Estes, Sleepy John
Sleepy John Estes
Country blues singer
Sleepy John Estes was one of the most individual of all recorded blues singers. He sang with phrasing that fairly dripped with expressiveness in a high crying tone that seemed often like he was speaking to the listener. The songs he wrote were well suited to this treatment, dealing frequently with his and his neighbors’ lives in Brownsville, Tennessee. Estes recorded from the late 1920s through the 1930s when he was one of the most popular artists on the Decca label, until 1941 when his brand of country blues, the down-home music of rural blacks, had become something of an anachronism. His discovery by the fold revivalists of the 1960s rescued him from poverty and gave him a second musical career that lasted nearly 15 years, during which he again became one of the most popular and best-loved bluesmen.
John Adam Estes was born near Ripley, Tennessee on January 25, 1904. His parents were sharecroppers who had sixteen children. Like his brothers and sisters, Estes grew up working his parents’ fields. There was little time for school. The most traumatic event of his childhood occurred during a baseball game when a stone struck him in the eye. He lost his vision completely in one eye and his other grew worse and worse until, by his fifties, he was left completely blind. Some say his poor eyesight gave him the appearance that led his friends to nickname him “Sleepy;” others say it was just his penchant for falling asleep on the bandstand during his gigs.
Estes’ father, who played guitar, was probably the first musician he ever heard. His father showed Estes a few chords, let him play his guitar occasionally, and taught him his first song, a ditty called “Chocolate Drop.” Before long Estes had built his own cigar-box instruments on which he practiced. In 1915 the Estes family moved to Brownsville where John hooked up with David Campbell, a local musician who showed him a little more about playing the guitar. Before long Estes was playing local fish fries, frolics, and house parties in the area. A decisive influence was another local musician, Hambone Willie Newbern. Newbern has won a minor place in blues history as the composer of “Roll and Tumble,” which became a blues standard eventually recorded by postwar Chicago artists such as Baby Face Leroy and Muddy Waters, and even the British rock group Cream. Newbern took Estes under his wing and before long they were performing together up and down the Mississippi, hitting points as far-flung as Como, Mississippi, down in the Delta.
Despite all his blues schooling, Estes’ guitar playing remained rudimentary at best. It never reached the expressiveness, invention, or power of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, or Bukka White. It was merely a convenient vehicle to accompany his singing. But it was his singing that propelled his career. Estes’ voice produced a high, plaintive cry that was ageless—it could have been a decrepit old man singing or a teen whose voice had not yet broken. It was a wail, full of pain and pathos. Its sound alone articulated everything the blues represented: loss, despair, loneliness, hurt.
By 1919 he was a popular performer around Brownsville. Reason enough, when his father passed away, for Estes to walk away from the farming he despised. Though Estes wasn’t a particularly strong instrumentalist, he managed to surround himself with others who were. He met James “Yank” Rachell around 1920 when he heard another musician was playing a frolic he had expected to be his. His intention was to run off the newcomer. Instead he liked what he heard, and he and Rachell teamed up and started playing square dances and house parties around town, for whites and blacks alike. Rachell had been playing guitar when Estes first heard him, but he soon switched to his second instrument, mandolin.
Later in the 1920s Estes met harmonica player Hammie Nixon, an important figure in the development of blues harmonica. Nixon learned to play from Noah Lewis, the first great modern harp player, and went on to teach James “Sonny Boy” Williamson, one of the first to adapt the harp to urban blues. Estes and Nixon traveled and played together occasionally in the early and mid-
Born John Adams Estes, January 25, 1904, in Ripley, TN; one of about sixteen children; parents were poor sharecroppers; married with five children; died June 5, 1977.
Learned guitar from street musicians in Brownsville, in particular David Campbell and Hambone Willie Newbern; played parties and other occasions in and around Brownsville with mandolinist James “Yank” Rachell, harmonica player Hammie Nixon, and guitarist Son Bonds; teamed up with Yank Rachell and Jab Jones as the Three J’s Jug Band around 1928; cut first records with Rachell and Jones for Victor, 1929; recorded for Decca and Bluebird, 1934, 1937, 1938, 1941; toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, 1939; recorded or auditioned for Sun Records, 1948; rediscovered by filmmaker David Blumenthal, 1962; played numerous concerts and festivals throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the 1964 Newport Folk Festival; appeared in two films, David Blumenthal’s Citizen South, Citizen North, 1962, and Samuel Charters’s The Blues, 1963; continued recording until his death in 1977.
