Friday, September 9, 2016

Blues Standards - Sitting on Top of the World

The Mississippi Sheiks (L to R):  Lonnie Chatmon, Walter Vinson, Bo Carter

The song "Sitting on Top of the World," recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks, is one song that has transcended the blues genre.  It has become a standard of traditional American music.  It has been recorded in numerous musical styles besides blues......folk, country, bluegrass, rock.....sometimes using the original lyrics, sometimes with modifications or additions to the lyrics.  Actually, the lyrics of the song have an appeal to just about anyone who likes music.  The lyrics deal with standing tall in the face of adversity, persevering through emotional down periods, surviving the setbacks that each of us face at one point or another during our lives.  This week, we will take a look at the original tune and its musical evolution over the next 80+ years.

The Mississippi Sheiks were from Bolton, MS, just west of Jackson.  They were mostly members of the Chatmon family, whose family patriarch had been a musician during slavery days.  His children and grandchildren had carried on the musical tradition, among them were Armenter, Lonnie, and Sam Chatmon, along with Walter Vinson.  Armenter Chatmon was better known as Bo Carter, and went on to have a very successful solo career in addition to playing with the Sheiks.

Walter Vinson and Sam Chatmon are usually credited as composers of the song.  Vinson claimed that he wrote it one night after playing a white dance in Greenwood, MS.  The group was just as popular with the whites in the Delta as they were with the blacks, so the song had enormous crossover appeal, and became a big hit.

Although Vinson did write it, like many other blues songs of the era, parts of it were borrowed from other blues songs.  Lines that appear in different blues songs are called "floating verses."  The "peaches" verse dates back to Irving Berlin in the mid 1910's, and was used in several blues songs during the 20's, and later in songs from different genres.  A song by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, "You Got To Reap What You Sow," recorded in 1929, bears some musical similarities.

The Sheiks recorded their version on Okeh Records in February of 1930.  By the summer of that year, Charlie Patton had recorded a similar version, called "Some Summer Day," with modified lyrics, which certainly verifies the song's popularity at the time it was released.


The song's crossover appeal was demonstrated just a few years later when, in 1934, Milton Brown, "the Father of Western Swing," recorded the song for Bluebird Records, as "Just Sitting On Top of The World," with his band, the Musical Brownies.  The song became a favorite piece in the repertoire of most western swing bands.  Another hit version was recorded in 1935 by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

The great Ray Charles recorded the song on SwingTime Records in 1949.  He added a verse to the original, the verse about taking "Christmas in my overalls."  Several years, Howlin' Wolf included this verse in his rendition of the song, which was recorded in 1957, and is probably one of the best known, and most covered versions of the song.  The Wolf shortened it to three verses, using the second and fifth verses of the original and using the Ray Charles lyric as the second verse.  

Over the years, the song has been recorded by many other artists in many other genres and continues to be covered to this day.  Here are a few other readings from artists you may be familiar with.

Genre-busting guitar master Doc Watson recorded it several times, this version from 1962.


Here's the Grateful Dead's version, from their 1967 self-titled debut album.....

Cream, the mid 60's British supergroup, recorded it on their Wheels of Fire album in 1968.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded the song in 1990 for their second volume of the Will The Circle Be Unbroken country music super session, with bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin joining in...

Jack White recorded this old-timey version as part of the soundtrack for the 2003 movie, Cold Mountain.

Willie Nelson.....from his 2000 Milk Cow Blues album.

And finally, B.B. of the highlights from his 2008 swan song, One Kind Favor.

We've only scratched the surface here.  "Sitting on Top of the World" was also covered by others, like Chet Atkins, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Chris Smither, Taj Mahal, The Seldom Scene, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Harry Manx, The Radiators, James Blood Ulmer, Jeff Healey, and Robert Cray.  The song continues to have universal appeal across multiple genres.

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