By Mike Greenblatt
The only black cat that Charley Patton wants around in his home is his own damn self! All those other cats, snoopin’ and prowlin’, creepin’ and a crawlin’ around are giving this legendary bluesman a major case of the blues!
Of course, “Mean Black Cat Blues” has nothing to do with Patton’s pet tabby. The black cat in this song is a male competitor for the affections of his woman, and he’s had just about enough of it.
“It’s a mean black cat, Lordy, crawlin’ on my door/
It’s a mean black cat, Lordy, all around my bed/
I’m gonna get up some mornin’/
Kill that black cat dead.”
As for his girlfriend? Patton is wise to her fickle ways and wary of her overtures.
“First time I met you, I said you was a crook/
You’ve got a new way of lovin’ what ain’t in the Book.”
The song, recorded in October 1929 at Paramount Records’ Grafton, Wis., studio, was released early in 1930 with “Magnolia Blues” on the flip side. The record is an exceptionally rare one, so much so that if it were to be found in clean condition, would fetch upward of $10,000, says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.
“But you won’t find it,” Tefteller claims. “To find a Charley Patton record in store-stock unplayed condition is almost unheard of.”
A promo copy was found in England, complete with a “not for sale” sticker on it.
“You often see records from the ’40s and ’50s marked ‘for promotional use only: Do not sell,’ ” explains Tefteller, “but I have never ever seen a Paramount or any other label’s promo copy from 1930! Yet this one is. So this tells me, for the first time, that, yeah, they did promo copies back then, too.”
The rarity of the pressing aside, it’s the music that has Tefteller hooked.
“Patton had such an unusual voice and such an unusual way of playing guitar that it’s like something from another world,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who get it, who understand the things he does and where he’s coming from, yet others will listen to his stuff and not get it at all. Oftentimes, you can’t understand what he’s saying! You really have to listen hard. Also, because so many of his recordings are battered and his diction isn’t that clear to begin with, it becomes very difficult to decipher what he’s singing about.”
Not on “Mean Black Cat Blues.” Here, the recording is clean, spare, raw, primal, primitive, emotional and direct. You can pick up every word. It’s the passionate sound of one man, one extremely talented man, playing his guitar and singing, the blues emanating out of him in waves.
Although the date and location of Charley Patton’s death is known (April 28, 1934, in Indianola, Miss., of a mitral valve disorder), the details around his birth and ancestry are much fuzzier. It is believed he was born in Bolton, Miss., but reports place the year of his birth anywhere from 1887 to 1891. Some accounts have Patton’s dad as being born into slavery. Because of his light complexion, though, there are those who say he was Mexican or Native American.
Known as “The Father Of The Delta Blues,” Patton was revered by Howlin’ Wolf, who once told interviewers that he hung around Patton as a kid and learned guitar from the bluesman. A relatively short man (he only measured 5 feet, 5 inches tall), Patton loomed large as a showman, playing guitar behind his back, behind his head and below his knees. He was extremely popular in the Deep South, and hailed by his peers and the next generation of bluesmen for his legendary skills. Still, he was buried in an unmarked grave that stayed that way for years, until a proper headstone was placed in 1990. GM