For his third recording session in 1930, bluesman Charley Patton brought some talented friends into the studio with him at the urging of Paramount Records. He got Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson to tag along, convinced gospel singer Wheeler Ford to be their designated driver, and they all got drunk on corn liquor en route to Wisconsin. At the beginning of the long drive, as they were leaving the Mississippi Delta, Louise was Charley’s girl, or one of several girls he called his. By the time they got to Grafton, she decided she found Son House more appealing. In later years he would brag that he “stole” her from Charley.
This was to be the only recorded work by Willie Brown under his own name, the only known recorded work by Louise Johnson in any capacity, and the second-last recording session of Charley Patton’s life. Son House’s “rediscovery” in the 1960s grew directly out of the powerful songs he recorded at this single-day session. Bernard Klatzko, owner of the Origin Jazz Library record label, once called it “the greatest country blues recording session” of all time. Maybe that’s a hyperbolic statement, but it’s hard to argue against it.
Enough information exists to form some picture of who the other musicians were and the lives they led. The question of Louise Johnson remains all but insoluble. She sang and played piano in a saloon. She was introduced to Patton by Willie Brown. He liked the way she sang and played. He liked the way she looked. In 1930 she was somewhere between nineteen and twenty-four years old. As Son House told it, “She didn’t do nothin’ but drink and play music. She didn’t work for nobody.”
Back in Mississippi after the recording session, the group (minus Wheeler Ford) performed in a saloon near Lula. Then they split up. Supposedly Louise was seen playing on a plantation near Clarksdale later in the 1930s before moving to Memphis in the early ’40s. Nothing else is known about her.
A decade or two after the fact, Clarence Lofton claimed he was the one who’d played the piano on this session, accompanying Louise while she sang. No disrespect to Clarence’s estimable talent and influence, but he was full of shit, just trying to build up his own legend some more, and probably threatened on some level by a woman who could have blown him off a stage. The four lusty songs Louise recorded with the men clapping and shouting in the background are the highlight of a session packed with great music (“On the Wall” is ferocious — some of the best barrelhouse piano I’ve heard anyone play), and there’s no doubt she played that piano herself.
It’s a shame her recorded legacy is so slim and there’s so little known about her life, because man, could she play.