The "rediscovery" of Sleepy John Estes

Sleepy John Estes
at The Newport Folk Festival 1964

Photo by Stephen Lavere

The "rediscovery" of Sleepy John Estes
John Adam Estes was born in Ripley, Tennessee, in 1899. He got his nickname as a result of a chronic blood pressure disorder that caused him to pass out briefly every so often.
Accidentally blinded in one eye during childhood, he spent much of his life in dire poverty, going totally blind in 1949. Even after he was located in the early 1960's and recorded again for the new white blues audience, his was an insecure life, and the money that did come in didn't linger.
In 1977, he died, as he had lived, in a tumble-down shack, and the funeral had to be paid for by donations from his admirers. It's no wonder that he was prone to self-pity in some of his songs, often referring to himself as "Poor John." #
His songs are drawn from the people and events of his hometown, Brownsville, Tenn., and are delivered with distinctive phrasing and feeling. With support from mandolinist Yank Rachell, Harmonicist Hammie Nixon and guitarist Son Bonds. Sleepy John's songs offer glimpses into the life of the poor black community in which he lived and worked for most of his life.
"She's a hard working woman you know her salary is very small ... then when she pay up her house rent that don't leave anything for insurance at all ... you know little Martha's house done burned down she done moved over on Grafton Street" - a neighbourhood event summed up in the blues song "Fire Department Blues".
Like many of the pre-war bluesmen his early career died off during the war (Shellac rationing and a ban on recording in 1942 curtailed many a career). Estes returned to sharecropping in Brownsville in 1941. In 1950 he elected to try his hand at recording again. A 1952 session for Sam Phillips’s Sun Records was held at 706 Union Avenue, but the result did not approach his earlier work.
Estes was rediscovered in 1962 during the blues revival that revived the careers of Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and Skip James. 
The common belief was that he was born around 1870 and must therefore be dead. No one went looking for him even though Big Joe Williams said where Sleepy was living. Only the chance event of a documentary film being made in the area lead the filmmaker (Dave Blumenthal) to check out the rumour. 
Together with Yank and Hammie again for the 1964 Newport Folk Festival he demonstrated that he was still writing as well as ever.
ronically when Sleepy was brought to Delmark's offices in Chicago it turned out that his brother Sam worked in the shop next door! He cut several albums for Delmark and returned to touring with Hammie Nixon before health problems confined him to Brownsville. 
Estes died June 5, 1977, and is buried at Durhamville Baptist Church in Durhamville, Tennessee.

# Chris Smith

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