Bob Dylan once said "If I made records for my own pleasure, I would record only Charley Patton songs." For someone of his writing skills, that is a considerable proclamation and one I do not doubt. Gospel, Blues, Proto-Blues, Gut whoops and hollers, slide-finished words, gruff "voice masking" as old as Africa. Patton was so fugging good he could play 4 characters in one three minute song, make them all real and make every one of them sound like they were in a different room. His voice could be Man, Woman and God all at once and it was all done live in front of a primitive microphone while it was being etched into WAX. He could sing and talk to himself out loud at the same time! Nothing since has matched or met it. But Dylan keeps working at it and he increasingly SOUNDS like him, a compliment I am sure he would appreciate. It is no coincidence the most impressive song he has performed over the last few years is the one he specifically wrote for Patton. Like all his songs, he has played with it, shuffled it, jacked it up and down...even put a banjo in for a while. I've heard it scream with a guitar fed through a vocoder and a drum pound break Levon might be able to play, but with a sound he couldn't even imagine. I've heard a growl thrown at the song like Patton would, a genuine grit-teeth roar deep from inside somehow and as though each moment of the song was critical. A live version from 2003 was released on the Tell Tale Signs CD which spits and stutters to a fantastic finish. The song name-drops Big Joe Turner, another under-appreciated performer. They say Charlie Sexton's return to the band has brought vitality to the gigs. He certainly looks good from the audience clips I've seen.
Dylan's "never-ending tour" is an enormous misnomer, as musicians PLAY. I suppose it is born from his reclusive days, when he took time to start and raise a family, something which it is increasingly obvious he did well despite what must have been enormous pressure. I was shocked to read Sara turned 70 in October. I do not follow the offspring, but one is an accomplished performer and another a film maker who has been involved only in most laudable projects. That their father chooses to work is no surprise at all, and we should only HOPE it never ends. I recall when he did hit the road again (after what is now realized as only a brief respite) it was such an out-of-scale, stadium-filled steamroll no less than Bill Graham had to handle the ticket requests, millions of which were unfulfilled and the performers had to shout to be heard. Geffen bought the product and it set Dylan adrift a bit after, but he got back to Hammond's label and although there were some ups and downs, he's since had an artistic 5 disc run which has now matched the first one. And that is a considerable proclamation as well.
But this is about Patton. And that quote. It has been 8 years since the magnificent Charlie Patton box set by Revenant dropped. Literally. It is time to listen to it again. It is called "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues" and it is with no question the greatest CD box-set ever released. From the pea-vine graphics to the erudite texts, it was as fitting a tribute one could create for this part Cherokee Black man who was born and died on plantations within 20 miles of each other in Sunflower County, Mississippi. It has taken me eight years to fully appreciate the box and Mr. Patton, though I first heard him in headphones in junior high school on an LP put out the year before I was born.
Dylan had a song on an album way back in 1978 titled "New Pony" which smells just a little bit like Patton. The tribute song "High Water" which refers to the floods that put Delta citizens atop the levee (the lucky ones anyway) is even closer. But to my knowledge, Dylan has never covered the master. It might be time. In fact, might I suggest an entire album of covers? I bet I could find him a label to put it out.