Okeh 8784 – Mississippi Sheiks – 1930

Few songs in the vast and diverse country blues tradition have had such an enduring impact, and few melodies known such ubiquity, as the Mississippi Sheiks’ legendary 1930 recording of “Sitting On Top of the World”.  Yet in spite of its great import, the song’s origins are quite obscure.  Thus, I endeavor herein to unravel the tangled roots of one of America’s greatest blues songs.  I do ask that if you readers have any greater insight into the song’s history than I have to offer, please let me in on it by commenting on this post.

The Mississippi Sheiks were a versatile country string band with a repertoire consisting of everything from deep plantation blues melodies to the latest Tin Pan Alley pop hits.  Though its personnel varied from session to session, core members were Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle and Walter Vinson on guitar.  Sometimes, they were joined by other Chatmon brothers Sam and Armenter—better known as Bo Carter—or mandolin player Papa Charlie McCoy, brother of Kansas Joe McCoy.  The Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi had a venerable musical history in the region.  Patriarch Henderson Chatmon, born into slavery around 1850, was a fiddle player, and he passed his legacy of music on to his sons Lonnie, Bo, Sam, Harry, and reputedly Charley Patton by a different mother.  Lonnie Chatmon was born either in June of 1888 or on November 8, 1890. He provided the heart of the Sheiks as their main fiddle player, remaining ever-present through all the Sheiks sessions and varying membership.  Guitar picker Walter Vinson, sometimes called Vincent or Vincson, and credited pseudonymously as Walter Jacobs, was born on February 2, 1901, also in Bolton.  Prior to becoming a Mississippi Sheik, he played alongside such noted talents as Charlie Spand, Rube Lacey, and the aforementioned Papa Charlie McCoy.  He made his first records with Bo Carter for Brunswick in 1928, also Carter’s first.

Following in the footsteps of similar Bo Carter and Walter Vinson groups of 1928 and ’29, the Mississippi Sheiks had their first recording session in Shreveport, Louisiana in February of 1930 for Okeh, and continued to record exclusively for them through 1931, with several of their records released in the 45000 “hillbilly” series rather than the 8000 “race” series, and their two final discs appearing on the parent label Columbia.  While at Okeh, the Sheiks accompanied “Texas” Alexander in a single San Antonio session.  Meanwhile, offshoot groups such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Mississippi Blacksnakes, both featuring Charlie McCoy, cut several records for Okeh and Brunswick.  Thereafter, they traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to make a series of records for the faltering Paramount label in July of ’32 before returning to Okeh in ’33 for a single session while the record industry was in dire straits.  The following year, they signed with RCA Victor’s new up-and-comer Bluebird, with whom they remained until their final session in 1935.  Lonnie cut several more records for Bluebird late in 1936 with brother Sam Chatmon, who had participated in a handful of earlier Sheiks sessions, before calling it quits.

After the days of the Mississippi Sheiks had drawn to a close in the middle of the 1930s, the Chatmons, excepting Bo, quit music and returned to a life as farmers.  Lonnie Chatmon died around 1942 of ’43.  Walter Vinson and Bo Carter continued to enjoy solo recording careers into the 1940s.  Bo Carter made some (as yet unreleased) final recordings for Paul Oliver in 1960 with Will Shade and Dewey Corley of the Memphis Jug Band, and died four years later at the age of 71.  Walter Vinson too returned to music in 1960, making a rather more successful comeback than Carter, before retiring for the last time in 1972, owing to atherosclerosis, three years before his death.  Sam Chatmon spent many years working on plantations in Mississippi before the folk revival of the 1960s brought him back to the spotlight with great success, dying at the age of 86 in 1983.


Okeh 8784 was recorded at the Mississippi Sheiks’ first session on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The Sheiks are Walter Vinson (a.k.a. Walter Jacobs) on guitar and vocal, Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, and on the second side, Bo Carter on second guitar.  It is the Sheiks’ second issued record.

Without a doubt the Sheiks’ greatest success—then as now—is “Sitting on Top of the World”.  The Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon accredited composition has subsequently been covered by dozens, if not hundreds of artists, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.   After proving to be one of the biggest “race” hits of 1930, the Sheiks followed up with “Sitting on Top of the World No. 2” (Okeh 8854) in 1931 and “The New Sittin’ on Top of the World” (Paramount 13134) in ’32.  Bearing no resemblance to the 1926 popular song “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” besides its title, the unmistakable melody of “Sitting on Top of the World”, or a very similar one, was used by quite a number of recordings prior to the Sheiks’ 1930 waxing.

