When Sam Chatmon first began playing the blues, Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States. Most of his neighbors in rural Mississippi were still listening to rags and reels that dated back to slavery days. Chatmon launched his recording career in the 1930s, playing alongside his brothers Bo Carter and Lonnie Chatmon in the era’s most celebrated string band, the Mississippi Sheiks, and performed as one-half of the Bluebird duo “Chatman Brothers (Lonnie and Sam).” Outliving his brothers, Sam was “rediscovered” in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz, who recorded him anew for Arhoolie Records. Sam went on to make several fine albums for other labels and attain status as an elder statesmen of the blues.
In concert and on record, Chatmon seemed a living summation of the country blues style his family helped pioneer more than a half-century earlier. While skilled on banjo, bass viol, mandolin, harmonica, and piano, he most often performed on acoustic guitar. Like his more famous brother Bo, Sam was facile in many keys and favored smooth fingerpicking patterns and old-time pluck-and-strum rhythms. He sang with a warm, plaintive, almost delicate voice, staying true to the spirit of what he reverently referred to as “the old-fashioned music that first was handed down.”
Most sources credit January 10, 1897, as the date of Sam Chatmon’s birth. His father, fiddler Henderson Chatmon, was born in slavery and had several sets of children. “My daddy had three wives,” Sam claimed in the liners to the Rounder album Sam Chatmon’s Advice, “and my mother had the least children of any of them, which was 13. Daddy said he had 60 children, but that ain’t countin’ Charley Patton and all them on the outside.” (While the Patton link is unproved, Henderson reportedly had an affair with Annie Patton, Charley’s mother, during the 1890s.)
The elder Chatmon owned fiddles, guitars, a banjo, mandolin, clarinet, piano, and bass viol, and his sons banded together to play white square dances and black parties. “All of us nine brothers played together,” Sam described. “Lonnie and Edgar would play the violins. Harry would play the guitar, piano, or violin. Willie and Bert played the guitar. Bo would play the guitar or banjo, and brother Laurie beat the drums. I’d usually play bass violin for them. Walter Vincent joined us in 1921. They called him ‘Walter Jacob’ on the records, but old man Vincent was his daddy.” (In discographies, Walter’s last name is usually listed as “Vincson.”)
Working in various configurations, Walter Vincson and Lonnie, Bo, and Sam Chatmon performed and recorded as the Mississippi Sheiks, a name inspired by a popular 1921 Rudolph Valentino film, The Sheik. A propulsive fiddler, Lonnie managed the band, while Bo, a strong, confident singer and gifted guitarist, became its biggest star. (Bo, whose real name was Armenter Chatmon, cut stacks of popular records – some quite risque – during the 1930s under the pseudonym Bo Carter.) Vincson’s quavering vocals and steady guitar strums helped bring the music its exhilarating, countrified edge. Sam did not appear on the Mississippi Sheiks’ biggest hit, 1930’s bittersweet “Sitting on Top of the World,” which became part of the blues repertoire, inspiring covers by Tampa Red, Bob Wills, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Doc Watson, Cream, the Grateful Dead, and many others. Young Muddy Waters covered Mississippi Sheiks songs with his first string band. “Walked ten miles to see them play,” Waters told Jim O’Neal. “They was high time through there, makin’ them good records, man.”
Sam Chatmon made his final professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival and passed away on February 2, 1983.
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There is some confusion about your birth date. How old are you?
I’m gonna be 82.
Your father was a fiddler.
What kind of music did he play?
Ragtime music, square-set dance. They called it a square dance music, breakdowns.
Did he play with another fiddler named Milton Bracy?
Was this when you were a child?
No, I wasn’t born
You were the seventh son.
Did your father teach Lonnie to play?
No, he didn’t teach no one how to play. All of us just learned ourself how to play. But his brother in law, Leo Wesson, taught him the notes, so he could play a violin by notes.
Could any of your brothers read music?
When did you start playing guitar?
I started about four years old.
How did you learn?
I just picked it up and watched the others – same way I learned how to drive a car. Ain’t nobody never showed me how to drive no car. I sit in there and watch.
Did you learn how to fingerpick when you were little?
Yeah, that’s the first way I learned.
What kind of songs was that?
Just the same old old-fashioned blues.
Can you remember the first blues you ever heard?
Well, I tell ya, the first I ever hear was: “Run down the river / thought I’d jump and drown / I thought about my baby / then I turn around.” That’s the first piece I ever heard anybody sing. My oldest brother sang it. His name was Ferdinand.
Did you meet any bluesmen when you were young?
No, I never did go out that way. I didn’t start out till I was seven years old, and I was with my brothers. And we didn’t play no blues hardly, because we’s playin’ for white folks.
Did you ever meet Blind Lemon Jefferson?
Yeah, I met Blind Lemon. Since I been pickin’ guitar and start playin’ with Bo, I done met ’em all!
What was your impression of Blind Lemon?
He was okay. I used to play like him, but I quit.
How about Charley Patton?
