At the time of his death on February 2, 1983 at the age of 84, Sam Chatmon was one of the last living original Mississippi Delta blues pioneers. The son of an ex-slave, Henderson Chatmon (who lived until the ripe old age of 105), Chatmon was born in … Read more
At the time of his death on February 2, 1983 at the age of 84, Sam Chatmon was one of the last living original Mississippi Delta blues pioneers. The son of an ex-slave, Henderson Chatmon (who lived until the ripe old age of 105), Chatmon was born in Bolton, Mississippi and grew up with his eight brothers and two sisters on the John Gettis Plantation near Jackson, Mississippi. It was there working in the fields that Sam Chatmon became influenced by Negro spirituals of the old South. In addition, he was brought up on a steady diet of blues and ragtime.
His father was a fiddle player, and with two of his brothers (Lonnie and Bo) and their friend, Walter Vinson, they formed the Mississippi Sheiks after World War I. Chatmon received his first guitar from his father in 1905 at the age of six, and by the time he was in the Sheiks he had built up a sizable bi-racial audience of blues enthusiasts.
In 1935, the Mississippi Sheiks disbanded, but the following year Sam and his brother Lonnie recorded 12 songs for the Bluebird label, which was eventually absorbed by RCA. It was during this period that Chatmon played with the legendary blues howler, Charlie Patton. Chatmon would later brag to people that Patton was a half-brother, but the Chatmon family has disputed this claim. Others still feel they were at least cousins.
Both Bo and Lonnie Chatmon died in the late-1930s and Sam Chatmon regrouped with Walter Vinson in a quartet called the New Mississippi Sheiks. By the outbreak of World War II, Chatmon found it hard to keep the group together and even harder to find work.
He retired from the music business for 20 years, and returned to his hard life working the plantation fields of the Mississippi Delta. In 1960, he was re-discovered by a folk/blues music enthusiast named Ken Swerilas, who had acquired many of his old 78 recordings. He persuaded Arhoolie Records to bring Chatmon back in the studio, which they did. In addition to Arhoolie, he recorded for several other independent blues and folk labels.
Chatmon performed right up until the end of his life. He was originally buried in a simple grave with no headstone. In the 1990s, a joint gift from Bonnie Raiitt and Credence Clearwater Revival guitarist John Fogerty provided a new headstone for his final resting place which reads "Sitting on top of the World."