Where exactly and from whom the melody originated is considerably more difficult to pin down than simply citing some of the many songs to use it.  Walter Vinson claimed to have written the song after playing for a white dance.  Ida Cox recorded “How Long, Daddy, How Long” in 1925 with a like melody, accompanied by Papa Charlie Jackson, the composer credited as “W.H. Jackson”.  Leroy Carr made that song famous three years later with his influential “How Long – How Long Blues”, and reused the melody in his “You Got to Reap What You Sow” only two months later.  Some have suggested that the Sheiks were introduced to the melody by way of Tampa Red and a song he recorded several times called “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, however I am dubious of that possibility.  The earliest recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” was cut on January 17, 1931 by one “Sam Hill” from Louisville—apparently a pseudonym for Walter Vinson—for Brunswick records, at the same session as the Sheiks’ offshoot the Mississippi Blacksnakes.  Tampa Red made his first recording of the song the following month, with the composer credited as “Sam Hill”.  The Sheiks themselves recorded the song later in that year.  However, prior to every recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way”, the Atlanta-based fiddler Eddie Anthony recorded the very similar “Everything’s Coming My Way” with the same melody, borrowing some lyrics from “Sitting on Top of the World”.  To  1941 Sam Price and his Texas Bluesiscians recording of “Things ‘Bout Coming My Way” perplexingly credits Bert Johnson and Spencer Williams as composers.

Contemporaneous to the Sheik’s “Stitting On Top of the World”, a version was cut by Charley Patton, an associate of the Sheiks, only a few months after theirs under the title “Some Summer Day”.  Big Bill Broonzy used the popular melody in his two-parter “Worrying You Off My Mind” in 1932, and Robert Johnson too echoed it in his 1936 “Come On in My Kitchen”.  Milton Brown introduced the tune into the Western swing repertoire with his 1934 recording titled “Just Sitting on Top of the World”, which was in turn covered by Bob Wills and others.

Sitting on Top of the World, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.

Though a little worse for wear, owing to a touch of groove stripping, the Sheiks give us some more of their good stuff, with Bo Carter sitting in, on the less well-remembered, but nonetheless excellent “Lonely One In this Town”.

Lonely One In this Town, recorded February 17, 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.

Okeh 45231 – Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater – 1928

This occasion’s serenade is provided by the obscure but outstanding string duo of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, who play here a couple of snappy rag numbers on mandolin and guitar.

Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and Matthew Prater were a pair of black musicians hailing from Vicksburg, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.  Hayes was likely born in 1885 in West Corinth, Mississippi, and Prater in New Albany in either 1886 or on June 30, 1889.  With Hayes on guitar and Prater on mandolin, the two played raggy music in a style not too disparate from that of the Dallas String Band.  In February of 1928, they traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to record a total of eight sides for Okeh Records, out of which all but two were issued.  Half of those eight featured vocals and violin by Lonnie Johnson (though some sources, including Discography of Okeh Records, cite a different Johnson—T.C. Johnson—who recorded at the same field trip as part of the minstrel-esque trio Johnson-Nelson-Porkchop).  Out of those three discs, only one was released in the 8000 “race” series, while the other two were in the 45000 “hillbilly” series.  Each record was credited differently, one under their own names as Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater, another as “The Blue Boys”, and one with Johnson as “The Johnson Boys”.  Of note, those sides included a piece titled “Easy Winner”, which, despite taking the name of another of his rags, was in fact a take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”.  That session accounted for the entirety of Hayes and Prater’s recorded legacy, and their later lives are as yet undocumented.

Okeh 45231 was recorded February 15, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.  Hayes plays guitar, while Prater takes the raggy mandolin.  I picked this record up in a junk shop, and it’s not in the most wonderful condition, but it plays quite well in spite of it.  Not bad for a record that made the 78 Quarterly’s list of “The Rarest 78s”!

“Somethin’ Doin'” has some riffs that seem to strike my ear as familiar, from another tune, but I can’t put my finger on it.  Maybe I’m wrong altogether, but if anyone happens to know what it might be, do tell.

Somethin’ Doin’, recorded February 15, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.

“Nothin’ Doin'” is a little bluer—and plays a little cleaner—than the previous side.  I’m hearing a bit of Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” interpolated in this tune (“oh-oh, honey what’s the matter now”).

Nothin’ Doin, recorded February 28, 1928 by Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater.

Okeh 41571 – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 1934

February 10th marks the anniversary of the birth of one of several men who may well have been the father of swing music—the incomparable Chick Webb.

