SLEEPY JOHN ESTES I Ain’t Gonna Be Worried No More (Monk)
Tennessee-born Estes was a blues singer whose works were covered, or reworked, by a range of notable heavy hitters, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters. This compilation brings together 24 of his songs, recorded between 1929 and 1937 in Memphis, Chicago and New York.
What’s immediately apparent about the early recordings in this collection are how embellished they are. Perhaps wrongly, my perception of early acoustic blues has been coloured by Robert Johnson’s slim discography, so it’s a surprise bordering on a shock to discover a Depression-era blues musician surrounding his own voice and guitar with tonal colourings such as piano, mandolin (a calliope-like tinkling that covers much of the album), harmonica and kazoo. The highlight from this period is probably the opening “The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair”, later sufficiently modified by Zep at the BBC for the quartet to feel deserving of co-writing credits.
A five year gap in the collection’s chronology is broken by the 1935 recording “Down South Blues”, and with it comes a dramatic change in style. The ensemble is stripped back to just Estes and harmonica player Hammie Nixon, the sound suddenly becoming more powerful and hard-hitting. Upping the tempo, “Stop That Thing” almost sounds like a prehistoric precursor of modern day dance music, not because of an abundance of bass or beats (it boasts neither) but because of its frenetic urgency, which seems purposely designed to accompany social interaction on a large scale.
Monk is an Italian label whose stock in trade is the reissuing of public domain blues recordings on vinyl. The packaging is minimalist, with no information other than recording dates, locations and lineups; there’s no discussion of the music or the artist. Probably the best thing that can be said about the sonics is that at least these recordings are old enough to be practically beyond further ruination, the hiss of needle on shellac towering over anything even a substandard modern vinyl pressing could hope to add to the sound.