As part of our Places In Blues History, here is a page on the old Bezoni Jail in Belzoni, Mississippi and Charley Patton’s “High Sheriff Blues“.

Charley Patton’s “High Sheriff Blues,” recorded for Paramount Records in 1934, is about Charley Patton’s incarceration in the old Belzoni jail, circa 1934. Patton’s incarceration in the Belzoni jail was apparently the result of Patton being intoxicated and/or causing a disturbance.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.

The old Belzoni jail, where Charley Patton was briefly incarcerated circa 1933-1934, is still standing, although it is vacant and, as seen in the photos on this page, is in a derelict condition. A new Belzoni jail facility has been built behind the old jail.

Given the old Belzoni jail building’s clear connection to Charley Patton and “High Sheriff Blues,” we think this building should be preserved.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.

The tune of “High Sheriff Blues” is basically the same as Charley Patton’s earlier recording of “Tom Rushen Blues,” about an encounter Patton had with Tom Rushing, the sheriff in Merigold, Mississippi, a few years earlier.

Here is a YouTube video of High Sheriff Blues featuring a Document Records release of the song.

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.” 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'”

Book cover, Chasin' That Devil Music - Searching For The Blues, by Gayle Dean Wardlow
Book cover, Chasin’ That Devil Music – Searching For The Blues, by Gayle Dean Wardlow

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.

These photos 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.

Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.
Old Jail House, Belzoni, Mississippi, Charlie Patton was incarcerated here, circa 1933.

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 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 those interested in more information, here’s a link to a good blog article and podcast on High Sheriff Blues with additional commentary on Charley Patton, Robert Wilkins and Memphis Minnie.

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