cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
CD Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

 

 

"Pure gold is twenty-four karat, a pure alcoholic drink is 200-proof, and pure blues is that of John Adam “Sleepy John” Estes." - (Blues Blast Magazine - August 2014) .. .. .. "His high-pitched inflections and relaxed phrasing is irresistible." - (All About Jazz - October 2008) .. .. .. "Blues by nature is the story of pain, suffering, and occasionally a triumph, so is therefore by nature, emotional. John Estes took it too another level in regard to that emotion." - (This review)

This is album retro-review number 194 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called
“Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

Links to the previous 150 reviews can be found at the bottom of this review.

A good part of my collection is blues based, and over the one hundred and ninety two past retro-reviews, a significant proportion has been blues based reviews.

It’s easy to understand why when we recognise that blues music, be in city blues as exemplified by the “city style” Chicago blues music, or the “rural style” Delta blues

Then there are the variety of electric blues that grew out of these styles all in all giving us a plethora a fine artists crossing the many genre of the blues. This review features one of these rural blues artists.

The artist is Sleepy John Estes and the CD album is titled – Jailhouse Blues.

It was released on the Past Perfect Silver Line label. a German label, with the identifying code of 220365-203.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
CD Label – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The album was originally released in 2002 and has no vinyl LP equivalent. The album consists of 26 tracks equally distributed over two sides and is presented in the original mono format.

Track Listing:

1   Floating Bridge 3:10
2   Need More Blues 2:53
3   Jack And Jill Blues 2:38
4   Poor Man’s Friend (T Model) 3:07
5   Hobo Jungle Blues 2:55
6   Airplane Blues 2:52
7   Everybody Oughta Make A Change 2:49
8   Liquor Store Blues 2:27
9   Easin’ Back To Tennessee 2:41
10   Fire Department Blues 3:06
11   Clean Up At Home 2:35
12   Need Someday Baby 2:49
13   Brownsville Blues 3:07
14   Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues) 2:50
15   Mailman Blues 2:54
16   Time Is Drawing Near 2:22
17   Mary Come On Home 2:21
18   Jailhouse Blues 2:55
19   Tell Me How About It (Mr. Tom’s Blues) 2:26
20   Drop Down (I Don’t Feel Welcome Here) 2:45
21   Don’t You Want To Know (The Delta Boys) 3:09
22   You Shouldn’t Do That 2:32
23   When The Saints Go Marching In 3:01
24   Lawyer Clark Blues 3:07
25   Little Laura Blues 2:29
26   Working Man Blues 2:56

All tracks were composed by Sleepy John Estes.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Rear Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Sleepy John Estes was really born in quite a different era.

Born John Adam Estes on January 25th 1899 in Ripley, Tennessee, he was born into a period where Afro-Americans were born into slavery and total poverty.

While poverty was the companion of many bluesmen and women throughout the first part of the 20th century, for a black man born into the 19th century, albeit the latter part, it was the absolute pits.

As if attempting to deal with the absolute situation of slavery and dire poverty wasn’t enough, whilst still a young child Estes was accidentally blinded in one eye. By the time he reached fifty years of age he had gone totally blind.

From a very young age the young Estes took solace in the songs he heard the men and women around him sing. He taught himself to play guitar but in fact throughout his esteemed career, it can be said that he was never an outstanding guitarist.

What he did do quite magnificently, was to turn his experiences and portray the conditions of his very poor and very hard life, into a true and authentic “blues-art”.

He was prone to self pity, which I think is quite understandable, and in some of his songs he would refer to himself as “poor John”!

In many ways his songs are a record of life during this terrible period. He would record songs with the lyrics telling the story of the segregated South, where again, he focussed on the poverty and the constant battle with uneasy racial tensions.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
The Home of Sleepy John Estes – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Now in regard to his name “Sleepy” John, when you read biographies on John Estes you read things like: 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.

Neither of these explanations are correct. He was nicknames “Sleepy” because he actually would pass out briefly every now and again, and in fact gave rise to his supposed ability to sleep standing up.

In fact Estes had a chronic blood pressure disorder, and it was that, that caused his brief passing out – his “sleeping”!

His style of singing has been called “crying”, a term in fact given to his style by non other than Big Bill Broonzy.

It is largely because Sleepy John Estes puts an incredible emotional quality into his music that helps him stand out.

Blues by nature is the story of pain, suffering, and occasionally a triumph, so is therefore by nature, emotional. John Estes took it to another level in regard to that emotion.

