Essay Non-Fiction posted February 14, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
1,900 words. The passion for this music stills exists today!

West Tennessee Blues

by papa55mike

Bold letters indicate a nickname, Italic letters indicate a song title.

There is a passion that exists deep in the hearts of Blues lovers all over West Tennessee. They know the music history of this area and the suffering of the artists who were dedicated to sharing West Tennessee Blues to the world.

I don't care if anyone wants to admit it, but the Blues is our country's music. It's the backdrop of American history, especially in the south.

The Blues came to us on a slave ship then slowly meandered its way up the Mississippi River. It was leaving its mark in every cotton field along the way. Every time you heard a "field holler" moaning in protest to the hot August breeze. His voice would unite the workers in song to bring a little hope to every needy soul.

When you hear the Blues with your heart instead of your ears, it begins to reach deep inside of you, carving out all of your problems with a song.

To me, there are three different regions of West Tennessee Blues. Brownsville, Jackson, and Henning, Tennessee. The thread of Blues music is woven deeply into each community.

Let's start with the Brownsville region and Blues poet Sleepy John Estes. He was born on January 25, either 1899 or 1900, to a family of sharecroppers. Sleepy John lost his eyesight at the age of nine when a friend threw a rock at him.

Sleepy John recorded many songs for Decca and Victor Records from 1929 to 1941, including Drop Down Mama and Someday Baby. Both are considered to be Pre-war Blues classics. He went on to record 57 albums and singles, many with his friends James Yank Rachell, Hammie Nixon, and John Henry Barbee. Sleepy John's music is also featured on 212 Blues compilation albums. You can't have a great southern Blues album without him on it.

Amazingly, this man disappeared from the music scene for over twenty years. Filmmaker, Dave Blumenthal, rediscovered Sleepy John in 1962. He talked him into signing a deal with Delmark Records. Sleepy John later toured the world where adoring fans could see the legend in person.

Sleepy John was preparing for a European tour when he had a stroke and passed away at his home on June 5, 1977.

James Yank Rachell was born sometime in 1910 (or 1903; there's some dispute about that) near Brownsville to a family of sharecroppers. He mostly taught himself to play the guitar, mandolin, harmonica and had a terrific voice. At an early age, Yank was influenced by Hambone Willie Newborn, also from Brownsville.

In Yank's teens, he started playing music with Sleepy John and Jab Jones. They formed the Three J's Jug Band and were an immediate success during the jug band era in Memphis. That lasted until the depression hit, and country Blues fell out of fashion. Sleepy John went to Chicago to play music, but Yank stayed home. He teamed with a young harmonica player by the name of Sonny Boy Williamson. They became a hit in West Tennessee. Sonny Boy talked Yank into moving to Chicago, where they recorded together several times.

There's a funny thing about Yank. He never trusted the lifestyle of a Blues player and kept another job outside the industry. Yank was either farming or working on the L&N Railroad.

When Sonny Boy was murdered in 1948, Yank gave up touring and settled in Indianapolis until his wife passed away. In the early 60s, when the Blues revival started, and Yank rejoined Sleppy John and toured colleges and folk festivals all over the south. When Sleepy John passed away, Yank continued his solo career. He became a regular at the legendary Slippery Noodle Blues club in Indianapolis until his death in 1997 at the age of 87.

The final member of the Tennessee Three is Hammie Nixon. Hammie was born in Brownsville on January 22, 1908. He was an orphan and raised by foster parents. Hammie began his music career by playing the harmonica. He later added the kazoo, guitar, and what he's famous for, playing the Jug. Playing the Jug is now a rare art form because very few artists play acoustic Blues anymore.

Hammie was one of the artists who helped bring the harmonica to the forefront of any band, especially a Blues band. In the early 1920s, Hammie met Sleepy John, and they would perform and record together for the next fifty years. He first recorded with Sleepy John in 1929, but Hammie also recorded with Little Buddy Doyle, Lee Green, Charlie Pickett, and Son Bonds. Hammie's last recording was Tapping That Thing in 1984, 55 years after his first session. After Sleepy John passed away, Hammie continued to play with many jug bands including the Beale Street Jug band, until his death in 1984.

Another Blues musician from Brownsville is Hambone Willie Newborn. He was a character in many ways. Not much is known about Hambone. He was reportedly born in 1899 somewhere around Brownsville. He made a name for himself playing fish fries and county dances with Yank Rachell. Hambone then hit the Mississippi medicine show circuit. It's been said that he mentored Sleepy John early in his career. Sleepy John was the one who told most of the stories about Hambone.

In 1929, while visiting Atlanta, Hambone had his only recording session with Vocalion. He recorded only six songs, including one of the most covered songs ever written, Roll And Tumble Blues.

Hambone's nickname came from his temper and jealous nature. If he caught you talking with his wife, you got the hambone right upside your head. That's what landed him in prison; he supposedly beat a man to death. It's rumored that he died in an Arkansas prison riot in 1948.

