Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Top of the world

The Mississippi Sheiks had three unique selling points. The first and most important: they wrote great songs. Secondly, their extremely competent fiddle player Lonnie Chatmon gave them a sound all of their own. And last but not least they managed to mix black country blues with white country music and pop, finding themselves a mixed audience - a rarity in the blues field at the time - in the process.

But although the Sheiks sounded relatively white at times, they still earned a lot of praise from such famous contemporaries as Son House, Howlin´ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The latter once said he "walked ten miles to see them play. They was hightime through there, makin´ them good records, man." The core of the group consisted of Bo Carter, Walter Vinson and the brothers Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, who were related to blues legend Charley Patton. They took their name from either the popsong The Sheik Of Araby or from Rudolph Valentino´s movie The Sheik, and played both covers and original compositions. Their big crossover hit was the impressive Sitting On Top Of The World, recorded for the Okeh label in 1930. The best place to start exploring the rich musical world of the Sheiks is probably the compilation Stop And Listen on the authoritative Yazoo label.

As with many obscure artists stemming from the early part of the last century, I first heard about the Mississippi Sheiks thanks to the Bob Dylan connection. One of his first jobs as a sideman found the Minnesota bard playing a wild and bluesy harp on the Sheiks cover Sittin´ On Top Of The World at a recording session by blues performers Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams in March ´62. On his still somewhat underrated acoustic cover albums Good As I Been To You (´92) and World Gone Wrong (´93) he performed no less than three songs by the Sheiks, all with great results. As he says in his rambling but funny liner notes to the latter: "All their songs are raw to the bone & are faultlessly made for these modern times (the New Dark Ages) - nothing effete about the Mississippi Sheiks." Amen to that Bob.

Mississippi Sheiks - The World Is Going Wrong MP3
Mississippi Sheiks - Sitting On Top Of The World MP3
Mississippi Sheiks - I´ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You MP3
Big Joe Williams & Victoria Spivey - Sittin´ On Top Of The World MP3
Bob Dylan - Sittin´ On Top Of The World MP3
Bob Dylan - World Gone Wrong MP3
Bob Dylan - Blood In My Eyes (Live New York City 16-11-´93) MP3

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