Charley Patton and the old Belzoni Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

Charley Patton (died 28 April 1934 – aka Charlie Patton) is one of the leading figures in Mississippi blues history. Blues historian Robert Palmer considered Charley Patton one of the most important figures in 20th century American music.

Charley Patton’s “High Sheriff Blues,” recorded for Vocalion┬áRecords in New York on 1 February 1934, is about Charley Patton’s incarceration in the old Belzoni jail, circa 1933-34. Patton’s incarceration in the Belzoni jail was apparently the result of Patton being intoxicated and/or causing a disturbance.

The old Belzoni Jail where Charley Patton was locked up circa 1933 or early 1934 is still standing but it is in a very derelict condition.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

Given Charley Patton‘s importance in music history and the old Belzoni jail building’s clear connection to Charley Patton and “High Sheriff Blues,” we think this building should be preserved, perhaps as museum commemorating the blues and/or Charley Patton.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

The melody of “High Sheriff Blues” is basically the same as Charley Patton’s earlier Paramount Records recording of “Tom Rushen Blues,” (recorded in 1929) about an encounter Charley Patton had had with Tom Rushing, the sheriff in Merigold, Mississippi.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

Here are the lyrics to Charley Patton’s “High Sheriff Blues“:

“Get in trouble at Belzoni
there ain’t no use a-screamin’ and cryin’
Get in trouble in Belzoni,
there ain’t no use a-screamin’ and cryin’
Mr. Will will take you, back to Belzoni jailhouse flyin’

Le’ me tell you folksies, how he treated me
Le’ me tell you folksies, how he treated me
An’ he put me in a cellar, just as dark as it could be
There I laid one evenin’, Mr. Purvis was standin’ ’round
There I laid one evenin’, Mr. Purvis was standin’ ’round
Mr. Purvis told Mr. Will to, let poor Charley down
It takes booze and blues, Lord, to carry me through
Takes booze and blues, Lord, to carry me through
But it did seem like years,
in a jailhouse where there is no booze
I got up one mornin’, feelin’ awe, hmm
I got up one mornin’, feelin’ mighty bad, hmm
An’ it might not a-been them Belzoni jail I had
(spoken: Blues I had, boys)
While I was in trouble, ain’t no use a-screamin’
When I was in prison, it ain’t no use a-screamin and cryin’
Mr. Purvis the onliest man could, ease that pain of mine.”

We are currently trying to find old documentary records to specifically identify “Mr. Purvis” and “Mr.Will”

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

Note the similarity between the lyric, “Mr Will will take you, back to Belzoni jailhouse flyin'” and the lyric in Tom Rushen Blues, “Tom Rushen will take you, back to the prison house flyin'”

Research by blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow indicates that Sheriff Tom Rushing of Merigold, Mississippi was very athletic and a fast runner, so Charley Patton’s lyric in “Tom Rushen Blues” may be a reference to Tom Rushen’s athletic ability and running speed as well as the speed he might take people “to the prison house flyin'”

It would be interesting to find out whether Charley Patton was referring to similar athletic abilities in “Mr. Will”, whether Patton just recycled the tune and lyric of his earlier recording, Tom Rushen Blues, when recording “High Sheriff Blues” or whether there was more personal history between Patton and “Mr. Will.” The lyrics about how “Mr. Will” put Charley Patton “in a cellar, just as dark as it could be…” and how “Mr. Purvis told Mr. Will to, let poor Charley down” doesn’t suggest Patton had any feelings of good will toward “Mr. Will.” “Mr. Purvis,” on the other hand, comes across as Charley Patton’s protector or benefactor.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi

These photos clearly show the deteriorated state the old Belzoni jail building has been allowed to fall into.

As the photos show, many windows are boarded up, other windows are missing completely and the exterior is starting to crumble. The building’s interior is also decaying, although, at this stage, it could still be salvageable.

With this building’s clear connection to Charley Patton, one of the major figures in the development of the Delta Blues, we think the old Belzoni jail building is worthy of preservation. We have contacted the Mississippi Blues Trail and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to suggest it be preserved.

For more information on Charley Patton, here are some videos of Gail Dean Wardlow discussing his research on Charley Patton:

Here’s a Mississippi Blues Trail video on Charley Patton:

We’ll post more information about Charley Patton, H.C. Spier, Merigold, Mississippi and other subjects in the coming days.

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