It's time to visit the Jackson Region. John Lee Curtis Sonny Boy Williamson was born in Jackson, Tennessee, during 1914. He was given his first harmonica at the age of ten, a Christmas gift from his mother. He taught himself from play by listening to the radio. Early in his music career, he was mentored by Sleepy John, Yank, and Big Joe Williams. Together, they began to play the local county festivals and country picnics in the 1930s.

From those modest beginnings, Sonny Boy went to be one of the most influential musicians during the Pre-war era. In 1937, Sonny Boy's down to earth songwriting, and terrific harmonica playing earned him a contract with Bluebird Records. During those 1937 to 1939 sessions, Sonny Boy recorded many of his classic hits. The first song on the list was the classic, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. It's been covered countless times by many artists over the last 83 years. Those sessions are still considered to be Blues standards to this day.

Throughout his short career, Sonny boy recorded over 120 songs for Bluebird and RCA Records. His sales always ranked among the top Blues players of the day. Sadly, Sonny Boy was brutally murdered in 1948 at the age of 34.

Another Jackson native is Big Maybelle. She was born Maybelle Louise Smith in Jackson on May 1, 1924. She amazed her family and friends with her big voice, singing spirituals, blues, and popular songs of the day. At the age of eight, she entered the Cotton Carnival talent contest in Memphis and won. Her raw, uninhibited emotion filled her church, and she carried this style throughout her career.

In 1936, Memphis bandleader, Dave Clark, took her under his wing. Big Maybelle began her long career in music. She recorded for Okeh Records, which included her hit One Monkey Don't Stop No Show and many others. Maybelle became the Queen Mother Of Soul when she switched to Savoy Records and recorded her biggest hit, Candy. Maybelle's legendary stage presence made her a regular at the Newport Jazz Festival in the late 1950s and 1960s. She shared the stage with greats like Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Big Joe Turner, and many others.

In all of the articles I've read about Maybelle, there was an underlying sadness in her soul. She failed at life and love many times, which led her to heroin addiction. Big Maybelle passed away on January 23, 1972, at the age of 47.

Now, onto the Henning region, which includes Ripley, Tennessee. Peetie Wheatstraw was born William Bunch on December 21, 1902, in Ripley. His family then moved to Cotton Patch, Arkansas. Bunch adopted the name, Peetie Wheatstraw when he visited the crossroads to sell his soul to the Devil. He then took the titles, The Devil's Son-in-law and The High Sheriff of Hell, and began to promote himself that way.

Peetie burst on the Blues scene when record companies were dumping all of the Blues artists. From 1930 to 1934, Peetie recorded over 175 songs. An unheard of number for the time. Peetie was never critically acclaimed. The sheer number of songs worked against him, and they all featured his signature saying, Oh well, well. But Peetie's fans adored him, and his live shows were spectacular.

For someone who used the legend of dealing with the Devil, his death was truly appropriate. On December 21, 1941, Peetie and two of his friends were on their way home from the liquor store to celebrate his 39th birthday. For some reason, they tried to beat a train coming down the tracks at full speed. They didn't make it. His two friends died instantly, Peetie died two hours later at the hospital. You can't outrun the Devil.

The story of John Henry Barbee has always been one of my favorites. William George Tucker was born in Henning, Tennessee, in 1905. Tucker changed his name to John Henry Barbee after the popular folk song. John Henry taught himself to play the guitar and harmonica by the age of 13. He started to play at parties and a few Juke Joints in the early 1920s. John Henry began to build a good reputation in the 1930s and 1940s by playing with artists like Sonny Boy Williamson. Big Joe Williams, Sunnyland Slim, and Sleepy John Estes.

John Henry got a good break when he recorded a single for Vocalion titled: Six Week Old Blues/God Knows I Can't Help It. The single sold very well, and Vocalion tried to contact him for a follow-up. They couldn't find him anywhere. It seems that John Henry came home early and found his wife with her boyfriend. He pulled out his gun and shot him. John Henry instantly fled for Chicago. He gave up his home and music career fleeing what he thought was a murder charge. The truth was, he barely wounded the man.

Twenty-five years later, Blues great, Willie Dixon sought out John Henry. He found him working in an ice cream parlor in Chicago. That's when he found out there was no murder charge. Dixon invited him to tour Europe with Lightnin' Hopkins and Howling Wolf - that, my friends, was a party!

After he returned to America, John Henry bought his first car. He was driving home one night, and a man stumbled off the curb, and John Henry accidentally killed him. He was sent to jail, and his case never made it to court. On November 3, 1964. John Henry passed away in prison, eleven days before his 60th birthday.

I hope you see the thread of West Tennessee Blues that is in the lives of all these artists. Each one passed down the tradition of the Blues to the next generation, and hopefully, it stills continues today.


I wrote this essay to read at a Black History program Monday night at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. I love the share the rich history of this area.

Many thanks, for stopping by to read
Have a great day and God bless.
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