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Author Topic: Charley Patton's vocal style  (Read 1292 times)

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Offline sandmountainslim

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Charley Patton's vocal style
« on: February 25, 2017, 07:42:36 AM »
As a new fan of the genre I find Patton to be one of my favorite artists and right up there with Lemon and Blind Blake.  His songs and guitar style just have a mood to them that makes me sit still and listen.  I also love his voice but for some reason I can barely understand a word he is saying  :o  I find myself searching lyrics online for every song so I can make the words out which isn't the case with Lemon or Blake and to a much lesser degree Johnson   Did he sing like that on purpose or was his diction just a bit off?   Did people of the era have a hard time understanding his singing?  Could it have been on purpose due to the subject matter?    Thanks for any replies.
« Last Edit: February 25, 2017, 10:28:19 AM by sandmountainslim »

Offline harry

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #1 on: February 25, 2017, 10:23:23 AM »
I think Son House made a comment that he couldn't understand a word Charley was singing sitting 2 feet away.

Offline btasoundsradio

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #2 on: February 25, 2017, 10:46:54 AM »
For one, he used a singing technique known as vocal masking, akin to Blind Willie Johnson although johnsons singing is more like throat singing in the low register enabling 2 notes/octaves to be heard at once. Patton used a throat growl guttural type thing that is impossible to duplicate. I believe that his vocal style influenced the whole way that rock and roll vocals turned out to be via Howlin Wolf, into the Stones, Van Morrison, Beefheart etc. There are rare examples of Patton slipping into his natural voice, various small spoken/sung bits through out his catalogue. Listening closely, one can hear the vast difference in the 2 voices. I've thought maybe part of the altered singing voice he used was so that his spoken interjections sounded like someone else, I.e. Spoonful with all the banter. Fahey describes that performance as prodigious. I think that Charlie's Delta dialect combined with the nature of blues lyric improvisation and his unconventional voice create sometimes garbled lyric lines. As Fahey pointed out in the Revenant box set notes, his guitar was always in tune and his playing was always exceptional, so I tend not to want to blame alcohol or other factors for his often difficult diction in his recordings.  I think that upon drawing from the potentially endless stream of traditional, unwritten blues folk lyrics, he just got lost occasionally on lines and the performances were still on par, so Paramount issued the takes anyway. I think that going by the testimony of HC Speir, Patton was powerful enough of a performer that the record companies believed in his abilities enough to issue most of what came out of him, especially Paramount who seemed to take the most chances of artists. Just some thoughts on a good question .
« Last Edit: February 25, 2017, 10:48:37 AM by powerlinehorizon »
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Online Johnm

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #3 on: February 25, 2017, 12:53:02 PM »
Hi all,
I think Charlie Patton's spoken vocal asides had to do with his instincts as an entertainer--they're often making comments and asking questions like an audience member would who wanted to know where a song was going to go next.  As for his singing, I think he just did it with an energy and vocal tone that he had learned would project, making it sound the way he thought it should sound.  As far as that goes, there's a certain amount of showmanship involved in singing extremely loud, especially without a sound system.  He'd get some unorthodox vowel sounds from time to time, mostly from holding notes and changing the vowel sounds as he held them.  I don't hear particular evidence, apart from the occasional actual fluff of a lyric, that his lyrics were improvised to any great extent.  It's wonderful how un-selfconscious and unintimidated he was by the recording process--he never sounded "tight", always loose as a goose.
All best,
Johnm

Offline waxwing

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2017, 05:27:28 PM »
I agree, Johnm, Charley was foremost a showman, and it's evident in all aspects of his performance, really. Also important is maintaining the rhythmic beat for the dancers, not without a little swing in the eighth notes, more so in some material than others, to fit various situations, perhaps.

Having had professional acting training in the late '70s, I was trained in Freeing the Natural Voice, a technique developed by Kristin Linklater (now dean of the graduate acting program at Columbia, I believe). What Charley does is all very natural and is a vocal style that he likely developed both due to his apparatus (his body) and his need to project his voice, either distances, when outdoors, or over a loud dancing crowd in a joint.

I googled "vocal masking", powerline, and found that it is a superpower used by some characters in Marvel Comix movies, or a software that renders the voice unrecognizable, such as the "anonymous witness" or "murderous psychopath taunting the cops over the phone". There seems to be a school of singing in which they teach using the "vocal mask", which is essentially the resonators in the facial bones called sinuses, hollow areas in the facial bones which resonate the vibrations of the voice. From what I saw, at least in early training, singers are told to focus their voice in this area, basically the mask around the eyes and back along the cheekbone.

