The Music of the Mississippi Sheiks

by

Thanks to Frank Basile for his scholarship and permission to disseminate this more widely!

Please check out donegone.netThe Little Brothers, and The Mississippi Sheiks. 

Click here for an interview with Sam Chatmon, the last of the Mississippi Sheiks, in 1980.

by Frank Basile at donegone.net

If you’ve heard them, you know how great they sound, and if you haven’t, you’re in the enviable position of being able to hear them for the first time. The Mississippi Sheiks had a rotating cast of members that variously included Lonnie Chatmon, Walter Vinson, Bo Chatmon and Sam Chatmon. In addition to this, sometimes Charlie McCoy on mandolin would join some permutation of the four under the name of the Mississippi Mud Steppers. They were a sophisticated bunch of musicians who played a wide range of material, much of it influenced by the pop music of the day, but always with a bluesy twist.

Based purely on the songs in the four Document volumes, the Sheiks appear to have favored standard tuning for both fiddle and guitar (relative to actual pitch) and the following keys: G, B-flat, E-flat, D, C and F. In the output represented below, there does not appear to be a single song played out of A position on the fiddle. This is admittedly pretty nerdy, but the table below should illustrate the point.

The Mississippi Sheiks – number of songs by key

Key Count
G 28
B-flat 21
E-flat 13
D 10
C 7
F 5
E 1
F/B-flat/E-flat 1

The songs listed below are each linked to a complete transcription of the lyrics. In putting this together, I was attracted by the quality of many of their lyrics, notably “He Calls That Religion” and “I Can’t Go Wrong.” Subversive stuff! The lyric transcriptions are as accurate as I can make them at the moment. In general, I have transcribed the lyrics as more or less standard English, even though the singer’s usage and dialect often put an interesting twist on pronunciation. The lyric transcriptions are only a guide and don’t attempt to recreate the rhythms or tone of the original performance. As I see it, those aspects of the performance are best gleaned from the actual recording in question. Areas where I’m unsure of a particular lyric are noted with square brackets, as in this verse fromRiver Bottom Blues:”

I has a railroad [apartment] and the [] begin to cry

The empty brackets are an indication that I can’t really make out at all what’s being sung there. I find that many of these gray areas get clearer over time, but feel free to comment on the transcriptions if you have alternative suggestions. Overall, the songs I had the hardest time with are the last few recordings where Sam Chatmon is the singer – the combination of his singing style and the generally poor condition of those records make transcription very challenging. After being immersed in their music for the time that it took me to put this together, I find myself even more fascinated by their sound and completely in awe of their talent.

About the lyric transcriptions: a while back, I restricted access to the transcriptions to deter content skimming bots from accessing the site & reposting the content on some crummy, regurgitated lyric mega-site. If you’re not a bot and dig the Sheiks and would like to check out the lyrics, I can share the password with you – just send me an email. Oh, and please don’t share the password with anyone else – it’s just not cool.

Please email Frank by using  the “Contact Us” link on the donegone.net website for more information about access to his collection of  Mississippi Sheiks lyrics.

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