the marshal of Merigold and Joe Smith was county sheriff. He remembered Patton’s record well, saying Patton had even given him a copy. He also remembered Holloway as a sharecropper who “had a little still out east of Merigold,” but could recall no details of Holloway’s arrest. He was, Evans wrote, “emphatic that he did not arrest Patton.”

Rushing recounted: “I was a rum runner, and I was a pretty important figure among the Negroes, being what I had done and being a deputy sheriff and turning in the bootleggers.  Charley . . . lived in Mound Bayou, and that’s where he first began to be known. He was in demand around the country here in the Delta for his music . . . One record he cut about myself, about my deputy work and so forth, which I was proud of. I never did arrest him . . . I never did find out if he was involved in any kind of moonshine deal . . . He stuck to his music pretty well after he left the farm at Dockery, Mississippi . . . The way I would get information, really it was a bribery deal where I would have them turn in the bootlegger . . . They’d sell the whiskey around the honky tonks and places. Charley may be making some music for them . . . Naturally, being in Merigold a lot, Charley got acquainted with the marshal. Anyway, everybody was on the lookout, and they might spot a lookout to watch for the marshal or the deputy coming around . . . They hardly ever locked people up. The penalty was a heavy fine, which I got a bonus out of. And they’d turn ’em loose, and then more than likely in a month or two or six he’d go back to making moonshine . . . It was the time of my life. I’d break a still, and nobody asked any questions. I did what I wanted to with the corn whiskey, and I would take the sacks of sugar. And that was one of my deals I did at Christmas time. I gave my friends a sack of sugar. ”

          Patton, Evans concluded, “probably sympathized with Holloway’s plight and wanted to call attention to it in a song. He apparently did so by merging his own character with Holloway’s . . . in stanzas 1, 4 and 6, which are sung in the first person as if Patton were singing about his own experiences . . . In the song Patton does not seem to show any indignation at Rushing, who was after all simply doing his job . . . The most curious and cryptic statement comes in the last line of stanza 5, where he suggests that either Tom Day had an opponent for his office or that the aldermen of Merigold may have been unhappy with his performance. In a biting conclusion, Patton reduces the potentially jobless marshal to the status of a common vagrant, the kind of person that Day probably arrested without compunction. ”

          Evans’ continuing research on Patton brought him back to the Winery Rushing in 1989 in search of clues that might lead to a rumored brood of Pattons in the countryside near Merigold. Patty Johnson and I joined the junket and though no Patton relatives turned up, we did find people who had stories to tell about Charley Patton. I later returned to visit one of them, Willie “Sugar Boy” Lewis, and his reminiscences led to more revelations both about Charley Patton and the story of Tom Rushen Blues, as well as to clarification of a few obscure bits of Patton history. For one thing, Lewis’ wife, Minnie, confirmed that a guitarist named Sam Riley used to play with Patton; Riley, who was mentioned in Bernard Klatzko’s OJL notes but in none of the three subsequent books on Patton, was married to Minnie Lewis’ sister. Sugar Boy was living on the old Zumbro plantation on the Sunflower River, where he said Patton had also stayed: “He used to live in around here on Zumbro, and up there on a place they call White Track, Spidlins [Stribling’s], and Smith & Wiggins, and J.C. Hallman, and all them places—well, he just lived all over. In other words, he was just a roundabout fellow . . . On up in the years he’d come right up there at that store there, and play music out there and pass the hat around and folks’d give him money. At Zumbro store right up there. This is Zumbro Planting Company now but it was Zumbro Plantation then. That was old man Joe Smith.”

