Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unraveling the Mystery of Henry Sloan


The first post here has to do with the mystery of the man whom this blog is titled after. Who was Henry Sloan? The legend is that he was the man who taught Charley Patton to play the guitar. Up until this point, all that has ever been confirmed is that he once lived in Mississippi. If researchers know more, they have kept that information to themselves. The public does not know whatever became of the man who W.C. Handy claimed to witness playing the guitar in Tutwiller, Mississippi, around 1902.

His wikipedia entry reads as follows:

Henry Sloan (b. January 1870 - d. ?) was an African American musician, one
of the earliest figures in the history of Delta
. Very little is known for certain about his life, other than he
tutored Charlie Patton in the
ways of the blues,
and moved to Chicago shortly after World War
. There are no recordings of him.
According to researcher David Evans[1],
Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870, and by 1900 was living in the same
community as the Patton and Chatmon families near Bolton, Mississippi.
He moved to the Dockery Plantation
near Indianola about
the same time as the Pattons, between 1901 and 1904. Patton received some
instruction from Sloan, and played with him for several years. Two of
Patton’s later accompanists, Tommy
and Son House, both stated that
Patton "dogged every step" of Sloan’s[2]. One
unprovable possibility is that Sloan was the mysterious hobo observed by
musician W.C. Handy playing guitar at Tutwiler train
station in 1903. Handy wrote in his autobiography of being awakened by "...
a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me
while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face
had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife
the strings of the guitar. ... The effect was unforgettable... The singer
repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog") three times,
accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever

We here at this blog believe that we have uncovered the key to the riddle of Henry Sloan. This is his story.

The Life and Death of Henry Sloan:

Sam Sloan was born in 1842 in South Carolina. A farmer by trade, at some point before he turned twenty, he moved to the Mississippi Delta, likely seeking employment. It was there that he met native Laura, who was a year older than them. It is possible that Sam may have brought other family members with him. Sam Sloan married Laura in 1867, and Henry was born three years later, whether Sam and Laura are indeed Henry‘s parents is unclear. However, they are undoubtedly related, and likely raised Henry, if they are not, in fact, his parents. The census of 1880 lists Henry and Laura Sloan living on the same plantation, but their son Henry’s age is called James, and while the census correctly identifies his wife, the ages are confused, listing Sam as forty years of age and Laura as thirty-five. It is my estimation that Sam and Laura Sloan are, in fact, the parents of Henry Sloan, and that Henry is “James.”

The 1900 census is the undoubtedly the same from which Dr. David Evans took his information, regarding Henry Sloan, as it gives the same birth date and location.

At some point before 1900, Henry Sloan married and may have had children. His neighbor, and presumable parents, listed three grandchildren living with them. It may be that Henry Sloan’s first wife died in childbirth around 1898. According to the 1900 census, which correctly identifies Henry Sloan, he was listed as a widower. In 1900, Henry Sloan was already widowed, and living on a plantation in Hind’s County as a farmer. According to the Federal Census, Sloan could read and write, and listed his occupation as a “farmer.“ Sam and Laura Sloan, along with three grandchildren (born in 1895, 1897, and 1898), are listed as his neighbor.

It was during this time that Sloan befriended Charley Patton, though they may have known each other longer. It is also the period when he would have been seen by W.C. Handy in Tutwiler. After my research, it could be possible as it would’ve between Sloan’s first and second marriage.
According to David Evans, Sloan worked on Dockery Plantation, moving there around the same time as Patton between 1901-1904.

This is where the detective work truly begins. By 1920, Sloan was no longer living in Mississippi. Many (including men with much more experience and reputation than myself) have speculated that Sloan moved north (specifically to Chicago) after World War I and spent the rest of his years there. , while a Henry Sloan who was born around 1870 showed up in Baton Rouge, LA. The most intriguing of the candidates turned up on the 1920 records as living in Arkansas.
Sometime between 1904-1907, this particular candidate married a woman named either Bettie or Mary, who was a Mississippi native and ten years his junior. This relationship produced at least two sons, Henry Jr and Hall, both born in Mississippi in 1908 and 1910.


By 1920, Henry Sloan and his family were living around West Memphis, Arkansas. The birth record given lists his birthday as “around 1873.” Also, living in the same district was a Samuel Sloan, whose birth date was given around 1898. This Samuel Sloan was born in Mississippi, and married to Ida. When re-checking the 1900 records, it matches up. One of the grandchildren, living with Sam and Laura and born between 1895-1898 was indeed named after his grandfather.

Not much more can be said about Sloan’s life between this time and his death. By 1930, he is still living in West Memphis with his wife. A Henry Sloan Junior turned up in a boarding house in Texas. Nothing has been found regarding his other son by his second wife. It is possible that he did go north for a time, especially since the 1940 census has not been released yet.

How am I almost positive that this is indeed the Henry Sloan who lived in Mississippi in 1900 and taught Charley Patton how to play guitar? His death certificate. The Henry Sloan, who lived in Arkansas, died on March 13, 1948. His listed age at the time of death? 78 years old. And the his birth date listed on the death certificate: 1870, born in Mississippi. We have a match.


Henry Sloan
Born: January 1870, Mississippi
Death: March 13, 1948 Crittendon County, Arkansas

There are no cemetery records. He was likely buried in a grave that was either unmarked, like so many of the early blues patrons, or the cemetery has overgrown.

King Solomon’s Church is a possible final resting place. An African-American cemetery, many graves were left unmarked or the stones have worn to the point of being unintelligible. The other likely candidate would be an unnamed cemetery about a mile and a half away from King Solomon. It was once believed to be the location of the Liberty Church. The church has burned down, and the cemetery is unreachable from the overgrowth. It is possible that somewhere buried beneath the weeds and brush lies a marker, or Henry Sloan, himself. Mary Sloan died on October 15, 1970 in Nettleton, Mississippi.


  1. Fascinating stuff! Please check out my blog for some early Blues music, including a lot of hard-to-find stuff! All free!

  2. I just re-read this! Absolutely amazing work!

  3. Hey, I like this but I think there are a couple of holes in your theory, especially re: that errant 'James Sloan' in the 1880.

    Contact me at if you'd like to discuss some of them and maybe we can break through these blocks...?

  4. Charley is only 3 sheets away on the 1900 census..from Henry Sloan in Bolton.

  5. What put you on the alleged burial sites?

  6. Your first paragraph suggests that the guy Handy heard in Tutwiler in about 1904 was Henry Sloan; there is zero reason to think he was. If you want to know the name of a musician Handy heard singing a 12-bar song with AAA lyrics, he recalled that he heard Phil Jones doing that in Indiana about 9 years _before_ the Tutwiler train station. See Father Of The Blues pp. 142-143.

  7. Is this the Henry Sloan from Crawfordsville, AR buried up at Clarkdale, AR?

  8. How can he have moved to Mississippi before he was 20 seeking employment i.e. before 1862 - he would have been a slave then!

    1. I was thinking the exact same thing, seems extremely unlikely.

  9. I have a check from the Lebanon Bank and Trust companies dated July 3, 1935. Lebanon, TN made out to none other than Henry Sloan in the amount of $2.00 for repairing a watch.

  10. This is great! Where did you find the information on Sam Sloan in S.C.? This is fascinating. Thank you,

  11. Henry Sloan started it all in the blues music world , Joe Nania