Contained within the triangle between Memphis, Dyersburg and Jackson, TN, is the rural area where John Adam Estes (January 25, 1904  – June 5, 1977) was born to a sharecropping family. (Sharecropping was a prevalent system of subsistence-level tenant farming for poor people in the South after the Civil War.) At age six, he lost sight in one eye to a rock thrown by a playmate. His guitar-playing father moved the family from Ripley to Brownsville in 1915. It was there that young Sleepy John Estes made crude guitars out of cigar boxes and began performing for local and family functions. Brownsville also yielded musical compatriots— mandolinist James “Yank” Rachell, “Hambone” Willie Newbern and harmonica-playing Hammie Nixon— with whom Estes would perform for more than fifty years.

youtube: Drop Down Mama

Estes worked in cotton fields, as a leader for a railroad maintenance crew, and played blues music at house parties, picnics and on the streets. Garnering his nickname from a tendency to doze off, he would occasionally hop a freight train and live the hobo life with his musical friends. A Beale Street jug band was formed in the 1920s with James Rachell and Jab Jones called the Three J’s Jug Band, and Sleepy John became a contemporary of Furry Lewis, Son House and Gus Cannon. It was in Memphis that he was first recorded by the Victor Record Company. He subsequently recorded for Decca, Bluebird, Champion, and Sun Records.

When work in Memphis dried up in the 1930s, Estes and Hammie Nixon traveled north to Paducah, KY and eventually to Chicago— playing lumber camps, on the streets and at parties. In Chicago, they associated with Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. Decca brought Estes to New York in the late ’30s where he was paired with the younger guitarist, Robert Nighthawk. He also recorded some jug band sides in the old Memphis style as The Delta Boys and traveled with Dr. Grimm’s Traveling Menagerie medicine show.

Sleepy John Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in the 1940s and gradually became totally blind by the ’50s. He was rediscovered in the 1960s by the blues revivalists, although some doubted his identity due to Big Bill Broonzy mistakenly informing his biographer that Estes had died. He returned to performing with Hammie Nixon and toured Europe in 1964 with the American Folk Blues Festival, finding greater appreciation there than in his homeland.

Estes had a mournful, plaintive quality to his singing that was complimented by Nixon’s harmonica. The subject matter of his songs was always rooted in his personal experience or people he knew: a mechanic, a local lawyer, rural farming, urban factory workers or hopping a freight. His music often contained informed and personal social commentary and criticism of the plight of African-Americans during the Depression. Sleepy John Estes died of a stroke in Brownsville, TN on June 5, 1977. His gravestone reads: “Ain’t goin’ to worry Poor John’s mind anymore”.

youtube: ‪Special Agent Blues‬

image credits: Tom Copi; U.S. National Park Service; American Folk Blues Festival 1964

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s