november 2009

The Mississippi Sheiks’ original version of their classic ‘Sitting On Top Of the World,’ recorded in 1930

‘And We Was Famous’

By David McGee

THINGS ABOUT COMIN’ MY WAY: A Tribute To The Music Of The Mississippi Sheiks
Various Artists
Black Hen Music

Almost unknown today except to blues historians and enthusiasts, the wondrous Mississippi Sheiks were the most popular string band of the 1930s, beloved by white and black audiences well outside their Jackson, Mississippi, home base, so much so as to warrant concert jaunts up north to Chicago and New York and even a by-invitation show for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his Warm Springs, GA, retreat. Their first big success, 1930’s “Sitting On Top Of the World,” is one of the most covered songs in blues history, with artists as varied as Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan having taken a run at it. Not bad for a group that effectively disbanded in 1935, but recorded the bulk of its sides in 1930 and 1931 (some 70 in all). The performing unit of the Sheiks was a fluid entity that included, at times, Charlie Patton and Peter Chatmon (aka Memphis Slim), but for recording purposes the group was sprung from the Chatmon family band, which numbered 11 brothers and two sisters, all of whom could play various instruments. However, of these the only ones to record were brothers Armenter (known as Bo, he also recorded under the pseudonym of Bo Carter) on violin, Lonnie on guitar and, occasionally, guitarist Sam, along with family friend Walter Vinson on vocals and guitar. The Sheiks proper were often a duo of Walter and Lonnie, with Sam sometimes sitting in, but the larger configuration did accompany vocalist Texas Alexander on some tough-minded blues recordings in 1930. The group’s original repertoire embraced not only standard country blues, but hokum songs, waltzes, pop tunes, parlor and folk numbers, dance tunes; they also gained a randy reputation for their double entendre lyrics (“It’s Backfiring Now” may well be the first and arguably still the best and funniest song about impotence, couched in terms of a beloved car breaking down, and another, “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” was an even more blunt confession), as well as reputation for musical innovation: deploying complex chord structures gave their music a jazzy flair quite distinct from the usual string band sound. As much as any other quality, though, the Sheiks, even in their darkest moments (and there were some dark ones—two of their most eerie blues have the phrase “Lonesome Grave” in the title), had an infectious, sunny energy, much akin to that of a jug band. 

This well deserved, superb tribute to the Sheiks captures all the band’s qualities, especially that infectious, bouyant energy, in 17 fine performances. In most cases the assembled artists use more instruments than Messrs. Vinson and Chatmon had at their disposal—or instruments they never employed—but nothing’s ever sonically out of whack with the Sheiks’ spirit. For example, Bill Frisell’s rendering of one of the few instrumentals in the Sheiks’ repertoire, “That’s It,” is a delightfully discursive conversation between his bright, chirpy guitar and a warm, easygoing trombone, their respective parts both traipsing gaily around each other’s and finally meeting in the middle for a spirited ride on the melody line. Versatile chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux uses a full band with Wayne Horvitz providing a rumbling Wurlitzer as she teases the sultriness out of the slow boiling blues, “Please Baby,” with a restrained yearning performance that merits all those comparisons to Billie Holiday she’s received over the years; on that same earth mama plane as Peyroux inhabits, soul singer Ndidi Onukwulu, also backed by a full band with Horvitz again on the Wurlitzer and Steve Dawson—whose brainchild this tribute is—adding a stinging slide guitar, manages to inject no small dollop of sensuality in celebrating a premonition of good times aborning, “Things About Comin’ My Way” (any discussion of which would be incomplete without a tip of the hat to a truly sizzling fiddle solo courtesy Jesse Zubot), a song that simmers, then boils with a rambunctious urgency as Onukwulu seduces with an insouciance worthy of the young Maria Muldaur, to whom she bears a striking vocal resemblance. Sometimes, the artist needs even less support than the Sheiks gave themselves—witness veteran bluesman John Hammond’s righteously aching rendition of “Stop and Listen,” using only his plaintive voice and aggressively protesting National steel guitar to buttress his proclamations.

