Complete Recorded Works (1929-1941)
Sleepy John Estes
101. The girl I love, she got long curly hair
102. Broken-hearted, ragged and dirty too
103. Divin` duck blues
James 'Yank' Rachel
104. Little Sarah
Sleepy John Estes
105. Black mattie blues
James 'Yank' Rachel
106. T-bone steak blues
Sleepy John Estes
107. Milk cow blues
108. Street car blues
James 'Yank' Rachel
109. Expressman blues
Sleepy John Estes
110. Whatcha doin`?
111. Poor John blues
112. Stack o` dollars
113. My black gal blues
114. Sweet mama (James Yank Rachel, vocal)
115. Down south blues
116. Stop that thing
117. Someday baby blues
118. Who`s been telling you Buddy Brown blues?
119. Married woman blues
120. Drop down mama
121. Government money
122. I wanta tear it all the time
123. Vernita blues
124. I ain`t gonna be worried no more
Vol 2 1937 - 1941
Sleepy John Estes
201. Floating bridge
202. Need more blues
203. Jack and Jill blues
204. Poor man`s friend (T model)
205. Hobo jungle blues
206. Airplane blues
207. Everybody oughta make a change
208. Liquor store blues
209. Easin` back to Tennessee
210. Fire department blues (Martha Hardin)
211. Clean up at home
212. New someday baby
213. Brownsville blues
214. Special agent (Railroad police blues)
215. Mailman blues
216. Time is drawing near
217. Mary come on home
218. Jailhouse blues
219. Tell me how about it (Mr Tom's blues)
The Delta Boys
220. Drop down (I don't feel welcome here)
221. Don't you want to know
222. You shouldn't do that
223. When the saints go marching in
Sleepy John Estes
224. Lawyer clark blues
225. Little Laura blues
226. Working Man Blues
Sleepy John Estes Vol 1 24th September 1929 to 2nd August 1937
Sleepy John Estes, vocal, guitar.
Includes: Johnny Hardge, piano; James Yank Rachel, mandolin; Jab Jones, piano, Tee harmonica; Hammie Nixon, harmonica.
Sleepy John Estes Volume 2 (2nd August to 24th September 1941)
Sleepy John Estes, vocal, guitar.
With contributions by; Hammie Nixon, harmonica; Charlie Pickett, guitar; Robert (Nighthawk) Lee McCoy, harmonica, Son Bonds, vocal, kazoo, guitar; Raymond Thomas, imitation bass, vocal; and others...
John Norris of Jazz Beat Magazine once wrote of Sleepy John Estes .The emotional impact of his singing is overwhelming and when he really gets wound up in his music he sings with great power. Sleepy John Estes was in many ways the personification of the blues. His pleading vocals were always on the point disintegrating into a cry either of help or of joy. His guitar playing, which could either be used as a thumping rhythm or as a remarkable, strong and precise lead, were a direct line to the life of poverty that he lived and his experiences in the Brownsville, Tennessee where he was born and where he died. This is the first of two volumes covering Sleepy John Estes early and, arguably, his best recordings, which he made between 1929 and 1941 before he slipped into obscurity until being re-discovered during the great blues revival of the 1960s.
These recordings show John as an innovator and like Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee) and Big Bill Broonzy he was willing and able to move on with the times, bringing his music from the country and into the city (Chicago). Like Big Joe, Sleepy John was as comfortable playing with a band as he was playing solo. The recordings on Volume One have the feel of a string band with the ever present James Yank Rachel on mandolin. Also present on several tracks are Jab Jones playing stomping barrelhouse. piano and Hammie Nixon on harmonica. Elsewhere harmonica is provided by the mysterious Tee.
The total sound of these early sides is extraordinary. When Estes and his band hit an up-tempo piece, as on Cow Cow Blues or Watcha Doin?, the effect is both precarious and thrilling at the same time. In among the slow blues such as autobiographical Street Car Blues and Poor John Blues are the stomping Stop That Thing and I Want To Tear It Down. The success of another up-beat number, Drop Down Mamma lead to its re-issue by public demand on 78 in Britain during the 1940s. This is low down blues and good time music at their best.
The second cd begins with Sleepy John Este's account of how he came close to drowning when a car he was riding in skidded off a temporary bridge. It's typical of the man, in that it deals with events and people from his immediate experience and in its constricted, emotional singing, matched by Hammie Nixon's melancholy harmonica. It's typical also in the element of paradox involved; this terrifying experience is recounted to the tune of Careless Love (a tune he later used to sing about the fact that he'd gone "Stone Blind"!)