1920s. Around the same time Estes met Son Bonds, a Brownsville guitarist. Estes would use these three men on virtually all of his records, up into the late 1960s in the case of Nixon and Rachell.
Every autumn Estes made it a point to play in Memphis, when the city was overflowing with money from the harvest. On one trip, he and Rachell teamed up with Jab Jones, an occasional member of the Memphis Jug Band, to cash themselves in on the jug band fad. They formed the Three J’s Jug Band, with Estes singing and playing guitar, Rachell on mandolin, and Jones blowing jug. They were good enough to catch the attention of Jim Jackson, one of the most popular musicians in Memphis. Jackson offered to act as their agent around Memphis. For reasons known only to them—perhaps they were worried that Jackson would cheat them—they refused the offer, preferring to fend for themselves.
When the jug craze petered out toward the end of the 1920s, Jones switched back to his first instrument, piano. That was how they recorded at Estes’ first session in 1929 with the Victor label. The music they made is some of the most unique and interesting in country blues. Jones’ deft piano provided the foundation of the music. Rachell soared above on his mandolin, with Estes in between with his keening voice and solid double-time strumming on guitar. It was, in the words of Don Kent’s liner notes to I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More, “a session of masterpieces.” It produced a cover of a blues chestnut, “Milk Cow Blues,” but Estes version never got around to mentioning the cow! It produced an Estes original, “Street Car Blues,” possibly the only blues ever written on the subject. Estes’ version of Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble,” entitled “The Girl I Love She Got Long Curly Hair,” was Estes’ first single and turned out to be one of his most popular as well. The three musicians were reportedly paid $300 each for the session, a royal sum at the time for most any musician. They pocketed the cash and headed straight to the notorious river town, West Helena, Arkansas, where they quickly squandered all of it on drinking, gambling, and general carousing. Rachell had to pawn his watch to get back to Brownsville.
Estes’ records were popular and their sales were good, at least until the Depression deepened and the poor could no longer afford luxuries like phonograph records. Estes made his base in Brownsville where he continued to live and perform, while making regular sorties into Arkansas and Missouri. He went up to Chicago occasionally as well and even claimed to have played for gangster Al Capone, who Estes said was crazy about blues. Despite the popularity of his 1929 records, Estes was not able to record again during the first three years of the 1930s. When he heard that Nixon and Son Bonds had just returned from recording in Chicago, he persuaded Nixon to return to the Windy City and set up a session for him. Finally, in 1934 Estes returned to the studio with Hammie Nixon to record for the Decca label. At the session Estes cut “Someday Baby” and “Drop Down Mama,” songs that went on to become blues standards, recorded by the likes of Big Joe Williams, Big Maceo, Big Boy Crudup, and Muddy Waters.
After the 1934 session Estes moved to Chicago where he lived for most of the 1930s. His popularity grew. In 1937 his photo graced the cover of Decca’s race record catalog. At his next sessions Estes’ song-writing style, in which he would sing directly of his own life and that of his Brownsville friends and neighbors, began to take shape. In 1937 he recorded “Floating Bridge,” about being swept off a bridge by a raging river and rescued at the last minute by Hammie Nixon. In 1938 he wrote “Fire Department Blues” about his neighbor Martha Hardin. “She’s a hard-working woman, her salary is very small/Then when she pay up her house rent, that don’t leave anything for insurance at all/Now I wrote Martha a letter, five days later it returned back to me/You know little Martha’s house done burned down, she done moved over Bedford Street.”
His last session in 1941 saw his musical chronicle of Brownsville in full flower. He sang about a local lawyer, Mr. Clark, who worked as hard for the poor who couldn’t pay as much as for the rich who could. He sang about little Laura whose sexual fantasies had a way of all coming true. And he sang about how machines were pushing sharecroppers off the land around town.
That session was Estes’ last for some 20 years. Times were changing, not only down on the farm, but in music too. By the 1940s Estes was a vestige of a music—the pure country blues—that had all but died out and been replaced by more sophisticated blues, the so-called “urban blues.” Estes disappeared back down into Tennessee. He and Hammie Nixon reportedly made a trip to Memphis to record for Sam Phillips Sun label in 1948, but little came of it.
