Charlie Patton Highway (Turn It Up - Part 1)

Album: Digging Deep: Subterranea (2020)

Songfacts®:

  • In "Charlie Patton Highway (Turn it Up - Part 1)," Robert Plant is driving through Mississippi, listening to an evangelist on a local radio station. It's a scenario you might expect to set up humor or mockery, but the evangelists' message deeply affects Plant.

    The song is marked by a restrained intensity with a deep, driving bass line and an ominous ambience. When Plant sings the chorus, "turn it up," we feel like he's on the edge of losing, like he's feeling his soul's in danger.

    A touch of serendipity, a little stroke of luck
    The radio inside this car brings guidance from above
    The smallest contribution will keep me in safe hands
    I'm callin' 1-800, I ain't leavin' it to chance
  • Mississippi is the Mecca of American blues, which in a way makes it the Mecca of American music in general, because the blues (along with folk) were the root of rock and roll, hip-hop, and most every other American popular music genre. It's a lineage that might be lost on younger generations, but Plant and the rock pioneers of the '60s were acutely aware of it.

    Even though they're English, Plant and his old band Led Zeppelin were maybe even more aware of it than most. Much of their music drew directly from the blues, and music press of their heyday liked to talk about how Zeppelin "brought blues back to America."

    Plant has blown off this claim. In Paul Rees' book Robert Plant: A Life, Plant says, "When people say we took the blue back to America, it's such bollocks. Because John Hammond, Canned Heat, Bob Dylan, Mike Bloomfield, Elvis Bishop... all these people were already playing it."

    Still, Plant's reverence for American blues is clear. It explains the heaviness of the feelings communicated in this song.
  • The drive described in this song actually happened. Plant was near Clarksdale, Mississippi, popularly known as the birthplace of the blues. His recounting of the drive was kind of cryptic, but he made it clear that there was nothing lighthearted in the experience or the resulting tune. "I was looking at my world and my times from this unfamiliar place and found myself exposed to a nightmare world of half-truths," Plant told Rolling Stone.
  • On Charlie Patton Highway, the mist, the rain, the mud

    Charlie Patton is widely known as the Father of the Delta blues. He was born in 1891 (best guess by historians) and died in 1934. He recorded plenty of music and taught the likes of Robert Johnson, Fiddlin' Joe Martin, and Howlin' Wolf. Interestingly for a man who birthed a music that is now universally associated with African American culture, Patton was most likely mixed race, with black, Native American (either Choctaw or Cherokee), and white ancestry.

    Patton's name has frequently been spelled Charley (with an "ey" rather than an "ie"), but in this song title Plant opts for the way Patton himself spelled it.
  • Somewhere east of Tunica and I'm close to givin' up

    Tunica is a town in northwestern Mississippi, near the Arkansas border. It's a little more than half-an-hour north of Clarksdale. Both towns are on US-61.
  • The track listing on back of Digging Deep: Subterranea lists this song as one of the three new releases on the album, but the song is an update to "Turn It Up" from Plant's 2014 album Lullaby And The Ceaseless Roar.

    "Charlie Patton Highway" is only a few seconds longer than "Turn It Up," but the songs are quite different in a lot of ways. Some verses are in different order and some words are changed. For example, the line "for help and consolation I'll turn it on again" from "Turn It Up" becomes "for help and consolation, I'll hit that dial again" in "Charlie Patton Highway." "Charlie Patton Highway" is also a much more visceral song - deeper, rawer.
  • In a 2020 interview, Plant expanded on the drive that spawned this song.

    He'd been out on the rural Southern backroads because he'd been helping the University of Mississippi place historical markers at key Blues history sites. This had him spending long hours alone in his car. As he drove, he listened to AM radio.

    "It's quite something to behold," he said of the evangelists he heard on the radio. "It's quite frightening, really."

    He'd stop and take notes occasionally as he drove.

    Later he had these bits as he sat in the living room of Buddy Miller, a musician and Grammy-winning producer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Miller toured with Plant a few times and co-produced Plant's ninth solo studio album, Band of Joy, which came out in 2010. He also co-wrote some of the songs on that album. The later began working together on a sequel to that album.

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