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Sleepy John Estes: The Legend Of
The history of the blues has been so vaguely and haphazardly set down that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from legend. In the veiled and colorful world of the blues-singer this is true to such an extent that many bluesmen extend poetic license from their song lyrics into their everyday life. The story of John Adam Estes has especially been one clothed in the rich trappings of legend.
For years, students of jazz and folk music have been listening to Sleepy John Estes records in awe of his unique singing style. They often were willing to pay premium prices for his old recordings on the Victor, Champion, Decca and Bluebird labels at a time when the only serious attention paid blues records was accorded those that featured accompaniments by noted jazz artists.
When Big Bill Broonzy was interviewed by Yannick Bruynoghe for the book Big Bill's Blues (Grove Press, New York), he recalled running away from home 'about 1912' to work on the railroad just to hear John Estes howling the songs that lightened the workload of the sweating track-laying gangs. Broonzy's reckoning of Estes' age would credit the singer with more than 90 years, and this was later 'confirmed' by Big Joe Williams and other elder bluesmen.
When Big Joe informed me that Estes was still living on the outskirts of Brownsville, Tennessee, I naturally was skeptical. No doubt, the improbability of Estes' being alive so many years after the alleged first brush with Broonzy kept folk researchers Sam Charters, Alan Lomax and Fred Ramsey, among others, from looking for him. Indeed, the legend was so strong that when the good news of the rediscovery of Sleepy John Estes was circulated incredulous letters arrived at Delmark's offices from blues fans around the world. One English blues fan even registered his disbelief in print.
But the legend has come to life. John Estes is not a forgotten man of the past - not a name on vintage record labels, but a flesh-and-blood reality still able to sing as well as ever, still writing blues poetry, and playing better guitar than in former years.
A full biography of Sleepy John Estes cannot be presented here but his own lyric 'I was born in Lowry County--Schooled in Winfield Lane' tells part of the story. The birth-year is 1904 so John is only 58 years of age today. At an early age John lost the sight of his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him during a baseball game. Perhaps this helped turn young Estes to music. At any rate, in 1929 he teamed with mandolinist Yank Rachel and was playing on a Memphis street-corner when he was approached by a Victor talent scout and cut his first recordings at the Hotel Peabody. Another session followed in 1930. The records were reasonably successful, but the depression brought location recording to an end.
A few years later John learned that two friends had recorded for the 'new' Decca label. He hopped a freight to Chicago and recorded six sides that established him as one of Decca's most important country blues artists. After six years with Decca, John switched to Bluebird for his last shellac recordings in 1941. Besides his own vocals, John accompanied blues-singers Charlie Pickett, Son Bonds, Lee Brown, and teamed with Bonds to form the Delta Boys. Shellac rationing and the 1942-43 recording ban virtually ended 'race' recording and Estes dropped out of sight In 1950, John was living in Memphis when he lost the sight of his remaining eye. He moved back to Brownsville and married. He now has five children and was living in an abandoned sharecropper's shack near Brownsville when Chicagoan David Blumenthal found him while photographing a documentary film Citizen South--Citizen North (Blumenthal had heard about Estes from Memphis Slim who, in turn, had heard of John's whereabouts from Big Joe Williams.) Blumenthal casually mentioned his find to Delmark Records and Estes was brought to Chicago for an exploratory recording session via concerts at Westminster College, the University of Illinois and Purdue University Ironically, John had been to Chicago only a few moments when he discovered that his brother Sam worked at a clothing store next door to Seymour's Jazz Record Mart where Delmark had its offices John returned to Brownsville after some personal appearances in the Chicago area, to return in a few weeks with his harmonica accompanist of some 30-odd years, Hammie Nixon. Bassist Ed Wilkinson was added for the next recording session at the Women's Club Hall of Kilbourne Avenue in Milwaukee. Knocky Parker, who had just finished an album, sat in with the bluesmen while microphones were being re-arranged. The informal grouping sounded so good that it was decided to use Knocky on one of the two dates scheduled Several blues fans, listening to the tapes, have mistaken our English professor's playing for various veteran bluesmen. His piano plays a role similar to that of Yank Rachel's mandolin on the early Victors.
Sleepy John Estes sings with a depth of feeling and emotional thrust that can only be described, as Big Bill did, as 'crying the blues.' While singing, John recalls the personal experiences that are mirrored in his lyrics, which are usually of his own composition.
The sob in his throat is not a clever stage mannerism. His singing has all the honesty and straight forward integrity of the simple rural life John has lived.
And yet, John's singing--powerful as it is--is only one facet of his talent. A great many bluesmen are considered important on the basis of one great song. Blues like Key To The Highway and Going Down Slow are great enough to establish their writers as exceptional poets of the blues. But John Estes' repertoire is made up almost entirely of his own compositions. They range far and wide: from the mad woman stuff from which life and so many blues are made. and everyday events in Brownsville, to a concern with world events and the cosmology of the universe. Two of his greatest blues: Drop Down Mama and Someday Baby are sung by nearly every bluesmen worthy of the name. Slight variants of these tunes helped to make other bluesmen famous. Rats In My Kitchen is an example of John's most recent work and proves him to be today at the height of his compositional powers and a match for any blues lyricist in history.
