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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Today, June 5th, marks the 30th anniversary of the death of that great pre-war blues artist Sleepy John Estes - a man whose distinctive work influenced the Bob Dylan of 1965 so markedly. I hoped to track and trace this influence in the sizeable entry on Estes in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, reproduced here. Since the entry was published a year ago, Dylan's Modern Times has reworked another song I associate with Estes, his 'Someday Baby Blues', though without any credit to Estes. (Dylan's earlier performance of much the same song, at Toad's Place in 1990, is mentioned in the entry.) . . .

Estes, Sleepy John [1904 - 1977]
John Adam Estes was born outside Ripley, Tennessee on January 25, 1904, grew up in Brownsville, lost the sight in his right eye in a baseball accident in adolescence, learnt guitar, joined the great mandolin player Yank Rachell and harp and jug player Hammie Nixon, acquired his distinctive monicker in rather brutal reference to the narcolepsy from which he suffered, went to Memphis with Rachell & Nixon, played on the streets in a jug band and began his prolific recording career in Memphis in 1929. He was recorded there by Victor on eight separate days between his début session that September 17 and May 30, 1930, yielding 15 still-extant sides, of which 12 were issued. Moving to Chicago with Hammie Nixon in 1931, it took him some time to get back into a studio, but he did so in July 1935 (twice), on two consecutive days in August 1937 and once in April 1938 (these three in New York City), once in June 1940 and once in September 1941 (back in Chicago).

After World War II he made just two more Chicago sides, for the tiny Ora-Nelle label in 1948 but soon afterwards returned to Brownsville, Tennessee and took labouring work, though occasionally performing on the streets of Memphis as he had done nearly 30 years earlier. In April 1952 the great Sam Phillips recorded him at the Sun Studios in Memphis. HOWLIN’ WOLF’s career was beginning there; Sleepy John’s appeared to be ending. He made three sides at his first Sun session, all of them unissued; later that month he made four sides; none were issued until years afterwards.

He was back in Brownsville, almost 60 years old and close to penury when he was ‘rediscovered’ in 1962, made new records and worked the Folk Revival circuit of clubs, festivals (including NEWPORT 1964) and an American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe. As Dylan said, ‘there was a bunch of us…who got to see all these people close up - people like SON HOUSE, REVEREND GARY DAVIS or Sleepy John Estes. Just to sit there and be up close and watch them play, you could study what they were doing, plus a bit of their lives rubbed off on you. Those vibes will carry into you forever, really, so it’s like those people, they’re still here to me. They’re not ghosts of the past or anything, they’re continually here.’

There’s nothing peripheral about what Dylan has taken and remodelled from Sleepy John Estes. Who does this sound like? An artist of great originality, whose work combines traditional and self-penned material, who went through a ‘protest’ phase, is ‘...not a particularly accomplished guitarist’ and whose ‘broken, fragmented song’ is ‘held in tension by the contrast between the tendency to disintegration and the rhythmic impetus of his strumming.’ Well, yes, it is Sleepy John Estes but it might so easily be Touring Bob Dylan. (The quotes are from Paul Oliver’s 1969 book The Story Of The Blues.)

To listen to a sweep of Estes’ pre-war recordings is to have confirmed what Dylan himself hints at by his own prominent naming of Estes in his Bringing It All Back Home sleevenotes: namely that Estes is a seminal figure in Bob Dylan’s blues education. (Dylan mentions him again in the mid-60s: to JOHN LENNON in the limo-ride filmed for, but not used in, Eat The Document.) As so often, Dylan tells us something true but says it in so flip and casual a way that we tend to disregard it. In this case, his notes to his first ‘rock’ album begin by declaring (quietly): ‘i’m standing there watching the parade / feeling combination of sleepy john estes. jayne mansfield. humphrey bogart’ - and sure enough, it transpires that those distinctively ‘Dylanesque’ clunking blues from 1965 owe much to Sleepy John Estes’ pioneering work and very individual style, while the clear resemblance between Paul Oliver’s description of Estes and our own picture of the older Bob Dylan’s artistry suggests aspects of Sleepy John’s influence beyond those Dylan displayed back in 1965 that have remained and grown within him.

