Perhaps the most sumptuous, nay incredible, box set package ever devised for a blues artist, this lavish production contains seven CDs that not only contain everything Patton recorded as a soloist, but a ton of peripheral tracks to which he contributed or was associated. Yes, this has all 54 known extant Patton performances (including four unissued alternate takes), but that is, quite literally, not the half of it. There are also cuts recorded by other acts at Patton's sessions, including Walter Hawkins, Edith North Johnson, Henry Sims, Willie Brown, Son House, Louise Johnson, the gospel quartet the Delta Big Four, and Bertha Lee. Some of these he played on; some of them he might have played on; and some of them he didn't play on, though he knew (or might have known, anyway) the musicians. There are even a couple of test recordings of Paramount talent scout H.C. Speir reading headlines, which takes even this sort of fanaticism to the extreme, but why not the whole nine yards, right? Then there's an entire disc of tracks by other blues artists, spanning 1924 to 1957 (though mostly weighted toward the early years of that period), spotlighting songs that were related to Patton's repertoire, or inspired in some way by songs in his discography. That CD includes some pretty big names, like Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis, Tommy Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Son House, Joe Williams, and even the Staple Singers, though room's also made for unknowns, including one "Blues" by Unidentified Convict. And then there's an entire disc of interviews about Patton with Howlin' Wolf, Rev. Booker Miller, H.C. Speir, and Pops Staples; the Rev. Booker Miller portion is more entertaining than most such spoken recordings, as he occasionally plays some guitar himself to illustrate points. Patton's own tracks are consistently inspired Delta blues, though the sound quality inevitably varies widely, sometimes coming through quite clearly, at other times fighting a wall of static. One's interest in the non-Patton selections, other than those on the solid CD of Patton-related tunes and Patton-inspired performers, might vary. Certainly the Son House 1930 recordings (including "Preachin' the Blues") are classic Delta blues songs in any setting, as are the far more obscure ones by Willie Brown. However, others, such as the ones by Edith North Johnson and the Delta Big Four, bear vaudevillian jazz and gospel influences that Delta blues fans might not take a shine to. The non-Patton tracks, too, sometimes suffer from unavoidably poor sound quality due to the extremely rough shape of the only surviving original copies.
On top of all this, the packaging is extraordinary by any measure, and would take a lengthy review in itself to even cursorily summarize. Suffice it to say that if you're a serious Patton fan (and it's hard to imagine you'll get this if you're not), you're in for several hours of entertainment even when the CDs aren't in the stereo. The set is packaged like a vintage, full-sized photo album, in the manner "albums" of discs were assembled prior to the invention of the 33 1/3 RPM LP, with slots for each of the seven CDs. There are 128 pages of portfolio-sized liner notes, including essays on Patton and his records, transcriptions of all of the lyrics, stories behind most of the songs/tracks, a "thematic catalogue" of Patton's music, photos, reproductions of old advertisements for 78s, repros of the labels on the original 78s, even an interview with a noted bluesologist about collecting original releases from the artist. Thrown in is the complete 112-page book that John Fahey wrote about Patton in 1970 (an actual book, separate from the liner notes) as part of a series of monographs for Blues Paperbacks, and a reprint of the liner notes Bernard Klatzko wrote for the first Patton compilation, The Immortal Charlie Patton.
Due to the expense and zealous completism of this release, most blues fans will be content to limit themselves to an intelligent single-CD compilation of Patton's work, such as Yazoo's Founder of the Delta Blues. If you have any serious hunger to go beyond that, though, and are wondering whether to splurge on this museum-quality piece -- do it. It truly is the last word, and one of the most impressively packaged box sets in all of popular music.