Sleepy John Estes
Sleepy John Estes
In the blues it is difficult to separate fact from legend. The story of John Adam Estes has especially been one clothed in the reach trapings of legend. Big Bill Broonzy 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 tracklaying 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. The improbability of Estes' being alive kept folk researchers like Sam Charters, Alan Lomax and Fred Ramsey from looking for him. But the legend has come to life. John Estes is able to sing as well as ever, still writing blues poetry, and playing better guitar than in former years. John Adam Estes was born in Lowry County, Tennessee, in 1904. At an early age he lost the sight of one eye when a friend threw a rock at him during a baseball game. In 1929 he was playing on a Memphis street-corner teamed with mandolinist Yank Rachel when he was approached by a Victor talent scout and made his first records. A few years later, learning that two friends were recording for Decca, John hopped a fright to Chicago and recorded 6 sides that established him as one of that label's most important rural blues artists. After six years with Decca, John switched to Bluebird for 1941. Shellac rationing and the 1942-43 recording ban virtually ended "race" recording and Estes dropped from 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 casually mentioned his find to Delmar Records apd Estes was brought to Chicago for an exploratory recording session. John returned to Brownsville after some personal appearances in the Chicago area, to return in a few weeks with his harmonica accomponist of some 30-odd years, Hammie Nixon. The future looks promising. Other recordings are planned and, as his Delmar records get around, he is in ever increasing demand for personal appearances.
Since his rediscovery John has appeared in concert at the following universities: Purdue, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Roosevelt, Bucknell, Knox Colleqe, Lake Forest Academy, Westminster College, Yale and Cornell University. Sleepy John Estes sings with a depth of feeling and an emotional thrust that can only be described as "crying the blues". The sob in his throat is not a clever stage mannerism. His singing has the honesty and straight forward integrity of the simple rural life John has lived. The influence of John's style matches the wide circulation of his compositions. Even a pop-rock singer like Elvis Presley developed his style under the influence of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, an Estes disciple. Big Joe, Big Bill and many others have acknowledged their debt to Sleepy John. When Sleepy John is singing he brings the down-to-earth country Blues to life, as it can be heard today only occasionally. His singing has the ring of actual reality and deep truth. He is a real poet, although he is not aware of it. To him, it is a simple and natural thing to sing the blues - his own blues.