Well, I picked like Charley Patton, but I didn’t like his singin’. Charley Patton was my brother.
Who were your favorite players in those days?
Well, my favorite man for singin’ the blues is B.B. King. He used to follow me around when he couldn’t pick a little guitar.
Did you ever meet Robert Johnson?
Yeah! You know, he picked the “Big Road Blues,” and I picked “Stop and Listen” just like he picked “Big Road Blues.”
What did he look like?
He was sort of tall, brownskin man. He’s a nice young fella.
There’s an old story that he sold his soul to the devil.
No. I’ll tell ya, he picked that piece about he sold his soul to the devil. Nah, he wasn’t crazy until he go to drinkin’. Then he act funny.
Yeah, I started to playin’ the bull fiddle. I had to carry a box to be tall enough to reach it.
When did you pick up on banjo?
Well, how I found out, you see, I knowed how to play a guitar when I was in the band. We had a banjo tuned like the first four strings on a guitar, where I could just play anything I want to play on the banjo.
When did you start playing for money?
For money!? I was playin’ for money when I was seven years old.
How was the pay back then?
We was doin’ pretty good for a while. We’d play at Coopersville and Brownsville. We’d get $25 dollars a week – that was great big money! Yeah, $25 a week – that was big money!
How much could a guy make a week working in the fields at that time?
Well, you’d get about three dollars, maybe, a week. Six days.
Did you ever play parties for the white folks you worked for?
Yeah, I play for them. I used to serenade for ’em, right here in Hollandale. He give me 60 cents a day for plowin’, and give me five dollars for playin’ three or four pieces at his house.
When did Walter Vincson join your band?
That was back in ’23 or ’22. And then Charlie McCoy, Memphis Minnie – all of us played together there in Jackson. And we’d have two or three jobs. We send half of ’em one way and the other half go another way.
When you were playing music, did you still hold down a day job?
I was farmin’.
Who was the competition?
That Memphis Jug Band and all them – we played up there to them. They didn’t have no time with us.
As the guitarist in the band, did you prefer doing blues, fox trots, one steps . . .
My favorite was the “St. Louis Blues.” I liked that ever since I first heard it! Yeah, that’s what I likes to play now.
What key do you play it in?
I play it in G.
Do you use many open tunings?
No, I don’t use ’em now. I used to use ’em. Now I stays in regular tunin’.
Did you ever play bottleneck?
That’s when I used to use the bottleneck, when I tuned it into Spanish [open G].
Tell me about the first time you recorded.
That was for P.C. Brockman. I recorded in Jackson in ’23. That was the first time I recorded. I played with the other boys. I put out records – me and Memphis Minnie, Charlie McCoy, and my brother Harry. [Blogger’s note: Chatmon may be referring to the ARC company’s 1935 field trip to Jackson, during which recordings were made by Harry Chatmon, Minnie Wallace, Son Joe, Robert Wilkins, and others.]
How much did you make for that session?
Oh, just nothin’. About twenty dollars.
No! No royalties at all.
And then you did some songs with Lonnie that came out credited to the “Chatman Brothers (Lonnie and Sam).”
Yeah, in ’36.
Is that when you did that nice variation on “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”?
Yeah, I think it was. I put out another piece, the same tune as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” – “If You Don’t Want Me, Please Don’t Dog Me ’Round.” Now, that’s just the same thing as “Pallet on the Floor.” I changed the words. [Here is excellent video footage of Sam explaining the song's origins and performing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AkEhtfPN084.]
Back then, were you making up a lot of material?
Yeah, I made up all I played!
How did you go about making up tunes? Did you come up with the melody first?
Well, the way you get a song together, you got to think about what you gonna sing about. When you’re puttin’ out a record, you ain’t got to put out but four verses – no more than five. You play through it once, and that clear the three minutes. You see, we used to have to play in three minutes, but now you can’t play but two minutes and a half on these little bitty records [45s]. So that’s the way I do it. I get me five verses, then I just practice up on them and go on put ’em out.
What was your favorite song that you made up?
My favorite song that I made up was the “Radio Blues” and “Please, Baby, Don’t Give My Love Away Because I’m Sinkin’ Down, I’ll Be Up Again Someday.” I like them two pieces.
You and Bo had a lot of humor in your blues.
Well, I guess we did.
Did the band break up in ’37?
Well, I don’t know exactly, because I didn’t take time to try to think about when it broke up. ’Cause we was getting’ apart ’cause the one died and another one died. So that’s what broke the band up. My brother Ed, he played with my brother Bo in Hollandale, and I wasn’t playin’ at all. I was a night watch at the cotton press.
Did you still play guitar during the years you weren’t performing for a living?
Yeah, I played.
Did you meet any of the younger bluesmen, like Albert King?
Yeah, I met Albert King and Freddie King – they stayed on the plantation where I was the agent then. In Arcola.
You started playing again in 1960.
What did you think about someone coming to find you and getting you jobs in San Diego?
