80 Years of Sittin’ on Top of the World
Whether it’s listed on the record label as Sittin’ or Sitting, this 1930 country blues number has become an American standard over the years, which was acknowledged in 2008 when it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon, and often credited to others, in typical folk music tradition it can originally be traced back to an instrumental a year prior from Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Under the title of “You Got To Reap What You Sow,” it was recorded and released in 1929 by Tampa Red.
A year later The Mississippi Sheiks added lyrics and changed the title to what we all know it as now. The band stayed together, rotating several members throughout the early 1930s in addition to the above-mentioned Walter and Lonnie, and they recorded over 70 songs for three different record labels. The Chatmon family came from Bolton, Mississippi, and after a five-year run they went back home to work on the farm.
Through the years a number of cover versions have been recorded in various styles, this one by Ray Charles, the first under his own name, and it was his seventh single for Swing Time Records. Note the song credits.
Whether it’s true or not, I’ve read that Bob Wills was such a fan of the blues that he once walked 50 miles to see Bessie Smith. This particular performance was recorded in September 1951 in Hollywood, California. Cotton Whittington is the man playing his guitar upside down and Bobby Koeffer is doing the non-pedal steel.
Back in his home state of Mississippi, Chester Burnette (aka Howlin’ Wolf) used to check out the old blues musicians, including the Chatmons. In 1957 he moved north and cut a pure blues version, changing the beat and electrifying it Chicago-style. At about the same time, Bill Monroe turned the song upside down and inside out with this smokin’ bluegrass version. Note the mistake on the label: it confuses the song title and composers with that other song made famous by Al Jolson.
In the ’60s the song probably received its most exposure from both the Grateful Dead’s debut album and Cream’s Wheels of Fire, with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker. But it’s the Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley version that I have always been most enamored of. Paste magazine called their collaborations “classic old-timey folk music and blues that remains a primary inspiration to Americana roots musicians” and said “they possessed a unique musical chemistry that defied generational limitations and remains vital and fresh to the present day.”
In August of 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax, along with John Bishop and Worth Long, visited Sam Chatmon’s home in Hollandale, Mississippi, to record this version, 48 years after his family brought it to life. The list of people who’ve recorded it over the decades cover a large swath of styles, from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson, Richard Shindell to James Blood Ulmer.
For those interested in a bit more historical information, I’d like to suggest that you check out this transcription from NPR’s All Things Considered. This is an interview with musicologist Bruce Nemerov from 2006 that walks you through the decades, similar to what I’ve done here, but with more detail.
I’m going to close this out with a version I really like from the late Pinetop Perkins. This was his final studio recording, done a year before he passed in 2010, and the vocals are delivered by Emily Gimble. From Tampa to Pinetop, and most recently Jack White, this song goes on forever.
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