Posts Tagged ‘Sleepy John Estes’

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

During the early to mid-20th century, many African-Americans began to leave the impoverished and oppressive environment of Mississippi to find work in the factories of larger cities to the north. Among their numbers were some of the most seminal blues musicians of all time. Delta blues, Memphis blues and Chicago blues music constitute such an expansive subject that it would need a separate and extensive blog of its own. My intent is to highlight the effect that blues from the Mississippi delta had on the Memphis music scene— and that influence is inestimable. Memphis is the cap on the top of the Mississippi delta region and, because of its proximity, blues musicians streamed through it on their way to somewhere else, migrated there and stayed, or pilgrimaged to Beale Street in some consistent fashion.

youtube: ‪Big Bill Broonzy‬

youtube: ‪Howlin’ Wolf‬

Among the blues musicians who left for Chicago and other points were: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Alberta Hunter, J.B. Lenoir, Magic Slim, Jimmy Reed and his guitarist Eddie Taylor, Big Joe Williams, Otis Rush, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Little Milton, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Charlie Musselwhite and Bo Diddley. Some musicians moved from Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas to Chicago— like Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Parker, Robert Junior Lockwood, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, and Maurice & Verdine White. They created a more electrified, band-oriented version of the blues. Among the Mississippi blues musicians who mostly stayed in the delta and hill country (or kept their rural style) and impacted the Memphis scene were: Robert Johnson, Willie Brown, Charley Patton, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sam Chatmon and the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner and R. L. Burnside— as well as others.

The blues musicians who were homegrown in Memphis, or migrated and stayed there, or made a larger mark in their careers by recording in the Bluff City, were (among others): Lillie Mae Glover (aka Ma Rainey II), Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), Frank Stokes, Willie Nix, Little Laura Dukes, John “Piano Red ” Williams, Mose Vinson, Rosco Gordon (and his “Rosco’s Rhythm”), Robert Wilkins, Joe Hill Louis, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis, Bobby “Blue” Bland, perhaps Bukka White and Albert King, and, of course, B. B. King. In the same sense that music developed in New Orleans of a certain fashion due to its geographical location and cultural influences, Memphis was destined to be impacted by Mississippi Delta Blues. It’s musical colors and flavors are the consistent threads that weave the range of Memphis’ musical styles into a cohesive and distinctive fabric.

youtube: Rufus Thomas on the Blues‬‬

David “Honeyboy” Edwards once said, “Something in the blues hits a lot of people because there’s some verse in there, somebody done done it. It’s just, the blues are like a story.”

youtube: ‪Robert Johnson‬‬

youtube: ‪‪‪Frank Stokes‬

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image credits: Graphic Maps; Chester Burnett; Stephen LaVere; Jorgen Angel