Sleepy John Estes

Sleepy John Estes had a “…tendency to withdraw from his surroundings into drowsiness whenever life was too cruel or too boring to warrant full attention.” He worked all day as a farmer or picking cotton and all night as a musician, and as a result he was tired all the time. “Every night I was going somewhere. I’d work all day, play all night and get back home about sunrise. I’d get the mule and get right on going. I went to sleep once in the shed. I used to go to sleep so much when we were playing, they called me Sleepy. But I never missed a note.”

Like most blues musicians of the time, John Estes didn’t have an easy life. He was born in 1899 and he and his family worked as sharecroppers in Brownsville, Tennessee. His father played guitar, and he wanted to as well. “One day I made me a one-string guitar out of a cigar box. And when I got me a six-string I tried to make the sound of that one string.” He performed locally with his friend Hammie Nixon on harmonica and James Rachell on guitar and mandolin. As a young man he lost sight in one eye when hit with a piece of glass, and years later at the age of fifty he lost sight in the other while picking cotton “something came over my eyes all at once.” His career went through ups and downs, from Brownsville to Memphis to Chicago and back again. He was “discovered” and forgotten and “rediscovered.” He had cares and he sang about them all.

Estes talks about his worries keeping him up at night as well. “You know I worried last night and all night before/ You know by that I won’t be worried no more/ I was worried for you, I was worried for me/ You know by that I’m gon’ let it be.” It’s a beautiful song with a kazoo, and I love to hear him say that he’s not going to worry any more, but we all know that’s easier said than done. We know what he’s talking about. Sleepy John Estes is a poet of the ordinary, like William Carlos Williams or Robert Burns. The honesty in his songs is easy to relate to, even though the experience he describes might be foreign to us, and that makes them very powerful though they’re often quite simple. He talks about his life, he talks about the people he meets, and the events that effect him from day to day, and though the subject is quotidian, it is beautifully observed, and his language is resonant, his voice is plaintive, and the music is perfect.

He tells of the daily injustices and mercies and joys and sorrows that make a life, that shape a neighborhood, that define a country.

He tells of the daily injustices and mercies and joys and sorrows that make a life, that shape a neighborhood, that define a country. He talks about waiting for the mailman, hoping for some good news. “Now I been waiting on the mailman : he usually come around about eleven o’clock/ Now I guess he must have had car trouble : or either the road must be blocked/ Mailman : please don’t you lose your head/ You know I’m looking for a letter from my babe : some of my people might be dead.” He tells the story of a fire in his town,”When you see the chief : boys please clear the street/ Because you know he’s going down : save little Martha Hardin’s house for me/ 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./ Now I wrote little Martha a letter : five days it returned back to me/ You know little Martha Hardin’s house done burnt down : she done moved on Bathurst Street.”

It’s almost as though he’s reporting on the local news, but though the details are small and specific, the words and imagery are so urgent, his “crying voice” is so pleading, that the tale becomes more universal. In Floating Bridge, Estes tells of a time he nearly drowned during a flood. It feels dreamlike and mythological, he talks of the flood and of drowning and rebirth. “Now I never will forget that floating bridge/ Tell me five minutes time under the water I was hid/ When I was going down I thowed up my hands/ Now they carried me in the house and they laid me ‘cross the bank/ “Bout a gallon-and-half muddy water I had drank/ Now they dried me off and they laid me in the bed/ Couldn’t hear nothin’ but muddy water runnnin’ through my head/ Now, people standin’ on the bridge, screamin’ and cry in’ People on the bridge was screamin’ and cry in’” It’s so beautiful and wild and surreally real.

Yeah. I was worried last night and the night before, but I ain’t gonna be worried no more.

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