Wherefore Art Thou, Sleepy John Estes

We went clear the fuck out to Fort Pillow, which was hot as balls. And I am covered in mosquito bites. Then we tried to find Sleepy John Estes’ grave and we finally found the cemetery and we looked all through it and even took the find-a-grave picture of his gravestone as a guide, but we never found it. We found other Esteses, but whether they were sleepy, I cannot say; their gravestones were silent on the matter. I took a few pictures of them. And we did see the oldest synagogue in Tennessee and it is charmingly small. Like a large gingerbread house. And, my god, we saw this thing. I don’t… I can’t even begin… You hear about folk art installations, but I’ve never seen anything like this. None of my pictures do it justice. And then I dumped Dairy Queen in my purse. And it was awesome and wonderful. And I am so tired. But I think Brownsville is now one of my favorite places in Tennessee.

Edited to add: And we saw a camel!

7 thoughts on “Wherefore Art Thou, Sleepy John Estes

  1. So, you found Billy Tripp’s Mindfield….I’ve heard about it but I had no idea it was so large. Wow.

  2. Pictures don’t do it justice. I don’t know how anything but seeing it live could do it justice. Just seeing pictures, you don’t get the freaky feeling while your mind struggles to make any sort of sense of it. We both at first thought it was something to do with the electric company. And it’s right downtown. You’re driving by a cute little downtown and all these old houses and there, sticking up into the sky is this amazing thing.

    I really want to haul everyone I know over to see it.

  3. Don’t for get that in that trailer with the camel was a llama, 2 ponies, a little black pig and what I think was a young black cow.

    And that we saw too too many dead armadillos, a beagle with a squirrel in its mouth, and avoided hitting the turtle and the wild turkey in the road.

  4. The Wiki article on Estes shows a nice modern above-ground stone (died in 1977, so it’s not very ‘old blues man’…you may have been looking for something older than it really was). I was surprised he wasn’t buried in Brownsville.

  5. We probably should have taken pictures of all the (living) animals we saw. it was pretty amazing.

    Bridgett, no, believe me. After the debacle of trying to find the church (Google kept insisting that it was at the corner of 87 and Durhamville road, where there is a church, but no cemetery and the church, contrary to Google’s belief, is not the Elam Baptist Church) and finally up Durhamville Road and finding the Elim [sic] Baptist Church and some happy church folks in tie-dye who told us that their church, which was right behind the Elim Baptist Church was the old black Baptist church and all the places we could find graves, the spread of the graveyard (around two churches and then in a field on the other side of a treeline) meant the only effective way to even try to figure out where to look was to call up his gravestone on Find-a-Grave and try to use the background in the photo as a clue for where to look. So, we knew exactly what gravestone we were looking for.

    I feel one hundred percent confident that he is not around the churches unless he is now hidden in some trees (or the gravestone is missing) because there were fewer than 150 marked graves both yards combined and, for the most part, they’re grouped by families. So, we were suspicious we might still be in the wrong cemetery/ies because not only didn’t we find John, we found no Esteses at all.

    But, in the yard on the other side of the treeline, which was much less well-kept, I would say there were 200 or more stones and there were a bunch of Esteses in there. I just took the pictures I did because they both were Estes and they belonged to some fraternal organization I wanted to remember to look up when I got home.

    We felt much more confident that this is the part of the cemetery (or the cemetery–I honestly wasn’t sure if we were in one or in three that were all really close together) he was in if only because we couldn’t find any 1970s death dates in either of the other two but this one had burial dates throughout the 20th century and, if they kept with the burial patterns in the cemetery(ies), here were the Estes, so here’s where he’d be.

    But I don’t think either of us felt confident that we saw every stone in that cemetery–though we gave it a good try. It had only been partially mowed and the grass was so tall that it would have been quite easy to walk within ten feet of even a sizable stone and not seen it. And the Esteses were spread out, but were mostly in the middle of the cemetery, much of which was not mowed.

    So, I can’t say if his stone is still there and we just couldn’t find it or if someone got one hell of a souvenir that has value to only a handful of people, but I feel pretty confident that we were in the right spot. In fact, looking at the photo larger–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sleepy_John_Estes_grave_Durhamville_TN.jpg–if that’s the Durhamville Road up to the left there, that’s a corner of the graveyard we couldn’t get over to for all unkemptness.

    Durhamville isn’t very far from Brownsville at all. So, I suspect he was from Durhamville (which is now just these three cemeteries, four or five churches, St. Paul’s cemetery, a dead store, and some farms) which probably is technically Ripley (hence Wikipedia assigning Ripley as his birthplace) so they buried him back with his family. The cool thing is that, if he was “Going to Brownsville” from Durhamville, near those cemeteries, he would have gone out the Durhamville-Nutbush road and then taken “that right-hand road,” the Allan Cox Road, to get to Brownsville.

Comments are closed.