Chick was born William Henry Webb in Baltimore, Maryland.  The year of his birth has been disputed, with 1902, 1905, 1907, and 1909 all suggested, though ’05 is the most likely candidate.  As a child, tuberculosis of the spine stunted his growth and led to his hunchbacked appearance.  His doctor suggested the young Webb take up the drums to help alleviate his condition, so he worked as a newsboy to save up enough money for a kit.  By the mid-1920s, he was leading a band in Harlem.  After one unissued side for Vocalion in ’27, Webb cut his first record for Brunswick in 1928, issued under the pseudonym “The Jungle Band” (a name usually reserved for Duke Ellington’s recordings on that label).  These two Brunswick sides, titled “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Mama” were stomping hot jazz.  In 1931, Webb’s orchestra became the house band of the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem,  Following a ’31 date with Vocalion, Webb signed with Columbia, waxing thirteen sides in 1933 and ’34, four of which appeared on their subsidiary Okeh label.  Two months after completing his final Okeh recordings in July of 1934, Webb signed with Decca, which would last him the remainder of his career.  Not too long after beginning his contract with Decca, Webb brought on a new girl singer by the name of Ella Fitzgerald.  In a number of “battles of the bands” at the Savoy, Webb and his orchestra bested the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie, though he once lost to Duke Ellington’s band.  By the end of the 1930s, however, Webb’s condition was catching up to him.  Following an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939 in his hometown of Baltimore.

Okeh 41571 was recorded on July 6, 1934 in New York City by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.  Purportedly, matrices W 152770 and W 152772 were the last masters recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Company before its absorption into the American Record Corporation.  Webb’s Orchestra is made up of Mario Bauza, Bobby Stark, and Taft Jordan on trumpets, Sandy Williams and Fernando Arbello on trombones, Pete Clark and Edgar Sampson an alto saxes, Elmer Williams and Wayman Carver on tenor saxes, Joe Steele on piano, John Trueheart on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass, and of course Chick Webb on drums.

First up, baritone Charles Linton delivers a wonderful vocal on Webb’s all-around magnificent rendition of the 1932 “Fats” Waller, Don Redman, and Andy Razaf standard “If it Ain’t Love”.

If it Ain’t Love, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Next, trumpet man Taft Jordan performs a Satchmo style vocal on “True”.

True, recorded July 6, 1934 by Chick Webb and his Orchestra.

Brunswick 118 – “Dock” Boggs – 1927

Recognized as one of the great luminaries of old time folk music—thanks in no small part to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music—is “Dock” Boggs, whose blend of hillbilly style and Afro-American blues and penchant for “lonesome songs” distinguished him as a unique figure in American music, and lent a window into the melancholic soul of a rural artist.

Moran Lee Boggs was born in West Norton, Virginia on February 7, 1898, named after the town doctor who (presumably) delivered him.  His father gave him the nickname “Dock” while he was a toddler, and the name stuck, Boggs preferring it over his given name.  His music-loving father taught him how to sing, and he soon took up the banjo, which he learned to pick in a clawhammer style he called “knockdown.”  The young Boggs also learned folk songs such as “John Henry” from a local black songster called “Go Lightning” who played by the railroad tracks.  Other influences included his brother Roscoe, an itinerant musician by the name of Homer Crawford, and his brother-in-law, the Holiness preacher Lee Hansucker, as well as many phonograph records.  Like Frank Hutchison and so many of his contemporaries, Boggs was a coal miner by trade, and musician by passion.

In 1927, with a borrowed banjo, Boggs auditioned for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender company at the Hotel Norton.  Out of however many auditioned, only Boggs and John Dykes’ Magic City Trio made the cut, and thereafter he traveled to the Brunswick studios in New York City and cut eight sides, which were all issued.  After returning to Norton in 1928, Boggs organized a band, calling themselves “Dock Boggs and his Cumberland Mountain Entertainers” and playing at local functions.  In spite of his musical success, he was met with opposition from his wife, who wished for her husband to walk the straight and narrow path away from bootlegging, gambling, and the Devil’s music.  Two years after his first recordings, Boggs was contracted by music store owner W.A. Myers to record for his remarkably short-lived record label The Lonesome Ace—”Without a Yodel.”  For Myers, Dock ventured to Chicago to cut four titles, accompanied by Emry Arthur on guitar, for Paramount Records, who was doing the recording and pressing work for The Lonesome Ace. Those four were to be the final recordings of his original musical career.

