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Fifty years ago, local music fanatics Dick Spottswood and John Fahey decided that Charley Patton was the best bluesman on earth. Now they’re proving it to the rest of the world with a six-pound box set.

At his first recording session in 1929, Charley Patton sat for a publicity photo, the only likeness of him that survives. Pushing 40, he’d worked as a professional musician for two decades, roaming the Mississippi Delta wherever there was a paying gig. His trade freed him from the grind of field labor that was the lot of many blacks in the Deep South, and his mixed-race ancestry set him apart even more. But despite his light skin and wavy hair, the half-Cherokee bluesman was exiled from the white world, as well. Thus the steady, hard-bitten gaze of the consummate outsider, at home nowhere.

The look in Patton’s eyes reveals little except for a defiant, unconquerable will: I shall not be moved, in the words of a hymn he’d soon record. He wore his usual rumpled suit and tie, with a slight adjustment for the camera: His collar was raised on one side to conceal a scar. It was a souvenir from a recent house party, where a man had claimed that Patton had been singing to his wife. He slashed Patton’s throat with a razor, nearly killing him. The guitarist had other health problems, too, including a chronic heart ailment that would claim him five years later.

Even so, Patton was at the peak of his powers, already famous in Delta circles. Paramount Records scouts were betting they’d found another best-selling bluesman like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and they were right. One of the songs Patton recorded, “Pony Blues,” became a hit, and others followed. He eventually cut more than 50 sides—blues and spirituals, rags and ballads, songs about jinxes and cocaine and plagues and floods and despair. But mostly he wrestled with the subjects his upcountry neighbor William Faulkner once declared are the only ones that matter to a true artist: sex and death.

When he died, in 1934, Patton was a local legend, but his only obit was a death certificate that listed his occupation as “farmer.” In the following decades, his music was carried north to Chicago by acolytes such as Howlin’ Wolf, even as Patton himself faded into obscurity.

In the mid-’50s, Dick Spottswood was hunting for old 78s in Northern Virginia. The young Washingtonian had caught the bug after buying Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music with money saved from his Evening Star paper route. The collection showcased the wild range of commercial records of the ’20s and ’30s, from hillbilly to Cajun to spirituals. Smith grouped the songs by subject matter instead of by race or musical genre, setting up bold, uncanny juxtapositions such as the raucous Memphis Jug Band alongside the somber Carter Family.

For a suburban teen like Spottswood, this democratic ruckus resonated from some exotic parallel world, and it sent him on his own search. In a chicken shed on a Leesburg farm, Spottswood found a pile of records in a bushel basket, including some battered Paramount 78s by one Charley Patton. The name meant nothing to Spottswood, but once he got the discs home, he discovered that Patton’s playing and singing burned with the same intensity he’d heard in Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson.

“Green River Blues” was an immediate favorite. “It was like hearing the waves going in and out,” recalls Spottswood, who now hosts WAMU-FM’s weekly The Dick Spottswood Show, a program of pre-World War II vernacular music he jokingly calls The Obsolete Music Show. “The rolling movement of [Patton’s] guitar playing dominated the piece and gave it a full, organic movement. I could understand few of the words, so I made up some of my own so I could sing it in my head.”

Soon, Spottswood was sharing his discovery with another local young enthusiast, John Fahey, a Takoma Park, Md., bluegrass fanatic and guitarist who never fully recovered from an early exposure to the blues. “I was known as someone who liked pretty strange and far-out music,” says Spottswood. “I was to be tolerated, if not trusted. Patton was out there on the fringe for most people. I don’t remember anyone liking that stuff as much as I did until I met John, and he turned out to be quite a specialist.”

