Friday, September 9, 2011

September 9: Charley Patton, "Pony Blues"

Artist: Charley Patton
Song: "Pony Blues"
Album: Pony Blues (78 RPM single)
Year: 1929

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Within the history of almost every genre, some of the earliest, and in many ways most important performers have become lost as the decades have passed, as those who followed them have become thought to be the founders of the style in question.  While this is rarely an intentional oversight, it occurs quite often, and not only do many therefore miss out on the "true" originators of sound, but also on some of the finest recordings in history.  Though many point to the likes of Robert Johnson when discussing the origins of blues music, the truth of the matter is, even Johnson had his predecessors, and there may be no other Delta Blues performer as essential to its development as the legendary Charley Patton.  Recording all of his songs before his death in 1934, the fact alone that his songs were made so early on is enough to cement his place as a vital figure in the development of all musical styles.  Yet it is the unprecedented amount of soul and emotion with which he sings, as well as the style of his guitar playing that can be seen as one of the key building blocks in the rise of the Delta Blues, and one can also make the case that Patton was the first "star" of any level of blues music.  Due to these realities, it is impossible to cite a single song as his finest moment, but one cannot deny the power and historical significance that can be experienced on Charley Patton's 1929 recording, "Pony Blues."

In every aspect, Charley Patton has as simple and classic a sound as one can find anywhere, as he proves just how powerful a mood can be set by nothing more than a single guitar.  In terms of both emotion and sound, it was these early blues players that cemented the idea that volume does not equal impact, and few made this point better than Patton.  There is a loose, almost wandering nature to his playing, and in many ways, his songs are perhaps a bit more upbeat in terms of mood than those who followed his sound.  However, this in no way suggests that the deep, captivating nature of the blues are any less present, and one cannot help but be drawn in by this simple, honest sound.  Seamlessly switching between strumming and picking, "Pony Blues" defines the Delta Blues sound in every way, and while the song easily holds up in modern times, it is able to transport the listener back to open fields and dirt roads with the amazing tone and mood.  It is this seemingly effortless performance style that sets Patton so far apart from other musicians, as the music seems to flow through him, creating a slide and fluidity that had never before been captured on tape.  Patton also uses his guitar for minimal percussion throughout "Pony Blues," and this gives the song an even more organic feel, and would become a blueprint for countless later blues players.  Quite literally every element of the Delta Blues can be heard on "Pony Blues," and one cannot argue the fact that it is this recording that inspired countless blues legends.

Working in perfect harmony in terms of both mood and tone, the voice of Charley Patton is as classic a blues sound as one can find anywhere.  Though legend has it that the gritty growl with which he sang was strangely disproportionate to his physical stature, there is no question that his voice is unforgettable, and the raw honestly with which he sings is a quick reminder of what makes blues music so fantastic.  All across "Pony Blues," Charley Patton works brilliantly in both the upper and lower registers, and it is his ability to work across such a wide sonic range which sets his songs so far apart from other blues legends.  Yet regardless of the pitch of his voice, the growl never ceases, and in the rhythm with which he presents each line, Patton is able to give the song a tempo that simultaneously compliments and contrasts the music over which he sings.  It is also the amazing level of emotion that rings through in every word that makes Patton stand out from other similar performers, and it was likely this aspect that made him one of the most "in demand" bluesmen of his era.  However, it is the lyrics to "Pony Blues" that have vaulted the song to the status it has attained, as Patton covers almost every now-traditional song notion in a single verse.  From great storms to the loss of his love, "Pony Blues" has it all, and one can argue that it is from these lyrics that all other blues songs were created.

Looking across the timeline of early music, there is simply no parallel for the overall significance of "Pony Blues," and yet when compared to other artists, the song remains somewhat lost.  Though they may not be aware of its origins, the guitar progression found on "Pony Blues" has become one of the key building blocks for any person learning to play the instrument, and one can hear the hook used in thousands of later recordings.  The pace and flow of the music is far beyond that of any other recording from the era, and one can easily argue that it is "Pony Blues" that first popularized the entire Delta Blues sound.  In fact, due to this reality, as well as the documented level of demand for performance from Charley Patton, one can make the case that he was the first "star" of blues music.  As legend has it, Patton played countless shows and was the first real "celebrity" of Delta Blues, known for ingesting massive amounts of food and alcohol, as well as owning a comparatively "flashy" guitar.  Due to this reality, one can cite Patton as the first image of what would become the "rock star" look, and this only adds to the overall importance of his recordings.  On every level, the songs of Charley Patton are beyond legendary, as without them blues music simply would not have developed, and therefore neither would any of the r&b styles that followed.  Though each of his recordings is superb in its own right, there may be no other song more vital to music history that Charley Patton's 1929 recording, "Pony Blues."

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