Sleepy John Estes was all but forgotten until the folk revivalists of the 1950s set out to track down as many of the old recording artists as they could find. Unfortunately, inaccurate rumors about Estes abounded. In his biography, Big Bill Blues, Big Bill Broonzy wrote that as a child he had seen Estes play at a railroad camp. Estes was 20 years older than he was, Broonzy wrote, and long dead. Imagine the surprise when filmmaker David Blumenthal finally found Estes, tracked down on a tip from Big Joe Williams via Memphis Slim. He looked like a man in his seventies, but he was only 58—eleven years younger than Broonzy! He was found in a ramshackle shack on an abandoned farm with his wife and five children, “living in harsh poverty that was deeply disturbing to see,” wrote Samuel Charters in Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain.
Estes’ career somehow picked up where it had left off. Producer Bob Koester took over, setting up appearances at festivals. The most important was the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, when he was reintroduced to the world. He went on to tour Europe twice in 1964 and 1968 with the American Folk Blues Festival. He was a celebrated guest at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. And in November, 1974 he became the first country bluesman to perform in Japan. Estes made records regularly, up to his death practically, the best being three he did for the Delmark label in Chicago. He frequently worked with his old partners, Yank Rachell and Hammie Nixon, in the 1960s. Sleepy John Estes died on June 5, 1977.
I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More, Yazoo.
First Recordings, JSP.
1935-1938, Black & Blue.
The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, Delmark.
Broke & Hungry, Delmark.
Brownsville Blues, Delmark.
Charters, Samuel, Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain, Oak Publications, 1977.
Cohn, Lawrence, editor, Nothing But The Blues, Abbeville Press, 1993.
Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington House, 1979.
Additional information provided by liner notes from Kent, Don, I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More.
—Gerald E. Brennan
Estes, Sleepy John 1899–1977
Sleepy John Estes 1899–1977
Blues vocalist, guitarist
A highly distinctive voice within the tradition of southern country blues, Sleepy John Estes was among the most popular blues artists who recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. He enjoyed a second flowering of his career as a result of the folk and blues revivals of the 1960s. While not a guitar virtuoso or a master of rhythmic tension like some of his contemporaries, Estes stands out in the history of early blues for a number of reasons. Mostly it was the resonant melancholy of his voice; for the unusually specific pictures painted by the lyrics of some of his songs; and for the mixture of blues and jug band music heard on many of his recordings.
John Adam Estes was born in Ripley in western Tennessee on January 25, 1899; he was one of sixteen children of sharecropper parents and grew up doing farm work. As a child Estes was blinded in one eye by a stone that hit his face during a baseball game. According to some accounts his nickname “Sleepy John” referred to the droopy eye that resulted from this accident, while others attribute it to occasional narcolepsy-like blackouts caused by a recurrent blood-pressure disorder. As an adult Estes was known to fall asleep on the bandstand during performances.
As a young man Estes received a musical education from two sources: from his father, who was a guitarist, and from his experiences on a railroad work crew. He had been picked for the railroad job because his piercing voice was well-suited to leading his co-workers in work songs. By his teenage years Estes was playing house parties and fish fries around Brownsville, Tennessee, where his family had moved in 1915.
The country blues is sometimes thought of as a solo music, but Estes worked mostly with small ensembles, continuing to perform with the same musicians for years after he had first made a connection with them. An integral part of his sound was the mandolin playing of James “Yank” Rachell, whom he met around 1920. Later Estes joined forces with harmonica player Hammie Nixon, who also played the jug—a liquor jug that was the centerpiece of the “jug band,” a street corner ensemble that was popular in the nearby big city of Memphis. Sometimes in combination with guitarist Son Bonds or jug player Jab Jones, Estes made annual trips to Memphis during the cash-rich fall harvest period, performing for white audiences as well as black.
At a Glance …
Born John Adam Estes in Ripley, Tennessee, January 25, 1904; died June 5, 1977. Married; five children.
