Blues Song Is a Decades-Long Music Lesson

As part of our series about students and teachers, musicologist Bruce Nemerov describes the way that one song is recorded by several different musicians in different decades of the 20th century. The older musicians are teaching the younger musicians through the song "Sitting on Top of the World." We hear the song as recorded by Al Jolson, The Mississippi Sheiks, Howlin' Wolf, Eric Clapton, Bill Monroe and The Grateful Dead.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This week, we've been meeting students and teachers. Today, Musicologist Bruce Nemerov would like to introduce us to some musicians who transmitted their lessons through one remarkable song.

BRUCE NEMEROV: This is a story of how music is taught and learned, transmitted and transformed, how it moves down to generations. Like most true stories, the beginning isn't tidy, but we'll start in the 1920s when the idiom top of the world was first used as an advertising catch phrase.

Ever ready to make lyric use of pop culture, a pair of Tinpan Alley songwriters wrote “I'm Sitting on Top of the World” in 1925 for a Schubert Brothers' review at the New York Winter Garden Theater. Al Jolson, a blackface comedian, singing tap dancer and the show's star, recorded it the next year. It was a hit.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. AL JOLSON (Singer): (Singing) Just like the humpty dumpty, I'm going along. We're gonna to sit, sitting on top of the world.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Way on the top -

Mr. JOLSON: (Singing) Rolling along. I'm rolling along.

NEMEROV: Meanwhile, down in the Mississippi Delta, Henderson Chatmon, an enterprising African American farmer, fiddler and former slave, lived with his many children. Nobody's ever been quite sure how many, though the kids - being musical like their father - were enough to form a family band. Heck, they were enough for a baseball team. The boys - Lonnie, Bo, Ty, Harry, Willy, Bert, Edgar, Lamar, Charlie and Baby Sam - grew up to be exceptional musicians.

They were in demand for dances, parties, picnics, gatherings of all kinds, black and white, gentile and otherwise. Since the family livelihood depended on fulfilling requests, especially from the heavy tipping white patrons, the Chatmons stayed abreast of the popular music of the day, and no doubt they were called to play the pop hit “I'm Sitting on the Top of the World.”

But when the Chatmons, now known as the Mississippi Sheiks, were called to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1930, they recorded a song they called “Sitting On Top Of The World.” Keeping only the title idiom from Jolson's hit, the Chatmon composition stands a New York story on its head.

Jolson sat on his happy perch because the object of his affection accepted his proposition. The Chatmons' girl, on the other hand, lied, cheated and left the singer - and yet, the lyrics say now she's gone, but I don't worry. I'm sitting on top of the world.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. HENDERSON CHATMON (Mississippi Sheiks): (Singing) Was all the summer and all the fall. Just tryin' to find my little Lenore. But now she's gone, I don't worry. I'm sitting on top of the world.

NEMEROV: The lyric's sentiment, whether read as unquenchable optimism or resigned acceptance, was combined with a lilting beat and a deep South folk melody to become a new statement, one that resonated among Southern blacks and whites alike. The Chatmon creation, in turn, would be appropriated by others, travelling through decades and across cultures unimagined in 1930.

“Sitting on Top of the World” moved through the ‘30s and ‘40s in odd ways. Some cowboy booted Oakey Swing Bands and a young Ray Charles - still doing his best Charles Brown cocktail jazz impersonation - recorded it. But let's jump forward to 1957, when the song met two extraordinary music masters.

First, Chester Burnett, the Howling Wolf.

(Soundbite of music)

NEMEROV: He came to Chicago looking for new musical opportunities. As a kid in his native Mississippi, he followed the older players around, including the Chatmons. In Chicago, he'd put those lessons to good use. Wolf's version of “Sitting on top of World” is pure blues - raw, powerful and as execpected, most faithful to the Sheiks' melodically and lyrically. But with his band changing the Sheiks' country picnic 4/4 to the heavy 12/8 beat of the late Saturday night juke joint, Wolf brings the rural song of the 1930s to Eisenhower era Chicago.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. CHESTER BURNETT (Howling Wolf): (Singing) One summer day, she went away. She's gone and left me. She gone to stay. But now she's gone. And I can't worry because I'm standing on top of the world.

NEMEROV: The electric guitar stabs between the vocal phrases and leads the turn to the dominant chord at verse end. And there's no sense of resignation in Wolf's singing, just a ferocious declration of independence.

On the other side of the Atlantic a decade later, the English guitarist Eric Clapton, as part of the supergroup Cream, reworked Wolf's “Sitting on Top of the World.” Clapton loved and studied the hurdy blues he heard on American records. Wolf and his guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, were his special favorites. But in 1968, Cream was a commercially successfully rock band and had its own sound and audience. They transformed the little stancible juke joint rhythm into a ponderous rock beat aimed at seated crowds and reverberant staves.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Singer): (Singing) I'm sitting on top of the world.

NEMEROV: In his guitar turns at the end each verse however, Clapton honors Wolf's Sumlin and the blues. The echoes of the juke can still be heard.

“Sitting on Top of the World” enriched the work of a second musical titan in 1957. Bill Monroe had been recording and refining bluegrass music since 1945. His reworking of the song is a consummation of true bluegrass and in many ways, the most radical departure from the core elements of the Chatmon original.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. BILL MONROE (Singer): (Singing) But now she's gone, and I don't worry. ‘Cause I'm sitting on top of the world.

NEMEROV: The lyrics and close harmony fiddles are borrowed from the 1930s Western swing bands. The bluegrass defining three finger banjo rolls across the core changes. Monroe's own off beat, blues drenched mandolin break is borrowed from no one. And like Howling Wolf, Monroe had disciples studying his doctrine from afar.

(Soundbite of song, “Sitting on Top of the World”)

Mr. JERRY GARCIA (The Grateful Dead): (Singing) Mississippi River so big and wide, blond haired woman on the other side. Now she's gone, gone, gone and I don't worry 'cause I'm sitting on top of the world.

NEMEROV: In 1967, the Grateful Dead, musical poster boys for San Francisco's psychedelia, were about to put out their first album. They had recorded mostly the songs that have been playing live at Ken Kesey's Crypts Festivals. One of these was “Sitting on Top of the World.” Guitarist and lead vocalist Jerry Garcia had been a rapt and apt student of bluegrass. The long haired electric guitarist kept Monroe's lyrics and bluegrass beat, but added rock rhythm pushes at verse ends. Like Cream, the Dead honored an elder while reshaping a new sound for a new purpose. In so doing they came a part of the unbroken chain of students and teachers.

Like a good teacher, the song speaks to each student in accordance with his ability to hear. In New York, the Mississippi Delta, from Texas and Oklahoma to Nashville, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, San Francisco, each student heard the voice of the song. Each student gave the song a new voice. The song may go on forever, but we'll leave it here.

BLOCK: Bruce Nemerov is the author of the book “Lost Delta Found.” You can hear earlier profiles in our series on teachers at our Web site, NPR.org.

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Al Jolson: Original Recordings

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  • Album: Al Jolson: Original Recordings
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