An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
23 June, 2010
"Expressman Blues" - John Estes
Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Fourteen: "Expressman Blues" performed by John Estes. "Vocal solo with piano, mandolin, guitar." Recorded in Memphis on May 17, 1930. Original issue Victor 23318B.
"Sleepy" John Estes was born on January 25, 1899 in Ripley, Tennessee. His father was a sharecropper who also played guitar. In 1915, the family moved to Brownsville, Tennessee. It was in Brownsville that Estes lost the sight in his right eye due to an accident that occurred during a baseball game. Due to the appearance of his blinded right eye, he was nicknamed "Sleepy."
By nineteen, Estes was working as a field hand and performing on guitar at local parties and picnics. During this period, he began performing with harmonica player Hammie Nixon (January 22, 1908 - August 17, 1984) and guitarist and mandolin player James "Yank" Rachel (March 16, 1910 - April 9, 1997). Estes would perform on and off with these two men for nearly fifty years.
Estes made his recording debut for Victor Records in 1929 in a session produced by Ralph Peer in Memphis. This recording of "Expressman Blues" was recorded roughly a year later. Estes is one of the few Anthology artists to weather the Depression. He continued to record regularly until 1941, working with such record labels as Decca and Bluebird. Estes briefly returned to recording in 1952 when he recorded for Sam Philips' Sun Records (meaning that he was recorded by the men who discovered both the Carter Family and Elvis Presley). Except for his Sun session, Estes remained retired from music until his rediscovery in 1962. Following his revival, Estes toured with Hammie Nixon and recorded several albums for the Delmark label. He continued to tour until his death from a stroke on June 5, 1977.
While Estes is the only artist credited on "Expressman Blues," he only plays guitar on this recording. The vocal is performed by mandolin player Yank Rachel. Born in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1910, Rachel is possibly the longest lived of the Anthology artists. Before retiring from music due to the Depression, Rachel recorded with such performers as Peetie Wheatstraw and the original Sonny Boy Williamson. Following his revival in the '60s, Rachell went on record for Delmark and Blue Goose, and to work with artists such as Taj Mahal and John Sebastian. He also appeared in the 1986 documentary Louie Bluie, directed by Terry Zwigoff, who later directed such films as Crumb and Ghost World. Rachell died April 9, 1997, the same year the Anthology was released on CD.
"Expressman Blues" is a hard driving blues with an impassioned vocal. I said expressman, expressman, lord, You have parked your wagon wrong. Lord, you have parked your wagon wrong. You took and moved my good gal, When I was a long long way from home.
Don't a woman make a man do things, And she know darn well that's wrong. Lord, she know darn well that's wrong. Lord that's why you hear poor James, Singin' these lonesome song.
Babe if you never, You never hear me any more. Lord, hear me any more. Lord you can 'member one morning baby, When I walked up on your porch.
Well I'll sing this song. Jim ain't gon' sing no more. Lord, ain't gon' sing no more. I'm gonna put this mandolin under my arm, To the North Memphis Cafe I'll go.
The words to "Expressman Blues" are almost incidental to the incendiary performance by vocalist/mandolinist Rachel, guitarist Estes and pianist Jab Jones. The song deals with many common tropes of blues lyrics: The train that takes the loved one a "long long way from home; the woman who does wrong; the threat that the man will go away and will never be heard "any more"; self-referential lyrics (Rachel refers to himself as "James" and "Jim" in the song). What makes this recording stand out Rachell's impassioned vocal and his driving mandolin, as well as Jones's barrel house piano. Rather than repeating the entire first line (as was common in the blues form), Rachel repeats only the last part of the line, following a drawn out "loooord." It is one of the most modern sounding recordings on the Anthology. In his notes, Smith points out that by 1930, the banjo was going out of style, replaced by the guitar or (as in this case) guitar/mandolin combos.
"Expressman Blues" is the first of two recordings on the Anthology to feature John Estes. The second recording, "Milk Cow Blues," appears on the posthumously released fourth volume. "Expressman Blues" is also the second of three blues recordings in a row and is the last track on the first disc of volume three, "Songs."
The Shameless Plug Department: The sixth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is finally up! It's an all fiddle episode featuring fiddle tunes from both black and white artists, as well as three tracks from the Middle East! Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?
You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!
Remember that I host "Doin' The Thing," a weekly jazz program on KRML 1410 AM and 94.7 FM in Carmel, California. The show airs from 8 PM to 10PM (Pacific Time) on Sunday nights. You can also listen online by visiting the KRML website at 8 PM Pacific, 11 PM Eastern Time. Please tune in and give me feedback!
Here's a 1993 performance by Yank Rachel performing at the Chicago Blues Festival.
Here's Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon performing "Careless Love" in 1976.
This here's a YouTube user identified only as Radioshoe performing a solo guitar version of "Expressman Blues."