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Sleepy John Estes

by Ray Harmon

The year was 1961. A lot was about to happen in the world. We see Jack Kennedy on the horizon, burning his way toward supernova in his desire to change America. American pop music stood primed and ready to mainline the uncut condensation of British youth. Freedom of expression was soon to get a 1st amendment hotshot of its own. Everything that is Western culture was about to implode as the decade of the sixties gathered steam on its trip into history.

In Brownsville Tennessee (pop. 4711), a quiet hamlet on the way through a beautiful and poor rural countryside some 60 miles east of Memphis, filmmaker David Blumenthal, who was in the area shooting a documentary on black migration to the North, stumbled upon an old man that he believed to be a forgotten legend of American folk blues.

In 1934 John Adams Estes, know as "Sleepy" for his habit on nodding off at various times throughout the day, came to Chicago where he and long time musical partner Hammie Nixon recorded sides for the Decca label. "Drop Down Mama" and "Someday Baby" now classics of pre-war blues discographies. On other trips north John would record a handful of sides for the Columbia and Bluebird labels. Leaving a scattered remnant of oral tradition etched in the shellac of prewar American "race" music.

After these initial sojourns into recorded history Sleepy John dropped from sight for the next 20 years, working at various jobs throughout his life to earn his living. Street musician, hobo, medicine show performer with Dr. Grimm's Traveling Menagerie (selling swamproot and other potions and remedies), all the while keeping that vast storehouse of blues heritage deep within his heart. Having lost sight in one eye in his childhood, by 1940 the sight in his other eye had deteriorated leaving him totally blind for the rest of his life.

After Blumethal's discovery and some initial negotiations and tentative questions, John was brought to Chicago in the spring of 1962 by Delmark Records owner Bob Koester for a series of exploratory performances and recordings. Although he had not performed professionally for over 2 decades, John quickly felt at ease in his urban surroundings. Recording The Legend of Sleepy John Estes ( 602) for Delmark and performing at the University of Chicago Folk Festival alongside urban blues luminaries like Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters.

The news of these recordings was matched upon their release with the incredulous skepticism of blues critics who could or would not believe that Sleepy John was the John Estes of so many years ago. Although Big Joe Williams for him many critics continued to believe that John was an imposter. Due mostly to an erroneous tale told by Big Bill Broonzy in Broonzy's biography. But to those who knew his early recordings well, it could be none other than the man himself whose thin high voice captures with unequivocal certainty the heart of the rural black heritage of American culture.

On the strength of his first Delmark recording The Legend of... John was asked in 1964 by Horst Lippman and Frits Rau to take part in the American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. During this tour John would encounter a culture that greeted him and his music with an open appreciation unknown in his homeland. During his stops in Copenhagen and London John would lay down the tracks of what would later become his Live in Europe album (611)

Playing in the Great Halls and performance spaces in Europe, from the Berlin Sportspalast to Stockholm's Konserthuset (home of the Nobel Prize awards) John began to awaken from his lifelong slumber. Playing to crowds of European fans that seemed to really understand the nature of his blues. In his voice can be heard a man who was awake and alive more than he had ever been, but ultimately a man homesick for the culture that had shaped his music and his soul.

Over the years many have asked what it is that makes John's music so vital, so absolute in its sense of emptiness and desperation. His voice, filled to the brim by the lack-luster existence of life in a poor farming community, informs all that hear it of the barely suppressed passion in his words. His subjects the stuff of day to day living, whether in Brownsville, or later on the road of blues history.

John's music is that of an extraordinary man caught in a mundane world, but captivated by the very things that make this world mundane. John's lyrics fill a void left by the absence of those poor black farmers whose employment-seeking immigration northward snowballed into an exodus from the hills of the greater Mississippi/Tennessee farming communities. His lyrical style reflects the world in which he lived. Populated by those people who happened by in his daily life, John's songs reach out to the very population he chronicles in verse. Mechanic, lawyer, funeral director, a querulous inventory of complaints of the disinherited of this world they bridge the gap between rural delta farm culture and the exploits of urban factory workers and growing masses of unemployed blacks on Chicago's south side.

Through the eyes of John Estes we see into a world that we may otherwise never truly know. A world of country existence found only in the black culture lying in the shadows of the Mississippi River, the rural road of dirt poor farmers and their ilk like a history of the day-to-day across the geography of mid-century American south. This time and place captured in John's music was even then disappearing into the histories of the world. Generations of farmers leaving behind all they knew to seek better fortunes in the industrial north.

Found in Johns repertoire is a feeling of desperate hope born in a man who's life has lead him at this late date out of the cocoon of small town Tennessee and across thousands of miles of ground and air to play for the people of the world that pervades more and more in his later recordings. Flying to Osaka, Copenhagen, London, John's music captivated the world that encountered him on his journeys. Soon his lyrics begin to reflect these travels, adding to the catalog of human encounters that Sleepy John might unravel during a song, his music like a living autobiography of his life.

At 77 years old John had lived a lifespan equal to a half dozen of his contemporaries. As preparations were being made for a two-week tour of the German Rhineland John suffered a stroke in his Brownsville home. On Sunday June 12th, 1977 in a small Baptist church in Brownsville, TN John's family and friends gathered to pay their respects to the Tennessee blues poet. His passing mourned by the thousands of friends John had made throughout the world in the last years of his
extraordinary life.