Sleepy John Estes - guitar, vocals; Yank Rachell - mandolin, vocals
Sleepy John Estes is known for his distinct vocal style and country blues standards like "Someday Baby Blues," "I Ain't Gonn Be Worried No More," and his renditions of "Milk Cow Blues." By the time the Brownsville, Tennessee bluesman appeared at Newport in 1969 he was well into his 70s, yet his magnetism is still palpable in his versions, and his status as a musical legend is indisputable.
Among the pre-eminent pre-War bluesmen who made a stunning comeback during the early '60s folk blues revival, age had taken its toll on Estes. Nevertheless, he and his contemporaries Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James had triumphed at their Newport appearance in 1964, and in '69, Estes and mandolin accompanist Yank Rachell came back to perform their hat trick one more time.
Estes' father was a sharecropper and a musician and young John was working as a field hand himself when he began to play his own homemade cigar box guitars at the age of 19. Already partially blind, Estes played on the competitive Memphis music and jug band circuit, holding his own up against locals like Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and Son House. Recording in the '30s with Rachell for the Victor, Decca, and Bluebird labels, in later years they were joined by Hammie Nixon on harp. According to blues lore, Estes earned his nickname Sleepy John because he could fall asleep standing up. However, other accounts suggest it was an underlying medical condition or perhaps a conscious choice to "check-out" that contributed to his drowsy demeanor.
On his return to Newport in 1969 with Rachell, Estes and his crying vocal style were wide-awake, though he lets Rachell do most of the talking. Sharing a guitar that day with African guitarist Jean-Bosco Mwenda, Estes tuned up and took off with a handful of his own songs: The old-time, "You Shouldn't Say That" and the deep moan of "Rats in my Kitchen" were followed by the mournful "President Kennedy Stayed Away Too Long" and the yearning "Vernita."
An inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, Estes was influential not only to the bluesmen that followed him through that door, but to any folk or rock musician who picked up a guitar in an effort to work-out solutions to life's pains, problems, and predicaments. Resting in peace since 1977, god bless Sleepy John—he ain't gotta worry no more.