One of the most critical moments in Estes career was in the early 1920’s, when he teamed up with harp (harmonica) player Hammie Nixon, and to a lesser degree with mandolin player, Yank Rachell.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Sleepy John with Hammie Nixon – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

As a trio they set forth on the ‘House Party Circuit in and around Brownsville Tennessee. It was during this period that he began to sharpen his skills and put his thoughts down as songs.

It is a fact that except for a short period in the 1930’s when Estes played and worked in Chicago, his whole career involved laying in and around Brownsville right up until his death.

One of Sleepy John’s first recordings was in 1929 when he was accompanied by Jab Jones on piano and James “Yank’ Rachell on mandolin. That recording was on the Victor label.

In terms of his playing and recording, Estes preferred to play with friends as opposed to other known bluesmen. This is not to say that some of his friends he played with weren’t great musicians in their own right.

If his friends weren’t available, then he went for local musicians.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Sleepy John With Yank Rachel – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

It actually took until the 1960’s, when the white bands started picking up on the blues and the white audiences started to seek out the original songs and artists, that along with other blues artists Estes actually began to make some money.

But even so it was only a moderate income and it was soon spent.  In fact ironically, all his later years were spent in the same poverty and insecurity that he experienced in the early part of his life.

As far as this album goes, it covers music recorded between August 2, 1937 and September 24, 1941.

I have to thank the album producers for actually putting the tracks in chronological order. This is an on-going bug-bear of mine and it is a relief being able to play this album and to follow the development of the music and the man in that chronological order.

It is a shame that more compilations featuring a single artist doesn’t follow this seemingly simple but logical format.

We start with the albums calling card, track 1Floating Bridge.

Recorded in New York on August 2nd in 1937, along with Estes on vocals and guitar is Hammie Nixon on harp and either Charlie Pickett or Son Bonds on guitar.

The written records of that session are somewhat confusing. Incidentally Charlie Pickett was Estes cousin.

Eric Clapton recorded his version of this track on his 1981 album, Another Ticket, and Greg Allman recorded it as his first track on his 2011 album, Low Country Blues.

The track describes Estes‘ near drowning near Hickory, Kentucky.

He was either thrown or fell from the bridge in question and was swept under the water for some minutes before being rescued by fellow musician Hammie Nixon.

The song recounts the incident in a few spare lines that are striking for their economy and visual power, and when Estes is placed in a bed to recover following his rescue, he sings that he “couldn’t hear nothing but muddy water run through my head.”

Given a new lease on life, Estes begins to wonder if he should change his ways (“quit playing a bum”) and find an honorable profession.

Whether this ever happens or not is not attended to in the song, which ends with people screaming and crying back as they witness the incident from the bridge.

Deceptively simple, Floating Bridge deftly draws the turning point in a man’s life without revealing the outcome, and it is sung in a very intimate style that seems to be then mainstay of Estes writing and delivery method.

What is so good about this original version of Floating Bridge is that it totally demonstrates Estesreedy voice over one of a few easy shuffle progressions that he favored.

Floating Bridge

Track 6 is Airplane Blues.

This has the same line-up as track 1, and was recorded at the same time. It is simply a wonderful example of the simple country blues that Estes was so good at.

It also shows the excellent talent of Hammie Nixon, while also demonstrating that while Estes could keep a decent tempo up on guitar, it was indeed very basic playing.

The track was also covered by Blind Boy Fuller one year later.

 

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues

It is one of those self-pity tracks that Estes is so well known for, and indeed it is one where he refers to himself, as “poor John”.

When John Esters sings “you three times seven“, he is referring to an old Southern saying which meant “you are old enough to make your own decisions [ 3 x7 =21 – coming of age!]

I’m going to get in my airplane i’m going to get in my
airplane : i’m going to ride all over i’m going to ride
all over your town
then if i spy the woman i’m loving : poor john going to
let this air poor john going to let this airplane down


Here’s my hand here’s my hand : you can lead me where you
want you can lead me where you want me to go
then if you lead me wrong this time : you won’t lead me
no and you won’t lead me no more


I know my baby i know my baby : and she’s bound to jump
and she’s bound to jump and shout
now when she gets over to atlanta : i done rolled them
few i done rolled them few days out


You three times seven you three times seven : you ought
to know what you want you ought to know what you want to
do
now the day that you quit me : and i won’t be mad with i
won’t be mad with you


Just the day before christmas just the day before
christmas : let me bring your present let me bring your
present tonight
now i will be your santa claus : even if my whiskers even
if my whiskers is white

Airplane Blues

Track 6 is Easin’ Back To Tennessee.

