When it comes to the hand that the cards of life deals us, some might say that John Adams Estes wasn’t blessed with a very good one. Born into a large family in 1900, near Ripley, Tennessee, the days of his youth were largely spent in the fields, helping out on the farm. As was typical in those days, there was little time for schooling in between chores. Estes joked about it later, quipping that he’d spent “twelve years in school, all in the first grade.” An accident at a baseball game led to the loss of his sight in one eye, and a penchant for dozing off led to the nickname “Sleepy.” Needless to say, it stuck.
The family moved to the greater Brownsville area in 1915, and it was here, according to researcher and blues expert Don Kent, that his interest in music started blossoming. Music, in fact, ran in the family — his father was a guitar player, and one of his brothers played the banjo — but it was a connection with Hambone Willie Newbern that would prove to be most fruitful. Newbern apparently made his living as a local musician, and when Estes teamed up with him, the pair traveled widely around the area, even as far as northern Mississippi on occasion, to play at the usual circuit of country picnics, local dances, and fish fries.
While still in his teens, he heard that a young up-and-coming musician had been hired to play at a weekend dance — a job that Estes felt should have been his — and he went down to investigate. There he found James “Yank” Rachell (pictured), a talented multi-instrumentalist who, as a young boy, had taken the pig his mother had given him to raise, and traded it to a neighbor for a mandolin. While we can only imagine how his mother must’ve felt, for blues fans, it was a trade that worked out pretty well. Estes, in fact, liked his playing, and rather than view him as a competitor, they teamed up, forging a partnership that would last throughout their lives.
Estes and Rachell continued to work throughout the 1920s, playing together, and joining forces with other local musicians. Guitarist Charlie Pickett was reportedly a cousin of Estes, and Son Bonds’ mother was part of the extended Newbern clan. It was, in fact, Hambone Willie Newbern who would be among the first to record of the Brownsville musicians, being called to Atlanta in March 1929, where he cut six titles for the sake of posterity. Among them was the classic Delta standard, “Roll And Tumble Blues.”
While playing the streets of Memphis one day, Rachell and Estes were approached by Jim Jackson, who hit it big with his 1927 recording of “Kansas City Blues.” Jackson told them he could get them an audition with a record company, but the Brownsville pair figured they could navigate those waters themselves. As evidenced by their first recording, “The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair,” they apparently were successful. Cut in Memphis on Tuesday, September 24th, 1929, the melody employed the basic “Roll And Tumble” theme from Newbern, while the opening lyric gave us a memorable reference: “Now, I’m goin’ to Brownsville, [gonna] take that right hand road.”
Two days later, they were back in the studio, this time with the addition of Jab Jones, who’d previously recorded with the Memphis Jug Band. Rachell’s fluid mandolin playing contrasted nicely with Estes’ simple guitar work, and Jab Jones’ “country piano” rounded out the trio in a lively fashion. Altogether, they cut almost a dozen and a half sides for Victor — among them, “Milk Cow Blues” and “Divin’ Duck Blues,” with Rachell’s “Expressman Blues” being selected, some 20 years later, for inclusion in Harry Smith’s legendary compilation, “Anthology of American Folk Music.”
Unfortunately, it all came to an end just as quickly as it had begun. After recording a final four titles on Friday, May 30th, 1930, the executives at Victor decided not to have them back for any further sessions. Surely, the onslaught of the Great Depression was a factor, because a few years later, after Victor launched their budget Bluebird subsidiary — they would reach into Estes’ catalog and reissue three of his most popular titles once again.
Another five years would pass before Estes was back in a studio, this time for Decca. An offshoot of the English Decca label, their American counterpart began issuing 78s in 1934, and also bought the rights to the Champion imprint, which had once been a part of the Gennett company, headquartered in Richmond, Indiana. It was on the Champion label that Estes’ first recordings for Decca were issued, with “Drop Down Mama” and “Someday Baby Blues” becoming notable standouts. While the former was issued - and reissued - four different times during the 1930s (here in the states and also overseas in England), the latter title would be reworked into the oft-recorded blues standard, “Worried Life Blues.”