Chris Strachwitz? Well, my wife was sick, and I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened, ’cause I had about done spent my money out down to nothin’. And he brought that money by just like this, and just give it to me.
Was it surprising that your music became popular again?
Well, no. Because everywhere I went, even when I was five and six years old, when I’d go to these clubs to play, the first thing they would say when I walked in the door, folks started to pattin’ and hollerin’, “Let Sam have it! Let Sam have it!” And I’d get that, man, and people – whoo! I’d put life all in there! And it’s the same thing right now. Anywhere I go, I just haves a zeal. I have a good zeal to play.
What kind of guitar do you use now?
I have a Gibson made in 19 and 10. I been using it about seven or eight years, but the first guitar I had when I was little was a Washburn. It’s out there in California now, hangin’ upside the wall.
Did you ever play a Stella?
Yeah! Man, them there was good guitars! I wished I could find me a Stella now.
Through the years, did you have much interaction with the other Mississippi bluesmen?
Yeah, I had a whole lot a action with ’em. Every one more or less did recordin’. I went to recordin’.
Did everyone get along, or was there a lot of competition?
No, everybody get along fine. I ain’t never been out where nobody like to want to argue or nothin’ about nothin’ like that.
When was the best time for your kind of blues?
Well, I’ll tell ya. From ’60, it’s been good time to me ever since I started back to playin’, ’cause I pick like Lonnie Johnson, pick like Blind Blake and them. And everybody when I do the pickin’, they say, “Oh, he play like so-and-so. He play like such-and-such a somebody.” So I got me a way of my own. And I learned how to pick it and learned how to sing to it, and that’s what I’ve done. And I’ve been havin’ a nice time ever since.
How often do you play guitar these days?
I aim to pick it up every day, but sometimes I be too busy. I try to play in the evening – I like the night. I got a boy be hear directly. He want to come to pick some with me. I’m gonna show him how to pick just like I done with others.
Do you like to play on your porch?
Yeah. I likes to play anywhere! I love playing!
Are you the last of the performing Chatmons?
My boy got his own band – he in Chicago. He’s called “Singin’ Sam.” My grandchildren play too. My grandboy, his boy, he’s a saxophone blower. He ain’t but 17 years old. He’s a drum beater, a piano player, an organ player.
Do you always plays fingerpick style?
I’ll tell ya. I don’t use no picks. I got a pocketful of ’em, but I picks with my natural fingers. That’s the way I be. Now, I can play any old jazz songs you can name, way back, but I plays them sometimes with a pick. I’ll take a pick out then, but other than that I play with my natural fingers.
What old jazz songs do you play?
Like “Dinah” and “Somebody Stole My Gal.” All them pieces. That’s jazz music!
Have you ever played an electric guitar?
Yeah, that’s how I first started off when Chris Strachwitz come by here [in 1960]. He had an acoustic guitar, and I picked his acoustic guitar and left my electric guitar alone. He didn’t want no electrics on the record I was puttin’ out. And I picked his guitar.
What kind of electric guitar did you have?
I had a Fender.
A Stratocaster, Telecaster . . .
No, it’s a Fender! I didn’t know nothin’ but a Fender, and I got the amplifier yet. I traded the guitar for one of Sears, Roebucks. That guitar was too heavy for me, so I got me a little old Sears, Roebuck guitar now.
Silvertone! That’s what B.B. King used to pick.
When did you get into electric guitar?
Well, when the wife died, I had a guitar here at home. I said, “I give up.” Not to play no more. And my boy come here, and he brought me a good guitar, an electric guitar, that Fender, and started me back out to playin’. That was in ’60.
Have you ever been onstage with an electric?
Yeah, man, that’s all I played when I first started off. When I come to California, I played electric guitar everywhere I went. Yeah, but they didn’t like the electric guitar. I was tryin’ to get a job, audition, and they wanted acoustic guitar. So I said, “Let me pick the one that I’m used to.” Every time I’d pick, they’d hire me.
What do you think the future holds for the blues?
Well, I’ll tell you what I believe – I might be wrong – but everybody begin to like blues. There’s a mighty few people you find don’t like blues. Everywhere I go play, when I leave, going from one place to the other one to play, the people behind me just like the prodigal son. All the people followin’ me to get to hear me play again.
Do you have any advice you’d pass along to a young musician?
Uh huh. Don’t drink! That’s my best advice. Do you know, a person drink, he think he be doin’ somethin’, when you actin’ a fool.
Will you be playing the rest of your life?
I’m gonna play till I can’t. When I play, I feel better than I do when I’m sittin’ down. Yeah, my playin’ makes me feel good!
No, no. And I’ll tell you the way I do. I picks a blues – anywhere I go, I play ’em, and then I can play many church songs. And then I can get up the next day. When God gave you a talent, it ain’t no sin for you to do it. I don’t feel like blues is sin. That’s the way I feel. If that wasn’t a talent the Lord give me, I couldn’t do it, and somebody else’d be doin’ it.
Are you happy with your life and music?
Sure is. Just as happy as I can be!
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.