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.

Paramount 12608 – Blind Lemon Jefferson – 1928

The incomparable Blind Lemon Jefferson truly was an artist without parallel.  Having cut his first disc in 1925 or ’26, he was one of the earliest male country blues musicians to record, and the success of his records paved the way for more blues artists to have their music immortalized in wax.  His peculiar yet virtuosic style of singing and guitar playing set him apart from all his contemporaries, and caused him to be seldom imitated (and interestingly, many of his early imitators were white; see Larry Hensley).  Considering both the quality and originality of his work, as well as the volume of his output, it would seem fair to consider Blind Lemon Jefferson one of the greatest heroes of the Texas blues.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, as pictured in the Paramount Book of Blues, 1927.

Like so many early blues people, much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s life is shrouded in mystery.  He is usually said to have been born in September 24, 1893, though he reportedly claimed a date of October 26, 1894.  July of 1897 has also been proffered by some sources, and his obituary suggested he was born about a decade earlier.  He learned to play guitar in his childhood or teens.  As an adult, he weighed about two-hundred-fifty pounds, and has been described as a snappy dresser, always wearing a John B. Stetson hat and a box-back suit from the Model Tailors in Dallas.  Lemon reported his profession to census takers in 1920 as a musician, his employer the “general public,” and outside of music he was said to have worked as a wrestler in Dallas.  He played and sang at functions around Freestone County and on street corners, honky tonks, and bordellos in Dallas, most notably on the east end of Elm Street called Deep Ellum, and even on the interurban railway that ran from from Waco north to Denison.  He was known to have worked with Lead Belly, and may have also associated with Washington Phillips and the Dallas String Band.  Like fellow Paramount artists Charley Patton and Blind Blake, only one published photograph of Lemon is known to exist (though at least one phony has been reputed as a second one, and there may well be another authentic but unpublished one in private hands).

As with his life, there is much legend surrounding the demise of Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It’s known that he died on a cold winter day in Chicago—around ten o’clock in the morning on December 19, 1929.  Some claim that he was poisoned by a jilted lover (much like the fate that befell Robert Johnson some nine years later).  Others have supposed that he was robbed of a royalty payment and murdered by a guide hired to help him find his way to the train station.  More reliable accounts suggest that he either died of a heart attack in his car and was abandoned by his driver, or became disoriented trying to find his way through a snowstorm and died from hypothermia.  His death certificate stated “probably acute myocarditis,” supporting the heart attack hypothesis.  In any event, Paramount Records paid for his body’s return to Texas by train, accompanied by Texas piano man Will Ezell, to be buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery (now called the Blind Lemon Memorial Cemetery).  His funeral was reportedly attended by two or three hundred people, both black and white.  Lemon’s passing inspired a small wave of tributes, and Paramount released a memorial record in his honor, featuring Walter and Byrd singing “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” and Rev. Emmett Dickinson’s sermon on the “Death of Blind Lemon”, comparing Jefferson to Jesus Christ.  Had Lemon survived into the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, his impact would likely have been enormous.  Today, Lemon’s grave marker (placed in 1997) bears the epitaph “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you; see that my grave is kept clean.”

The tombstone of Blind Lemon Jefferson in Wortham, Texas, as it appeared eighty-eight years and one day after his death.  Kept clean at the time, as it were.

Paramount 12608 was recorded around February of 1928 in Chicago, Illinois by Blind Lemon Jefferson.  It also appeared on Broadway 5059, though I’m not certain whether or not anyone has ever seen one of those, I know I haven’t.  It was released that March or early April, and first advertised in the Chicago Defender on April 7, 1927.

Now, I ordinarily prefer not to make posts honoring artists on the anniversaries of their deaths, but rather to celebrate their lives; under the circumstances however, this record seems an appropriate case to make an exception, for it contains Lemon’s legendary “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”.  This song, together with “Match Box Blues” and “That Black Snake Moan” could be viewed as a sort of triumvirate of Lemon’s most famous and perhaps most influential songs.  A folk song sometimes known as “Two White Horses in a Line” or (in later years) “One Kind Favor”, Lemon first recorded the song in October of 1927, issued on Paramount 12585, backed with “He Arose from the Dead” under his sanctified pseudonym “Deacon L.J. Bates”.  That version was pulled soon after release and replaced with “Where Shall I Be”, while Lemon recorded a new version of “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” several months later, which saw release under his own name on the record you see and hear here.  In 1952, Harry Smith included the song in his influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  Son House used the melody for his “Mississippi County Farm Blues”, which he recorded for Paramount in 1930, and many others have since performed and recorded Jefferson’s original.

