Charley Patton is the root of Mississippi Delta blues. He taught Son House (who taught Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters). He taught Howlin' Wolf and Pops Staples. And he has inspired blues players and fans for generations.
Patton's life is as mysterious as his music is powerful. He was born in 1887 and died in 1933. He was a songster in his day, traveling widely and playing in a range of styles. The blues was then nascent, the elements from which it would be created swirling about the Delta like a storm about to form. Patton played them all from the Scots-Irish reels and jigs to the Hawaiian-style slide guitar. Patton himself was the tornado that would be called the blues.
I've owned several Patton collections, but none has been as listenable, as sonically accessible, as these. For the first time, you can hear Patton without the hissing sound of previous transfers but with the bass-y bottom punch of a 78. Untrained ears will have little trouble adjusting to the sound.
Five of the CDs on this massive collection feature Patton's music, including false starts, outtakes, and sessions on which Patton was a sideman. The sixth disc, Charley's Orbit, demonstrates the range of his influence, with tracks by Bukka White, Son House, Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, and several others. It's a great compilation disc itself; that each track can be traced to Patton makes it all the more powerful. Disc seven features four interviews with people who knew Patton. The Wolf snippet is incredible, and the H.C. Speir interview is a fascinating oral history.
As important as this collection is musically, it's also an astounding feat of packaging. I had as much fun opening this box set as I've had unwrapping any gift since I was a child. The package is a recreation of an old 10-inch 78 RPM "album" (several 78s packaged together, like oldies at the thrift stores). Within, there are seven CDs, a paperback book on Patton by the late John Fahey (founder of the reissue label behind this treat), a reproduction of liner notes to a previous Patton reissue, 128 pages of intense liner notes from national authorities (including the University of Memphis' Dr. David Evans), several reproductions of period advertisements, and more. It's expensive (about $175), but for the blues fan who has everything or the designer who's seen it all, it's well worth the cost. Robert Gordon