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Cream of The Crate: Album # 194 - Sleepy John Estes: Jailhouse Blues


  • Cream of The Crate: Album # 194 - Sleepy John Estes: Jailhouse Blues

    "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 review number One Hundred and Ninety Four in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and CD albums from my collection.

    The series is called Cream of The Crate and each review represents an album that I believe represents significant musical value, either because of its rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of a music or because there is something unique about the music, the group or the particular production. The first fifty reviews were based on vinyl albums from my collection, with the following fifty on CD albums from my collection. Links to all these reviews can be found at the bottom of the page.

    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 Chicago blues music, or the Delta blues, being the blues of the rural blues artist or the variety of electric blues that grew out of these styles, gave us a plethora a fine artists. It is one of these rural artists that I look at this week.

    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. The album was originally released in 2002 and has no vinyl LP equivalent. The album consists of 26 tracks equally distributed over two sides.

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    Track Listing:

    Floating Bridge 3:10
    Need More Blues 2:53
    Jack And Jill Blues 2:38
    Poor Man's Friend (T Model) 3:07
    Hobo Jungle Blues 2:55
    Airplane Blues 2:52
    Everybody Oughta Make A Change 2:49
    Liquor Store Blues 2:27
    Easin' Back To Tennessee 2:41
    Fire Department Blues 3:06
    Clean Up At Home 2:35
    Need Someday Baby 2:49
    Brownsville Blues 3:07
    Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues) 2:50
    Mailman Blues 2:54
    Time Is Drawing Near 2:22
    Mary Come On Home 2:21
    Jailhouse Blues 2:55
    Tell Me How About It (Mr. Tom's Blues) 2:26
    Drop Down (I Don't Feel Welcome Here) 2:45
    Don't You Want To Know (The Delta Boys) 3:09
    You Shouldn't Do That 2:32
    When The Saints Go Marching In 3:01
    Lawyer Clark Blues 3:07
    Little Laura Blues 2:29
    Working Man Blues 2:56
    All tracks were composed by Sleepy John Estes.

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    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 later part, it was the absolute pits.

    As if attempting to deal with the absolute situation of slavery and dire poverty, whilst still a young child Estes was accidentally blinded in one eye, and 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 and he taught himself to play guitar, and 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.

    The home of Sleepy John Estes

    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. B
    lues 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.

    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.

    Sleepy John with Hammie Nixon

    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, which was 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.

    With Yank Rachel

    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 and 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. With any form of compilation it seems to be to make perfect sense to place them chronically, so that we, the listener, can hear the development of the music and track and changes in style.

    We start with the albums calling card, track 1 - Floating 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 records of that session as 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 on 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 Estes' reedy voice over one of a few easy shuffle progressions that he favored.

    Floating Bridge

    Track 6 - Airplane Blues, which has the same line-up as track 1, and was recorded at the same time, 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.

    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
    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 we know that Estes played guitar but 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. In the 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 - Brownsville Blues was recorded at the same time as the track above. 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.

    Pictured playing Brownsville Blues

    Once again Estes is singing about the troubles he experienced and is also a great example of his "crying" style of delivery, and 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 who played at this time, but Sortier was known as a washboard player. 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 I look at McCoy is playing guitar. The problem is that written records of these sessions in this early period, were scrappy at the best, and much has 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 - Don't You Want To Know comes from a Chicago session recorded on September 24, 1940. This 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, Raymond Thomas, Sleepy John Estes, Son Bonds, all of whom, with the exception of Thomas, already get credits.

    Sleepy John Estes on his porch at home in the later part of his life

    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, where 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 "good" tracks on this VD. In fact the terms "good" and "bad" 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 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, he was a very prolific writer.

    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.

    In 1991, Estes was
    posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and 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.

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

    The Blues with Sleep 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)

    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty vinyl albums reviewed, just click here

    If you are interested in checking out the first fifty (50) CD's reviewed, just click here

    If you are interested in checking out reviews 101 to 150 (Vinyl & CD) as reviewed, just click here


    Past album Reviews - Numbers 151 onward:

    Number 151 - The Shaggs: Philosophy Of The World

    Number 152 - The Animals: The Animals

    Number 153 - Omar Khorshid: Live in Australia 1981

    Number 154 - Alan Parsons Project: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allan Poe)

    Number 155 - Billy Thorpe: Tangier

    Number 156 - Aretha Franklin: The Best Of

    Number 157 - Big Bill Broonzy: Big Bill Blues [His 23 Greatest Songs]

    Number 158 - The Supremes: Where Did Our Love Go

    Number 159 - The Band: Stage Fright

    Number 160 - Ray Brown & The Whispers: Hits and More 1965 - 1968

    Number 161 - Guitar Junior: The Crawl

    Number 162 - Jimi Hendrix: Radio One

    Number 163 - Memphis Minnie: Queen Of The Blues

    Number 164 - Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

    Number 165 - The Loved Ones: Magic Box

    Number 166 - Various Artists: On The Road Again [An Anthology Of Chicago Blues 1947 - 1954]

    Number 167 - Janis Joplin: Greatest Hits

    Number 168 - David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust

    Number 169 - Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication

    Number 170 - Chain: Two Of A Kind

    Number 171 - Bob Marley and The Wailers - Legend

    Number 172 - Coco Taylor: What It takes

    Number 173 - Stevie Wonder: Original Musiquarium

    Number 174 - Various Artists: The Unissued 1963 Blues Festival

    Number 175 - Noeleen Batley: Little Treasure

    Number 176 - B.B. King: The Best Of

    Number 177 - Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac (The White Album)

    Number 178 - Memphis Slim: I Feel So Good

    Number 179 - Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Live Budapest

    Number 180 - Flowers: Icehouse

    Number 181 - Joe Tex: The Best of

    Number 182 - Chicago [Transit Authority]: Chicago Transit Authority

    Number 183 - Deep Purple: The Deep Purple Singles

    Number 184 - The Doobie Brothers: Best of the Doobie Brothers

    Number 185 - Dig Richards: Jive After Five

    Number 186 - Stereo MC's: Connected

    Number 187 - Ricky Nelson: All My Best

    Number 188 - Frank Frost: Jelly Roll King

    Number 189 - Lonnie Mack: Memphis Wham

    Number 190 - Madder Lake: Still Point

    Number 191 - Carol K and the Hitmen: California Creamin'

    Number 192 - Dion and The Belmonts: Everything You Always Wanted To Hear

    Number 193 - The Beatles: Rubber Soul
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