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Album Review

During the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes experienced what the entertainment industry referred to as a comeback. This meant that a young and ethnically diverse generation of listeners was able to hear him perform in person, creating a surge in popularity that led to further recording sessions and a European tour while generating interest in the records he'd made prior to the Second World War. In 2007, Estes' early works were remastered, annotated, and reissued by JSP on the four-CD set Legendary Country Blues Artists along with recordings of comparable vintage by James "Yank" Rachell, Son Bonds, and Charlie Pickett. The radial pattern of this collection is geographically centered in Brownsville, Tennessee, northeast of Memphis and not far from Ripley where Estes was born in January 1904. JSP's selection begins with 14 sides cut for the Victor label in Memphis during the autumn of 1929 and the spring of 1930. These were variously released as by Estes, Rachell, or the Three J's Jug Band. The participation of pianist Jab Jones constituted a strong link with the Memphis Jug Band, and Rachell's mandolin compares nicely with that of Charlie McCoy. Estes' high-pitched vocals are similar to the keening of Frankie Half Pint Jaxon and J.B. Lenoir. The rural sounds of the duos, duets, and small groups in this set have tones and textures in common with those by the Mississippi Sheiks and Peg Leg Howell, minus the fiddles.

The first of Estes' 30 Decca recordings were made in Chicago in July 1935; more than half were waxed in New York in 1937 and 1938. In June, 1940 Estes was back in Chicago waxing what were to be his last six Deccas in collaboration with guitarist Robert Nighthawk. The third disc in this set is devoted to the early recordings of Yank Rachell. Although he is mainly remembered as a mandolin player, this set provides numerous examples of his guitar technique as well. Rachell was a convincing vocalist who sounded at times a little like the young Muddy Waters. Many of his sides, which were cut in Chicago and New York during the years 1934-1941, feature harmonica legend John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson and master percussionist Washboard Sam. The fourth disc opens with Rachell but is mainly devoted to Brownsville Son Bonds, who sometimes emulated the style of East St. Louis legend Peetie Wheatstraw and in turn appears to have had some measure of influence on John Lee Hooker. There's also a fair amount of action by mouth organist Hammie Nixon, who put down the harp and blew jug on four gospel tunes recorded in 1934. Estes is heard on some of the Bonds sides, as well as a set of hokum performances stoked with kazoo and washtub bass which were recorded for Victor's Bluebird series in 1941 by a group billed as the Delta Boys. This outstanding archive of classic rural blues closes with four titles cut in New York in early August 1937 by Charlie Pickett, Nixon, and pianist Lee Brown. It's worth noting that the Document label has devoted an entire CD to Brown's recordings from the years 1937-1940.

The blues compiled on JSP's Sleepy John Estes box is strongly steeped in the lessons of real life. Stories are woven throughout the music and the textual annotations that come with each disc in the set. As members of a racially designated underclass, each of these men subsisted throughout most of their lives as manual laborers. Estes for example was a born sharecropper, while Rachell farmed and worked the railways. Life was tough and death could be sudden. Williamson, in fact, was robbed and murdered while walking home from a gig on the South Side of Chicago in June 1948, less than a year after Bonds was shot to death while sitting on his front porch at midnight in Dyersburg, just north of Ripley. Estes lived until 1977, Nixon passed in 1984, and Rachell survived into 1997. Some of the material on this set was reissued by JSP in 2002 on a double-disc compilation, The Legendary 1928-1930 Recordings, along with tasty cuts from Cannon's Jug Stompers and the Noah Lewis Jug Band. Other labels which have made passes at reproducing these early sides include Document, Classic Blues, Yazoo, and Fremeaux. JSP's four-CD box set is by far the most thorough and comprehensive survey of historic early sides by Estes and his running buddies from Brownsville. It is recommended for casual listening while preparing food at home, working in the garden, or driving around on back roads.


Genre: Blues

Years Active: '80s, '90s

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