Fahey’s infatuation with Patton and Delta blues became a lifelong pursuit in his recordings, writings, and label, Revenant Records, which is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of what he dubbed “American raw musics.” In the past few years, Revenant has paid lavish, obsessive tribute to Dock Boggs, Charlie Feathers, and Captain Beefheart, among others. Now it has unleashed its most ambitious project, the definitive Patton compilation, “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues”: The Worlds of Charley Patton. The massive 6-pound, seven-CD box set serves as a memorial not only to Patton’s enduring art but to the iconoclastic vision of Fahey, who died last spring of a heart condition at age 61. More than simply a completist’s dream package, the Revenant set is a rescue operation, a beyond-the-grave attempt to secure Patton’s place atop the blues pantheon.

That throne, according to Fahey and others, was usurped by Robert Johnson, first in the ’60s and later in the ’90s. Though Patton exerted a subterranean influence on eccentrics like Beefheart, Johnson’s records proved far more accessible, inspiring big-name rockers such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, whose cover version of Johnson’s “Crossroads” became a hit. Part of Johnson’s appeal was the myth that emerged around his mysterious death, but it was also the high sound quality of his 78s—recorded with more modern equipment than Patton’s—and the fact that his music was in essence a culmination of the Delta blues. In the early ’90s, a two-CD set of his complete output became a 2-million-seller that took the Johnson cult to the masses. To Fahey, who despised most rock and pop, this hoopla was more than just annoying. It was blasphemy.

“Fahey was not a big fan of Johnson,” says Revenant boss Dean Blackwood, who carried out the completion of the Patton set after Fahey’s death. “I don’t believe this was just a reactionary response on his part. He was simply not emotionally moved by Johnson’s work, which he had no trouble realizing was more technically accomplished in some guitar-wanking sense.” Fahey vowed to set things right. He said he owed it to Charley.

The Revenant box is designed to resemble those old hardcover albums that held 78s. The CDs are nestled in cardboard sleeves copied from the race labels that released Patton’s records. There is a full set of Paramount ads that ran in black newspapers, and even peel-off stickers of the disc labels themselves.

“The ads had held sway over Fahey’s imagination in much the same way they served as artistic inspiration for R. Crumb,” says Blackwood. “The grand physical scope of the thing, and the 78-album dimensions—Fahey hoped this would help draw appropriate attention to Patton’s status as the key progenitor of the real, raw goods. These were all things John had insisted upon and which he and I had already plotted out.”

Enlisting an Atlanta graphics firm, Blackwood spared no expense in bringing Fahey’s project to fruition, mixing rich golds, reds, and greens and new and old typefaces in an eccentric, archaic style that evokes the design of Harry Smith’s Anthology. The 128 pages of text are peppered with rare photos, maps, and marriage and death certificates. There are essays, song transcriptions, and endnotes galore. As bulky as a law ledger from an old county courthouse, this artifact is also an argument: the Case for Charley Patton.

“Part of our stated aim was to put Patton on equal footing,” says Blackwood. “Give him and Johnson equivalently grand platforms from which to state their respective cases, and may the best man win.”

Like a good country lawyer, Revenant mostly lets the evidence speak for itself: Patton’s total output, along with works by musicians who recorded at his four marathon sessions and Charley’s Orbit, a disc of seminal records from contemporaries such as Tommy Johnson and Son House and disciples such as Wolf and Pops Staples, who brought the Patton legacy into the postwar years. But Fahey couldn’t resist including a closing statement of sorts: an essay written shortly before his death, which rebuts some of what he wrote in a 1970 book on Patton that was his master’s thesis at UCLA. (Out of print for years, it is also included in the package.)

In a three-part meditation, Fahey barely mentions Robert Johnson, instead focusing on Patton’s role as a bluesman and the personality of “this most mysterious man—this enigma who wore a mask, used pseudonyms, had many voices, many styles, and yes, many wives.” Fahey argues that this “pilgrim of the ominous” was a Christian with no need to repent when death came calling: “Patton’s recordings have meant so much to me for so long it is almost as if he were a constant companion to me. I find myself fervently hoping that he was right about the comfy spot awaiting him in the Heaven which he eagerly envisioned for most of his troubled life.” (This is no great paradox: In Patton’s era—before the blues began being packaged as the “devil’s music” a la Johnson and his infamous crossroads pact—most blues singers also performed sanctified music.)

