Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Doc & Merle Watson: Sitting On Top Of The World

Coming home from graduation on this past Saturday, I sat in my driveway listening to a piece on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” about a new blues compendium. Called “Classic Appalachian Blues,” the new compellation celebrates the blues not from the Mississippi Delta or Chicago but from Appalachia and the Piedmont.

One of the cuts they played on Saturday was Doc Watson's 1964 recording of “Sitting on Top of the World.” My own experience with this recording was the version by Cream which appeared on both “Wheels of Fire” and “Goodbye.” Their version was an extension of the arrangement by Howlin’ Wolf. I had never heard the white blues version as Watson had recorded and am featuring a live recording by Doc and his late son Merle doing “Sitting on Top of the World.”

Yesterday, I told my brother Chuck about this new release from Smithsonian-Folkways and played part of the Watson version over the telephone, he admitted to me he had heard this arrangement decades ago at the hands of our father, Charles Ellsworth Owston. My dad was a versatile musician who played folk guitar, tenor guitar, Hawaiian steel guitar, and boogie woogie piano. Unfortunately, I never heard him play any of these instruments as he had a stroke in August 1959 when I was 3 1/2 years old and the damage to his left side prevented him from enjoying music first hand as he had in the past.

Come to think of it, my brother Chuck continued the guitar tradition in our family the very same month my dad had his stroke. This is quite ironic when you think about it. I don’t know if any recordings of my dad exist anywhere, but if there were reel to reel tapes (as we had a reel to reel deck in our home), they are long gone. There is only one known photo of dad with an instrument – an out-of-focus self portrait of him playing his Kalamazoo KG-11 guitar built circa 1931. The photo was probably taken during the late 1940s.

Charles Ellsworth Owston, 1913-1962

Meanwhile, back to the story, Chuck had plenty of opportunities of hearing my dad play. Dad and his fellow musician friends, who worked at the Westinghouse Airbrake, would gather together at the Filler Hotel on Sunday afternoons for impromptu jam sessions. This long forgotten landmark located on Pitcairn Street in Wilmerding, PA became a school room of old folk and country blues as my brother had the opportunity to hear this and other songs played by my father and his friends.

Often, my dad played his Domino Tenor Guitar at these sessions – a guitar that he had originally purchased for his three nieces, but when they were no longer interested in music, he retrieved the instrument and played it himself until giving it to my brother – who spray painted it magenta. I’m sure these were special times and wish I could have been there to hear the music that was generated by these skilled craftsmen of acoustic music.

The Mississippi Sheiks

“Sitting on Top of the World” was a Mississippi Delta blues song that was originally recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

Probably the first white recording of this song was done by the western swing ensemble, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This live version from 1951 showcases the song Wills and company made famous to white audiences in 1935.

Howlin’ Wolf

The rendition that influenced most rockers, including Cream, was the version by Chester Burnett – otherwise known as Howlin’ Wolf.


Finally, a more recent version of Cream’s interpretation of this timeless classic. Recorded during their reunion tour of 2005, the song showcases the vocals and harmonica by bassist Jack Bruce.

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