The Mississippi Sheiks, a loosely organized, family-based musical group, were the most renowned and commercially successful African American string band of the 1930s. Based in Jackson, the band included at least three members of the large Chatmon (sometimes spelled Chatman) clan, several of whom figured prominently in the history of Mississippi blues, including brothers Lonnie (1888–?) Armenter (1893–1964), and Sam Chatmon (1897–1983). Between 1930 and 1935 the Mississippi Sheiks recorded an extensive collection of country blues, waltzes, fox-trots, pop songs, and hokum numbers, including their most famous song, “Sitting on Top of the World” (composed by band member Walter Vincson), now considered a blues classic.
The Chatmon family hailed from the hill country around Bolton, Mississippi, roughly halfway between Jackson and Vicksburg, where their neighbors included fellow bluesmen Charley Patton and Charlie and Joe McCoy. The family patriarch, Henderson Chatmon (1850–1934), fathered at least thirteen children, most of whom learned to play musical instruments. Around World War I, seven of the nine sons formed a string band, the Chatmon Brothers, and performed for both black and white audiences at square dances and social gatherings around Bolton. Lonnie Chatmon, the group’s leader, was a superb dance fiddler. Other members of the band included Armenter “Bo” Chatmon, who played clarinet and guitar, and Sam Chatmon, who played second violin. One of their neighbors, gifted singer and guitarist Walter Vincson (also known by the surnames Vinson, Vincent, and Jacobs), also performed with the band. The band played together until around 1928, when several of the brothers relocated, first to Hollandale and in the early 1930s to Jackson, then an important regional blues center.
After the breakup, Lonnie Chatmon and Vincson continued to play together, and in 1929 Ralph Lembo, a white Itta Bena record dealer, arranged their first recording session. In February 1930 Lonnie and Bo Chatmon and Vincson made their first records together for OKeh’s field-recording unit in Shreveport, Louisiana. This session produced the band’s biggest-selling hits, “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Stop and Listen Blues.” The trio dubbed themselves the Mississippi Sheiks at Vincson’s suggestion, allegedly from the title of Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 blockbuster film, The Sheik.
Over the next five years the Mississippi Sheiks recorded more than eighty sides for a series of record labels, including OKeh, Columbia, and Bluebird. Band members simultaneously pursued solo recording careers and accompanied other blues groups at recording sessions. Lonnie Chatmon (violin) and Vincson (guitar and lead vocals) formed the core of the studio band, often accompanied by Bo Chatmon (guitar and violin) and occasionally joined by Sam Chatmon (guitar and violin) and Charlie McCoy (banjo and mandolin). Members of the band also recorded in various other combinations under such names as Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers, Chatman’s Mississippi Hot Footers, the Mississippi Mud Steppers, the Down South Boys, and the Chatman Brothers. Outside the studio the Mississippi Sheiks performed with a large revolving ensemble of musicians, including other Chatmon brothers and various Jackson bluesmen. The band toured widely, performing throughout Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Georgia and reportedly as far away as Illinois and New York.
The Mississippi Sheiks’ recordings featured a wide range of vernacular music that borrowed heavily from both Anglo- and African American musical traditions. They recorded country blues (“West Jackson Blues”), party blues (“Driving That Thing”), hokum numbers (“She Ain’t No Good”), and pop-oriented numbers (“Lonely One in This Town”). The band also cut topical numbers, such as “Jake Leg Blues,” a commentary on the 1930 jake leg epidemic that paralyzed drinkers of adulterated Jamaica ginger during Prohibition. Their repertoire revealed a sophisticated familiarity with current hillbilly and race records. “Yodeling Fiddling Blues” and “Jail Bird Love Song,” for example, reflect the influence of fellow Mississippian Jimmie Rodgers. Indeed, several of the band’s recordings, including “The Sheik Waltz” and “The Jazz Fiddler,” were issued as part of OKeh’s Old Time Tunes series, which was marketed chiefly to white southern record buyers.
Although the Mississippi Sheiks’ recording contract expired in 1935, several members of the band continued to make records until the advent of World War II. Bo Chatmon in particular enjoyed a distinguished career as a solo blues artist. Under the pseudonym Bo Carter, he recorded more than one hundred sides between 1928 and 1940, most of them bawdy, double-entendre party blues. In 1972, during the urban folk revival, Vincson and Sam Chatmon collaborated on an album for Rounder Records under the name the New Mississippi Sheiks and performed together at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.
Although the band recorded together for only six years, the Mississippi Sheiks exerted a significant influence on American popular music, and partly as a result of Vincson and Sam Chatmon’s revived professional careers, a new generation of musicians and music fans discovered their music. “Sitting on Top of the World,” their biggest hit, became a Delta blues classic before World War II, and Howlin’ Wolf scored an R & B hit with his electrified version of the song in 1957. Other artists who have covered this song include Cream, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Lonnie Johnson, Ray Charles, and the Grateful Dead. Bob Dylan also covered two Mississippi Sheiks’ songs, “The World Is Going Wrong” and “I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes for You,” on his 1993 album, World Gone Wrong.
- Stephen Calt, Don Kent, and Michael Stewart, Mississippi Sheiks: Stop and Listen (2006), liner notes
- Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow, King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (1988)
- Lawrence Cohn, Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down: The Best of the Mississippi Sheiks (2004), liner notes
- Chris Smith, Mississippi Sheiks: The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, vols. 1–4 (1991), liner notes