Sam Chatmon, ‘Who’s Loving You Tonight,’ 1978

You wonder which of these exemplary performances might have most pleased Vinson and Chatmon. Who knows, of course, but put some money on two in-the-pocket interpretations that the fellows would surely say took the songs to where they wanted to go with them, too. The first track on the album strikes the proper, shambling, loosey-goosey note consistent with the Sheiks’ aesthetic: the North Mississippi All Stars’ version of the aforementioned impotence landmark, “It’s Backfirin’ Now,” features the All-Stars’ Luther Dickinson’s hoarse wail perfectly evoking the anguished state of a man who’s learned the “spark” has gone out of his machine; also take note of the rollicking banjo deliberately plunking one descending line after another. That’s the work of none other than Luther’s (and brother Cody’s) dad, the late, great Jim Dickinson, making his presence felt in a profound, non-verbal way that adds immeasurably to the back-country ambiance. Then there’s the easygoing ramble of “We Both Are Feeling Good Right Now,” a pop-inflected tribute to domestic bliss, complete with a Dixieland touch via a trio of clarinets, done to a turn by the venerable Mississippi blues woman Del Rey, who was initially taught on classical guitar but changed course and her lifestyle when she met and learned blues guitar at the feet of one Sam Chatmon a quarter century ago. She’s this project’s most direct link to the Sheiks and brings her moment home with the casual, bracing authority of one who knows whereof she sings.

 ‘The blues, I go to bed with ‘em, I get up with ‘em’

Sam Chatmon, interviewed by Alan Lomax

It’s tempting to single out each and every one of the cuts here, because there’s not a weak one in the bunch. Steve Dawson not only shines on the Peyroux cut but turns in a stellar reading of “Lonely One In This Town,” he and his band giving it a shuffling, southern rock flair keyed by his electrifying slide work and Horvitz’s rich, humming Wurlitzer; Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks (whose members include another now-deceased musical great in guitarist Stephen Bruton) serve up a deliciously ragged, midtempo strut in “The World Is Going Wrong”; and the underappreciated versatile Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider (who goes by the professional monicker Oh Susanna, under which she has received rave reviews for her solo albums without gaining much traction below her country’s southern border) teams with Van Dyke Parks, who contributes a full, expressive (maybe “cinematic” is a better word) string arrangement to “Bootlegger’s Blues,” one of the Sheiks’ always welcome advisories, this one to bootleggers trying to avoid the long arm of the law (“You gotta make it to the woods if you can”). Suzie sings it in her own endearing whiskey voice, bluesy and full of certitude and imbued with high spirits as well, as the strings and backing female chorus (one of those voices is hers) swell with a sense of impending drama—cinematic, indeed. The Carolina Chocolate Drops do the honors of offering a lowdown, fiddle-rich treatment of the landmark “Sitting On Top Of the World,” and, showing off another side of the Sheiks—that of the occasional topical commentary—the gospel trio The Sojourners stomp and holler through “He Calls That Religion,” a fiery blast at hypocrisy in and around the pulpit—preachers and deacons alike get their comeuppance—that calls out its subject unmercifully (“the reason people stop goin’ to church/they know that the preacher tryin’ to do too much/well, he calls that religion/but I know he’s going to hell when he dies”) but with a knowing wink. You don’t have to listen hard at the end to hear one of the singers break into a warm, knowing laugh, and that bit of extemporaneous commentary says it all about the humanity informing the Mississippi Sheiks’ art and powering the passions of the artists Dawson assembled to pay overdue homage to some men who made a glorious sound that was both smart and soulful.

All the Sheiks are long gone now, but in 1960, Bo Carter, four years from dying blind and destitute, reflected on his group’s glory years in an interview with blues historian Paul Oliver. “We was the Sheiks, Mississippi Sheiks,” he said, “and you know we was famous.” Bo, you still are.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024