John Norris of 'Jazz Beat Magazine' once wrote of Sleepy John Estes "The emotional impact of his singing is overwhelming and when he really gets wound up in his music he sings with great power."
Sleepy John Estes was in many ways the personification of the blues. His pleading vocals were always on the point of disintegrating into a cry, either of help or of joy. His guitar playing, which could either be used as a thumping rhythm or as a remarkable, strong and precise lead, were a direct line to the life of poverty that he lived and his experiences in the Brownsville, Tennessee, where he was born and where he died.
Volume Two of his recordings continues to reveal Sleepy John Estes as a significant blues artist of the pre-war blues era. In addition to long time friend and music companion Hammie Nixon, several tracks find Sleepy John in the company Robert Lee McCoy, also known as Robert Nighthawk, Son Bonds and there is the possibility of an appearance of Charlie Pickett. Between them they produce some excellent blues such as Brownsvillle Blues, Hobo Jungle Blues and Special Agent. Drop Down is one of two recordings to feature the lively washboard playing of Ann Sortier, the girlfriend of Robert Lee McCoy. There is the strange, semi-religious blues Time Is Drawing Near. Tell Me How About It has some explicit things to say about "Mister Tom" and his son-in-law "Mister Robert", making its chorus heavily ironic. Don't You Want To Know has all the originality of Estes' more serious lyrics e.g. the reference to Major Bowes, who ran a radio talent show.
Sleepy John Estes was one of the most individual of all recorded blues singers. He sang with phrasing that fairly dripped with expressiveness in a high crying tone that seemed often like he was speaking to the listener. The songs he wrote were well suited to this treatment, dealing frequently with his and his neighbors' lives in Brownsville, Tennessee. Estes recorded from the late 1920s through the 1930s when he was one of the most popular artists on the Decca label, until 1941 when his brand of country blues, the down-home music of rural blacks, had become something of an anachronism. His discovery by the fold revivalists of the 1960s rescued him from poverty and gave him a second musical career that lasted nearly 15 years, during which he again became one of the most popular and best-loved bluesmen.
John Adam Estes was born near Ripley, Tennessee on January 25, 1904. His parents were sharecroppers who had sixteen children. Like his brothers and sisters, Estes grew up working his parents' fields. There was little time for school. The most traumatic event of his childhood occurred during a baseball game when a stone struck him in the eye. He lost his vision completely in one eye and his other grew worse and worse until, by his fifties, he was left completely blind. Some say his poor eyesight gave him the appearance that led his friends to nickname him "Sleepy;" others say it was just his penchant for falling asleep on the bandstand during his gigs.
Estes' father, who played guitar, was probably the first musician he ever heard. His father showed Estes a few chords, let him play his guitar occasionally, and taught him his first song, a ditty called "Chocolate Drop." Before long Estes had built his own cigar-box instruments on which he practiced. In 1915 the Estes family moved to Brownsville where John hooked up with David Campbell, a local musician who showed him a little more about playing the guitar. Before long Estes was playing local fish fries, frolics, and house parties in the area. A decisive influence was another local musician, Hambone Willie Newbern. Newbern has won a minor place in blues history as the composer of "Roll and Tumble," which became a blues standard eventually recorded by postwar Chicago artists such as Baby Face Leroy and Muddy Waters, and even the British rock group Cream. Newbern took Estes under his wing and before long they were performing together up and down the Mississippi, hitting points as far-flung as Como, Mississippi, down in the Delta.
The Blues Found a Voice
Despite all his blues schooling, Estes' guitar playing remained rudimentary at best. It never reached the expressiveness, invention, or power of Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, or Bukka White. It was merely a convenient vehicle to accompany his singing. But it was his singing that propelled his career. Estes' voice produced a high, plaintive cry that was ageless-it could have been a decrepit old man singing or a teen whose voice had not yet broken. It was a wail, full of pain and pathos. Its sound alone articulated everything the blues represented: loss, despair, loneliness, hurt.