In Linklater's training we developed the use of as many resonators as we could. A resonator is any area of the body in which there are bones forming a hollow area with softer flesh filling the hollow. The closer this is to the vocal column, which basically starts at the diaphragm pushing the lungs, up the trachea, throat, mouth and out, the easier it is to involve the resonator with the voice. One very important resonator is the chest cavity. The spine, ribs, sternum and scapulas, encase the lungs, which are basically big sacks of air. Even thought the vocal chords are at the top of this resonator it is still very natural to involve it in projecting the voice. Some performers are capable of involving the lower spine and hips as a resonator. Other resonators commonly used would be the top of the skull (very involved in falsetto), the hard palate and the soft palate behind it (Johnm refers to this as adenoidal, when speaking about Ishman Bracey), and nasal (which is separate from the sinoidal mask). Important in understanding the use of resonators is that you do not force the sound into the resonators, you open up the resonators to the sound. Learning to modulate and express vocally in this way is a massive yet exhilarating learning curve. It involves a lot of unlearning vocal habits which inhibit the natural voice.

Involving one resonator or group of resonators, more than others, has a marked effect on the tone and timbre, and volume of the voice. From an actor's point of view it can also convey character and emotion. Charley used his chest resonator a lot, and may have involved his hips as well. I have heard some refer to it as his "gut voice" which is a good description. This doesn't mean that his other resonators weren't involved and would all be in play to fill the space. This is a natural way to create vocal sounds and Charley was open to using his voice fully. Many people as they mature, only use certain resonators and habitually neglect and then lose the use of their resonators.

The other strong element of Charley's vocals is the gravel, which is known as glottal fry. This is also a natural aspect of the human voice and, tho' not so much in English, some languages utilize glottal fry extensively (think of the Jewish toast, "L'chaim"). The glottis refers to the soft palate area I mentioned previously, and the actual glottis is specifically the flap that covers the trachea while swallowing food. You can activate it by saying a word that starts with K, a letter known as a glottal plosive, or by making a gargling sound. Glottal fry is basically allowing this area to be loosely involved with the vocal production (the vocal chords are essentially just below this area in the vocal column), in essence, flapping. That's what Howling Wolf did when he admittedly 'Got my voice from Charley Patton', that's what Tom Waits added when he went, in about a year, from "The Heart of Saturday Night" to "'Small Change' got rained on with his own .38" in emulation of Wolf, and so on. Again, another very natural technique, which creates a sense of character and also a sound that cuts through the general hub bub.

Anyway, that's essentially what Charley does, vocally, along with imbuing his songs with a depth of pain and joy and anger, relief and fear, while, as you say Johnm, "always loose as a goose."

Wax
« Last Edit: March 04, 2017, 07:07:43 PM by waxwing »
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Offline Pontius2000

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #5 on: March 07, 2017, 07:23:37 AM »
Look up some live footage of Bukka White- particularly "Old Lady Blues" and "Aberdeen". It's almost the same kind of indecipherable delivery. I think a lot of it was his natural way and some of it was that Patton was noticeably drunk in some of his recordings.

Offline Lyndvs

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #6 on: March 08, 2017, 06:03:35 AM »
87588
Look up some live footage of Bukka White- particularly "Old Lady Blues" and "Aberdeen". It's almost the same kind of indecipherable delivery. I think a lot of it was his natural way and some of it was that Patton was noticeably drunk in some of his recordings.


I believe Patton`s diction was determined by the rhythm of the song.All Patton`s vocal`s enchance,punctuate and enforce the rhythm of said song.If correct diction fails to scan or distracts from the rhythm of a song then it isn`t used.I think blaming this on being drunk somewhat simplifies matters.
Bukka is another master of rhythm.

Offline Pontius2000

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #7 on: March 08, 2017, 07:02:06 AM »
87588
Look up some live footage of Bukka White- particularly "Old Lady Blues" and "Aberdeen". It's almost the same kind of indecipherable delivery. I think a lot of it was his natural way and some of it was that Patton was noticeably drunk in some of his recordings.


I believe Patton`s diction was determined by the rhythm of the song.All Patton`s vocal`s enchance,punctuate and enforce the rhythm of said song.If correct diction fails to scan or distracts from the rhythm of a song then it isn`t used.I think blaming this on being drunk somewhat simplifies matters.
Bukka is another master of rhythm.

One that immediately jumps to mind is "Elder Greene is Gone". In this song, Patton was clearly drunk and I think it affected the speed and rhythm of the song as well as how he sang it.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #8 on: March 08, 2017, 07:44:05 AM »
Charley's two takes of "Elder Greene" were the second and third takes he recorded on a day in which he recorded 17 sides. Hungover, maybe. Drunk? I doubt it.

Wax
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Offline Lyndvs

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #9 on: March 08, 2017, 08:33:39 AM »
87588
Look up some live footage of Bukka White- particularly "Old Lady Blues" and "Aberdeen". It's almost the same kind of indecipherable delivery. I think a lot of it was his natural way and some of it was that Patton was noticeably drunk in some of his recordings.


