Ramblin’ Man: Dockery Farms

Never trust first impressions. Some people and some things require time to grow on you, and sometimes you even need a little push. For instance, when I first heard the blues musician Charley Patton, I wasn’t too impressed. First heard him on a collection I know and love well called The Anthology of American Folk Music—but his tune, “Boll Weevil,” wasn’t amongst my favorites: too rough and indistinct for my taste. And my attitude about him stayed that way for years. Until I went to Dockery Farms.

Dockery Farms. Sounds like something out of a nursery rhyme. At Dockery Farms, you will find a sign that intriguingly says, “Birthplace of the Blues?” There’s a question mark there for a reason, because of course nobody knows where the blues was born. It most likely just sprang up one day like Athena emerging out of the head of Zeus.

If the Pythoness at Delphi were a Southern black man in the first half of the twentieth century, she’d sound an awful lot like this.

But if it was really invented by someone, it had to be someone close to Charley Patton or his mysterious mentor, Henry Sloan. We know next to nothing about Henry Sloan, and precious little more about Charley Patton—but we do know that both of them lived and worked on Dockery Farms. They say Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and Pops Staples also spent some time there, which would make it a kind of cultural hub whose only counterpart could be found in the agora of ancient Athens.

The comparison to ancient Athens is an apt one—for the only other group to hold such mighty sway over Western Culture besides the Athenians of the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. would have to be the black musicians of the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the twentieth century. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock and roll, and that adjunct cool, casual attitude that everyone around the world now imitates—it all sprung from them.

Patton was in his prime in the late Twenties and early Thirties—not even a hundred years ago—but he might as well have lived in the Bronze Age. The music he left behind is so at odds with current sensibilities that he’s an enigma to contemporary ears. He sounds a few thousand years old—and so do his recordings.

The voice. The closest correlation you’ll find is to Bob Dylan circa 1997-2013 (since shifting his focus to Sinatra songs, he’s become quite the crooner): gravelly, deep, chthonic as hell. Bob Dylan once said that Johnny Cash’s voice “sounded like a voice from the middle of the Earth,” but this description is even better applied to Charley Patton.

You can’t really make out most of his lyrics. I’m a lyrics-centric man, so this is a hard pill to swallow for me. But somehow Charley Patton transcends the whole idea of clear-cut verse and even logical thought. He was truly a medium through which the gods spoke. If the Pythoness at Delphi were a Southern black man living in the first half of the twentieth century, she’d sound an awful lot like this.

Take his magnum opus, “High Water Everywhere.” Unless you look up the lyrics on the internet, you’re only going to hear snatches of words and phrases that are perfectly suited to the incantatory growling and thumping and chiming:

Lord, the whole round country, Lord, river has overflowed
Lord, the whole round country, man, is overflowed
I would go to the hilly country, but they got me barred

But back to Dockery Farms. To get there:

1. Coming from Memphis, take Highway 61 south.
2. At Cleveland, go east on Highway 8.
3. Before you hit Highway 49W you’re going to see it on the left.

I myself found the place by accident. I was coming from Memphis and I was on my way to Tupelo. Elvis fans will know the significance. But then, as I was driving, I saw a big barn with “Dockery Farms” painted on it and it rang a bell somewhere in my psyche.

No one else was there when I was there. Just how I like it. I guess they have some events dedicated to the blues going on now and again, but when I was there it couldn’t have been more tranquilly abandoned.

Astounding sights you will not see there. This is not a tourist destination in the accepted sense of the term. Out front they have an old-style gas station that is no longer in use and a still-in-use church, and farther back they have a few barns and other farm buildings, and behind those there are a couple of slow-moving, far-removed channels of the Mississippi. And that’s about it.

Next to one barn there’s a sign that says “Birth of the Blues?” and they’ve got a button you can push. I pushed it. Music came out of some speakers: a voice encrusted in mud and hardship, accompanied by guitar-playing sounding like something out of the ancient Orient. Charley Patton.

Like I said, I hadn’t had much time for him before. But when I heard his voice right there where he once worked and lived, I suddenly got it. Call it my Road to Damascus moment.

I wandered around the grounds for a while. On the edge of the premises, there was a small house. Abandoned, of course. The front door was ajar, so I stepped in. Right there draped over an old chair, front cover facing me, was a waterlogged book entitled A Short History of Western Civilization. Pretty damn fitting.

  • May 25, 2016