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.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Starkloff Saved St. Louis during the Pandemic of 1918

St. Louis Post Dispatch - July 9, 2006

The 1918 flu is the subject of "The Great Influenza," an award-winning history written by John M. Barry and published in 1994. 

Although the book mentions St. Louis only in passing, Barry said in a recent phone interview, "St. Louis was a very interesting place in 1918. Now it's being studied to see what we can learn - whether the city had aggressive leadership or just plain luck." 

Luck? William Stanhope of St. Louis University's School of Public Health says St. Louis was lucky, but not in the sense that the Spanish Flu merely brushed against the city in random fashion. 

'This city was incredibly lucky," says Stanhope, whose research has delved deeply into the city's flu response. The reason for St. Louis' luck: "It had a hard-nosed health commissioner - and it had a mayor with the guts to back up the health commissioner." 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rochester Blues Artist: Joe Beard

Joe Beard
A club in Chicago. A jam session. It's 1967, maybe '68, and Joe Beard is playing a John Lee Hooker song, "Sallie Mae."

"There was a guy standing at the bottom of the stairs," Beard says. "He had one of his arms in a cast. Watching every note I hit. And after I'm done playing, he comes up and says to me, 'Where did you learn to play like that? You play that better than John Lee Hooker.' I said, 'I learned it from John Lee Hooker.'

"And he says to me, I am John Lee Hooker.'"

A lot of guitarists probably learned a few licks by listening to John Lee Hooker records, but Hooker didn't turn up at their shows. Beard is a cool blues star in that cosmos. The music, and the historic musicians who created it, have been drawn to his modest gravitational pull.

There was B. B. King, before Beard himself ever thought to pick up a guitar.

And Albert King. "Albert King liked nobody," Beard says. "Nobody could deal with Albert King. He and I were best of friends.''

And Little Milton, "he didn't socialize well with people," Beard says. Except Beard.

And, "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, every time he was in the area, I'm the guy he wanted to open the show for him."

And Buddy Guy. Beard toured with Guy and Junior Wells a lot. When Guy played Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre at last year's Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Beard was hanging out backstage. Guy called him out, and they played Gambler's Blues together. "He wanted me to do more," Beard says. "But I didn't want to."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Unearthed Headstone of a Rock N' Roll Legend

© Robert Birdsong
Jackie Brenston—the singer/saxophone player who, along with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, recorded the epic 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” the first ever No.1 hit on Chess Records, which some scholars consider one the first recorded rock ‘n roll songs—was thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave at Heavenly Rest Cemetery in the small hamlet of Lyon, just outside his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. According to his obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, Brenston suffered a heart attack and died at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis on December 15, 1979. Reverend X.L. Williams presided over his funeral at Damascus M.B. Church on December 23, 1979, and the Delta Burial Corporation, of Clarksdale, subsequently buried the World War II veteran in the military section of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.[i] Living Blues magazine editor Jim O’Neal, who conducted two interviews with Brenston in the 1970s, visited the burial site shortly thereafter and photographed his temporary grave marker—a small metal plaque displaying a card on which someone typed his death date and his name, “Mr. Jackie Brenston.” Until recently, it was believed to have been his only grave marker.

© Jim O’Neal 1979
Having recently assisted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in the unearthing the long lost military headstone of eminent blues fiddler Henry “Son” Simms, Clarksdale native and local historian Robert Birdsong developed a renewed sense of determination in the winter months of 2014/2015. He never thought such a discovery was possible. He had spent much of his spare time digging through county records, scrolling through old newspapers, and traipsing through overgrown cemeteries in search of the unmarked graves of his blues heroes, but his exhaustive efforts had amounted to only a single discovery—the unmarked grave of Big John Wrencher, located not far coincidentally from the headstone of Simms at Shufordville Historic Cemetery in Lyon. The seemingly impossible discovery of Simm’s headstone, indeed, transformed Birdsong’s dismay into energetic optimism, activating his expectant quest to find the supposed unmarked grave of Jackie Brenston.