By 1919 he was a popular performer around Brownsville. Reason enough, when his father passed away, for Estes to walk away from the farming he despised. Though Estes wasn't a particularly strong instrumentalist, he managed to surround himself with others who were. He met James "Yank" Rachell around 1920 when he heard another musician was playing a frolic he had expected to be his. His intention was to run off the newcomer. Instead he liked what he heard, and he and Rachell teamed up and started playing square dances and house parties around town, for whites and blacks alike. Rachell had been playing guitar when Estes first heard him, but he soon switched to his second instrument, mandolin.
Later in the 1920s Estes met harmonica player Hammie Nixon, an important figure in the development of blues harmonica. Nixon learned to play from Noah Lewis, the first great modern harp player, and went on to teach James "Sonny Boy" Williamson, one of the first to adapt the harp to urban blues. Estes and Nixon traveled and played together occasionally in the early and mid-1920s. Around the same time Estes met Son Bonds, a Brownsville guitarist. Estes would use these three men on virtually all of his records, up into the late 1960s in the case of Nixon and Rachell.
Every autumn Estes made it a point to play in Memphis, when the city was overflowing with money from the harvest. On one trip, he and Rachell teamed up with Jab Jones, an occasional member of the Memphis Jug Band, to cash themselves in on the jug band fad. They formed the Three J's Jug Band, with Estes singing and playing guitar, Rachell on mandolin, and Jones blowing jug. They were good enough to catch the attention of Jim Jackson, one of the most popular musicians in Memphis. Jackson offered to act as their agent around Memphis. For reasons known only to them-perhaps they were worried that Jackson would cheat them-they refused the offer, preferring to fend for themselves.
A Session of Masterpieces
When the jug craze petered out toward the end of the 1920s, Jones switched back to his first instrument, piano. That was how they recorded at Estes' first session in 1929 with the Victor label. The music they made is some of the most unique and interesting in country blues. Jones' deft piano provided the foundation of the music. Rachell soared above on his mandolin, with Estes in between with his keening voice and solid double-time strumming on guitar. It was, in the words of Don Kent's liner notes to I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More, "a session of masterpieces." It produced a cover of a blues chestnut, "Milk Cow Blues," but Estes version never got around to mentioning the cow! It produced an Estes original, "Street Car Blues," possibly the only blues ever written on the subject. Estes' version of Newbern's "Roll and Tumble," entitled "The Girl I Love She Got Long Curly Hair," was Estes' first single and turned out to be one of his most popular as well. The three musicians were reportedly paid $300 each for the session, a royal sum at the time for most any musician. They pocketed the cash and headed straight to the notorious river town, West Helena, Arkansas, where they quickly squandered all of it on drinking, gambling, and general carousing. Rachell had to pawn his watch to get back to Brownsville.
Estes' records were popular and their sales were good, at least until the Depression deepened and the poor could no longer afford luxuries like phonograph records. Estes made his base in Brownsville where he continued to live and perform, while making regular sorties into Arkansas and Missouri. He went up to Chicago occasionally as well and even claimed to have played for gangster Al Capone, who Estes said was crazy about blues. Despite the popularity of his 1929 records, Estes was not able to record again during the first three years of the 1930s. When he heard that Nixon and Son Bonds had just returned from recording in Chicago, he persuaded Nixon to return to the Windy City and set up a session for him. Finally, in 1934 Estes returned to the studio with Hammie Nixon to record for the Decca label. At the session Estes cut "Someday Baby" and "Drop Down Mama," songs that went on to become blues standards, recorded by the likes of Big Joe Williams, Big Maceo, Big Boy Crudup, and Muddy Waters.
After the 1934 session Estes moved to Chicago where he lived for most of the 1930s. His popularity grew. In 1937 his photo graced the cover of Decca's race record catalog. At his next sessions Estes' song-writing style, in which he would sing directly of his own life and that of his Brownsville friends and neighbors, began to take shape. In 1937 he recorded "Floating Bridge," about being swept off a bridge by a raging river and rescued at the last minute by Hammie Nixon. In 1938 he wrote "Fire Department Blues" about his neighbor Martha Hardin. "She's a hard-working woman, her salary is very small/Then when she pay up her house rent, that don't leave anything for insurance at all/Now I wrote Martha a letter, five days later it returned back to me/You know little Martha's house done burned down, she done moved over Bedford Street."
His last session in 1941 saw his musical chronicle of Brownsville in full flower. He sang about a local lawyer, Mr. Clark, who worked as hard for the poor who couldn't pay as much as for the rich who could. He sang about little Laura whose sexual fantasies had a way of all coming true. And he sang about how machines were pushing sharecroppers off the land around town.
