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The Mississippi Sheiks were a popular and influential American guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s. They were notable mostly for playing country blues, but were adept at many styles of popular music of the time.
The Mississippi Sheiks consisted mainly of the Chatmon family, who came from Bolton, Mississippi and were well known throughout the Mississippi Delta. The father of the family, Henderson Chatmon, had been a "musicianer" (someone with good technical ability on his or her instrument adept at sight-reading written music) during slavery times, and his children carried on the musical spirit. Their most famous (although by no means permanent) member was Armenter Chatmon - better known as Bo Carter - who managed a successful solo career as well as playing with the Sheiks, which may have contributed to their success.
When the band first recorded in 1930, the line-up consisted of Carter with Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, and Walter Vinson. Charlie McCoy (not to be confused with Charlie McCoy, a later American musician) played later, when Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon ceased playing full-time. It was Lonnie Chatmon and Vinson who formed the real center of the group.
Bo Carter's solo work is notable for being sexually suggestive in songs and this is carried on to an extent with the group. They primarily earned their income like Robert Johnson and Skip James. They toured throughout the Southern United States, but also reached as far north as Chicago and New York.
Their first and biggest success was "Sitting on Top of the World" (1930), later to be recorded by Doc Watson, Bob Wills (numerous times), Howlin' Wolf, Nat King Cole, Bill Monroe, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Cream, Grateful Dead, Jeff Healey, John Lee Hooker, Bill Frisell and Jack White. The song was also the theme to the film A Face in the Crowd (1957) produced by Elia Kazan and starring Andy Griffith. Throughout their five active years, the Mississippi Sheiks recorded over seventy songs for the Okeh, Paramount and Bluebird labels.
Their last recording session as the Mississippi Sheiks was in 1936. Bo made a few more sessions on his own, but by 1938 he too was dropped. When the band dissolved, the Chatmon brothers gave up music and returned to farming.
The Sheiks and related groups under other names, such as Mississippi Mud Steppers and Blacksnakes, recorded about a hundred sides in the first half of the 1930s, among them original compositions (probably by Vinson) like "The World is Going Wrong" and "I've Got Blood in My Eyes For You" (1931) - both recorded by Bob Dylan - or the topical "Sales Tax" (1934).
Sam Chatmon made more recordings in the 1960s and Walter Vinson contributed three selections (using the Mississippi Sheiks band name) to Riverside's 1961 series, Chicago: The Living Legends.
In 2009, Black Hen Music released Things About Comin' My Way, a tribute album to the Mississippi Sheiks. The album's seventeen artists include Bruce Cockburn, Bill Frisell, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Geoff Muldaur, Kelly Joe Phelps and John Hammond.
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