“Cream’s Cover of ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ by Howlin’ Wolf is a Good Litmus Test for Old vs. New Music Taste”

There are things the new generation does that are just different. Let’s face it. They’d be loath before the idea of going into a Pizza Hut, ordering, and then sitting there for 10 minutes without a smart phone, while the stuff’s getting cooked. This would be my comfort zone, as it were. 

Recently, anyway, this past fall, I had what was probably a job with the greatest amount of people 15 to 20 years younger than me of any I’ve ever had. And really, I got along with all of them, pretty well. There were obviously annoyances — the music is pretty much all booty-related (to jibe well with the dress of the women, at that). And yeah — I think they just like everything fast. 

I could almost feel myself getting sucked into their mindset the last time I listened to “Sitting on Top of the World”; Cream’s masterful cover of an otherwise fairly pedestrian tune by Chicago Blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. I mean, this sucker is just SLOW. That’s all there is to it. 

But in its andante pace lies a world of feeling, a world of purpose, and, most importantly, abundant potential for some of the best guitar soloing the world has ever heard. Actually, on this track, which originally springs from Wheels of Fire and then made what I think was a key bastion of The Very Best of Cream, Eric Clapton in my opinion one-ups even Jimi Hendrix on the typically venerated Live at Winterland version of “Red House”; which to me pales in comparison to the studio version on Are You Experienced? and just falters into ostentatious buffoonery, in its extra-slow pace. 

“Sitting on Top of the World” was made to be played slow and swampy, with the deliberate tempo the band assumes only serving to confirm their singular vantage point they take on the song. The vibe, in the end, is completely surreal, as the version’s signatures slowness, in theory, brings forth a dark, ominous sense of the troubled or psychotic, as, then, the lyrics adhere simply to the original, basic interface of “She’s gone / But I don’t worry / I’m sitting on top of the world”. Clapton’s guitar soloing, in addition, has this strange way of fusing cathartic, virtuosic mourning (it’s almost like his guitar is gently weeping, on this cut, or boisterously weeping, perhaps) with the prevailing mantra of victory and affirmation, “sitting on top of the world.” There will never be another song like Cream’s version of this old standard, anyway, if only because of how impossible it is to take such technical prowess and funnel it through such a defiantly simple, even austere lyrical statement, in an ironic stew of indescribable emotion. 


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