Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sleepy John Estes was More than Music

[Originally published by Delores Ballard as "A Blind Bluesman's Music: A Heart Of Soul--Sleepy John's Been Places But Only His Songs Matter," Jackson (TN) Sun, November 17, 1974.

Sleepy John Estes at his home in Haywood County, TN

Blues. Soft, sad-sweet blues, nail-you-to-the-wall blues...two old men, a guitar, with four strings and a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. 

The afternoon wind, rising, chilling, tears the blue notes into fragments, blows them away over the sagging porch of Sleepy John Estes' dilapidated shack.

TOO CHILLED to frolic, an assortment of children build themselves a cocoon of old overcoats in the thin sunlight beyond the shadow of the house where Sleepy John is wailing and Hammy Nixon is beating the rundown heel of his shoe into the hard-packed earth: 

"I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
She didn't write me no letter
She didn't care for me."

Their voices cross over, blend, harmonize. Sleepy John carries it alone while Hammy fishes a kazoo from his pocket and hums a saucy, horn-like sound through it. Then the harmonica again. Always, their voices are together. John's high and Hammy's low, when they reach the chorus.

There is nothing in this Haywood County afternoon setting to indicate that Sleepy John Estes, blind of eye and bony of limb, making music on an over-the-hill guitar, is an internationally famous blues singer. 

The house is a hovel. smelling bad and inadequately heated, overrun with children. A lone car, standing in front, has four flat tires and one door is propped open. A three-year-old is using it as a playhouse. The yard is a catch-all for refuse. 

"He makes good money," says a Brownsville friend of Sleepy John Estes, "but he lives in filth. People go wild over him everywhere else, but here...well, the young people get a little disgusted with him because he won't try to better himself."

SLEEPY JOHN, at 74, is the proverbial prophet without honor in his own home. He's little else in local estimation save a poor old black man who won't change his ways. 

But at the Newport Jazz Festival, or on the campus of a middlewestern university, or in Norway, John and his "harp-man" Hammy Nixon are a sensation — genuine, gutsy, low-down dirty bluesmakers, two of a remaining few, a vanishing breed. 

Sleepy John has come a long way to nowhere. From his beginnings as a musician with a streetcorner jug band to his present paradoxical state of nobody at home, star away from home, he has been an integral part of American blues. Hammy Nixon has been with him most of the way. 

"I was real young, around 11 years old, an' John came up and played at one of the ole picnics they used to have, you know...I was tryin' to blow harp a little and he wanted me to help him. Went to Memphis an Arkansas and he finally got me on tour. Then we went to hoboin'... hoboin' on them freight trains, and was that a life! We had a lot of fun — he could see, then..." 

John is hazy about the loss of his sight, thinks it began deteriorating after he was hit in the eye with a piece of glass "back when there was nothin' to do for it but bathe it in saltwater and go home." 

He went completely blind about 1959. 


"I started in music about eight years old...place called Lauderdale County, near Ripley. I listened to music and thought I'd make me some. So I took an old seegar box and the broomwire off the broom...there was this fellow across the field that knew how to bring a guitar-sound from the string. and he learned me how to tune it. 

"Since I got so I couldn't see, why. I still hear it in my head. I make up the sounds in my head then I make 'em on the guitar until they match up."

Grizzled and skinny. John wears a shabby tweed coat, a battered plush black hat. When he sings, they become symbols. The ugly clothes, the ugly house, the cold winter wind, all blur together in the haunting indigo of John's soul-wail: 

"I thought my baby loved to lay in bed with me, 
But now I don't know where my baby be." 

John and Hammy are between flights. Five weeks ago they came home from Norway. Now, they're booked for Tokyo. 

"We leave Monday," Hammy says, "to stop over in Chicago and play an anniversary celebration for a friend of ours. Man, he was low when he found him, sleepin' on the concrete floor. Now he owns four record stores and has so much he can't keep up with it all. Seems like everybody we started with has come to the top of the well — they're all in the money but us. 

"Anyhow, after that stopover in Chicago, we're goin' on to Jay-pan ( Japan )." 

John and Hammy haven't come to the top of the well, but they remember good times...in Memphis. when famous soul-singer Bessie Smith and her sister Mamie and blues singer Memphis Minnie "were all there together, an' we had a good time!"

"AN' WE'VE TRAVELED some. All the places I've been, I guess Frankford (Frankfurt), Germany was best. The people an' food an' everything suited me better...seemed mo' like home." 

Travel and appearing with Howlin Wolf and B .B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, however, are not what it's all about for Sleepy John. It's music. 

"Music...seems like it takes effect on me. When I'm alone, it's company to me. An' when I make music for other people. it makes me feel better." 

The Depression put an end to John's recording aspirations; Hammy Nixon's birth was never recorded so he can't even draw his Social Security. Yet here they are, about to board a plane and fly to Tokyo and sing "Tater-diggin' Man" and "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead. You Rascal You" to the applause of large crowds. 

Blues. Raunchy, shoot-from-the-hip blues that betides woe to the enemy and the fickle-hearted woman:

"Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
If that don't get her, 
I know my shotgun will." 

The afternoon wind shivers across the porch where Hammy has the three-year-old cuddled under his coat. A grey-striped kitten picks its dainty way through the pile of debris near the door, sniffing hopefully for an edible, finds none. It is time for old men to be by the fire. Sleepy John Estes calls to a boy who takes his arm and leads him toward the house. 

Sleepy John steps heavily onto the slanting, sagging porch. feels the hoards give under his weight. "Got to move" he says. But everyone else knows he doesn't really care.

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