As a recording act the Mississippi Sheiks, the last great African-American string band, lasted only five years, from 1930 to 1935, but they left one certifiable American classic in their wake. "Sitting on Top of the World," written by two band members, guitarist Walter Vinson and fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, has since been covered in just about every imaginable genre and arrangement. It's so ubiquitous, so much a part of America's musical vocabulary, that it's often assumed to be a traditional song. Furthermore, its unforgettable melody has been swiped for use in any number of other compositions.
The Sheiks stood at the crossroads between the older African-American folk music (including -- though hardly confined to -- downhome blues) and the emerging popular styles that would supplant it. They recorded something like a hundred 78s, many available on CD reissues such as Stop & Listen (Yazoo, 1992) and Honey Babe, Let the Deal Go Down (Columbia Legacy, 2004). If you haven't heard them, you ought to do your soul a big favor and seek them out.
On Things About Comin' My Way the Sheiks get the tribute album they deserve. By that I mean a whole lot more creation than re-creation. Here are 17 rooted acts doing Sheiks music their way, and accomplishing it with passion and professionalism. Some of them turn for inspiration to the Sheiks' roots in rural blues and gospel, others to their contemporaries, the rest to quirky modern interpretations. Only the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Sitting on Top of the World" sounds approximately like the original, but with just enough distance to keep it interesting on its own. The Chocolate Drops, who are the Sheiks' metaphorical grandchildren, boast the distinction of being one of the very few black string bands still around, though its three youngish members are all, necessarily and inevitably, revivalists.
If blues tunes and accents are easily heard in the Sheiks' music, they were not a blues band as such. Their repertoire was wide-ranging, incorporating influences even from what would be called country music, as in the Jimmie Rodgers-inflected "Too Long" (done here by banjoist Danny Barnes). Ironically, fellow Mississippian Rodgers was strongly influenced by the black vernacular music all around him, and like the Sheiks he fashioned a distinctive sound out of the fusion of roots and pop.
Things' performances and arrangements are so consistently attractive that it's hard to pick out any particular favorites. Each has its own unique charm. While the styles are various, they don't clash. Like all exceptional recordings Things has an organic feeling, each performance a piece of the whole, or at least, in this instance, an alternative view of the Sheiks' broad musical universe. I might mention, however, Bruce Cockburn's melody-drenched interpretation of "Honey Babe, Let the Deal Go Down," the North Mississippi Allstars' raucous juke-joint "It's Backfirin' Now" (like so much of the Sheiks' material, an extended raunchy metaphor), and Madeleine Peyroux's purring, erotic "Please, Baby." And that is not to slight any other performance. The quality never falters, believe me, and the joy never ends.
Besides the already-mentioned, the lineup features a mix of Americans and Canadians: Ndidi Onukwulu, John Hammond, Oh Susanna (Suzie Ungerleider), Jim Byrnes, Bill Frisell, Kelly Joe Phelps, Steve Dawson, Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks, Del Rey, Bob Brozman, the Sojourners and Robin Holcomb. Recorded in Seattle, the project is the brainchild of producer Steve Dawson, a folk singer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He's put together as pleasurable a tribute album as you're ever going to hear -- and also, not incidentally, done justice to an undeservedly obscure band of American music masters.