Austrian collector Johnny Parth launched Document Records in 1986 in order to reissue the complete works of early 20th-century American roots musicians, mostly blues artists. Document’s modus operandi was simple: Pick an artist and reissue the total output on however many albums — or, later, CDs — it took. Less-recorded artists — Geechie Wiley, say — shared a single album with other names; the more prolific — like Peetie Wheatstraw — got considerably more (seven CDs, in his case). Document, which currently boasts some 900 titles, hasn’t issued a new LP in 20 years, but now Jack White’s all-vinyl Third Man Records is getting into the act with a series of reissues taken from the Document catalog. The first volumes are out on three artists, and they say plenty about our perceptions of the blues, and about the artist-versus-entertainer conundrum so knowingly explored by Elijah Wald in his 2004 book Escaping the Delta.
Those three blues artists are the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Willie McTell and Charley Patton. The first two have a lighter, simpler and more melodic approach than Patton, but all three are exemplary entertainers. Across the whole spectrum of blues, which is much more diverse than it’s ever given credit for, some artists are just like that, no matter how harsh the sound of their music — Robert Johnson, for example, put out deeply emotional music with an undeniably rough sound, but he also wrote irresistible hooks and formalized the verse-chorus pattern of American popular music in the blues. He went that distance to make his music, however searing, more accessible to more people; that’s (along with mystique) a big part of the reason he’s by far the most popular early artist of the blues revival that been off and on since the 1950s. With that in mind, let’s look at the three new Third Man reissues.
The Mississippi Sheiks: The Complete Recorded Works Presented in Chronological Order, Volume 1 documents the Delta string band built around members of the Chatmon Family, most prominently Armenter Chatmon, known professionally as Bo Carter. Drawing on white as well as black rural traditions including blues, pop, hokum, country and folk, their guitar-fiddle sound made them one of the most popular acts of the 1930s, even though they only recorded for the first half of that decade. The interplay between Carter’s oily voice and Lonnie Chatmon’s scratchy fiddle is as otherworldly when sweet as when severe. Their 1930 “Sitting on Top of the World,” written by Sheiks guitarist Lonnie Chatmon the morning after a triumphant gig at a white dance, was a crossover even back then — it’s since been revived by Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Les Paul, White and countless others — and the group’s influence on American music is everywhere. You can hear it in the stateliness of “The Sheik Waltz,” the skittering heat of “The Jazz Fiddler,” the carefree country of “We Are Both Feeling Good Right Now,” the hoodoo of “Stop and Listen Blues,” the down-and-out moan of “Winter Time Blues” or the wit of “Grinding Old Fool.”
As an Atlanta bluesman, Blind Willie McTell also made music lighter, bouncier and less dark than the most tortured Delta blues; this ragtimey sound is usually called Piedmont blues and McTell was perhaps its greatest master, picking his 12-string guitar with both agility and elegance. His nasal warble had a touch of country in it, and his repertoire included blues and ragtime, spirituals, ballads, pop, folk, hillbilly and story-songs that sometimes had vaudeville and/or medicine show overtones. Like the Sheiks, Willie cut his calling-card number, the brilliantly-constructed “Statesboro Blues,” which the Allman Brothers popularized more than four decades later, at his first sessions (in ’27). But he never ran out of melodies, licks or ideas. Listen on his Volume 1 to the way his guitar fills alternate between high and low strings on “Mamma ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day,” or his carousing slide on “Three Women Blues,” for a display of his nimbleness as a picker; it’s as if there were two different guitarists on these songs. Or to the stunning lyrics of “Dark Night Blues” (“Drink so much whiskey/ I’m stagger when I sleep/ My brains are dark and cloudy/ My mind’s gone to my feet”). Or the happy-go-lucky way he acts out “Atlanta Strut” with his guitar and the percussive effects he gets from it on “Drive Away Blues.” McTell’s reach was arguably the broadest of anyone of his era who called himself a bluesman, and he presumably seduced a wide range of listeners on the street corners where he did most of his singing.
You might think the whole entertainer analogy among these three breaks down with Charley Patton. After all, his growling, gravelly voice is forceful enough to unnerve a Howlin’ Wolf fan, and his layered, impossibly intricate rhythms effortlessly conjure up West Africa. It’s the kind of stuff people are talking about when they refer to “authentic” blues. Yet “intricate” shouldn’t be confused with “driving” or “aggressive.” On “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues,” his playing exploits hesitations, shifting accents and rhythmic variations to garrote what is generally a laid-back piece with relaxed vocals. On the astonishing “Down the Dirt Road Blues,” he gets three rhythms going simultaneously — one with his voice, one with his guitar lines and one by tapping his guitar.
So yes, Charley Patton was a ferocious Delta bluesman, perhaps the form’s true father. But only about half his 50-plus sides are even blues; as the oldest Delta bluesman to record, he worked in all the other forms that his audience would expect of a pre-blues rural entertainer. His Volume 1 embraces religious songs (“Lord I’m Discouraged”) and folk ballads (“Mississippi Boweavil Blues”), ragtime novelties (“Shake It and Break It”) and familiar slide guitar standards (“Spoonful”), even “composed folk” topical songs like “Tom Rushen Blues” (or his opus “High Water Everywhere” about the 1927 Mississippi River flood, which will appear on a subsequent album). So when Patton turns out something like “Pony Blues,” doubtless his most influential blues, he’s showing just a fraction of what he can do. Plus, live he was unabashedly show biz, playing guitar behind his head or between his legs, peppering songs with vaudevillian asides and the like. Fellow Delta bluesmen who only saw him live considered him a clown; they were then shocked to hear his records in all their fierceness and complexity.
Ultimately, the “performer” designation unites these three artists when their sounds are so different. At a segregated time when record companies confined “race music” to a particular market these guys worked hard to get around the limitations being imposed on them. Today, they face a different kind of segregation, that imposed by the “purist.” But they all, each in his own way, rise above it…again.