Career: Blues guitarist vocalist, and composer, Played for parties in and around Brownsville, 1910s; worked with mandolinist “Yank” Rachell, harmonica player Hammie Nixon; performed and recorded with Three Js Jug Band, ca. 1928; recorded for Victor with Rachell and Nixon, 1929; numerous recordings of original material for Decca and Bluebird labels, late 1930s and early 1940s; pioneered blues lyric style that depicted actual persons and events; rediscovered, 1962; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1964; toured Europe; enjoyed 15-year career during blues revival until his death.
In 1929 Estes, together with Rachell on mandolin and Jones on piano, made his first recordings; the Victor label is said to have paid them the unusually generous sum of $300 per musician, which would suggest how popular Estes had become in the Memphis area. These recordings showed how Estes created a unique sound balanced between country and city. Estes himself, with his predominantly rhythmic guitar style and his powerful holler-like vocals, drew on early blues traditions and on the field hollers and work songs that underlay them. But the music of the group as a whole often had a relaxed swing feel that served as a foil for Estes’s lowdown sound.
The Depression kept Estes out of the recording studio for a time, but he recorded again, this time for the Decca label, in 1934. These sessions included the blues standard “Drop Down Mama” and other songs that became well known to the musicians in whose hands the new Chicago blues style was taking shape. Estes himself moved to Chicago that year and remained there for much of the 1930s. He claimed to have performed for the gangster Al Capone.
In the late 1930s Estes added an even more distinctive element to his music: the proportion of original compositions in his output increased, and with it came a new kind of blues song. Whereas the majority of blues songs speak of trouble, love, or fun in an abstract way, many of the most famous Sleepy John Estes recordings, such as “Lawyer Clark Blues,” contain vivid images of actual individuals that Estes knew in Brownsville. Other recordings, such as “Stone Blind” (Estes lost sight in his other eye as he got older), drew on the musician’s own life. Such songs are powerful documents of life in a poor small-town black community; they recorded wider social developments, such as the mechanization of southern agriculture that forced sharecroppers to look for work in the factories of the North.
In the early 1940s Estes temporarily retired from music due to a combination of factors. The curtailing of recording activity during World War II put an end to his recording career, and the brash, electronic sounds of Chicago blues were replacing the more personal southern country style. Completely blind by 1950, Estes slipped deeper into poverty. He appeared on a few recordings made by Hammie Nixon and may have had contact with the Sun label helmed by Memphis producer Sam Phillips, but for 20 years there was no musical niche that he could fit into.
That changed in 1962, thanks to a revival of traditional folk and blues music which had taken root on college campuses and spread to a wider public. After a search through the back roads of the South, filmmaker David Blumenthal found Estes scratching out a living on a deserted farm with his wife and five children. Estes spoke about his experiences in Blumenthal’s documentary, Citizen South, Citizen North, made that year. Blues enthusiasts were shocked at the conditions in which Estes was living, but his fortunes took a turn for the better as he began to appear at blues and folk festivals. The most famous of these was the Newport Folk Festival, held in Rhode Island in 1964; that appearance made Estes an icon of the blues revival and placed his music before many aspiring young rock musicians.
These appearances also led to a modest revival of Estes’s own recording career; still working with Nixon and Yank Rachell, he recorded several albums for Chicago’s Delmark label beginning with The Legend of Sleepy John Estes in 1962. Estes toured until the end of his life, traveling to Europe in 1964 and 1968 and to Japan (the first American blues performer to do so) in 1974. Sleepy John Estes died on June 5, 1977, in Brownsville. The money he had made during the second wind of his career probably prolonged his old age but never made him well-off; he died in a shotgun shack, and blues enthusiasts had to take up a collection to pay for his funeral.
The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, Delmark, 1962.
Broke and Hungry, Delmark, 1963.
In Europe, Delmark, 1966.
Brownsville Blues, Delmark, 1969.
Down South Blues, MCA, 1970 (compilation of 1930s material).
Complete Works, vols. 1 & 2, Document (Austria), 1990.
I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More: Sleepy John Estes, 1929–1940, Yazoo, 1992.
The Essential Sleepy John Estes, Classic Blues, 2001.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 25, Gale Group, 1999.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., The All Music Guide to the Blues, 2nd ed., Matrix Software, 1999.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Arlington, 1979.
Oliver, Paul, Max Harrison, and William Bolcom, The New Grove Gospel, Blues, and Jazz, Macmillan, 1986.
—James M. Manheim