By Mike Greenblatt
A sprightly, good-timey, catchy, humorous song — complete with some flyin’ fiddle, guitar and delicious two-part harmony — “Cracking Them Things” is arguably one of The Mississippi Sheiks’ greatest records.
But it also is one of the group’s rarest, as no copies are known to exist. It’s not even on Jack White’s 2013 reclamation project, “The Complete Recorded Works Of Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell & The Mississippi Sheiks” offered via Third Man Records. Maybe its rarity explains why today’s fans of vintage blues music are not entirely sure what the lyrics reference.
“Cracking Them Things” was recorded June 30, 1930, for Okeh Records in San Antonio, Texas, but it was long forgotten when John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records acquired the artwork for the label’s original advertisement for Okeh 8810. Tefteller really wanted to feature the ad in his 2014 Blues Images calendar. He thought he had every single Mississippi Sheiks record on Okeh. Turns out, he had all but one, so he set out to find it.
“We searched everywhere to try and find that record,” he remembers. “I called every collector I knew who might have it and every single one of them said, ‘What title is it? No, never seen that one!’ I had called all over the country, and finally I got frustrated and thought, ‘Well, I guess we can’t use it.’ My last call, though, was to Sony in New York City. I license stuff to them, so I asked them if there was any chance that the original metal master had survived. They have the rights to all the Okeh stuff, so my contact looked it up and said, ‘Yeah, we got that one.’ I wound up getting a direct transfer from the only surviving master. And that’s what you hear on the CD accompanying the 2014 calendar. Other than that, I do not know if a commercial copy even exists. I would buy it if one was ever found.”
Of course, now that Tefteller has made that admission, he knows that should a copy be rescued from the dustbin of time, it’s going to cost him a lot more. So why wasn’t this great song a hit? Tefteller can only guess.
“They had released a lot of records by the time that one came out. Maybe people were a little tired of their sound at that point; I don’t know. I think it’s a great one, too,” he said.
The Mississippi Sheiks were very popular in the late ’20s and early ’30s down South. Made up mostly of a musical family, the Chatmons of Jackson or Bolton (depending upon the source), patriarch Henderson Chatmon had been a musician during slavery times before his son Armenter carried on the tradition, performing as Bo Carter. His brothers, Lonnie and Sam, filtered in and out of the group, as did Walter Vinson and Charlie McCoy. Carter went on to enjoy a solo career, as did Sam Chatmon, who was rediscovered during the 1960s folk revival. The rest of the band went back to farming by the late 1930s.
Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon wrote The Sheiks’ biggest hit, “Sitting On Top Of The World.” Dozens of artists have covered it, including Cream, Bob Wills, Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, the Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra, Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and B.B. King. The song made the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2008.
As far as the subject of “Cracking Them Things” is concerned, consider us stumped. Tefteller’s best guess is peanuts. Yes, peanuts. “In the South, they had peanut stands on the side of the road and you could buy either regular roasted peanuts or boiled soft peanuts,” he said. They lyrics don’t give many clues.
The women went to the doctor, the doctor said
Crackin’ them things is gonna kill you dead
We’re gonna crack them things, we gonna crack them things
Women say doctor ain’t tell ya no lie
Crackin’ them things kill us, won’t you let us die
Considering the Sheiks’ penchant for double entendres, it’s almost hard to believe the lyrics were actually about peanuts. But that guess is as good as any — at least for now. GM