At first blush, it might be easy to confuse the legendary Mississippi Sheiks with Portland’s ludicrous Kingsmen: after all, the Sheiks to seem to be the founding dynasts of the one-hit wonder monarchy on whose throne the latter’s “Louie. Louie” has reigned since 1964. Both groups, although separated by over 30 years, incorporated the trappings of royalty into their identities and put down on wax a record that was to be examined, rehearsed, covered, and glorified for generations. The Kingsmen’s notorious bar-band version of a Richard Berry classic has spurned countless cover albums (the Louie, Louie LP, Louie, Louie II, and my favorite, The Best of Louie, Louie) and was played with unmitigated audacity by Frank Zappa on the organ at England’s austere Royal Albert Hall. Likewise, the Sheik’s timeless classic “Sitting on Top of the World” has been recorded by hundreds of artists, as diverse in styles as Frank Sinatra, the Grateful Dead, Harry Belafonte, Cream, and Danny Elfman. What the ancestral Sheiks and latter-day Kingsmen have in common is the creation of three minutes of music that have truly conquered time.
It is there, however, that comparisons end. Notoriously, after releasing “Louie, Louie”, the Kingsmen fell into complete disarray and were scattered to the four winds of the music world. The Sheiks, conversely, charted consistently on the “Race” charts of the early 1930s: while their “Sitting on Top of the World” has proven most memorable through the ages, their “Stop and Listen Blues” was more popular in their own day. Surviving in some form as well from their catalogue are “I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes for You” (hauntingly covered by Dylan on the eerie folk-catalogue World Gone Wrong), and the (albeit minor) blues staples “Bootlegger’s Blues” and “Your Good Man Caught the Train and Gone”. In addition to this impressive catalogue (much of which was written by the Sheiks themselves), this Mississippi combo also had to its credit some of the best musicianship of its day: the sprawling Chatmon family of the hill country near Jackson.
What a family it was: Lonnie Chatmon played a melodic violin, and his brother Bo filled in admirably when he couldn’t make it to a session. Sibling Sam similarly strummed the guitar when cousin-cum-rhythm-man Walter Vinson wasn’t in attendance. Blues legend Charlie Patton is even rumored to be relation. Recording under a variety of names, the Chatmon Brothers (or Carter Brothers, or Mississippi Mud Steppers, Blacksnakes or Sheiks) represented the best of the string-band tradition that grew up on the fringes of the Delta. Predominantly, Lonnie played lead melodic lines and fills on his fiddle while Walter fingerpicked bass and treble patterns to back both his brother and his vocals. The result (as one might guess by the track titled “The Jazz Fiddler”) sounds like some smart DJ mixed together old Robert Johnson records with scratchy Django Reinhardt sides: the swamp meets the soiree.
The music is at times magic, and never mediocre. I must admit that, after about 15 of the album’s 20 tracks, my ears began to tire a little of the unaltering tones of violin and guitar. Nonetheless, so many of the songs are immediately compelling: aside from all those listed previously, the title track moves with a slow grace through a slow and sweet plain into which Vinson’s voice draws the listener. Not all the tunes work quite as well, and present on Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down are remnants of the band’s (understandably) crass consumerism that seem more interesting now because of the passage of time. For instance, “Things About Comin’ My Way” is a note-for-note reproduction of “On Top of the World” that in barely changing the lyrics, attempts to cash in quickly on the sizeable success of its forebear. Amazingly, the replication of the backing music here is really note for note: the Sheiks’ possessed the talent and execution to recreated their now timeless songs time after time.
Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down is a tidy little album that showcases an important early ancestor of our popular musical tradition in all the clarity allowed by a pristine remastering format. The liner notes do a nice job of explaining the Sheiks’ slippery history, and contain helpful information about performers and recording dates. All this seems to try and place this “Best Of” squarely between the markets of die-hard collector and novice initiate, and, ultimately, that is the difficulty of the collection. Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down is a nice addition to a full roster of old-time recordings, but it is not of the power that will be returned to again and again. While perhaps making a convincing argument that the Mississippi Sheiks were far more than a one-hit wonder, Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down ultimately leaves me wondering is I’ll ever often listen to any of its songs that isn’t titled “Sitting on Top of the World”.