In his own brief introduction, Spottswood writes that Johnson’s posthumous celebrity grew “partly because his releases were better recorded and pressed from superior materials—they simply sound better—but mostly because of the dramatic nature of his youthful death by poisoning.” For Spottswood, the project was more about plumbing the depths of Patton’s music than crowning him the King of the Blues.

“I am not one of these hard-core Delta-blues mavens,” says Spottswood. “Charley and Robert Johnson have been mythologized and eulogized and canonized already. I like Charley, but I see him as part of a larger musical universe. My goal was to try to make sense out of what is a large and really fascinating mass of material, but without trying to make Charley look like he was sitting at the right hand of God.”

Spottswood’s contributions to the box set are his detailed song notes and transcriptions. As a practicality, they are as invaluable to the casual listener as the remastered, pitch-corrected CD versions of the songs themselves, culled from copies of Patton’s 78s owned by collectors the world over. Patton was a notoriously hard-to-understand singer, and when his Mississippi dialect and allusions combined with his bullhorn bellow, he resembled a man speaking in tongues.

“Revenant wasn’t going to do transcriptions,” Spottswood says. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to: This is like putting out something in Albanian or Italian opera—you’ve got to have a libretto.’” After handing over the main essay duties to blues scholar David Evans, Spottswood embarked on an 18-month task, tackling not only Patton’s 52 sides, but every song on “Screamin’ and Hollerin’”. “Dick’s masochistic tendencies got the best of him,” says Blackwood. “Wholly of his own choosing, he transcribed every last word sung, muttered, or rapped on the set. His family is a little chapped with Charley, but what the hey.”

Spottswood admits that it was painstaking work, even when he used previous transcriptions as a starting point. “I had the experience of just playing those damn things to death again and again and again, and writing down nonsense syllables or strings of syllables,” he says. “And sometimes it would come to me in the middle of the night, what the phrase had to be.”

Spottswood managed to nail down some obscure place names on “High Water Everywhere,” Patton’s account of the Mississippi flood of 1927, and made a connection between “Mean Black Moan” and the 1922 railroad strike. He was also able to trace a reference to a Memphis saloon from a Louise Johnson song back to an anecdote from Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings and to decipher the final stanza of Son House’s “Dry Spell Blues,” about the same drought Patton depicted in his “Dry Well Blues.” But much of his work was wrestling with single elusive words, such as Patton’s use of “heist” as a past tense for “hoist” in a spiritual from his final session.

As much time as he spent deciphering the words, Spottswood says it’s clear that Patton’s often improvised lyrics, sometimes used simply to keep time, remained subservient to his music. What continually impressed him during his research was the richness of Patton’s polyrhythmic attack and the myriad ways he refashioned familiar tropes into something fresh, like a jazz musician working out endless variations on a theme. “Patton is somebody with a primitive veneer but with a very sophisticated underbody,” he says. “There is a lot more going on than is immediately apparent, and that’s what keeps you coming back for more.”

After more than a year immersed in Patton 78s, Spottswood rates him all the higher. “Charley sounds old, but he doesn’t sound dated,” says Spottswood. “And the CDs sound better than my bushel-basket 78s. He stands up well amongst 20th-century music figures like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Rehearing, absorbing, and analyzing the music shows both strengths and weaknesses, but how pronounced the former are. There’s lots to love about Charley and lots to learn from him, too. We wanted to take somebody that was overlooked and make him more accessible. If he’s not greater than Robert Johnson—and I think he is—he certainly deserves people’s time and consideration.”

So far, the word is getting out. “Screamin’ and Hollerin’”, released in October, made a slew of 2001 top-10 lists and garnered rave reviews in publications from Spin to the Wall Street Journal. As for sales, the box set has done well for a $170 item. “We pressed 10,000 and have sold roughly 6,000 so far,” says Blackwood. “Some folks have been put off by the price tag, but I guess I find it pretty easy to imagine that one could forgo 10 of this year’s finest electronica releases to get this document.’” CP