Waterman column re-post
Wed Jun 17 11:17:22 EDT 1998
Zeller Toby Levy tells me that my earlier post of the Waterman column may
have gone out with strange formatting, and strange characters sprinkled in
it. He was also kind enough to clean it up and make it look pretty for us.
So for anyone who had trouble with it, here it is again...
The first time that I ever heard blues man John Estes was at the 1964
Newport Folk Festival. I had come to the festival looking after another
blues singer but made a point of listening to Estes because I had
already heard an album that he had made for Delmark Records.
I remember that he sang songs about the people of Brownsville,
Tennessee, the small town where he lived.
And so 34 years later, I went to Brownsville last Sunday as John
Estes' home, a two room shack that silently spoke of decades of poverty
for the people who had lived within, was being dedicated as a tourist
attraction for the town.
Estes, nicknamed "Sleepy John" because of his penchant for napping,
had never made much money in his lifetime. He recorded from 1929 all the
way until shortly before his death in 1977 but sales were meager.
He went blind as a young man and was barely able to earn a living as
a musician, never being as popular in this area as the Memphis Jug Band
or Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers.
But his real talent lay in his songwriting ability and some of the
material that he wrote eventually found its way into the repertoire of
white artists long after his death.
Among his better known songs were "Drop Down, Mama" and "Diving Duck
Blues." Artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal had done
Sleepy John's songs over the years.
In 1997, Led Zepplin issued a CD culled from old BBC tapes and Estes'
"The Gal I Love Got Long Black Wavy Hair" was included. With sales in
the hundreds of thousands, there should have been significant money
coming in to the estate.
I didn't even know that Sleepy John's widow was still alive until I
heard a few months ago that she was living in terrible poverty. I did
some investigating and found that she was barely getting by on a small
Social Security check and food stamps.
A check with the publishing company that had been receiving the Led
Zepplin royalties showed that the four members of the group was claiming
co-composer's credit along with John Estes. That meant that his estate
was going to be getting only one fifth of the writer's share.
Well, that battle will be waged at some point in the future but, in
the meantime, Bill Ellis wrote a fine piece in the Memphis Commercial
Appeal last Friday and then tracked down $3,000.00 in royalties that the
publisher had sent to the Song Writer's Guild after saying that the
Estes estate was unfindable.
When I went to Brownsville on Sunday, I met Ola Estes and a growing
ensemble of relatives who hovered close to her, uncertain of what was
happening but optimistic that their scent for new money would be
Ola Estes is quiet and shy. I brought her some papers to sign
authorizing a company to begin a world wide search of John Estes song
titles and the artists who have recorded the material.
I had hoped to have an opportunity to speak with her privately and
tell her of my admiration and affection for her husband. However,
relatives swarmed around her every move and she remained the focal point
of their attention. I finally took one of her sons aside and tried to
speak to him seriously.
I told him that he had the responsibility to protect his mother's
money and safeguard it for her future. The real problem was not from
strangers, I told him. It was going to be from relatives who thought
that a cash cow had been gifted into the family.
Whatever money that his father's songs was going to bring forth, it
was not for skateboards and Michael Jordan Nikes. It was to provide for
his mother in her remaining years.
He looked at me and nodded his head. Maybe I got through to him. But
As I drove home from Brownsville, I remembered being with Sleepy John
at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He had just been paid by check and I
asked if he wanted me to bring him cash instead.
I collected the money and returned to the stage area. I pulled up a
chair and sat down next to Sleepy John.
"John," I said. "Put out your right hand and take this money from me.
These are one dollar bills, Put them in your right pants pocket."
After he had folded the money and put it away, I handled him more
"These are five dollar bills, John. Put these in your left pants
Then I gave him the rest of the money.
"These are all ten dollar bills. Put them away in your wallet."
After he had tucked his wallet away safely, John reached up his hand
and touched my wrist.
"Thank you for doing that," he said. "Nobody ever fixed my money for
I thought about that as I drove home last week. Safeguarding John
Estes' money had been simple enough years ago.
Looking after his widow's money is going to be a whole lot more
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