          Plantation owner Joseph L. Smith was evidently someone who figured prominently in Charley Patton’s life. He was the same Bolivar County Sheriff Joe Smith who employed Tom Rushing as a deputy; he was in all likelihood also the J.L. Smith who put in the order at the Bolivar County courthouse for “Chas Patton” and Roxie Morrow to obtain a marriage license on November 12, 1918. (Most of Sugar Boy Lewis’ memories of Patton date from at least a decade later, when Patton was apparently still circulating in the same area.) Tom Cannon also recalled hearing that Patton had preached at a church “out from Merigold there, over on the Smith place.” Zumbro, “the Smith place,” may have been one of Patton’s rotating home bases in the same sense as Dockery’s. Will Dockery was noted as a humanitarian and philanthropist; a local paper praised Smith as a “benefactor to countless thousands of people.” A photo of Smith appears in Linton Weeks’ Cleveland: A Bicentennial History performing a marriage ceremony for some of his black tenants. In the photo with Smith are eight black people; unfortunately Charley Patton is not among them. Weeks’ book notes that Smith was also a brother of Clarence Richard Smith—the C.R. Smith on whose plantation Patton’s alleged mentor Earl Harris may have lived, according to Calt and Wardlow. Histories that were written separately but that evolved side by side in the Delta—of the prominent planters and of their blues-singing tenants—have interfaced to bring a larger picture into view, a feat inspired in no small part by the art of Charley Patton.

          Sugar Boy Lewis recalled a number of musicians from the local plantations who played with Patton. “Buddy Johnson, he used to blow a harp. All these Saturday night breakdowns, Buddy would go around and carry his harp with him, and he would play with Charley Patton . . . Tony Stewart was a preacher and he was playin’ with him. Tony Stewart playin’ a mandolin and Charley Patton was playin’ a guitar and Will Stewart was playin’ the fiddle. And they had the washboard, I don’t know who that sucker was, but man, he could cut up with that washboard and them two spoons! Every Saturday night and Sunday, man, shoot, they’d go all over the country, all out on Six Mile Lake and all down to Boyle, Shaw, and Mound Bayou, Merigold—they just goin’ everywhere. It wasn’t no telephones or nothin’. They’d come and ask him to come and play for ’em if they’re gonna give some kind of party or a weddin’ or ever what. Anything, it didn’t make no difference what it was, he’d play. They’d give him four or five dollars, eight or ten. Go along with the hat and take up collection.”

          Lewis’ version of the events immortalized in Tom Rushen Blues finally led to another source even closer to Charley Patton. “Mr. Day and Mr. Tom Rushing was the laws in Merigold,” Lewis explained. “And he (Patton) was playin’ at a Saturday night supper out there that night, and the fellow named Holloway was runnin’ it. And, well, he was a terrible fellow. He’d make whiskey and give them Saturday night breakdowns, and had a house full of chillun. I remember when they caught him selling whiskey. Mr. Tom Rushing and Mr. Day come out there and raided the place for whiskey. The county caught him (Holloway) and he wouldn’t pay his fine. And they carried him to jail . . . Holloway got a son in Cleveland. Rooster Holloway . . . He can tell you anything about Charley Patton you want to know, near ’bout.”

          Osborn “Rooster” Holloway was sitting on his front porch, probably pretty much as he’d done every day since he retired from his job, when I found his house in Cleveland the next day. “I don’t do nothin’,” he mused. “I gets tired of settin’ down. I been settin’ up here 11 years, gettin’ lonesome.” The chance to talk about his father and Charley Patton provided a welcome break from the monotony, and his spirits perked up as the story of Tom Rushen Blues and the exploits of Charley Patton and his friends came to life. A son of “the Halloway [sic]” of Tom Rushen Blues, Rooster was also a brother of the man Wardlow and Klatzko had met in 1963 whose name they reported as Halloway, a spelling which had been perpetuated in writings on Patton ever since. Rooster was able to provide an intimate perspective on Charley Patton, because Patton once lived in the Holloway household, and Rooster regarded him almost like a big brother or an uncle.