The evidence is everywhere. The very title of Estes’ first hit, ‘The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair’ (1929), indicates by its distinctive jerky rhythmic strut, an Estes trademark, just how songs like ‘California’, ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘From A Buick 6’ and ‘Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence’ are built to the Estes blueprint. You can hear it straight away in the special way the delivery of the line is chopped up to incorporate those odd, crucial pauses. Estes: ‘Now the, girl I love she got, long curly hair’; Dylan: ‘Well this, woman I got she’s, killin’ me alive.’ The half-correspondence of the words that begin those two lines merely adds to the certainty already felt that the one song has inspired the other.

Nine months after cutting ‘The Girl I Love’, which was to prove Estes’ most popular disc, he recorded a song he called ‘Milk Cow Blues’. It bears no resemblance to anyone else’s song of that name (and doesn’t mention milkcows): but it bears a very striking resemblance to ‘The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair’. It has the same knowing clunkiness, that hip manipulation of chunky pauses on the backbeat - a sort of sure-footed clog-dancing: and it is the clear model for ‘From A Buick 6’. The special rhythm is the same. The tune is the same. Dylan’s lyric even starts out in tribute to the Estes prototype. Where Dylan’s 1965 song begins ‘I got this, graveyard woman you know she, keeps my kid / But my soulful mama you know she, keeps me hid’, Estes opens this way: ‘Now, asked sweet mama let me, be her kid / She says I, might get ’bove you like to, keep it hid.’ And the first vinyl release of this Estes recording was in 1964.

The same Estes song, as it happens, offers some commonstock blues lines which have Dylan connections from elsewhere in his repertoire. The line after the opening couplet just quoted is one we find Dylan singing in ‘Blood In My Eyes’: ‘Well she looked at me, she begin to smile’, and the line that ends the Estes ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is ‘Now it’s a, slow consumption an’ it’s, killin’ you by degrees’. Dylan’s matching line, with matching pauses, tune and strut, is ‘Well if I, go down dyin’ you know she, bound to put a blanket on my bed.’

The very first track Estes recorded was his own version of BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON’s ‘Broke And Hungry’, which he either misheard or re-wrote, as ‘broken-hearted’, and which was given a characteristically lengthy Estes title, ‘Broken-Hearted, Ragged And Dirty Too’. This was the début recording that went unissued; he had another go just nine days later, and this time achieved release. The version Dylan performs on World Gone Wrong is far more similar to the Sleepy John Estes than to the 1940s Willie Brown version cited in Dylan’s sleevenotes.

‘Someday Baby Blues’ is Sleepy John Estes’ particularly heartfelt and individual variant of ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’, which has in turn been revised and revisited in several guises. CHUCK BERRY’s ‘Worried Life Blues’ uses the Estes chorus but thoroughly different verses; the Allman Brothers’ version of the MUDDY WATERS version, ‘Trouble No More’, does the opposite, reinstating an approximation of Estes’ verses while abandoning his chorus. When Bob Dylan sang it live at Toads Place, New Haven, Connecticut in 1990, it was recognised as the same song as Muddy Waters’, and duly appears in the various listings of his performances as ‘Trouble No More’ - yet really Dylan brings it all home to Sleepy John, reinstating his chorus and imbuing it with the customary Estesian pauses (‘Someday baby, you ain’t gonna worry, my mind, anymore’). The only vocal moment worth speaking of in Dylan’s befogged performance is the fair imitation of Estes’ voice he achieves on the penultimate delivery of that line.

The Estes voice, on his slower numbers, also possesses a painful, crawling quality, always threatening to break down, always wavering between esoteric possibilities. He pulls himself along his vocal line like a snail over pebbles. On the slow songs, even the awkward lengthiness of his titles enacts this tortuous slow motion, matching the delivery, a fine example being ‘Who’s Been Tellin’ You Buddy Brown Blues’. This is the very attentuation Dylan uses so effectively in the unreleased Basement Tapes song ‘I’m Not There (1956)’.

Estes’ ‘Drop Down Mama’, another ‘From A Buick 6’ prototype, has one of those ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ openings: ‘Go, ’way from my window quit scratchin’, on my screen’ and a refrain which you have only to hear Eastes deliver to connect with Dylan’s jerky 1965 blues again. ‘Now I may look like I’m crazy, poor John do know right from wrong’ is clearly the eccentric piece of scaffolding on which Dylan builds ‘Well I might, look like Robert Ford but I, feel just like a Jesse James.’