Armed with biographical knowledge and a local obituary, he visited the late Myrtle Messenger, caretaker and manager of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, who directed him to the section reserved for the military. Birdsong inspected the veterans’ graves and noticed several interesting gaps in the rows of markers. Believing that some of the open spaces might be the result of markers sinking into the earth, he procured a long probe and started penetrating the ground in suspicious areas. It did not take long, much to his delight, to find an unidentified object under the surface. Utilizing his reliable shovel, Birdsong excavated the flat, metal headstone of an army private who had served in World War II. His eyes widened as he read the raised letters at the top, which spelled the name “Jack Brenston.” 

© Jim O'Neal 1979
While the birth date on the marker, August 24, 1928, corresponds with the date recorded in his army enlistment records, Brenston’s date of birth has been the subject of some debate.[ii] In a 1974 interview, Brenston told Jim O’Neal and Amy van Singel that he was born on August 24, 1927—the same date as the marker only a year earlier. His obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, however, lists his birthdate as August 15, 1930.[iii] O’Neal suggests a potential explanation for the discrepancies in his lengthy obituary for Living Blues, in which he argues that Brenston falsified his birth date to qualify for the armed services in 1944.[iv] A survey of secondary scholarship supports O’Neal’s theory in revealing the prevalence of false information volunteered by enlistees during World War II. A deeper analysis of his military enlistment records and personal interviews, moreover, suggests his mother, Ethel Brenston, likely falsified information to enlist her problematic teenage son in the military. 

Jackie Brenston (c. 1952) 
Brenston was admittedly unruly in his youth; he ran away from home several times in the early 1940s. With the nation embroiled in the bloody carnage of World War II, the rebellious fifteen-year-old returned home from his most recent escape attempt and volunteered—much to the delight of his mother, who, Brenston recalled, had to provide guardian approval for her underage son—to enlist in the army. The military, by law, did not accept anyone under the age of seventeen, but some scholars have pointed out that “underage enlistment was relatively common” in the 1940s.[v] Brenston claimed to have served for over three years in the 82nd Airborne, but the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded his enlistment date as January 10, 1946, and his release date as December 18, 1946, which amounted to less than one year of service. Considering that scores of “underage recruits” managed to enlist “through elaborate schemes, cleverly altered documents, and with assistance from military recruiters and parents,” Ethel Brenston likely volunteered her uncontrollable son for military service, perhaps even with the help of recruiters, who knowingly falsified his enlistment records. It remains difficult to discern, however, the exact length of time Brenston spent in the military during the 1940s.[vi].

After unearthing and placing the small, flat military marker of Brenston back on top of his grave, Birdsong realized it was especially vulnerable to souvenir-seeking tourists, many of whom flocked to Clarksdale each year to visit local clubs, attend festivals, and visit historic sites. He, therefore, contacted Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith, who operates a local monument company and previously donated the headstone for Big John Wrencher, and talked him into mounting the military marker on top of a granite base. Never thought to have existed, the military headstone of Jackie Brenston now sits securely atop his grave in Heavenly Rest Cemetery. The burial ground, which awaits its turn to receive a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, also contains the unmarked grave of saxophone player Raymond Hill, who performed alongside Brenston in Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.

© Robert Birdsong

i] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[ii] Jackie Brenston, interview by Jim and Amy O’Neal, November 11, 1974, “Subject File: Jackie Brenston,” Blues Archive, University of Mississippi.

[iii] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[iv] Jim O’Neal, “Jackie Brenston,” Living Blues 45/46 (Spring 1980): 18.

[v] See Melinda L. Pash, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 230 note 4; and Colin Campbell, “For Some Veterans, Underage Enlistment is Point of Pride,” The Baltimore (MD) Sun, Nov 10, 2013, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-10/news/bs-md-underage-veterans-20131110_1_drill-instructor-enlistment-bronze-star [accessed March 29, 2015].

[vi] Joshua Ryan Pollarine, “Children at War: Underage Americans Illegally Fighting the Second World War,” thesis, The University of Montana, 2008, p.2.