See That My Grave is Kept Clean, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

On the reverse, technically the “A” side, keeping with the rather morbid theme, Lemon sings “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, another excellent blues, even if it lacks the same grandeur as the previous one.  The original Chicago Defender advertisement said of the song: “Salty tears—wet tears—big, round tears—all kinds of tears and heart throbs, and you should put yourself in his place to feel just as blue.  ‘Lectric chair is the next place he’s gonna sit down in, and he ain’t tired either, so he don’t wanta sit down.”

‘Lectric Chair Blues, recorded February 1928 by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Brunswick 7000 – Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band – 1927

One of the most dominant figures in jazz music in the 1920s—alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson—was Clarence Williams, who had his finger in just about every pie there was in the world of music for more than a decade in the 1920s and ’30s.

Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893 (though some sources suggest 1898, it has been suggested that that was fabricated for “vanity” purposes), in Plaquemine, Louisiana, of Creole and Choctaw descent.  He began singing and playing piano at a young age, and ran off to join Billy Kersand’s minstrels at the age of twelve.  He later settled in New Orleans, where he played professionally, and began composing songs, starting a music publishing company with fellow jazz musician Armand J. Piron.  A few of his many noted compositions include “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Royal Garden Blues”, and “Shout, Sister, Shout”.  Williams and Piron later started a touring vaudeville act, which brought him in to contact with W.C. Handy, who invited to duo to join him in an Atlanta concert.  In 1921, Williams moved to Chicago and opened a music store, and the following year married blues singer Eva Taylor, with whom he frequently collaborated.  Williams first recorded a pair of vocal sides for Okeh in September of 1921, which were unissued, but he soon followed with more successful session the next month, producing four recordings, all of which were released.  From then on, he recorded extensively, often as an accompanist for blues singers, such as Bessie Smith or his wife Eva Taylor, or as leader of studio groups such as his “Blue Five”, “Washboard Band”, “Jug Band”, or “Jazz Kings”.  The bulk of his recordings were made for Okeh, Columbia, and Vocalion, but he also appeared on Bluebird, Brunswick, and numerous other labels.  During the 1920s, Williams was supervisor of “race” records for Okeh.  With his hand in virtually every facet of the music industry, Williams became one of the most commercially successful and influential people in jazz.  He continued to record fairly prolifically throughout the 1930s, up until his retirement in 1943, at which point he sold his back-catalog to Decca Records.  Clarence Williams died in Queens, New York on November 6, 1965.  He was survived by his wife, Eva Taylor, who passed in 1977.

Brunswick 7000 was recorded on March 8, 1927 in New York City.  It was the first record released in Brunswick’s 7000-series of “race” records, before their signature “lightning bolt” styled label was introduced.  Williams’ Washboard Band was made up of Ed Allen on cornet, Carmelo Jari (or Jejo) on clarinet, Clarence Williams on piano, and Floyd Casey on washboard.  Clarence Lee sings the vocals.  Different takes of both sides were released on Vocalion 1088.

First up is the train-themed “P.D.Q. Blues”, played slow.

P.D.Q. Blues, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.

Next, they play a stomp, the “Cushion Foot Stomp”, to be precise.

Cushion Foot Stomp, recorded March 8, 1927 by Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band.

Melotone 7-07-64 – Big Bill – 1937

It’s come time once again to pay tribute to blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, on the (unconfirmed) anniversary of his birth.  Last time, I posted one of his earlier records, coupling his memorable flatpicked “How You Want it Done?” with “M & O Blues”, featuring his own jug band.  This time around, I present two sides from around the time when he was shifting from his country blues roots to a more urbane style.  I biographed Big Bill in that previous post, so I feel that I needn’t go over that again here.

