Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interesting, but not essential, New Sleepy John Estes Release

On Highway 80 is the seventh album by Sleepy John Estes for Delmark which he shares with his longtime associate Hammie Nixon. This is a collection of previously unissued recordings that Estes and Nixon recorded in July 1974, prior to touring Japan. It is an interesting, although hardly essential addition to their discography with Estes and Nixon handling a variety of mostly traditional material and songs they had performed before. Estes was not the most accomplished guitarist but his simple rhythmic style could be effective and his crying vocals tugged at the heart while Nixon’s harmonica playing influenced John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson. It is interesting to hear the treatment of the material here from the opening Love Grows in Your Heart, a version of Careless Love. Nixon’s vocal on Potato Diggin’ Man, which might have benefited from a stronger accompaniment, while the vigorous I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead, has spirited kazoo and second vocal from Nixon. Several selections are traditional religious numbers including Holy Spirit, a moving number with Nixon taking the lead with Estes seconding the vocal, When the Saints Go Marching In, on which Estes takes the vocal lead, and Do Lord Remember Me with Nixon’ harp and lead vocal setting the tone. There are also two takes of President Kennedy, about the assassination of the President that Estes first recorded shortly after that horrible event. Nixon’s kazoo gives a jug band flavor to Corrine, Corinna, on which Nixon again seconds Estes’ vocal. The album includes a couple of tracks featuring the pair talking and closes with a rendition of his famous song commemorating their hometown, Brownsville Blues. Some of the accompaniments are a bit more ragged than other of their albums and this might be a difficult release to listen straight through. Estes is a very important artist, as a songwriter and as a vocalist. An excellent collection of his early recordings for Victor and other labels is I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929-1941) on Yazoo. For the recordings made after his rediscovery, recommended titles include his other Delmark albums such as The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, or Brownsville Blues. These should be available from most any good source for blues.

One other matter. I was chatting with Washington area blues artist Memphis Gold, and he mentioned that his father grew up around Estes and others. Interesting how blues roots run deep in families.

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