Saturday, July 03, 2004

Sleepy John Estes – Stone Blind Blues (Catfish, 1999)

The now defunct Catfish label put out a series of releases in the late 1990’s covering pre-war blues recordings. European labels have different copyright restrictions than American labels, so they are able to release compilations like this just 50 years after the recording dates. Sleepy John Estes was a singer – songwriter and guitarist who had a long career. He recorded in several contexts from solo to string band.

Several of the tunes have become standards over the years. “Broken Hearted, Ragged and Dirty Too” and “Someday Baby Blues” have been recorded many times by diverse artists over the years. There’s an interesting topical element to Estes music too. “Special Agent (Railroad Police Blues)” and “Lawyer Clark Blues” look at the Depression from different angles, first singing about the railroad detectives who harassed the hobos and then celebrating the virtues of an attorney who would work to help the poor.

Estes was solid if unspectacular guitarist, the power of his music came from the emotional depth of his voice. He played with some other interesting musicians, particularly the mandolin player Yank Rachell who added some wonderful texture to some tracks on this disc. Also, an unidentified kazoo (!) player adds a bit of hokum to the mix. Estes could play the blues, but like most musicians of the period, he was a songster who was comfortable in many formats.

It’s a shame Catfish is no longer in business, their discs were excellent summations of often overlooked artists. Estes is certainly worth your time and if you’re not able to track this disc down, looking for other recordings of his would still be worthwhile.

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