Let Me Ride: Part 2
This is the second piece in an ongoing series called “Let Me Ride” that celebrates, discusses and explores the unique nature of music in Mississippi and the infinite catalog of stories that contributes to that rich portrait. The subsequent pieces in this series will focus on particular events, characters or locations in Mississippi’s musical history and in its current musical landscape, and examine how they reflect or uncover the mythic, murky identity of one of the world’s greatest musical watering holes.
The names Chatmon and Carter mean a whole lot despite their relative obscurity. The family is rugged and rowdy blues royalty dating back to the ’20s or earlier, stars of the Mississippi Sheiks and many of them individual dynamos in their own right fathered by Henderson Chatmon himself. The patriarch of nearly a dozen early bluesmen, including the likes of Lonnie, Sam, Willie, Edgar, Lamar and Bo, Chatmon also takes the genetic credit for Charlie Patton.
Charlie’s fire eyes certainly agree with the claim, and so does his manic lifestyle and personality. What’s more is that Henderson was a slave, and Patton was a product of Henderson’s affair with a white woman or a Native American woman, leading the nowhere man to walk his own path rather than fall in totally with the Sheiks. Many of the Chatmons used that outfit to propel a solo career, but Charlie the bastard was the only one to taste that sweet, sweet irony of fatherhood — as father to the Delta blues itself. The whole batch is bonkers, but they played raw and thrilling blues from the late ’20s until Sam finally died, marking the end of that Chatmon generation in 1983.
These men lived in the jukes and porches of a deep and seedy Mississippi. These Chatmons and Carters got drunk and played music and howled and crooned and got paid and fought and drank and left, as did the rest of the bluesmen. But these boys were different, like their half-brother-king Charlie Patton. Once, he was on a trip to Wisconsin to record with the hero Son House and the Vicksburg favorite Willie Brown.
Freshly sauced from a nice per diem and a nicer Buick and the nicest Stella guitar, brand spanking new and paid for in full the second he hit the road, Patton got into it with Brown and forced the driver to stop their haul on the side of a highway, maybe one you know well, so the two could have it out. But the drunken deity stumbled out of the Buick and flat onto his brand spanking new Stella. Then he stood in the middle of the highway for thirty minutes, just to cuss.
Now, in 2016, some interesting stuff is happening. The estate of Bo Carter has filed a lawsuit against Eric Clapton seeking $5 million over a case of improper credit on Clapton’s part. He’s always loved to play “Alberta” by Leadbelly at his live shows, and it’s always been a crowd-pleaser for him. Only… he wasn’t playing “Alberta” by Leadbelly. He was playing a Chatmon song, a Chatmon hit, “Corrine, Corrina,” and replacing those words in the song’s refrains with Alberta.
Easy enough, and very likely a totally innocent error. In fact, there are reasons for such a loss in translation. This lawsuit, and others like it, simply has no way of communicating with its parties, in body mind or music. Copyrighting in 2016 is Martian to the Chatmons, and everyone else who played blues in Mississippi in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. These are the moments when the fourth dimension opens, and time fights with itself.
Bo Carter licensed the “original” “Corrine, Corrina” in 1929 with Brunswick Records, a 12-bar blues that became a popular hit and made its way across state lines, a rarity in those days. But what about Tampa Red and his 1929 recording for Vocation? And what about Charlie McCoy, who made his own way with the hit and rightfully so having recorded it in the same studio on the same day at the same time as Bo Carter. His name only appears once in the entire suit. Charlie Patton tried on the song for himself, recording his own “Come Back Corrina” in 1929.
Even more confusing, the Mississippi Sheiks performed yet another cover of the song, an exact one save for one detail. They sang “Alberta, Alberta” during the refrain instead of Carter’s original title, which would lead the song’s title to its continued interchangeability throughout the decades following its official release. None of this even considers Ma Rainey’s 1924 “See See Rider,” later covered by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1926 when he inserted a verse about a “Corrina” that bears many similarities to Carter’s song.
Ironically, or obviously, Leadbelly famously recorded a “CC Rider” with the Corrina verse, and he also did indeed sing a song called “Alberta,” but it resembles Rainey and Jefferson’s “See See Rider” far more greatly than the Carter tune. Nonetheless, like all the other blues songs from this period, “Corrine, Corrina” in all its forms was driving dancefloors across Mississippi jukes every night in dozens of locations at once, by dozens of bluesmen. In this way, blues music exists in a wonderful state of flux between its value as a primary source and its own incredibly unique oral history. And it’s exactly why Clapton shouldn’t have to pay up here.
The juke joint community was a world that dwelled entirely on immediate experience, and that is what bluesmen carried for their dollar — the ability to incite a group of people living in Jim Crow Mississippi to hope and feel and love and groove. Crowds came not for specific songs, so much as they came for specific renditions. It’s the entire nature of the blues genre: a broad catalog of traditional stanzas, progressions, and melodies at the extended root of the slave song and spiritual waiting for a performer to apply their own stories and musical explorations within that framework. It’s exactly why so very many genres and subgenres of the blues exist —, because each bluesman found their grit in different creeks.
Same with all of us, I guess.