Today in 1977 Sleepy John Estes, one of my favorite old blues singers, died of a heart attack. His rambling style is unique and the ghostly tenor of his voice is haunting.
Estes was the first blues singer I ever listened to. When I was a kid sometimes my Dad would take me to Cheapo Records in St. Paul to spend my allowance. Although CDs were popular I still bought cassette tapes because they were all I could afford. I usually picked up something I didn’t already have by the Beatles or Bowie.
For some reason one afternoon I checked out the blues section. I found Estes’ fine compilation I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More: 1929-1941 and was intrigued. They could record music back then? It started me on a journey of discovering blues, folk, and country from that period that has only gotten stronger with time.
Sleepy John is unique among blues singers of his era because he usually had a small band backing him. His mandolin player Yank Rachell is himself a legend. I love his simple, swinging style, and it goes nicely with Estes’ weepy vocal and confident country swagger.
His best songs include “Someday Baby” (which Dylan recorded and released as a single in 2006), the fun kazoo-led “I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More,” and “Floating Bridge,” a song I loved so much that I named my band after it. That or I just thought it sounded cool. Either way.
Do right by the memory of Sleepy John and check out some of his music sometime. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.