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Sleepy John Estes

Tennessee country blues king who popularized "Drop Down Mama" and "Milk Cow Blues". 

John Adams Estes, b. January 25, 1899 in Ripley, TN, d. June 5, 1977 in Brownsville, TN, known as Sleepy John Estes blues guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. This influential blues singer first performed at local house-parties while in his early teens. In 1916 he began working with mandolin player Yank Rachell, a partnership that was revived several times throughout their respective careers. It was also during this formative period that Estes met Hammie Nixon (harmonica), another individual with whom he shared a long-standing empathy. Estes made his recording debut in September 1929. He eventually completed eight masters for the RCA Records company, including the original versions of 'Diving Duck Blues', 'Poor John Blues' and the seminal, often-covered 'Milk Cow Blues'. These assured compositions inspired interpretations from artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Tom Rush and the Kinks. However, despite remaining an active performer throughout the 30s, Estes retired from music in 1941. A childhood accident impaired his eyesight and by 1950 he had become completely blind. The singer resumed performing with several low-key sessions for Hammie Nixon, before reasserting his own recording career in 1962. Several excellent albums for Chicago's Delmark Records label followed, one of which, Broke And Hungry, featured a young Mike Bloomfield on guitar. Estes, Nixon and Rachell also made a successful appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and the three veterans continued to work together until 1976 when Estes suffered a stroke. Estes suffered a stroke while preparing for a European tour and died on June 5, 1977, at his home of 17 years in Brownsville, Haywood County, Tennessee. He is buried at Elam Baptist Church Cemetery in Durhamville, Lauderdale County, Tennessee. His grave marker reads: "Sleepy John Estes ".. ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore" In Memory, John Adam Estes, Jan. 25, 1899 - June 5, 1977, Blues Pioneer, Guitarist – Songwriter – Poet." The epitaph ".. ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore" is derived from his song "Someday Baby Blues." "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More" was recorded in 1935, and in his song "Drop Down Mama", also recorded in 1935, Estes referred to himself as "Poor John". His grave is located off a country road and at the far end of the cemetery, adjacent to a small grove of trees, secluded but not hidden.


by Barry Lee Pearson
Big Bill Broonzy called John Estes' style of singing "crying" the blues because of its overt emotional quality. Actually, his vocal style harks back to his tenure as a work-gang leader for a railroad maintenance crew, where his vocal improvisations and keen, cutting voice set the pace for work activities. Nicknamed "Sleepy" John Estes, supposedly because of his ability to sleep standing up, he teamed with mandolinist Yank Rachell and harmonica player Hammie Nixon to play the house party circuit in and around Brownsville in the early '20s. The same team reunited 40 years later to record for Delmark and play the festival circuit. Never an outstanding guitarist, Estes relied on his expressive voice to carry his music, and the recordings he made from 1929 on have enormous appeal and remain remarkably accessible today.

Despite the fact that he performed for mixed black and white audiences in string band, jug band, and medicine show formats, his music retains a distinct ethnicity and has a particularly plaintive sound. Astonishingly, he recorded during six decades for Victor, Decca, Bluebird, Ora Nelle, Sun, Delmark, and others. Over the course of his career, his music remained simple yet powerful, and despite his sojourns to Memphis and Chicago he retained a traditional down-home sound. Some of his songs are deeply personal statements about his community and life, such as "Lawyer Clark" and "Floating Bridge." Other compositions have universal appeal ("Drop Down Mama" and "Someday Baby") and went on to become mainstays in the repertoires of countless musicians. One of the true masters of his idiom, he lived in poverty, yet was somehow capable of turning his experiences and the conditions of his life into compelling art.