When the Great Depression came on, records sales dropped to near zero, putting the hurt on Boggs’ music career.  He had an ill-fated attempt at a radio show in 1930, and in June of 1931, Boggs was offered the opportunity to record for Victor in Louisville, but was unable to raise funds for the journey.  He spent the rest of that decade in the coal mines, eventually giving up on his life as in music.  After living in obscurity for several decades, Dock Boggs was rediscovered in 1963 by Mike Seeger.  Seeger brought Boggs back into music as part of the burgeoning folk revival of the day.  He made appearances at such to-dos the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina and the Newport Folk Festival, and also recorded fairly extensively for Folkways Records.  Dock Boggs’ health was in decline by the 1970s, and he died on his seventy-third birthday on February 7, 1971.

Brunswick 118 was recorded on March 10, 1927 in New York City by “Dock” Boggs, accompanied on guitar by G.H. “Hub” Mahaffey, a player in John Dykes’ Magic City Trio.  It is Boggs’ first issued record, though his third and fourth recorded sides.  Though the condition of this copy is rather lacking, I’ve tried to get the most out of it, as always.  These things do tend to be quite scarce nowadays.

First up is “Down South Blues”.  Boggs once professed, “lonesome songs always appealed to me.”

Down South Blues, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

On the designated “B” side, Boggs sings what is perhaps his most famous song, “Sugar Baby”, made legendary by its inclusion in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  “What more can a poor boy do?”

Sugar Baby, recorded March 10, 1927 by “Dock” Boggs.

Musicraft 31 – Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly – 1939

In 1942, Woody Guthrie purchased a copy of Negro Sinful Songs, the Musicraft record album by his friend and colleague Lead Belly, as a gift for his wife.  A true poet, he inscribed at follows:

The gift I’d buy, had to be better than perfume and stronger than metal.  It had to be the simplicity of a whole people and the dignity of a race, the honesty of a saloon and the frenzy of a church.  So when I heard Lead Belly’s voice on these records, I thought here is the surprise I’ve been looking for.  Surprise!

Now, as Guthrie honored his wife with the album, we pay tribute to the man himself: Huddie Ledbetter—the legendary Lead Belly.  I’d pursued this set for quite a long while.  It didn’t come cheap, but I have to say, hokey as it might sound, I really am profoundly moved by these records.  I hope that you will be, too.

Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  Later pressings switched to a (less evocative) design featuring a portrait of Lead Belly, rather than this one of black sharecroppers.

The exact date and year of Huddie William Ledbetter’s birth are uncertain—the date is most often given as January 20, believed to have been in 1888 or ’89 (the latter is officially offered by the Lead Belly Foundation), January 29, 1885 has also been suggested—but it is known that he was born on the Jeter Plantation in northwestern Louisiana, close to Mooringsport, the son of sharecroppers Wesley and Sallie Ledbetter.  When Huddie was five years old, the Ledbetters bought a piece of land in East Texas and moved across the state border, starting a farm of their own.  His first instrument was the accordion (or “windjammer” as he called it), and his uncle Terrell introduced him to the guitar not long after.  By the turn of the century, Huddie was an accomplished musicianer.  When his father would travel into Shreveport to sell their crops, Huddie would “put on long pants” and go down on Fannin Street to play his music.  He set out on his own in his early twenties, making his living as an itinerant songster.  In the early part of the 1910s, Ledbetter was in Dallas, playing the blues with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum.  He reportedly became enamored with the twelve-string guitar after seeing a Mexican musician performing with one.

In 1918, Ledbetter killed a man in a fight over a woman in Dallas (he was later quoted as saying, “a man tried to cut my head off.”), and was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in Huntsville, Texas.  With no possibility for parole, he wrote a song to Governor Pat Neff, appealing for a pardon—”[If I] had you, Governor Neff, like you got me, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d set your free.”  In his final days in office, Neff granted his pardon on January 15, 1925, Ledbetter having served six years, seven months and eight days of his sentence.  In 1930 however, Ledbetter was back behind bars after a fight with three white men in Mooringsport, Louisiana.  The sheriff saved him from a lynch mob, but he was sentenced to five-to-ten years at Angola Prison Farm   At some point during one of Ledbetter’s prison stays, he acquired the nickname “Lead Belly”.  Exactly how it came to be is uncertain, but the name stuck, and he used throughout all of his professional musical career.  Three years into his sentence at Angola—in July of 1933—the prison was visited by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan, who were traveling the South with a trunkload of recording equipment to capture the folk music of America for the Library of Congress.  There, they captured Lead Belly’s voice on record for the first time.  Lomax returned the following year, eager to record Lead Belly’s extensive repertoire of folk songs; Lead Belly was eager to find someone to deliver his petition for a pardon to Governor O.K. Allen.  Following his release, Lead Belly returned to John A. Lomax, asking that he allow him to assist in his travels, lest his release be rescinded.  Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly accompanied him in his travels from September until the end of 1934.