Although recorded in New York on April 22, 1938, and incidentally this time while we know for certain that Estes played guitar it is still uncertain as to whether Son Bonds supported him on guitar, or whether it was Charlie Pickett.

Hammie Nixon was not at this session. It is likely that Sleepy John wrote this song while in Chicago, where he played for a while, left, and then came back later in 1940 to record.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
[CLICK to enlarge]
In this track Estes refers to being on the South side. Now the south side of Chicago was also known as the “Black Belt”, and it was where most Afro-Americans lived and worked.

Obviously it is winter, and Estes is not enjoying the snow (and probably the cold), and all he wants to do is get back to the warmth of Tennessee.

The song also has a couple of classic word-references that became the mainstay of so many blues songs.

These being ones that included Estes words, “woke up this morning”, and, “Lord have mercy”! Mind you, Estes is very likely to have picked these up from the spiritual songs he would have listened to as a boy.

Now, woke up this mornin’, couldn’t hardly see
Snow on the ground ’bout eight foot deep
CHORUS: Lord, have mercy, baby, what gon’ come of me?
You know I feel just like easin’ back down into Tennessee

Now Carl Williams in the office wants to see you alone
I can’t do nothin’ where this white stuff on
CHORUS: Lord, have mercy, baby, what’s gon’ come of me?
You know I feel just like easin’ back down into Tennessee

Now, I’m on the South Side, my buddy on the East
I don’t know whether he’s got any place to sleep
CHORUS: Lord, have mercy, honey, what’s gon’ come of me?
You know I feel just like easin’ back down into Tennessee

Said, car can’t go, [mountain] too slick
Prob’ly might slip back off in a ditch
CHORUS: Lord, have mercy, honey, what’s gon’ come of me?
You know I feel just like easin’ back down into Tennes

Now, twenty-two twenty-four West Hubbard Avenue
That’s where you get my 1938 blues
CHORUS: Lord, have mercy, baby, what’s gon’ come of me?
You know I feel just like easin’ back down into Tennessee

Easin’ Back To Tennessee

Track 13 is Brownsville Blues.

The track was recorded at the same time as the previously discussed track. It’s no surprise that at some time Estes would have written about Brownsville, given he played in and around there for most of his career.

This is a wonderful example of typical ‘delta-blues’ style of playing, and largely it is due to either Pickett or Sons on guitar, who play some very, very nice blues guitar licks.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Pictured playing Brownsville Blues – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

Once again Estes is singing about the troubles he experienced and it’s also a great example of his “crying” style of delivery. We can’t get passed the lyrics, which are full of self-pity.

I mean to say it doesn’t get more obvious than the line – “my life done suck“!

Brownsville Blues

By the time we get to track 20 Drop Down (I Don’t Feel Welcome Here) we are listening to Estes singing and recording in Chicago, on June 24, 1940.

At this session there was Sleepy John Estes on guitar and vocals, Robert McCoy on harp, and it is believed Ann Sorter on guitar.

Not much is written about Anne, some claim she was also known as Ann Sortier (Sorter with an “i” as well as the “e”) who played at this time. However, Sortier was known as a washboard player and not a guitarist, so we can put that to bed.

There is no mention of who seems to be playing washboard – who knows, maybe it was Sortier?

It is also confusing because it is possible that this is the same Robert McCoy who later became known as Robert Nighthawk – a guitarist.

I wouldn’t try and make that connection except in the next track McCoy is playing guitar and it does sound similar to how Nighthawk sometimes played. 

Once again, the problem is that written records of these sessions in this early period, were scrappy at the best, and a lot of the recording notes have been misplaced over the years.

What stands out is that compared to most of Sleepy John tracks, this positively rocks on.

It is uptempo and almost ‘joyous’!

Drop Down

Track 21 is Don’t You Want To Know.

This piece comes from a Chicago session recorded on September 24, 1940. It is an absolute gem of a track.

Along with Estes on guitar and vocals is Robert McCoy on guitar, Son Bonds on vocal and kazoo, Raymond Thomas on Timbale and vocals, and, The Delta Boys with support vocals.

Now this gets a bit confusing, because the “Delta Boys” were in fact made up of, Raymond Thomas, Sleepy John Estes, Son Bonds, all of whom, with the exception of Thomas, already received credits.

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Sleepy John Estes on his porch at home in the later part of his life – [CLICK to enlarge]



The track really is quite different to everything that has come before, and is reminiscent of jug band music mixed with blues. The use of call and reply is also unusual for Estes style of playing. Here he delivers a line, and the others reply to that line.

