An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
"Mississippi Boweavil Blues" - The Masked Marvel (Charlie Patton)
Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Twelve: "Mississippi Boweavil Blues" performed by The Masked Marvel. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Richmond, IN on June 14, 1929. Original issue Paramount 12805B (15211, P1337).
The Masked Marvel was a pseudonym for Charlie Patton (often credited on his records as "Charley" Patton), a Delta blues musician born near in Edwards, Mississippi. His exact birth date is unknown, the year of his birth is estimated to be between 1887 and 1891. Around 1900, Patton's family relocated to the Dockery Plantation near Ruleville, Mississippi, where Patton was to spend much of his life.
Patton's parentage was in some doubt. Patton was fair skinned and had "good" hair. He was also a slightly built man. His father - by contrast - was a large, dark skinned man. There were whispers that Charlie Patton was actually the son of Ezell Chatmon, the patriarch of the musical Chatmon family. Patton often performed with the Chatmons, which may have encouraged this rumor.
While Patton had started out playing with string bands, he eventually fell under the spell of the blues, a relatively new musical form around the turn of the 20th century. Reportedly, a musician named Henry Sloan was Patton's mentor. By the age of nineteen, Patton is said to have become an accomplished blues musician. He became a central figure in the emerging blues scene in the area around the Dockery Plantation, drawing several followers who were to become master bluesmen themselves, including Tommy Johnson, Son House, Booker Washington White, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnette, and Willie Brown. Patton also inspired members of the coming generation of blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker and - perhaps most famously - Robert Johnson. Patton was an enormously popular performer, known for his acrobatic guitar tricks. Patton was known to play his guitar behind his back, throw his guitar into the air and catch it between his legs, and perform other similar stunts (which call to mind a later guitarist named Jimi Hendrix).
While Patton had turned down an earlier offer to record, he was eventually recorded by Paramount Records, a label that had already become legendary for producing the records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Patton's first session was in Richmond, Indiana in June of 1929. It was here that Patton recorded several of what were to become classic blues records such as "Pony Blues," "Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues," "It Won't Be Long," "Pea Vine Blues," and "Mississippi Boweavil Blues." Upon the latter record's release, Paramount promoted the record with a contest: The record was released under the name "The Masked Marvel." Listeners were invited to guess who the artist really was and the winner would win the Paramount record of their choice. Whether anybody guessed correctly is unknown.
Charlie Patton went on to make many records over the next five years. During that time, he continued to live high. He drank heavily, had sexual liaisons with numerous women (a frequent subject in Patton's songs), and got into fights. By 1934, Patton's health was failing. He was tracked down for one last recording session for which Patton and his common-law wife, Bertha Lee, were transported to New York. During this session, Patton recorded the haunting "Poor Me" and "Oh Death." While Patton had lost much of his performing power by this point, these records are particularly affecting and rank among Patton's greatest recorded works. Not long after his last recording session, Patton died on April 28, 1934.
While Patton is among the most important early blues recording artists, the quality of the recordings (Paramount pressed their records on notoriously low-grade shellac), the popularity of the records (they were played to the point where the surviving records are extremely worn), and Patton's own idiosyncratic vocal style (even his contemporaries, such as Son House, admitted that they had difficulty understanding Patton's lyrics) mean that Patton is not as listened to as he otherwise might be. For many blues listeners, Patton remains an enigmatic figure, not as immediately accessible as the younger Robert Johnson.
In "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," Patton sings about the boll weevil, a beetle which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. The insect infested Mexico in the late 19th century and crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas in 1892. By 1915, it had spread as far as Alabama, and by the 1920s it had led to a blight that crippled the cotton industry and led to widespread unemployment and economic hardship the preceded the Great Depression. The boll weevil was the subject of numerous songs.
It's a little boweavil keeps movin' in the (guitar finishes phrase), Lordy! You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale, Lordy. Boweavil, boweavil, where's your native home? Lordy. "A-Louisiana raised in Texas, least is where I was bred and born, Lordy." Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy. The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy. Boweavil left Texas, Lord, he bid me "fare ye well, Lordy."
(spoken: Where you goin' now?)
"I'm goin' down the Mississippi, gonna give Louisiana hell, Lordy." Boweavil said to the farmer, "I ain't gotta treat you fair, Lordy."
(spoken: How is that, boy?)
Suck all the blossoms and he leave your hedges square, Lordy. The next time I seed you, you know you had your family there, Lordy. Boweavil meet his wife, "We can sit down on the hill, Lordy." Boweavil told his wife, "Let's trade this forty in, Lordy." Boweavil told his wife, says, "I believe I may go north, Lordy."
(spoken: Hold on, I'm gonna tell all about that)
"Let's leave Louisiana, we can go to Arkansas, Lordy." Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy. Next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy. Boweavil told the farmer that "I 'tain't got ticket fare, Lordy." Sucks all the blossom and leave your hedges square, Lordy. Boweavil, boweavil, where your native home, Lordy? "Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn, Lordy." Boweavil, boweavil, oughta treat me fair, Lordy. The next time I did you had your family there, Lordy.
Although this is one of Patton's earliest recordings, it is also one of his most intelligible. The pressing used on the Anthology is in unusually fine condition, with very little surface noise. Even so, Patton's lyrics are still difficult to make out at times and the lyrics listed above are conjectural.
While most of the ballads concerning the boll weevil tend to be satirical in nature, wryly noting that the insect is "looking for a home," Patton's song is largely a dialogue between a farmer and the boll weevil. The insect's rapid proliferation is noted in the line, "Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air, Lordy / The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there, Lordy." The song also lists the boll weevil's travels from Texas to Arkansas and beyond. Patton himself rarely engaged in any honest labor, preferring to move around and living off women. Nonetheless, raised as he was on a plantation, Patton could not have failed to see the devastation the boll weevil wreaked on the sharecropper's cotton harvest. Patton would have known first hand how much suffering and hardship this little beetle had caused. Although there is nothing political about "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," it shares with "Down On Penny's Farm" its sympathy for the plight of the sharecropper and the tenant farmer.
"Mississippi Boweavil Blues" is extremely simple, structurally. Patton repeats the same musical phrase over and over again throughout the song, becoming more and more insistent as Patton speeds up the tempo. During the first verse, Patton allows the slide guitar to finish his phrase, a technique Patton would use more often in later compositions (particularly in "Spoonful Blues"). The song's simplicity and use of repetition adds to its effectiveness, ultimately.
The House of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the long awaited(?) fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. On this all-blues episode, you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?
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This is Reverend Goob performing a song about the boll weevil on the five-string banjo.