An ever-versatile musician, the 1930s marked a period of development and transition for Big Bill Broonzy’s music.  He started out the decade playing pure country blues from back where he came from, akin to Josh White, or Buddy Moss.  His recordings from that period, like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “How You Want it Done?” generally feature his own guitar, sometimes backed with another guitar or a piano.  Later, around the time the swing era kicked off in the middle part of the decade, Chicago evidently had an effect on him, as he started to develop a more citified style to fit with the public’s changing tastes.  Accordingly, his recordings started to swing, often backed by an instrumental ensemble with horn and rhythm, comparable to urban blues contemporaries like Peetie Wheatstraw.  He worked extensively with fellow blues people such as pianist Black Bob, Hawaiian guitar man Casey Bill Weldon, harmonica player Bill “Jazz” Gillum, and his half brother Washboard Sam.  By the end of the decade, his work had become quite sophisticated, producing some of his most memorable work, including “Key to the Highway” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”.  After the end of World War II, however, as interests in folk music began to bud, Bill returned to his rural roots.

Melotone 7-07-64 was recorded on January 31, 1937 in Chicago. Illinois.  Big Bill is accompanied by a rhythm band made up of “Mister Sheiks” Alfred Bell on trumpet, Black Bob Hudson on piano, Bill Settles on string bass, Fred Williams on drums, and Broonzy’s own guitar.

First up, Big Bill plays a classic mid-1930s blues side, “Mean Old World”, an entirely different piece than the T-Bone Walker hit of the 1940s, though Walker may have found some inspiration in this Broonzy tune.

Mean Old World, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Next, Bill does a peppy one with a hot dance accompaniment, “Barrel House When it Rains”, featuring the piano of the mysterious Black Bob, among others noted Chicago blues figures.

Barrel House When it Rains, recorded January 31, 1937 by Big BIll.

Vocalion 1188 – Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra – 1928

Here are a pair of top jazz sides by Jimmie Noone’s band, taking their name from the Apex Club, a speakeasy in Chicago, where the band played.  Noone’s band was a small group, only a quintet, but they were an exemplary one, and played in a sophisticated style.

Jimmie Noone, a Creole, was born in Cut Off, Louisiana, April 23, 1895 (I share a birthday with him, as a matter of fact), and made his way to New Orleans in 1910, where he played with some of the top jazz men, Keppard, Celestin, Ory, et al.  Later in the decade, like his contemporary, Joe Oliver, he migrated to Chicago, and played with the King after arriving there.  In 1926, he began leading a small band at Chicago’s Apex Club, on the second floor of 330 East 35th Street, and began recording with that band for Vocalion in 1928.  A young Benny Goodman was profoundly influenced by his work on the clarinet.  That arrangement lasted until the club was raided by federal agents in 1930.  Noone continued to perform and record with various star-studded bands of New Orleans jazz men, and became a driving force in the dixieland jazz revival in the early 1940s.  Noone continued performing right up until his death of a heart attack in 1944, at which time he was playing in a band on Orson Welles’ radio program.  In Noone’s honor, Kid Ory composed “Blues for Jimmie” as a tribute to the man, who was remembered as a cordial man and a professional performer.

Vocalion 1188 was recorded in Chicago, June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (misspelled “Noones'” on the label).  The small but outstanding band features the talent of Jimmie Noone on clarinet, Joe Poston on alto sax, Earl Hines on piano, Bud Scott on banjo and guitar, and Johnny Wells on drums.

The first tune is an instrumental, “Forevermore”, showcasing Noone’s distinctive style of clarinet and Hines’ always excellent piano work.

Forevermore

Forevermore, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play “Ready for the River”, with a vocal duet by Jimmie Noone and Joe Poston.  Not the cheeriest song ever written, but Noone and his band make a lady out of it.  In the words of hobo and criminal-turned-author Jack Black in his 1926 book You Can’t Win, “ready for the river” describes a state of mind when one is at such a point when life gets so grim that one is inclined to jump in the water with weights tied to their feet and end it all.

Ready for the River

Ready for the River, recorded June 14, 1928 by Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.