          His father, Rooster explained, was “Seab Holloway. Now that’s the man that Charley Patton stayed with so long . . . Them old men stayed together a long time. Since I could remember, Charley, my daddy used to bring him to the house before he started to stayin’ with him. And he got to be such a good friend, my daddy told him, ‘They ain’t no expenses on you. You might’s well just go on and stay with me. Have plenty of whiskey. You can work if you want, if you don’t you can sleep,’ and Charley said, ‘That’s what I want.’ So he’d play that guitar and stay in bed all day and get up and play at night and come back in the bed and sleep all the next day. He didn’t work. Um-um. No. He didn’t do nothin’ but play that guitar and drink that corn whiskey. And he could drink it too! Now him and my daddy could drink more corn whiskey than anybody I ever seed in my life. I see them take a pint fruit jar, fill it up. In a few minutes it’s gone . . . He’d just lay that guitar across his lap, and he had a piece of bottleneck what he’d talk with, I reckon—I say he’d make it talk. He’d just drag that bottleneck over them strings. You could name any kind of song you wanted to hear. If he knowed that song, he’d play it, that guitar, it’d tell you just exactly what he was singin.’ I never seed a man play a guitar like Charley. It’s just a gift, I imagine. But he was bad with that guitar. Ooh!

          “One Saturday night, it was in ’28, him and a woman was his old lady, he had that guitar around his neck, she would do the singin’, but he’d do the playin’. My daddy was makin’ corn whiskey. We had a great big house. It was ten of us chillun. We lived seven miles from Merigold. They come in there and started to playin’, and somebody went to town and told ’em, said Charley Patton was in town: ‘He out to Old Man Holloway’s playin’.’ And, man, the whole town come out there. The man they call Tom Rushing, he come out there too. He was the sheriff; ’course he was buyin’ more whiskey than any of the rest of ’em from my daddy! And, man, they played there till day the next mornin’. My mother cooked a lot of fish, and oh, man, they eat and drank. Daylight the next mornin’ the house was still full. Charley Patton, then he commenced to stayin’ with us.

          “He’d play every night somewhere and sleep all day. ’Cause wouldn’t nobody be at home but him. We’d be in the field choppin’ and plowin’ them mules, and Charley’d be layin’ there asleep, and when night come he’d get up in there and eat and go on to playin’ guitar somewhere. His wife would go with him sometimes. The average time he’d leave her there where he stayed at, at my daddy’s house. We had a house with twelve rooms in it. And he had him a room there and she’d just stay there and lay up in the bed and read a book all the time. Till night come, and they’d be up, they dress up and go out . . . He’d make seven or eight dollars a night. That was big money way back in there. Yeah, old Charley had a sack of money. And couldn’t drive a car. He’d pay somebody to carry him anywhere he wanted to go. Me and my brother, all of us had cars. Bully—that was his name he was callin’ on the record. My daddy or my older brother, one, would carry him where he wanted to play, and then before they’d go to work the next mornin’, they’d go pick him up and bring him back home. And whoever he gon’ play for, if they had a car, they would come pick him up.

          “We had a great big old mule barn and we had that still settin’ up in that mule barn. That’s where this record was about. Tom Day—he say he got it ‘from under his head.’ He didn’t get it from under his head. He (Charley) made that to make his record. He got it out of that barn. That’s where he got that whiskey from. Man, there was some whiskey just rolled off all around side the wall, and steady makin’. Peoples was comin’ from Drew, Rosedale, everywhere. Gettin’ it by the five gallon. Wasn’t sellin’ it but for three dollars a gallon. And we couldn’t keep enough. My daddy never did do no work to amount to nothin’. He just stayed in that barn and made whiskey most of the time. Make us work! Whilst he make whiskey.

          “Somebody told on him. Told where he was makin’ that whiskey and everything . . . When Mr. Day arrested him, he turned it over to the federal people and they took him from Cleveland. They carried him to Clarksdale and he spent right at two months up there in Clarksdale jail. And they never did arrest him no more.”

