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Sleepy John Estes

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Sleepy John Estes
Estes (seated, right) with Hammie Nixon and Yank Rachell, early 1970s
Estes (seated, right) with Hammie Nixon and Yank Rachell, early 1970s
Background information
Birth nameJohn Adam Estes
Born(1899-01-25)January 25, 1899
Ripley, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedJune 5, 1977(1977-06-05) (aged 78)
Brownsville, Tennessee, U.S.
GenresCountry blues
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • Guitar
  • vocals
Years active1929–1977

John Adam Estes[1] (January 25, 1899[2] or 1900[3] – June 5, 1977),[4] known as Sleepy John Estes, was an American blues guitarist, songwriter and vocalist. His music influenced such artists as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.

Life and career[edit]

Estes was born in Ripley, Tennessee,[1] either in 1899 (the date on his gravestone) or 1900 (the date on his World War I draft card).[3] In 1915, his father, a sharecropper who played guitar, moved the family to Brownsville, Tennessee. Not long after, Estes lost the sight in his right eye when a friend threw a rock at him.[4] At the age of 19, while working as a field hand, he began to perform professionally, mostly at parties and picnics, with the accompaniment of Hammie Nixon, a harmonica player, and James "Yank" Rachell, a guitarist and mandolin player. Estes continued to work on and off with both musicians for more than fifty years.[1] He also performed in medicine shows with Willie Newbern.[3]

At the suggestion of Jim Jackson,[3] Estes made his debut as a recording artist in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1929, at a session organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records.[4] He recorded the tracks "Drop Down Mama" and "Someday Baby Blues" with Nixon in 1935. He later worked with Son Bonds and Charlie Pickett.[5] He went on to record for Decca Records and Bluebird Records, with his last prewar recording session taking place in 1941.[4] He made a brief return to recording at Sun Studio in Memphis in 1952, recording "Runnin' Around" and "Rats in My Kitchen", but otherwise was out of the public eye in the 1940s and 1950s.

Estes sang with a distinctive "crying" vocal style. He frequently teamed with more capable musicians, such as Yank Rachell, Hammie Nixon, and the piano player Jab Jones. Estes sounded so much like an old man, even on his early records, that blues revivalists reportedly delayed looking for him because they assumed he would have to be long dead (and because the musician Big Bill Broonzy had written that he was dead). By the time he was tracked down by the blues historians Bob Koester and Samuel Charters in 1962, he was completely blind and living in poverty. Along with his wife, Ann, who took many of the iconic photos of Estes found in blues books and album covers, Sam Charters filmed Estes performing, sitting in front of his shack near Brownsville. Blind and frail, he became the heart and soul of the Charters' movie, "The Blues," that was not released widely until 2020, in a Document Records package titled "Searching for Secret Heroes." He resumed touring with Nixon and recording for Delmark Records.[5] Estes, Nixon and Rachell appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.[6]

Many of Estes's original songs were based on events in his life or people he knew in his hometown, Brownsville, such as the local lawyer ("Lawyer Clark Blues"), the local auto mechanic ("Vassie Williams' Blues"), or an amorously inclined teenage girl ("Little Laura Blues").[5] In "Lawyer Clark Blues", about the lawyer and later judge and senator Hugh L. Clarke, whose family lived in Brownsville, Estes sang that Clark let him "off the hook" for an offense. He also dispensed advice on agricultural matters ("Working Man Blues")[7] and chronicled his own attempt to reach a recording studio for a session by hopping a freight train ("Special Agent [Railroad Police Blues]"). His lyrics combined keen observation with an ability to turn an effective phrase.[8][9]

Some accounts attribute the nickname Sleepy to a blood pressure disorder or narcolepsy. Bob Koester, the founder of Delmark Records, said that Estes simply had a "tendency to withdraw from his surroundings into drowsiness whenever life was too cruel or too boring to warrant full attention".[8][10] Estes himself explained that the nickname was born of his exhausting life as both musician and farmer. "'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.'"[11]


