This was one of the biggest hits to come out of the Mississippi Delta in the early blues era, recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 — I don’t know if any other recording from rural Mississippi came close to it in sales during that period. I love the Sheiks, especially Lonnie Chatmon’s fiddling, but didn’t hear them until I was in my late teens or twenties, and had no idea who they were when I first heard this song on Doc Watson’s first album. I got the guitar part from Doc’s songbook, which provided tablature, and it may well have been the first piece I ever learned in open D tuning, and remains one of the few — I have trouble enough just keeping a guitar in tune, without attempting to retune it on a regular basis.
I don’t think Doc used open tunings all that often, either, but he explained in his notes to this song that he adapted his arrangement from Frank Hutchison’s “The Train that Carried my Girl From Town” and “Worried Blues.” At the time, I didn’t know who Hutchison was, either — and when I finally heard him, all I could think was how much he reminded me of Doc, except quirkier.
Doc described “Sitting on Top of the World” as about an “old boy whose woman has run off and left him…. He wants her to come back, but he isn’t about to let her come back — he’s bragging, sour grapes kind of bragging. He’s sitting on top of the world, but he’s so lonesome that he can hardly stand it without her.”