I believe Patton`s diction was determined by the rhythm of the song.All Patton`s vocal`s enchance,punctuate and enforce the rhythm of said song.If correct diction fails to scan or distracts from the rhythm of a song then it isn`t used.I think blaming this on being drunk somewhat simplifies matters.
Bukka is another master of rhythm.

One that immediately jumps to mind is "Elder Greene is Gone". In this song, Patton was clearly drunk and I think it affected the speed and rhythm of the song as well as how he sang it.
I disagree,pretty much for the same reason as Waxwing.
« Last Edit: March 08, 2017, 08:38:25 AM by Lyndvs »

Offline Pontius2000

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #10 on: March 08, 2017, 11:20:33 AM »
Charley's two takes of "Elder Greene" were the second and third takes he recorded on a day in which he recorded 17 sides. Hungover, maybe. Drunk? I doubt it.

Wax

I don't know which version of Elder Green is the first song on the second disk of the "complete remastered recordings" but it is obvious to me that he was drunk on that song. Plus, I have read that many of these bluesman had to be liqoured up to get them over the stage fright of singing in front of recording equipment, so it actually makes sense that he'd be more drunk on the day's 3rd song than the 17th.

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #11 on: March 08, 2017, 11:34:47 AM »
Seems to me as if telling Patton is drunk on Elder Greene is like telling if Buddy Boy Hawkins' lips moved on Voice Throwin' Blues.


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Offline waxwing

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #12 on: March 08, 2017, 09:43:59 PM »
Plus, I have read that many of these bluesman had to be liqoured up to get them over the stage fright of singing in front of recording equipment

Charley had recorded 4 months earlier, in June, 1929, and had several very big sellers for Paramount. He was a star. Hence in October they gave him 2 days of studio time in which he recorded 28 sides. There has already been discussion above about how he always sounded loose (i.e. relaxed), never tight (i.e. nervous). I, for one, can't buy the argument that he was so nervous that he had to get drunk at the beginning of a planned all day session. Charley was a professional. It has been stated in interviews with those who knew him that he ate the fat from the meat to absorb alcohol so that he could drink without getting drunk. The man was a professional and deserves respect.

So I just sat down and listened closely to both takes. Technically his guitar is rock solid. He does start the first take a bit slow, but methodically brings it up to speed with no wavering about. He does seem to be rushed some toward the end by Simms on the fiddle, who was recording the second song of his first session ever, but increasing speed through a song is pretty common. At the beginning of the second take after singing one line he seems to calmly tell Simms "Take your time," without missing a beat. Nothing in his guitar playing even hints that he is inebriated. And vocally, this does not seem to be one of the hardest to understand at all. Yeah, he fluffs the line in a couple spots, particularly the second of the Molly Cunningham lines. But still, to me sounds more like he is just waking up, as opposed to being so drunk he is out of control. I think the people of his area in Mississippi wouldn't have much trouble understanding him, and I have little credence in anything derogatory Son House had to say about Charley.

You know, you oughta come ride a bus in Oakland with me. The bus I take to work and back goes right by Oakland High. There are conversations that I hear that are all "ax me this" and "hella that" and I can't understand half of what they are saying. No, I mean the white kids... and the Asian kids, Latinos, oh and yeah, the black kids, too. It's just their way of talking to each other. They understand each other perfectly. (Gotta love "Oaktown" the most integrated city in America.)

Another issue in 1929 was with microphones. Electric microphones were first used in recording in the late 1920s, so they were still pretty rudimentary, even if they were condenser mics. I don't think Paramount, as in other technical areas, was cutting edge. And Charley had a voice, which he varied widely, that was capable of over driving the mics, so a lot of clarity is lost in dropout.

But please, "many of these bluesman had to be liqoured up"  ? ? ? 

Sign of the times, I guess. I'm done with this one.

Wax
« Last Edit: March 08, 2017, 10:54:19 PM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
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Offline eric

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #13 on: March 09, 2017, 06:03:08 AM »
Quote
Technically his guitar is rock solid

That's true, I think, across the board with Charley's recordings.  Tone, pitch, rhythm, dynamics: all right on the money.
--
Eric

Online Johnm

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Re: Charley Patton's vocal style
« Reply #14 on: March 09, 2017, 09:36:07 AM »
Hi all,
In addition to what has already been said in this thread, I think it's worth pointing out that in the recordings of Charlie Patton's era, there was no capacity to do fixes on a recorded take.  As a result, takes that were issued, even really great takes, most often had one or two little fluffs, wrong notes, hesitations, etc.  A take like Charlie Patton's take of "Elder Green" which is under discussion is fundamentally a good take.  By all accounts, Henry Sims and Patton were not frequent playing partners and it would not be at all unusual for them, or any duo, to take a little while to hit their stride, musically.  There's nothing about the take that indicates significant impairment of either player.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: March 09, 2017, 09:38:30 AM by Johnm »

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