It could be added that the mild, unobtrusive element of social commentary implicit in Dylan’s early blues ‘Down The Highway’ is less in the spirit of his own ‘protest songs’ than of Estes’. At any rate these are wholly Estesian lines: ‘And your streets are gettin’ empty / And your highway’s gettin’ filled’ - and you have only to listen to four or five consecutive pre-war Estes recordings to hear how these apparently undistinguished phrases prove distinctively to belong to him.

‘Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)’ is another jerky blues, the vocal delivery an object lesson in the inspired eccentricity that sets the few aside from the many: the sort of vocal eccentricity that we may have found first in FATS DOMINO or BUDDY HOLLY or HOWLIN’ WOLF, in rock’n’roll or R&B, and which pulls us into this music when we’re very young because it speaks to us from a strange, magic kingdom alluringly unlike school. Anyone who ever felt that way can recognise the authentic pull of Sleepy John Estes, as Bob Dylan must have done. He probably heard this Estes record before any other: it was included on Sam Charters’ crucial The Country Blues LP issued back in 1959.

This track also offers a salutary reminder that there’s nothing exclusively postmodern about the self-reflexive text. More than 50 years before Dylan played with ‘I’ll be back in a minute... You can tell me, I’m back’ and ‘now I’m back on the track’ on his fine Oh Mercy recording ‘What Was It You Wanted?’, Estes was ending ‘Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)’ with this devilishly clever pay-off line: ‘Now special agent, special agent, put me off close to some town / Special agent, special agent, put me off close to some town / Now I got to do some recording: an’ I oughta be recordin’ right now!’

John Estes went to his final sleep back home in Brownsville, Tennessee on June 5, 1977.

[Sleepy John Estes: ‘The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair’, Memphis, 24 Sep 1929 & ‘Milk Cow Blues’, Memphis, 13 May 1930, both vinyl-issued on Sleepy John Estes 1929-1940, RBF RF-8, NY, 1964: the latter also on Sam Charters’ 2-LP box-set The Rural Blues, RBF RF-202, NY, 1964; ‘Broken-Hearted, Ragged And Dirty Too’, Memphis, 17 Sep 1929, unissued; ‘Broken-Hearted, Ragged And Dirty Too’, Memphis, 26 Sep 1929, RBF RF-8; ‘Someday Baby Blues’ & ‘Who’s Been Tellin’ You Buddy Brown Blues’, Chicago, 9 Jul 1935, The Blues Of Sleepy John Estes: Vol. 1, Swaggie S-1219, Australia, 1967. ‘Drop Down Mama’, Chicago, 17 Jul 1935, issued ditto & on The Blues In Memphis, 1927-39, Origin Jazz Library OJL-21, Berkeley, c.1969; ‘Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)’, NY, 22 Apr 1938, The Country Blues, RBF RF-1, NY, 1959; ‘Little Laura Blues’, Chicago, 24 Sep 1941, Treasury Of Jazz No. 30 (EP), RCA Victor 75.752, Paris, 1963. A terrific selection of pre-war Estes material, including all the above, is Sleepy John Estes: I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More: 1929-1941, Yazoo 2004, US, 1992.
Blind Lemon Jefferson: ‘Broke And Hungry’, Chicago, c.Nov 1926, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Volume Two, Milestone LP 2007, NY, 1968. Chuck Berry: ‘Worried Life Blues’, Chicago, 12 Feb 1960 (B-side of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, same session), Chess 1754, Chicago, 1960. Allman Brothers: ‘Trouble No More’, NY, Sep 1969; The Allman Brothers Band, Capricorn ATCO SD-33-308, NY, 1969. Muddy Waters: ‘Trouble No More’, Chicago, Oct 1955, Chess 1612, Chicago, 1955. Bob Dylan: ‘Trouble No More / Someday Baby Blues’, live New Haven, Connecticut, 12 Jan 1990.
Dylan quote re Estes & others ‘continually present’, interview San Diego, c.3 Oct 1993 by Gary Hill, Reuters, wired to US newspapers 13 Oct 1993; his Eat The Document outtake Estes mention transcribed by John Bauldie in Mojo no.1, London, 1993.]


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