Now, to mess with this music I would be ashamed
Stream-lined high steppers ain’t none of your band
CHORUS: Don’t you want to know? (Don’t you want to know?)
Don’t you want to know? (Yes, we want to know!)
We wrote this song, this, our own, compose ……..

Don’t You Want To Know

Now these six tracks are by no means the only “great” tracks on this CD.

In fact the terms “good”, “bad”, ‘great” and so forth, have no relevance to someone like Sleepy John Estes.

He is unique in style and application, and if anything there is much more to discover about him on this album.

He has nine albums listed by Wikipedia which fails to mention this album – Jailhouse Blues, so I would suspect that there are many variations of the initial albums released.

His music today probably brings in far more money than he could ever imagine while alive. He was a very prolific writer and its seems very cruel that he never received his financial dues.

Finally, what became of Sleepy John Estes?

Ironically Estes suffered a stroke while preparing for a European tour, where it is likely that he might have made some real money, which in turn may have made a real difference to his latter years.

But he died as he had lived, in a tumble-down shack in Brownsville, Tennessee on June 5, 1977.

 

cream of the crate: album review # 194 – sleepy john estes: jailhouse blues
Sleepy John Estes (John Adam Estes) – [Click to enlarge]

 

In 1991, Estes was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and so, he even missed out on this important recognition.

Poor John!

Sleep John is not going to be the first, or second or . . . choice for many people.

Blues collectors will of course have at least one Estes album, but if not – what are you waiting for? Your collection is incomplete.

The album is not currently available on either Ebay or Discogs, but is available from Amazon for the insane price of about Au$4.00 + postage.

There is no lack of Sleepy John albums on Ebay, and in all honesty, even if you find tracks on this album you like, with a bit of careful searching they may very well be available on other Estes’ compilations.


VIDEOS:

There are very few live clips of Sleep John Estes on Youtube but what there is, is brilliant including one quite old clip. Here are three fabulous clips that allow us to view this great bluesman. as well as listen to his music.

 

The Blues with Sleepy John and Hammie Nixon [No date but Estes looks pretty young so it is likely to be a clip from possibly the 1940’s.]

 

Mailman Blues – 1966

 

Sleepy John and Hammie Nixon – Corrine, Corrine (1976)


Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:

 

To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –

cream of the crate cd review #2 : robert johnson – the complete recordings

 

To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –

 

To view/listen album reviews 101 – 150 just click the image below –

 

Click to open the following reviews covering #’s 151 onward.

#151.  The Shaggs – Philosophy of the World

#152.  The Animals – The Animals

#153. Omah Khorshid & His Group  – Live In Australia 1981

#154. Alan Parsons Project – Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe

#155. Billy Thorpe – Tangier

#156. Aretha Franklin – The Best Of

#157. Big Bill Broonzy – Big Bill’s Blues

#158. The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go 

#159. The Band – Stage Fright

#160. Ray Brown and the Whispers – Hits and More 1965 – 1968

#161. Guitar Junior – The Crawl

#162. Jimi Hendrix – Radio One

#163. Memphis Minnie – Queen of the Blues

#164. Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)

#165. The Loved Ones – Magic Box

#166. Various Artists – On The Road Again [ An Anthology of Chicago Blues 1947 – 1954]

#167. Janis Joplin – Greatest Hits 

#168. David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust [The Motion Picture]

#169. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication

#170.  Chain – Two Of A Kind

#171. Bob Marley – Legend

#172. Koko Taylor – What It Takes

#173. Stevie Wonder – Original Musiquarium

#174. Various Artists – The Unissued 1963 Blues Festival

#175. Noeleen Batley – Little Treasure

#176. B.B. King – The Best Of

#177. Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac

#178 – Memphis Slim – I Feel So Good

#179. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Live at Budapest

#180. Flowers – Icehouse

#181. Joe Tex – The Best Of

#182. Chicago [Transit Authority] – Chicago Transit Authority

#183. Deep Purple – The Deep Purple Singles

#184. The Doobie Brothers – Best Of The Doobies

#185. Dig Richards – Jive After Five

#186. The Stereo MC’s – Connected

#187. Ricky Nelson – All My Best

#188. Frank Frost – Jelly Roll King

#189. Lonnie Mack – Memphis Wham

#190. Madder Lake – Stillpoint

#191. Carol Kaye and the Hitmen – Guitars 1965

#192. Dion and the Belmonts – Everything You Always Wanted To Hear

#193. The Beatles – Rubber Soul