For this album, John has recorded several tunes from previous sessions, including his first date with Hammie Nixon in 1934: The new version of Milk Cow Blues is somewhat different from both the Victor version and the later Kokomo Arnold variant. Diving Duck, also recorded for Victor was John's first hit, it was later recorded for the Library of Congress Folksong Archives by Jelly Roll Morton. Death Valley is a variant of a tune by Big Boy Crudup. Someday Baby is known to a more recent generation through the Big Maceo and Muddy Waters versions. Drop Down Mama has also been recorded My Mama Don't Allow Me to Boogie Woogie All Night Long by Big Joe Williams and Big Boy Crudup, and Boogie Chillin' by John Lee Hooker. Stop That Thing is a pleasant romp with medicine-show overtones. Married Woman Blues sounds more modern here than its 1934 origin would indicate Who's Been Tellin' You is notable for its folk humored flavor. Down South Blues reeks of the poverty that has continued for both Black and poor Whites in the South despite changes for the better in the national economy since 1934. I'd Been Well-Warned is a comparatively recent Estes original that springs from his own experience, and the spiritual-based melody line bespeaks a neo-religious philosophy. You Got To Go disproves the theory that blues must concern themselves almost exclusively with the love/sex theme. Its patriotic but definitely anti-war lyric is peculiarly effective, lacking the histrionics of some of the 'arty' anti-war tunes. Rats In My Kitchen has already touched hundreds with its laughing-just-to keep-from-crying message from poverty. It is our favorite and proves that John Estes, at 58, is still at the peak of his creative powers
--Bob Koester, 1962
Sleepy John Estes died December 1, 1977 at 77
Article properties: Sleepy John Estes: The Legend Of
|Estes, Sleepy John - The Legend Of CD 1|
|01||Rats In My Kitchen||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|02||Someday Baby Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|03||Stop That Thing||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|04||Divin' Duck Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|05||Death Valley Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|06||Married Woman Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|07||Down South Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|08||Who's Been Telling You, Buddy Brown Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|09||Drop Down Mama||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|10||You Got To Go||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|11||Milk Cow Blues||Sleepy John Estes|| |
|12||I'd Been Well Warned||Sleepy John Estes|| |
Born in Ripley, Tennessee in 1904 John Estes lived most of his life in Brownsville, Tennessee. He did his first recordings for Victor in 1929 and 1930, a career interrupted by the great depression. When the jukebox rejuvenated the record business, he was picked up by Decca in 1935. Blues artists who wrote their own songs were the rule rather than the exception in those days and his discs sold well enough that he stayed with Decca for the next five years. He even made a trip to New York during the Chicago recording ban of 1938. But on one of those trips, having cashed in their train tickets from Dec., he and harp player Hammie Nixon hoboed on a train where John lost his last eye to total blindness in a gravel car when a piece of grav-el flew up and hit him in the eye.
Under the aegis of publisher Lester Melrose John moved to Bluebird for a session in 1941, a new career path interrupted by World War 11 and the Petrillo recording ban. No one could call John's songs simple, but he was an uncomplicated man. He loved his blues, his booze and his family. Wishing to put Hammie Nixon's name on the Decca labels, he gave him song credit (although John kept the $10 royalty buyout payment.) John was not a roving song collector like Big Joe Williams. He wrote in Brownsville or on occasional trips to nearby Memphis, and often about the people and places of his hometown. Those are real people and places in the songs that rise above the usual insight-ful generalizations about life and love. Brownsville and neighboring towns gave the world more bluesmen than you might expect. Mandolinist and fellow Victor, Bluebird and Delmark artist Yank Rachell and John's faithful companion Hammie Nixon, as well as Son Bonds whose Decca/Champion recording session led to John's Decca stint, were Brownsvillians.
Nearby towns gave us Kids Spoons and John Lee Williamson, aka Sonny Boy I. After the war, the blues business, which had involved jazz-influenced trumpet-sax band accompaniments, soon made room for the more down home electric blues and, with a few exceptions, the old country blues was out of the R&B picture. However, John did record for the legendary Sun label although the results only appeared years after Delmark's first albums. A filmmaker had been to Brownsville for the first chapter of a production to be titled Citizen South-Citizen North when we met him at the Jazz Record Mart where he spoke with Joe Segal about filming a jazz artist at one of his Sutherland Hotel Jazz Showcase sessions. So I went to Brownsville to bring John back to Chicago for recording sessions. He told us about Hammie's presence in Brownsville and Yank's in Indianapolis and we eventually included them.
On our return trip to Chicago John asked to go to 437 South Wabash where his brother worked. That was next door to Jazz Record Mart and I had met his brother, who was older than John, not realizing of course who he was. In fact, one day I almost called the brother "Sleepy John" but decided that would be unkind. Had I been my usual crass self, we might have found John before we did. I should mention that blues writer and pro-ducer George Mitchell of Atlanta, GA, who later worked at the Jazz Record Mart, appar-ently met Sleepy John before I did. The young white audience for blues was only beginning to build in the early 60s but John was able to find some work including a European tour with the American Folk Blues Festival and an appearance at the Newport Folk and Ann Arbor Blues Festivals. I judge any blues artist by his voice and his lyrics.
I am not a guitarist. But at least one of John's guitar patterns was adopted by Big Bill Broonzy and in a 1998 Delta blues compila-tion, a sadly uncredited writer states that "his style of accompaniment, although subtle in its approach ...became the foundation for Texas and Chicago blues style." This author goes on to cite Jimmy Reed, Lightnin' Hopkins, Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. -Bob Koester, July, 2008
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