That session was Estes' last for some 20 years. Times were changing, not only down on the farm, but in music too. By the 1940s Estes was a vestige of a music-the pure country blues-that had all but died out and been replaced by more sophisticated blues, the so-called "urban blues." Estes disappeared back down into Tennessee. He and Hammie Nixon reportedly made a trip to Memphis to record for Sam Phillips Sun label in 1948, but little came of it.
Sleepy John Estes was all but forgotten until the folk revivalists of the 1950s set out to track down as many of the old recording artists as they could find. Unfortunately, inaccurate rumors about Estes abounded. In his biography, Big Bill Blues, Big Bill Broonzy wrote that as a child he had seen Estes play at a railroad camp. Estes was 20 years older than he was, Broonzy wrote, and long dead. Imagine the surprise when filmmaker David Blumenthal finally found Estes, tracked down on a tip from Big Joe Williams via Memphis Slim. He looked like a man in his seventies, but he was only 58-eleven years younger than Broonzy! He was found in a ramshackle shack on an abandoned farm with his wife and five children, "living in harsh poverty that was deeply disturbing to see," wrote Samuel Charters in Sweeter Than The Showers Of Rain.
Estes' career somehow picked up where it had left off. Producer Bob Koester took over, setting up appearances at festivals. The most important was the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, when he was reintroduced to the world. He went on to tour Europe twice in 1964 and 1968 with the American Folk Blues Festival. He was a celebrated guest at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. And in November, 1974 he became the first country bluesman to perform in Japan. Estes made records regularly, up to his death practically, the best being three he did for the Delmark label in Chicago. He frequently worked with his old partners, Yank Rachell and Hammie Nixon, in the 1960s. Sleepy John Estes died on June 5, 1977.
by Gerald E. Brennan
James 'Yank' Rachel
James "Yank" Rachell was the primary exponent of blues mandolin, although he also played guitar, violin, harp and sang expertly well. Born on a farm outside Brownsville, Tennessee, Yank Rachell picked up the mandolin at the age of eight, mainly teaching himself; an early encounter with "Hambone" Willie Newbern early on helped him as well. Rachell began to work dances with singer and guitarist Sleepy John Estes in the early '20s. In early 1929, he co-formed the Three J's Jug Band with Estes and pianist Jab Jones. The Three J's Jug Band were an instant hit and managed to work the dances during the lucrative jug-band craze in Memphis and traveled often to Paducah, Kentucky. The group recorded 14 sides credited jointly to Estes and Rachell for Victor for 1929 and 1930.
After the record business was flattened by the depression, the Three J's broke up. Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon went on to Chicago to seek their fortune in the nightclubs, but Yank Rachell decided to try his hand at farming and also worked for the L&N Railroad. Ironically, it was Rachell who was next to record -- during a stopover in New York Rachell teamed up with guitarist Dan Smith and laid down 25 titles for ARC in just three days, though only six of them were issued.
Shortly before the ARC date, Yank Rachell had discovered a kid harmonica player that he believed had real talent, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. They worked together at the Blue Flame Club in Jackson, Tennessee starting in 1933. In 1934 Williamson went north to Chicago. With the success of Williamson's first Bluebird dates of 1937, Rachell decided to join Sonny Boy in Chicago for sessions in March and June of 1938. Yank Rachell also contributed four sides of his own to each session, and then 16 more in 1941 with Sonny Boy backing him up. Some of the 1941 tracks are among his best: "It Seem Like a Dream," "Biscuit Baking Woman," and "Peach Tree Blues" were all successes for both Rachell and Bluebird.
But in 1938, while working in St. Louis with Peetie Wheatstraw, Yank Rachell had married and started to raise a family. During the peak of his musical career, Rachell kept his day job and did not lead "the life," at least not the same one that claimed his friend Sonny Boy Williamson on June 1, 1948. After Williamson's murder, Rachell drifted away from music and relied solely on straight jobs to make his living, settling permanently in Indianapolis in 1958. His wife passed away in 1961, and afterward he began to resume performing. In 1962, Rachell was re-united with Nixon and Estes, and the three of them began tearing up the college and coffeehouse circuit, recording for Delmark as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters. Estes died in 1977, and from that time Rachell worked mainly as a solo act. Yank Rachell was a long-time regular at the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, and recorded only sporadically in his last years. Nonetheless, he was working on a new album when he died at age 87