(1962 'Delmark') (35:53/12)
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