The Blues has taken on many forms throughout history, in the case of young Willie Johnson the blues came through the word of the good Lord. From age four Willie told his family he would be a preacher. Johnson and his dad built a guitar out of a cigar box and Willie learned how to play using a pocket knife as a slide.
Blind Willie Johnson played and sang his unique versions of favorite hymns and spirituals for the remainder of his life. Until his death in 1945, Willie traveled the south from street corner to backyard spreading his Gospel.
Willie frequented New Orleans, playing and preaching on the corners of the French Quarter. legend has it he was arrested once for “starting a riot” outside the courthouse with a powerful rendition of the song ‘If i Had My Way I’d Tear This Building Down’.
If you’ve already heard of Blind Willie Johnson, that’s probably due to the fact that two of the greatest recording artists of all time covered a song first recorded by Willie. Dylan and Led Zeppelin both recorded powerful versions of the the song ‘In My Time of Dying’ which is a slightly altered version of Blind Willie’s ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed‘
Obviously, Being Blind wasn’t the only Obstacle Sleepy John had to endure. His nickname spurs from his tendency to fall asleep while sitting on a stool or even standing up. These unintentional naps were later diagnosed as Narcolepsy, which is caused by blood pressure irregularity.
While there are no actual accounts (that I could find) of Sleepy falling asleep on-stage, I’d have to imagine when he was touring around the South playing every night, it happened at some point. Wouldn’t that be a site?
Estes was mentioned in the memoirs of Big Bill Broonzy as having judged a guitar contest in Chicago. Memphis Minnie had just recently moved to town, and found herself in a guitar duel with Big Bill. In a glorious upset Minnie beat Bill Broonzy and became wildly popular in the city’s blues circuit, all thanks to her fellow Tennessean, Sleepy . Whenever Sleepy John and his band were in Chicago they were regularly hired by Al Capone (who was crazy about the blues) and his people to play private parties and events. Now that sounds like a right proper good time to me.