Bertha Lee Pate Patton Joiner (1902–1975)

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Bertha Lee Pate Patton was an African American blues singer from the Mississippi Delta who came to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s. She was born to Ella Johnson and Nels Pate on June 17, 1902, in Flora, Madison County, Mississippi, and moved with her family to Lula, Mississippi, when she was a child. Lula was a hot spot for blues activity in the 1920s and 1930s and was part of the Mississippi Delta musical scene that nurtured numerous artists from Robert Johnson during that period to B.B. King, who rose to prominence in the 1950s.

Young Bertha Lee Pate, like many aspiring blues singers, held a regular day job as a cook for local white families. At the age of sixteen, she met Charlie Patton who by that point (1918) was already a legendary blues singer in the region. They met at a club where Patton was performing, began an intense courtship, and soon the two were married. They settled in nearby Holly Ridge, Mississippi, and both began performing together in local clubs.

By this point, Bertha Lee and Charlie had developed a volatile relationship. Although Charlie Patton was a womanizer, she remained faithful to him despite their often violent arguments about his infidelity. On one occasion, the couple was held overnight in a Mississippi jailhouse after their argument turned violent. On another occasion, a friend recalled a fight in which Bertha Lee pinned Charlie to the ground and beat him with her fists repetitively. It is reported, but never confirmed, that the scar on Charlie Patton’s neck was from being slit with a razor by Bertha Lee.

In 1934 the couple made the long journey by bus and train to New York City to record together for the first time at the Paramount Records recording studio. For Charlie Patton, however, this would be his last recording session. Bertha Lee Patton’s recordings with her husband are the only documents left of her voice. She sang on twelve of his records, including the album, Masters of the Delta Blues: The Friends of Charlie Patton. As a consequence of the success of that album, Patton recorded three songs as a solo artist, “Yellow Bee,” “Dog Train Blues,” and “Mind Reader Blues.”

Bertha Lee remained Patton’s wife until his death due to a heart condition on April 24, 1934. Shortly after they completed their last recording together, Patton died lying across his wife’s lap. Bertha Lee Patton later met a man named Joiner and took her new husband’s last name. They moved to an undisclosed suburb in Cook County, Illinois, outside of Chicago in 1949 where she worked in a used clothing store. She never sang in public again. Joiner died on May 10, 1975, in her home near Chicago.