A happy Monday to you! The Monday Morning Blues is here at Robert Frost’s Banjo, & we have some “deep blues” indeed, as our “10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes” continues with a selection from the great Charlie Patton.
Of course, when you’re making any kind of list about Delta blues, or classic country blues in general, there’s simply no question: Charlie Patton is going to be represented. Conventional blues history places Patton in a privileged spot as the sort of original embodiment of the style of music now usually called “Delta blues.” Patton’s complex & insistent rhythms; his declamatory singing style; his use of the bottleneck (tho it does figure much less prominently in his music than in that of Son House); his vigorous instrumental attack; & even his larger than life persona as a rounder & an itinerant minstrel/bard who played everywhere from juke joints to country dances all delineated prototypical aspects of the Delta bluesman.
Of course, more recent writers have called some of these assumptions into question & asked how much of this is the product of historical revisionism by white blues enthusiasts from the 1940s on. Still, however much revisionism may have played a role in the creation of the Patton myth, it is true that his records sold well in the late 1920s & early 1930s, & that Paramount Records thought highly enough of him as a commercial property to arrange for four recording sessions, during which Patton recorded almost 60 sides.
So the question with Charlie Patton becomes which song to include in a list of 10 that limits itself to one song per artist. According to Son House, Patton’s favorites among his own songs were “Stone Pony” & “High Water Everywhere” (& House stated somewhat ambiguously that the latter was “the onliest one I like for myself.”) I had to rule “Stone Pony” out because I’d already included Tommy Johnson’s “Bye Bye Blues” which, like Willie Brown’s “M & O Blues,” is considered a version of the “pony blues” (you can read my discussion on that here). I gave “High Water Everywhere” serious consideration—it is indeed a masterpiece of its kind—but I ended up deciding on what is probably my favorite Charlie Patton song, “Pea Vine Blues.”
Patton recorded “Pea Vine Blues” at a 1929 Paramount session in Richmond, Indiana. If you don’t know the song, I should point out that the Pea Vine was a local railroad line that connected the Dockery Plantation to the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, more popularly known as the “Yellow Dog” (as in, “I’m going where the Southern cross the Dog.”) The Pea Vine was given its singular name because it traveled a circuitous route.
“Pea Vine Blues” has some characteristic Patton riffs that appear in some of his other songs, perhaps most notably “Banty Rooster Blues” & “Bird’s Nest Bound.” In fact, when Rory Block recorded “Pea Vine Blues” on her 1995 When a Woman Gets the Blues, she conflated the lyrics with those of “Banty Rooster Blues” to good effect. “Pea Vine Blues” is essentially a two-chord song, with a movement between the tonic chord (G in this case) & the five chord (D). However, as is typical of the blues, both of these chords hover between major & minor, without ever being clearly defined in terms of that modality. There’s a characteristic “hammer-on” on the 6th string from a D note to an F natural note. For those non guitarists out there, a “hammer-on” is a note produced by a guitarist’s left hand when she/he strikes down with one of the left hand fingers so forcefully higher up the fretboard (often, as in this case, going from an unfretted to a fretted string) that a new note is produced without any action from the right hand. Patton recorded "Pea Vine Blues" in open G tuning—in other words, the unfretted guitar strings form a G chord.
Lyrically, “Pea Vine Blues” is a great example of how “floating lyrics” can be combined to produce what seems like an intensely personal statement. By song’s end, when we learn that the Pea Vine’s whistle is blowing “just like she wasn't gonna blow no more,” we are in a landscape of emotional desolation. If critic Robert Palmer’s term “deep blues” has any meaning, it most certainly describes “Pea Vine Blues.”