Lomax, with Lead Belly along, arrived back in New York City around the New Year of 1935, and Lead Belly achieved notoriety, appearing in a March of Time newsreel and radio program made in celebration Lomax’s greatest discovery.  Ledbetter married his sweetheart, Martha Promise, that January, and she became his manager.  Days later, he made his first commercial recordings for American Record Corporation; he was introduced to their A&R man Art Satherly by recording artist Tex Ritter.  From the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth of January, the fifth of February, and twenty-fifth of March of 1935, Lead Belly cut more than forty sides for the ARC, of which only three records (six sides, that is) were released.  Those issued were all blues sides, rather than his folk songs.  These “race records” didn’t prove too popular with black listeners, who by that time were more interested in modern artists like Big Bill Broonzy than Lead Belly’s country blues, and they sold rather poorly.  That March, Lead Belly accompanied Lomax on a lecture in colleges across New England.

A full color spread of Lead Belly, as published in Life magazine on April 19, 1937.

The day after his final ARC session, Lead Belly left for Louisiana—moving to Dallas soon after—and his partnership with Lomax ended rather acrimoniously, with a paycheck for three-hundred dollars—Lead Belly’s cut of the 1,500 dollars they earned during their time together, subtracting “expenses for purchasing a new Stella guitar, clothing, dentist’s fees, etc.”  When he arrived in Shreveport, Lead Belly hired a lawyer and filed suit against John A. Lomax for full payment of his earnings while working for Lomax.  The suit was settled that September for two-hundred-fifty dollars, with Lead Belly asking for a reconciliation between the two.  By the early part of 1936, the Ledbetters had returned to New York, living in an apartment on West 52nd Street.  That November, John and Alan Lomax published Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and the following April, Lead Belly was publicized in a Life magazine spread.  By the latter half of the 1930s, there was a surge in popularity for folk music burgeoning in New York, championed largely by leftists and union agitators, and Lead Belly was soon to become endeared to their movement.  As early as 1937, he was already being touted as a “people’s artist.”  While those folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger dressed in workingman’s garb—flannel shirts and denim workwear—Lead Belly, no doubt fed up on those styles from his time working on the field and in prison, always wore fine clothes—double breasted suits and bow ties.

On March 5, 1939, Lead Belly was jailed for assault at Riker’s Island, and once bailed, Alan Lomax arranged for a recording session with the “high end” record label Musicraft on the first of April.  These were to be his first commercial recordings since his ARC sessions in 1935, the proceeds of which would help with Lead Belly’s legal expenses.  Ten sides were released by Musicraft in an album titled Negro Sinful Songs Sung by Lead Belly.  As the folk music movement grew, so did Lead Belly’s popularity.  He began to perform on the radio, and achieve greater success.  In June of 1940, Alan Lomax convinced Victor to record Lead Belly, and he produced another album, this time paired with the Golden Gate Quartet to produce the three disc set The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs.  The next year, he attended the third inauguration of President Roosevelt, and began recording for Moe Asch’s Asch Records.  All the while, he continued to record prolifically for the Library of Congress.  In the middle of the 1940s, Lead Belly traveled to Los Angeles, California while Paramount Pictures optioned John A. Lomax’s autobiography Adventures of a Ballad Hunter as a picture, starring Bing Crosby as Lomax and Josh White as Ledbetter (oh how I wish that had come to fruition).  While there, Lead Belly had a short-lived radio program, and—again thanks to Tex Ritter—recorded twelve sides for Capitol Records.

Throughout the entire decade of the 1940s, Lead Belly’s popularity and success skyrocketed.  From humble beginnings, he was being touted as “quite probably the greatest living American folk singer.”  He toured, appearing in countless concerts, mostly in New York by the ’40s.  But by the end of the decade, Lead Belly started to wind down.  His success was soaring in 1949, and he embarked for a tour of Europe, but he soon fell ill, and was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in Paris.  On his return to the states, Lead Belly played his last concert on June 15, 1949 at the University of Texas in Austin, remembering the life of John A. Lomax, who had died from a stroke the previous year.  On December 6, 1949, Huddie Ledbetter succumbed to his illness and died at the Bellevue Hospital in New York City, leaving behind a legacy of well over five hundred recorded songs and a profound impact on all the world’s music for generations to come.

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