Sleepy John Estes – Mailman Blues
Sleepy John Estes
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.
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