- Sitting on Top of the World
"Sitting on Top of the World" (also rendered as "Sittin' on Top of the World") is a folk-blues song written by
Walter Vinson(also known as Walter Jacobs) and Lonnie Chatmon, core members of the Mississippi Sheiks, a popular country bluesband of the 1930s. Walter Vinson claimed to have composed “Sitting on Top of the World” one morning after playing a white dance in Greenwood, Mississippi.Cary Ginell, "Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing", University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 284 - ISBN 0252020413] However, the melody was almost certainly taken from Tommy Johnson. Victor Records, the copyright holders of Johnson's 'Big Road Blues', sued OKeh Recordsand settled out of court. [Evans, David. "Tommy Johnson". Studio Vista (1973), "p". 68. SBN 289 70150 3] The song was first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiksin 1930 (on the Okeh label, No. 8784), became a popular cross-over hit for the band, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. [ [http://www.grammy.com/PressReleases/443_466_Hall%20of%20Fame%20release%20FINAL.pdf 2008 Grammy Hall of Fame List] ]
In May 1930
Charlie Pattonrecorded a version of the song (with altered lyrics) called “Some Summer Day” [ [http://bluegrassmessengers.com/master/imsittin2.html ‘Some Summer Day – Version 2’] , The Bluegrass Messengers web-site.] During the next few years cover-versions of "Sitting on Top of the World" were recorded by a number of artists: The Two Poor Boys, The Famous Hokum Boys, Big Bill Broonzy, Sam Collins, Milton Brownand Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. After Milton Brown recorded it for Bluebird Records the song became a staple in the repertoire of western swing bands. "Sitting on Top of the World" has become a standard of traditional American music. The song has been widely recorded in a variety of different styles – folk, blues, country, bluegrass, rock – often with considerable variations and/or additions to the original verses. The lyrics convey a stoic optimism in the face of emotional set-backs and the song has been described as a “simple, elegant distillation of the Blues”.
This song and its related variations should not be confused with totally different songs of the same name by
The Pogues(1993) and Amanda Marshall(1996).
The title line of "Sitting on Top of the World" was probably borrowed from a well-known popular song of the 1920s, "
I'm Sitting on Top of the World", written by Ray Henderson, Sam Lewisand Joe Young(popularised by Al Jolsonin 1926). However the two songs are distinct, both musically and lyrically (apart from the title). cite web | authorlink = http://www.guitarseminars.com | url = http://www.guitarseminars.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/000876.html | title = Song Genealogy from "Sittin' On Top Of The World"
accessdate = 12 June | accessyear = 2007]
Claims are made that "Sitting on Top of the World" was derived from the earlier songs: "How Long, How Long" by
Leroy Carrand Scrapper Blackwell, a blues hit recorded in 1928, and Carr & Blackwell's follow-up song "You Got To Reap What You Sow" (1929), with Tampa Red on bottleneck guitar. It has also been suggested that Tampa Redcomposed the melody of "Sitting on Top of the World". [Liner notes by Stephen Calt, Michael Stewart & Don Kent on the album "Stop and Listen Blues" (a collection of Mississippi Sheiks’ recordings), "Mamlish" S-3804.]
Lyrically “Sitting Top of the World” has a simple structure consisting of a series of rhyming couplets, each followed by the two-line chorus. The structural economy of the song seems to be conducive to creative invention, giving the song a dynamic flexibility exemplified by the numerous and diverse versions that exist.
The numerous versions of “Sitting Top of the World” recorded since 1930 have been characterized by variations to the lyrics. The original lyrics, as recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930.
“Sittin’ on Top of the World”, recorded by
Howlin’ Wolfin 1957 (and published under his birth-name Chester Burnett), is a well-known and widely-used version of this song. This was the version recorded by Cream in 1968.
Howlin’ Wolf shortened the song to just three verses. The first and third verses are similar to the second and fifth verses of the Mississippi Sheiks’ song. The middle verse of Howlin’ Wolf's version – “Worked all the summer, worked all the fall / Had to take Christmas, in my overalls” – was an addition to the 1930 original, but had previously appeared in a version recorded by
Ray Charlesin 1949.
The ‘peaches’ verse has a long history in popular music. It appears as the chorus of an unpublished song composed by Irving Berlin in May 1914: “If you don't want my peaches / You'd better stop shaking my tree”. The song “Mamma's got the Blues”, written by Clarence Williams and S. Martin and recorded by
Bessie Smithin 1923, has the line: “If you don't like my peaches then let my orchard be”. In her version of "St. Louis Blues" Ella Fitzgerald sang "If you don't like my peaches, why do you shake my tree? / Stay out of my orchard, and let my peach tree be". In 1929 Blind Lemon Jeffersonrecorded “Peach Orchard Mama” ("... you swore nobody’d pick your fruit but me / I found three kid men shaking down your peaches free"). In later years lines using similar imagery were used in “Matchbox” by Carl Perkins and “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. Oddly, Ahmet Ertegun was able to convince Miller to pay him $50,000.00, claiming authorship of the line in his song, "Lovey Dovey"! This verse and it’s ubiquitous usage is an example of the tradition of ‘floating lyrics’ (also called 'maverick stanzas') in folk-music tradition. ‘Floating lyrics’ have been described as “lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics”. [Carl Lindahl, ‘Thrills and Miracles: Legends of Lloyd Chandler’, "Journal of Folklore Research", Bloomington: May-Dec 2004, Vol. 41, Issue 2/3, pp. 133-72.]
Notable cover versions
Ray Charles(1949 - an early recording for this artist on Swing Time Records)
Sonny Terry& Brownie McGhee(1955)
* Howlin' Wolf (1957)
* Carl Perkins (1958)
Big Joe Williams& Victoria Spivey(1962 – with Bob Dylan playing harmonica) [ cite web | authorlink = http://www.musicbox-online.com | url = http://www.musicbox-online.com/gd-roots.html | title = 'The Roots of the Grateful Dead', ‘The Music Box’ web-site | accessdate = 18 June | accessyear = 2007]
* Doc Watson (1962)
* The Grateful Dead (1967)
* Cream ("
Wheels of Fire(In the Studio)" album – 1968)
* Cream ("Goodbye" album (live version) – 1969)
* Chet Atkins (1968)
* Jelly Roll Kings ["Off Yonder Wall" album (1971); reissued 1997 by
Fat Possum Records) – [http://www.fatpossum.com/download.php?name=jellyrollkings-offyonderwall-world.mp3&mode=view&type=mp3 mp3 available]
John Lee Hooker(1974)
The Seldom Scene["15th Anniversary Celebration - Live at the Kennedy Center" album (Sugar Hill CD-2202) - recorded 10 November 1986]
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band(1989)
* Ronnie Earl (1990)
* Lonesome River Band (1991)
Bob Dylan(" Good as I Been to You" album - 1992)
* Pat Travers (
11 April 1992)
* Jack Bruce (1993)
* Taj Mahal (1993)
* Greg Kihn (1994)
Hans Theessink["Hard Road Blues" album (Blue Groove BG-6020) - 1994]
North Mississippi Allstars
* Willie Nelson (2000)
* Van Morrison & Carl Perkins ("Good Rockin' Tonight" album - 2001)
Jack White(2003 – on the original soundtrackof the movie "Cold Mountain")
* The Radiators (
8 June 2004)
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