Estes's grave in Durhamville, Tennessee, 2008

Estes had a stroke while preparing for a European tour and died on June 5, 1977, at his home of 17 years in Brownsville, Haywood County, Tennessee.[4][12][13] He is buried at Elam Baptist Church Cemetery in Durhamville, Lauderdale County, Tennessee.[13]

His grave marker reads:[2]

Sleepy John Estes
"..ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore"
In Memory
John Adam Estes
Jan. 25, 1899
June 5, 1977
Blues Pioneer
Guitarist – Songwriter – Poet

The epitaph "..ain't goin' to worry Poor John's mind anymore"[2] is derived from his song "Someday Baby Blues." "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More" was recorded in 1935,[14] and in his song "Drop Down Mama", also recorded in 1935, Estes referred to himself as "Poor John". His grave is located off a country road and at the far end of the cemetery, adjacent to a small grove of trees, secluded but not hidden.

In 1991, Estes was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.[12]


Led Zeppelin's lead singer, Robert Plant, named Estes as one of his earliest influences.[15] Bob Dylan mentioned Estes in the sleeve notes for his album Bringing It All Back Home (1965).[16] In an interview in 1970 published in Lennon Remembers, John Lennon recalled of the Beatles' early days that "We were all listening to Sleepy John Estes and all that in art school, like everybody else."[17]

Estes's former two-room home is on display in Brownsville, Tennessee, USA alongside Tina Turner's Flagg Grove School and museum.[18]



  • The Legend of Sleepy John Estes (Delmark, 1963)[19][20]
  • Broke and Hungry (Ragged and Dirty, Too) (Delmark, 1964)
  • Electric Sleep (Delmark, 1968)
  • Brownsville Blues (Delmark, 1965)
  • Down South Blues (Delmark)
  • Sleepy John Estes in Europe (Delmark, 1999)


  • Sleepy John Estes, 1929–1940 (RBF Records)
  • Complete Recorded Works 1929–1941, vols. 1 and 2 (Document)
  • I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929–1941 (Yazoo)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Sleepy John Estes". Archived from the original on June 5, 2008. Retrieved July 26, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Inscription on the grave marker of John Adam Estes (Sleepy John Estes), in Elam Baptist Church Cemetery, on Durhamville Road in Durhamville, Lauderdale County, Tennessee.
  3. ^ a b c d Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. pp. 239–240. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  4. ^ a b c d e [1] Archived January 18, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ a b c Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-85868-255-6.
  6. ^ "Sleepy John Estes Biography". Oldies.com. June 5, 1977. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  7. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-306-80743-5.
  8. ^ a b Charters, Samuel. Sweet as the Showers of Rain. Oak Publications. pp. 68–82.
  9. ^ Charters, Samuel. Liner notes. Sleepy John Estes, 1929–1940.
  10. ^ Kent, Don. Liner notes. I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929–1941.
  11. ^ DeMuth, Jerry (November 11, 1971). "At Home With Sleepy John Estes -". Downbeat Magazine: 29.
  12. ^ a b "Sleepy John Estes". Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Archived from the original on April 16, 2009. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  13. ^ a b Norris, Sharon (2000). Haywood County Tennessee. Black America Series. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-0605-0.
  14. ^ "Sleepy John Estes". Yazoo Records. 2000. Archived from the original on May 3, 2009. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  15. ^ 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Robert Plant. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 30 June 2015.
  16. ^ "John Adam Estes". John-meekings.co.uk. June 5, 1977. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  17. ^ Wenner, Jann; Lennon, John (2000). Lennon Remembers. London/New York: Verso. p. 13. ISBN 9781859846001.
  18. ^ "Sleepy John Estes House in Brownsville, TN - Tennessee Vacation". www.tnvacation.com. Retrieved June 11, 2021.
  19. ^ "The Best of the Week's New Albums". Billboard. Cincinnati. January 12, 1963. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  20. ^ "Estes, Sleepy John". Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog. 17 (3). Boston: W. Schwann, Inc. 1965. Retrieved June 18, 2019.

External links[edit]