          The Holloways, Rooster said, did not know that Patton intended to immortalize the incident in song: “He didn’t tell us. I don’t know how, he studied it up and wrote it out and made that record, and when we heared the record, we were surprised. How did he think of all that? But my daddy said, ‘Well, that’s all right. I’m glad for the people to know I was thought of that much to have a record made about me. It wasn’t nothin’ for me to say.’” The Holloways figured that Charley had even put Seab’s son Bully in the song as Patton’s chauffeur, interpreting one of the lines Patton borrowed from Ma Rainey as “It takes Bully to carry me through.”

          Holloway shared the opinions Patton apparently held of Tom Rushing as a friendly lawman and of Tom Day as more of an adversary. Rushing, he said, never arrested his father, “’cause every night he’d come there and get him a big old jar of whiskey . . . He’d tell my daddy, ‘I’ll keep ’em off you. Don’t you worry. You just give me the whiskey when I come.’” Patton, to Holloway’s knowledge, was never arrested by either Rushing or Day, but did have his run-ins with Day. He recalled when Charley and Son Patton used to play in Merigold: “It was a man called One Armed Cleve. He had a great big barbershop there in Merigold, and Charley would play there every Saturday. And all of them fellows wanted hair trims, it wasn’t but 20 cents, and they give them hair trims, he’d give Charley two, three dollars. Wouldn’t nobody be buyin’ nothin’ in them stores, listenin’ to Charley play at that barbershop. Tom Day, he was the law then. He didn’t like him. Mr. Day told him he couldn’t play there no more. Somebody’d get runned over, all in the road and everywhere. They’d be out there dancin’ in the road. He run ’em away from there . . . police stopped him from playin’ there, and he quit playin’ there. He’d go on out in the country where nobody wouldn’t bother him . . . Now that’s when it was a cousin of his’n played with him. Him and his buddy, they’d play with him sometime there in town. But they never did go with Charley to these different places through the country. His cousin say he wasn’t gonna play in no country.” (Will “Son” Patton was Charley’s brother, but Holloway recalled, “He just always would say, ‘That’s my cousin.’” See postscript for additional notes on this.)

          Tom Rushen Blues was, for obvious reasons, the most famous Charley Patton record to Rooster Holloway, who recalled little about Patton’s other recordings. The Holloways didn’t own a phonograph, and the nearest neighbor who had one lived a two- or three-mile mule ride away, he said. Close-up memories of Patton the person stayed with him through the years, though:

          “Every once in a while when we all come in out of the field, he’d set up and talk with us awhile. That house had four fireplaces to it. We sat ’round the big log fire at night and he’d crack jokes and play with us boys around there awhile . . . talkin’ ’bout where he had been in his lifetime and all that . . . Then he’d get ready and get out from there. When he would come in the next mornin’, we’d be in that field.

          “He dressed nice. He wore nice suits of clothes. Yeah, he’d go dressed up, had all kinda diamonds on his hand. But he wore his pants up along here all the time,” Holloway explained, gesturing a few inches above his ankles. “He wouldn’t let his pants down for nothin’ in the world. I said, ‘Mr. Charley, how come you won’t let your pants down?’ ‘Catchin’ air, boy! Go on back in the house. You don’t need to know why I got my pants up,’ and all such a foolishness as that. My daddy asked him one time, said, ‘Is you kin to a Chinaman?’ Chinamen wear their pantses short, you know. He said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I’m here, that’s all I know.’ Now he wouldn’t talk about it much. My daddy just quit, you know, sayin’ anything. And he told us, ‘Don’t y’all ever say nothin’ to him about his color or nothin’ like his hair or nothin’. Don’t say anything about it, ’cause he don’t like it.’ And we just wouldn’t say nothin’ about it. ‘Hey, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that. I’m here and that’s all I care about.’ That’s the way he turned him off.

          “But he was a nice fella as far as I knowed of. I never did know him to bother nobody, or nothin’. He didn’t carry a gun. He had a little old bitty knife, had a chain on it. And he’d keep it in his watchpocket all the time . . . I never heared him cuss. He drank whiskey, I never did know him to gamble. He drank whiskey and play that guitar, that’s all—now he was bad at women, though. Yeah, he was bad at women. But I never knowed nothin’ else of him. I never known him even to have a fight with nobody.”

