Sleepy John Estes

"Prewar Blues: Sleepy John Estes' 'Floating Bridge'"

                                    by John Irving from the site

I was initially introduced to the music of the great Sleepy John Estes through the record "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More," (1991/Yazoo) which is a wonderful collection of songs recorded by Estes and friends from 1929 to 1941. Throughout his lifetime, Estes worked with a variety of musicians including his lifelong friends, James "Yank" Rachell/guitar-mandolin and Hammie Nixon / harmonica, as well as Son Bonds/guitar and Charley Pickett / guitar. Estes possessed undeniable talent, but the role of his fellow musicians on his recordings should not be underestimated.

In voice and in lyric, Estes speaks with great emotion about his women, friends, neighbors, and many of the other folks with which he interacted in Tennessee. His role as documenter through song of daily life in Brownsville is unlike any that I can recall in music.

Country blues legend and Estes friend Big Bill Broonzy, in his book "Big Bill Blues," (De Capo Press/1992), wrote that "We called Sleepy John Estes' way of playing and singing the blues 'crying the blues,' because he really did cry when he was singing worksongs or some blues." Estes vocal talents, which included the use of an emotional vibrato as well as an unhurried tempo, lend themselves well to this description.

As the listener, you too begin to feel as if you too are a friend or neighbor of Sleepy John, in a world where life is hard...but the people are open-hearted and generally can be counted on to look out for one another. Although Estes sometimes gently alludes to a nefarious side of this world which he was not likely allowed to go into in any detail, his natural optimism is unstoppable and always he and the people described in his songs are able to find a way to get through another day.

Of the rich body of work that he created during his lifetime, one of the many standouts is a song in which Estes tells the story of his 1937 near drowning in Hickory, Kentucky, called simply Floating Bridge. One of the many interesting things about this song is that his words tell an undeniably frightening and powerful story, yet he sings it in his usual relaxed, albeit emotional, pace. It's certain that no one else but Estes could have written or sung this song with such tremendous impact.

As he tells the story, it's apparent that he was profoundly affected by this incident.

Now I never
will forget that floating bridge
Now I never will forget that floating bridge
Now I never
will forget that floating bridge.
Tell me five
minutes time
under water I was hid

As Estes describes his predicament the tempo of the song brings to mind a clock slowly and impassively ticking the seconds of his life away as he helplessly struggles in the water.

Now when I was going down
I throwed up my hands.
Please, take me on dry land.

Ultimately his salvation comes in the form of friend and fellow musician Hammie Nixon who, according to one account, pulls the nearly drowned Estes from the river.

Now they carried
me in the house
and they laid me
'cross the thing
'Bout a gallon 'n'
half muddy water I had drank

Estes is given another chance at life, however his ordeal is not over as he re-lives the horror of this experience, having come face to face with his own mortality. This causes him to reassess where he is and where he's going in life, and he finds himself caught in that classic blues artist's dilemma in which you could play the Blues at all hours of the night in house-rent parties, or you could be a God-fearing member of the church, but you couldn't be both.

Now my mama
often taught me,
Son, quit
playing a bum
Go somewhere
settle drown and make a crop

I too, never will forget that "Floating Bridge," nor Sleepy John Estes, the bluesman who sang about the people he knew and the experiences that he had in a voice filled with aneasy and touching honesty.

Note: "Floating Bridge" lyrics, courtesy of MCA Music(believed to be the publisher)


Leroy Carr

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Sleepy John Estes

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