Sitting on Top of the World

"Sitting on Top of the World"
Sitting on Top of the World single cover.jpg
Single by Mississippi Sheiks
B-side "Lovely One in This Town"
Released 1930 (1930)
Recorded February 17, 1930
Genre Country blues
Length 3:10
Label Okeh
Songwriter(s) Walter Vinson, Lonnie Chatmon

"Sitting on Top of the World" (also "Sittin' on Top of the World") is a country blues song written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon. They were core members of the Mississippi Sheiks, who first recorded it in 1930. Vinson claimed to have composed the song one morning after playing at a white dance in Greenwood, Mississippi.[1] It became a popular crossover hit for the band, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.[2]

"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 of the original song convey a stoic optimism in the face of emotional setbacks, and the song has been described as a "simple, elegant distillation of the Blues". In 2018, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."[3]

Antecedents

The title line of "Sitting on Top of the World" is similar to a well-known popular song of the 1920s, "I'm Sitting on Top of the World", written by Ray Henderson, Sam Lewis and Joe Young (popularised by Al Jolson in 1926). However the two songs are distinct, both musically and lyrically. Similarities have also been noted between "Sitting on Top of the World" and an earlier song by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, "You Got To Reap What You Sow" (1929)[citation needed] or that the melody is from an unidentified song by Tampa Red.[4][5]

Structure

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.

Harmonically the song differs from a standard 12 bar blues, and though the original has a clearly bluesy harmonic feeling, including blue notes in the melody, there is some disagreement about whether it is really a blues.

"Sitting Top of the World" is a strophic nine-bar blues. Bar nine provides rhythmic separation between stanzas, the end of one stanza and the relatively large pickup at the beginning of the next.[6]

Renditions

In May 1930, Charlie Patton recorded a version of the song (with altered lyrics) titled "Some Summer Day". During the next few years, renditions of "Sitting on Top of the World" were recorded by a number of artists; after Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies recorded it for Bluebird Records, the song became a staple in the repertoire of western swing bands.[1]

In 1957, Howlin' Wolf reworked the song as a Chicago blues. He shortened the lyrics to 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 Charles in 1949.[7]

In performances later in his career, Howlin' Wolf often closed his sets with "Sitting on Top of the World".[8] As with several of his songs, it was adapted by rock groups during the 1960s.[8] Some rock-oriented versions showed considerable variation: a version by the Grateful Dead was played at a very fast tempo of 252 beats per minute (bpm), while Cream performed it at a very slow 44 bpm.[9]

Jack White recorded an acoustic version for the soundtrack to the 2003 film Cold Mountain. An AllMusic review included "For the most part, the White Stripes frontman successfully transplants himself into the [traditional country and Americana] genre, utilizing his throaty warble on Howlin' Wolf's 'Sittin' on Top of the World' like a dust-bowl carny."[10]

References

  1. ^ a b Cary Ginell, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 284 - ISBN 0-252-02041-3
  2. ^ 2008 Grammy Hall of Fame List Archived June 12, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "National Recording Registry Reaches 500". Library of Congress. March 21, 2018. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  4. ^ Calt, Stephen; Kent, Don; Stewart, Michael (1992). Stop and Listen (Album notes). Mississippi Sheiks. Yazoo Records. p. 4. 2006. the composition of the song is problematic (the melody was first recorded by Tampa Red).
  5. ^ Tampa Red also recorded "You Got to Reap What You Sow" in 1929. Fancourt, Les (1994). It Hurts Me Too (Album notes). Tampa Red. Indigo Recordings. p. 3. IGOCD 2004.
  6. ^ The Musical Frameworks of Five Blues Schemes. Nicholas Stoia. Ph. D. Thesis/dissertation. City University of New York. 2008. pages 155, 159,160
  7. ^ 78 RPM Swingtime/Downbeat No. 215, 1949
  8. ^ a b Koda, Cub (1996). "The Real Folk Blues". In Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Koda, Cub (eds.). All Music Guide to the Blues. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. pp. 124, 716. ISBN 0-87930-424-3.
  9. ^ Everett, Walter (2009). The Foundations of Rock. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 322. ISBN 978-0-19-531023-8.
  10. ^ Monger, James Christopher. "Original Soundtrack: Cold Mountain – Review". AllMusic. Retrieved November 20, 2020.

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