          The testimony of Rooster Holloway, Sugar Boy Lewis and others has already effected amendments to the book on Charley Patton and Tom Rushen Blues. But the epilogue is still unfolding after a bizarre series of events involving the Rushing family.

          Sam Rushing and his wife Diane built the Winery Rushing into a popular Delta landmark, famed for its muscadine wine, tearoom and Southern hospitality, as well as for its blues connections. Until recently, callers might even find Tom Rushing himself outside picking strawberries or inside charming a visitor with his conversation. Someone literally pulled the plug on the Rushings one spring weekend in 1990: not only was the winery burglarized and vandalized, but 8,000 gallons of wine were emptied into the Sunflower River. A disgruntled former employee suspected of turning the spigots was charged with the burglary. Before the case came to trial, Sam could joke about the incident (“All the people fishing on the bank were using aspirin for bait for about three weeks, those fish had such a bad head”), while to the blues enthusiast of course the line that came to mind was “goin’ where the water tastes like wine.” Given “the blues” by this incident and also inspired by the growing international interest in Patton/Rushing blues lore, Sam Rushing had a friend design a label for a new brand of “Mississippi Delta Muscadine White” wine, “Dedicated to the Mississippi Delta Blues,” illustrated with a drawing of Sonny Boy Williamson II. The label quoted lyrics from Tom Rushen Blues and bore an inscription from Sam: “This song was written about my granddaddy, ‘Big Tom’ Rushing, who was Deputy Sheriff of Bolivar County during this time. Charlie Patton was one of the earliest Delta blues musicians and lived for a time around Merigold, playing at tonks and parties. He died under mysterious circumstances and is believed to be buried around Holly Ridge. I dedicate this vintage in remembrance of the Delta Blues, and all of us who sing them from time to time.” Neither Tom Rushing nor the public ever got to sample the new blues wine, though. Tom Rushing died on September 2, 1990, at the age of 92, at a nursing home in Cleveland. In December the burglary trial ended in acquittal, and Sam and Diane, who had already received threats, found their dog dead. Before any more serious reprisals could be mounted, the Rushings put the winery up for sale and moved to Colorado. Were Charley Patton still alive, it would be hard to imagine him not composing a song about the Rushings’ ordeal.


-- JIm O'Neal (1991




More recollections of Patton from Rooster Holloway and others remain to be published.


Postscript, December 2017: Thoughts on Will “Son” Patton

I was puzzled by Rooster Holloway’s recollection of Charley calling Son Patton his cousin, instead of his brother. For the article, I just accepted the family’s assertion, which agrees with the 1900 census and Will’s death certificate, that Will was a brother with the same mother and father as Charley—Bill and Annie Patton. But, if Charley did call him a cousin, perhaps he knew something about Will that other siblings either did not know or chose not to reveal. Maybe Will was raised in the family as a son but was actually the child from another branch of the family. The there is the possibility that the man Holloway called “Son” was not Will but was someone else. (Holloway did not recall Son’s given named when I asked.)


Will died in Gary, Indiana, on Sept. 3, 1957. When I was recording Big Daddy Kinsey’s first album for Rooster Blues in 1984, Donald Kinsey brought in a young backup vocalist named Janis Patton from Gary. I asked if she was related to Charley but she didn’t know about him; only later did I realize that Will had moved to Gary, so there may indeed have been a family connection that Janis was never told about. Will was already dead when Janis was born in 1960. Ironically, at the 1984 Charley Patton conference in Belgium when I was playing examples of modern Chicago retentions of Delta blues, I used a song from the Big Daddy Kinsey album.


“I’m goin’ away to a world unknown”

Did Charley Patton actually sing those words in Down the Dirt Road Blues? There has been some debate on the internet lately. I think the transcription is correct. I’ll post more on this soon.