When Estes was called back for further sessions with Decca, in 1937, there was a subtle shift evident in his music. It is here that we begin to find him incorporating observations of everyday life unfolding around him — and the people and places of his hometown — into his music. There are songs about lawyers, undertakers, the local auto mechanic, the postman, a liquor store owner, and even one about a woman whose house burnt down. Personal events from his life also find their way into his songs, such as getting thrown off a train by the railroad police while trying to hobo his way to a recording session in New York City, and, in one of his most memorable songs, an incident that found Estes nearly drowning in the Ohio River, saved only by the timely actions of his harmonica-playing partner, Hammie Nixon. While other blues musicians certainly observed the events going on around them and used that ingredient as the basic raw material for their music, with Estes, it was different. As Don Kent so eloquently put it, “Of all the fine musicians to come out of western Tennessee, ...Estes made the greatest imprint due to his unique style of singing the blues and, in later works, his perceptions and songs of the events and people around Brownsville, Tennessee. For documenting local color, he is unmatched by any blues musician.”
Estes’ last recordings for the prewar market would occur for Decca in 1940, and for Bluebird in 1941. Perhaps his most haunting tune, however, would be found in his 1938 Decca recording, “Everybody Oughta Make A Change.” A timeless truth coupled with some sage advice from Estes, it ranks as one of the essential masterpieces of the blues.
In the late 1940s, Estes lost the sight in his other eye, leaving him completely blind. That didn’t slow him down, though. He was still making recording sessions, notably for Sam Phillips and Sun Records in 1952, as well as a couple of tiny Chicago independents, Ora Nelle and Bea & Baby, in 1948 and 1960, respectively.
In 1962, the blues world was stunned to learn that Estes was still living, quietly, as he always had, in his sharecropper’s shack in Brownsville, Tennessee. Apparently, Big Bill Broonzy had managed to convince everyone that Estes was a ripe old man during the time of his 1920s and ’30s recordings, thereby leaving all concerned to believe that he had long since passed. But, as the old saying goes, the rumors of his demise were somewhat premature.
With a second career, during the Blues Revival, Estes was afforded many new opportunities. He recorded and traveled extensively — to the Newport Folk Festival, and also overseas to Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tours. But in spite of all the fame and adoration this afforded him during his golden years, the “fortune” counterpart never really happened. Sleepy John Estes died as he had lived — in utter, dire poverty, in Brownsville, Tennessee, in 1977.
On their webpage honoring Estes as one of their Hall Of Fame inductees, The Blues Foundation offers these words, from Ray Harmon:
“ . . many have asked what it is that makes John’s music so vital, so absolute in its sense of emptiness and desperation. His voice, filled to the brim by the lackluster existence of life in a poor farming community, informs all that hear it of the barely suppressed passion in his words. . . . John’s music is that of an extraordinary man caught in a mundane world, but captivated by the very things that make this world mundane.”
As we said at the beginning, the cards of life that John Adams Estes were dealt may not have made for the greatest hand, but like other blues musicians before and since him, he was able to turn that energy back on itself, and channel it into something altogether different. By immortalizing the events of his life, and the people and places around him — in that process — we see Estes transforming the mundane, and turning it into a highly artistic, poetic statement. In other words, Estes took the life he was given, and turned it into art.
When you think about it, then, maybe everything about his life — and death — unfolded just as it should have. Many others have notoriously tried to make their lives into high art (a few names come to mind), but Estes simply showed us how it’s done. And while he may not have enjoyed earthly riches as a result of that process, the riches he left the blues world will be remembered for all time.
Pictured: Brownsville mandolin man, James "Yank" Rachell (in his later years).
To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/nypg4ga