“Sitting on Top of the World” is a song with which I had a casual acquaintanceship. That is until the year 2000, when Willie Nelson issued the CD “Milk Cow Blues” with a cover of “Sitting on Top of the World.” In the liner notes, he credits Bob Wills (of Texas Playboys fame) as the author. “That can not be correct,” I thought, as I was sure Howlin’ Wolf had written the song, and, thus began my continuing-to-this-day search for the full truth. Along the way in 2001, a noted Blues DJ assured, “Yes, Howlin’ Wolf wrote it; end of story!” Well, that is not the end of the story.
Evidently “Sitting on Top of the World” is an old traditional song passed down through generations with varying title versions and lyrics. But, the first recorded version was written and recorded by guitarist/singer Walter Vinson and fiddler Lonnie Chatmon on February 17, 1930 in Shreveport Louisiana for the OKeh record label (OKeh #8784 released 1930). Vinson and Chatmon were members of an immensely popular string band known, mainly, as The Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded around 70 bi-racially popular songs during 1930-1935.
I do not know how it is legally possible, but many subsequent artists have recorded this song listing themselves as the author, including, yes, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bob Wills. At www.lyrics.com, there are over 90 title versions, song versions, and artists listed who have recorded the song, many claiming authorship, and some crediting Vinson and Chatmon.
In my hobby-like search for the full story, I have many unanswered questions, the latest of which arises from a wonderful new 17-song CD by various artists celebrating the works of The Mississippi Sheiks. Produced by Steve Dawson, the CD includes a version of “Sitting on Top of the World” recorded faithfully (but with nice added banjo melodies) by The Carolina Chocolate Drops. BUT, the lyrics are shorter and not the same as the 1930 original #8784 recording, and the song is credited only to Walter Vinson. Perhaps Vinson wrote a second version, and, for a fact, The Mississippi Sheiks would sometimes slightly change the lyrics in performances.
Confusion and mystery surround The Mississippi Sheiks, and in the liner notes, Dawson confides that there is a “...lack of proper information on the exact credits for most of these songs....” First, Walter Vinson was also known as Walter Jacobs (his mother’s name) which caused www.allmusic.com to confuse him with harpist “Little Walter” (Marion Walter Jacobs) as they claim that The Mississippi Sheiks “performed songs by Little Walter” – a chronological impossibility. Further, “Chatmon” is sometimes spelled “Chatman,” and Lonnie Chatmon was also known as Lonnie Carter.
Additionally, group member and brother Armenter Chatmon also had a successful recording career as the famous “Bo Carter.” The Chatmons recorded under a number of different names: Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers, The Chatman Brothers, The Mississippi Mud Steppers, The Mississippi Blacksnakes, and the best known name, The Mississippi Sheiks. “Sheik” came from Rudolph Valentino’s sultry 1921 silent film (“The Sheik”) and designated a playboy on the prowl.
This tribute album reinterprets 17 of The Mississippi Sheiks’ songs using a broad range of styles.The Black Hen label is dedicated to producing music that is diverse, eclectic and primarily acoustic-based. Black Hen Music was started by Steve Dawson in 1995, and began releasing albums in 1996.
The first songs I played on the Friends of the Blues Radio Show were back to back versions of the Sheiks’ original “Sitting on Top of the World” followed by the Tribute’s aforementioned cover. Next was the humorous and sexually suggestive “It’s Backfirin’ Now” by the North Mississippi Allstars. The third week found Bob Brozman’s slow, bare-bones Delta Blues take on “Somebody’s Gotta Help You.” This week, I’ll play a similar approach from John Hammond on “Stop and Listen.” Future shows will include a mellow gliding “Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down” by Bruce Cockburn and producer Steve Dawson’s sweet slide guitar backed by Matt Chamberlain – drums, Keith Lowe – bass, and Wayne Horvitz – keyboards on “Lonely One in This Town.”
For serious Blues fans, a copy of a Mississippi Sheiks CD is a must have addition to one’s library. Now, adding this tribute CD affords the knowledge-gaining-fun of comparing back-to-back versions of originals and covers. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to finger this one out!.