Charlie Patton’s Journey: From 78 to Mp3

For me, one of the reasons that the Delta blues is entrancing as a musical genre is that it has resisted so many technological changes since its inception, and in that sense it is the opposite of contemporary computer-based music.  For my first post I wanted to focus on on the most important figure of the early blues: a semi-crippled farm worker named Charlie Patton.

A little bit of background about Charlie: He was born sometime around 1890 in southwest Mississippi, and spent nearly his entire life living and working in the Delta. His recording career was comprised of about 60 songs recorded for Paramount and the American Recording Company between 1929 and 1934, when he died of heart failure. He was very well-known during his career, and his songs were huge hits at the time. His music and flashy performance style went on to inspire later masters like Howlin’ Wolf, and became the framework for later blues musicians. Patton’s was a consummate showman and an extremely versatile musician. He played rag time and vaudeville-type songs, work songs, ballads, folk songs, religious tunes, and the blues. When I learned about him, I naturally wanted to hear his music for myself. Part of the magic of learning about the blues is tracking down the actual music. You have to dig and search through recordings in the hope of finding something brilliant. It makes you feel like a detective, piecing together clues in order to find ‘the source’ of this powerful, enigmatic music.

Charlie’s music has had a long journey. In the early 20th Century, sound recordings were made using very basic analogue recorders, with a single microphone. Musicians would sit down in front of these basic systems and simply run through their repertoire; often dozens of songs would be cut in a single day (by contrast, today’s musicians can take years to complete an album). Tunes that the record companies felt had commercial potential were then extracted in sets of 2 (an A Side and a B Side), which were then pressed onto 78 RPM records. These records were large and could only carry about 3 minutes per side, but they were more than sufficient for stocking jukeboxes. The fact that they only released two songs at a time meant that record companies could break a single recording session up into many 78s. The original recordings were preserved via large metal disks, which served as the ‘master’, which the 78 RPM records were then cut from. For most of these early companies, making a quick buck was the point of the whole enterprise. They weren’t necessarily concerned with preserving the work of their historically important artists in optimum quality. In the case of Charlie Patton, and many others, these original master disks have been lost to the scrap pile of history, literally: failing or bankrupt companies would often sell their master disks for scrap metal (the legend about Charlie’s masters is that some of them were used to manufacture bird cages). So the only remaining sources for Charlie Patton songs are the original 78s.

For the sake of my own interest, I looked into the market for 78s. Collectors of 78s form their own unique musical sub-culture, centred entirely on music made before the 1950s, when record companies stopped producing the disks. 78s are also notoriously brittle and fragile, and therefore surviving records are extremely rare collectibles. When searching for legendary artists like Patton (or any early bluesman for that matter), the rarity is greater, and the value of the disk is even higher.  Patton 78s can go from $8,000 to as high as $20,000. For a single record with 3 minutes per side, that could be about $3,000 per minute!  Old blues recordings are the most prized of all 78s for collectors; they generally start at $5,000 at auction. Beyond that, blues collectors are an obsessive cult of anachronistic Luddites who find joy in the search for these fragile artifacts purely because they must search for them. Simply downloading some tracks won’t do it for them- like the Predator, they need to hunt in order to find honour.  After quenching my thirst for answers, I concluded that it is unlikely that I will become a collector of rare 78s any time soon.

All I really wanted was to hear this guy’s music, to have it safely stored in my mp3 vault. So I copped out and got a compilation of his tunes online. The quality of Patton’s recordings is of course quite rough by today’s standards. Since the masters were destroyed or lost, the audio was transferred from the original 78s, which were notorious for having a lot of surface noise due to the variety of cheap materials used to make them. Add to that the quality loss that happens on the transfer to digital and we’d be lucky to hear anything clearly. Indeed, the tracks that are out there are noticeably noisy; however, once you get into the blues you learn to hear through the crackles and pops (indeed, you learn to enjoy and relish them). The important thing is to have Patton’s music in whatever form you can find it, since the original source is lost to history.

A few words about Charlie’s music: Patton’s voice is a mighty instrument indeed, filled with grit and swagger. His guitar playing is versatile and adventurous; especially when you consider that the blues was really in its infancy during his career.  The songs come blasting out of the speakers with an intensity that came to be identified with the advent of rock and roll 20 years later. Charlie showed us, way back then, that all you need to make great music is a voice and the will to make it happen. In the process he became the spiritual ancestor and teacher to a whole generation of blues and rock musicians. Patton was known to be a boastful man who relished his fame. No doubt he would be happy that his fame is continuing to grow.

The music of Charlie Patton has survived the vagaries of the modern age and the destruction of its intended medium, while many other artists have disappeared into the past. It’s remarkable that we can still listen to something that was recorded nearly a hundred years ago (on a fragile analogue format!) in the modern era. Digital technology has ensured that Patton’s music will survive and persist far longer than anyone imagined at the time. I’ve realized that the same technology that has driven the soul from modern music is being used to preserve the great work of the past. I wouldn’t have been able to learn about Patton or hear his music without the Internet and other modern inventions. The irony is that contemporary blues fans must inevitably rely on digital technology in order to experience this analogue art.

Listen: Charlie Patton – ‘Mississippi Boweavel Blues’


  • NY Times
  • Wikipedia

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