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
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
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.
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.
Ironically 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.