Mr. Sam sat down with his old Gibson guitar and leaned toward the microphone smiling as he opened with his story about the time that he played the San Francisco blues festival and used his money from the event to buy a car. Sam said that he wanted to try his hand at being a taxi driver before he came back home to Mississippi.
“Yeah, I tried to run a taxi out in California, but I couldn’t think of what to name my taxi… I drove over to where all the other taxis hung out but it looked like they had taken up all the names…then about that time I saw a good lookin’ woman walk by smokin’ a cigarette and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s it, I’ll name my taxi the ASH TRAY TAXI’. So, if you’re a cigarette smokin’ woman, throw your butts over in here!”
Sam brought the house down with that story and song. It wasn’t long before the people who could still stand, were up dancing and screaming. By the time he ended the show an hour or so later most were singing along with him, especially on his most famous piece, “Sitting On Top of the World”.
Sam Chatmon was born in 1897 in Bolton, Mississippi and had about eleven brothers and around twelve half brothers, the most famous of which was delta blues man Charley Patton, known as the true “king” of the Delta Blues. Sam’s brother, guitarist Bo Carter along with Sam’s father, a former slave, formed the boys into a family string band that became known as the Mississippi Sheiks, after the success of their first recording session.
The Sheiks were popular in both the white and black communities throughout central Mississippi especially the Bolton to Vicksburg route that included Raymond and Edwards, all small towns mentioned in song by the Sheiks or Charley Patton.
Sam told me that he and his brothers all “traded off” on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and banjo with some of the other brothers working the fiddle, jug or bass. The family band traveled widely and recorded nearly 80 sides for various labels during the 1930’s. The great depression, health troubles and finally world war pushed most of the brothers back onto the farms or planted them deep in their graves.
Sam moved finally from central Mississippi up to the little delta town of Hollandale. He worked as a tractor driver until he moved into town and took a job as a night watchman at the cotton compress warehouse. He cut three LP’s after he was “re-discovered” in the 1960’s and was featured in a film or two.
Sam toured the South and traveled as far north as Canada- but always by bus never by air. He told me, “I’m not worried to fly and have the airplane go down if it’s my time to go…but what if it’s the man that’s drivin’ the airplane’s time to go…what can you do? That airplane will fall from the sky and that man will just take you with him. No sir. No airplane for me…I’ll ride the dog (Gray Hound Bus) any day…I figure that(on the bus) I stand a better chance of making it on out till its MY time to go.”
At his small house in Hollandale, Sam and I used to sit out in his yard under the shade trees or in his front room on the sofas and chairs that his lady kept covered in plastic- removed only when visitors came calling. After a snack of catfish or watermelon, Sam would let me blow the harp while he picked some of the old time tunes that he and his brothers played so long ago.
He told me, “Steve, everybody needs a chance to be told to sit down…after a while as my harmonica wasn’t suiting him he would stop playing and look over at me and grin…OK…SIT DOWN… and listen for a while now.” That was some of the best advice that I have ever gotten, especially concerning music. It changed my life.
For any willing to listen, Sam offered up his advice, served up like great barbecue, it was always hot- and spicy enough to hit the spot and kept you coming back for more. Sam would lean back, look you over and say things like, “Learn how to do things for yourself… Don’t wait on anybody to do for you if you have your health…save your money if you can…make a nest egg… but have a good time too. And don’t let anybody take away what you have inside…that’s who you are…and if you have a good woman… you better tell her that she’s good some time if you plan on keeping her….”
Growing up light skinned in a huge mixed up family with a former slave for a father; being part American Indian and white too, Sam had little patience for racism and the trappings of segregation and Jim Crow or Uncle Tom. He made fun of these false chains and those connected with them whenever the mood struck.
Singing renditions of, “Should I paint my face?” or “You’re gonna look like a monkey when you get old…” or one of his favorites, “Stoop Down Baby”, which he sang at the Mississippi State Governor’s mansion, in Jackson, for a reception put on by the First Lady.
Sam Chatmon died in 1983 at the age of 86. He sang the blues that were the life that he lived. He left us the last verse of his most famous song, “Sitting On Top Of The World” to remember him by-
When I’m dead and in my grave,
There’ll be no more women for me to crave.
Now I’m gone, you don’t have to worry,
I left you sittin’ on top of the world.