Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Mississippi Moan

By Mark Jordan

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  When James Mathus was 5 years old, playing with his cousins in the yard of his aunt and uncle’s home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he had no idea that the kindly woman with the long black face watching over him was a living connection to a world of juke joints and country picnics, of cheap whiskey and cheating women, and of a strange, powerful, even haunted music called the blues. Nor when he was 17 years old and picking out his first Elmore James songs on the guitar did he know that the same woman, named Rosetta Brown and now perhaps making him a sandwich in the kitchen, was the daughter of Charley Patton, a man whom blues mythology describes as the first great Delta bluesman and an undeniable influence on Mathus’ newfound hero James, as well as just about every other player of the form.

“I just had no idea,” says Mathus, a Mississippi native and the singer/guitarist/songwriter for the North Carolina swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “[Rose] worked for my aunt and uncle doing whatever. She did everything around the house – cooking, cleaning, taking care of babies, including me and my cousins. … Every time I go back home, I go visit my aunts and uncles and Rosetta. She’s just one of the people I consider part of my family.”

But it wasn’t until 1991 that Mathus learned much about Rose’s own family, particularly her famous father. Charley Patton was one of earliest of the recorded Delta bluesmen, and before that one of the most popular and – with his percussive playing, eerie voice, and use of the slide – one of the most influential in the region. He also was the mold for the popular image of a Delta bluesman – itinerant, hard-drinking, hard-loving (he reportedly had eight wives), and, sadly, dead at the early age of 43.

“It was rather shocking to find out this relative – well, not really a relative but someone I considered a part of the family – was this Delta blues legend’s daughter, and no one had ever known it,” Mathus says.

But now, thanks to Mathus and his new side project, they will. Jas. Mathus and the Knock-Down Society Play Songs for Rosetta is Mathus’ tribute to both Rose and her influential father. (Jas. is an old Southern way of abbreviating James and is, at last count, the third variation on Mathus’ first name, along with Jim and Jimbo. He prefers Jimbo, by the way.)

The spark for … Song for Rosetta came from tragedy. Two years ago, the 80-year-old Rose suffered a stroke. Though she has largely recovered (“She’s just like she was, you know, dipping snuff just like she’s always done,” Mathus says), the stroke understandably left Rose and her family financially strapped.

To help pay the bills, first Mathus solicited donations in an article he wrote for the Oxford American which also recounted their story. But, as Mathus will tell you, he’s a musician, not a journalist. So, he proceeded to make plans for a tribute album to benefit Rose, gathering musicians and friends he had always wanted to work with (including Luther and Cody Dickinson and Paul Taylor of Gutbucket and the North Mississippi All-Stars and recent Handy nominee “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks) to record tracks in Clarksdale and New Orleans.

Jas. Mathus with Rosetta Patton

The sessions produced 24 songs, enough for a second yet-to-be released record, and feature a mixture of Mathus originals and traditional blues tunes that Mathus thinks Patton would have liked; his daughter Rose has already put her stamp of approval on it.

The project has already done well enough that Mathus has been able to get Rose some money. And now he has put together a touring version of the band that will play a handful of shows in the South, including an appearance this Sunday at the Center for Southern Folklore, before Mathus has to return to work on the Zippers follow-up to their breakthrough album Hot.

But for Mathus …Songs for Rosetta is about more than making money for an extended family member or even getting to cut his teeth on a different kind of music than he is used to playing with the Zippers. The project has also been about making that connection with one of his heroes, a bluesman over whose records he hunched over as a youth, trying to learn the songs.

“I learned a lot through this whole thing, about music and Rose and her father,” Mathus says. “Rose told me a lot about him. She said he deserted the family when she was 13, I think. He would come back and visit, though, pretty regularly. He would come back down into the Delta after all the cotton was picked and everybody had money. That’s where all the musicians would go. So, he’d go by and see them. She said he’d bring his guitar and he’d sing songs. She said he mostly sang gospel songs when he was around her. … And you know how weird his voice is when he sings, she said when he talked he just talked like a normal guy.

“It was kind of cool to hear all that, to hear about a different side of him, because you always read how he was a drunkard, got his throat cut, cheated, and beat women with his guitar. Rose just had this other picture of him I’ve just never seen written about.”

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