'The Milk Cow Blues'—Alive and Well 80 Years Later

Aug 30, 2013

Sleepy John Estes was a Tennessee-based blues singer of the 1920’s and 30’s. Though not a flashy guitarist, his voice was packed with power, and the songs he wrote have lasted through the years to be sung by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.

Based in Memphis, his sound had elements of the popular regional music of the day including ragtime and folk. Also lending a country flavor to this 1930 recording of “Milk Cow Blues” is the prominent mandolin of Yank Rachell. Although Estes composed some beloved blues standards (“Drop Down Mama” and “Someday Baby”), he lived in relative poverty. Late in his life he was part of the folk-blues revival of the 1960’s and did receive some much-deserved attention.

Films of Sleepy John Estes are rare, but I did find this footage with Hammie Nixon on harmonica:

Taj Mahal is a blues master with a musicologist’s interest in many forms of world music. In addition to his own considerable output of blues, r& b and soul music, he has explored music from the Caribbean, Hawaii, Africa, often fusing them with blues.

At a time when most blues bands were turning electric and often psychedelic, Taj Mahal’s 1968 debut album had a more traditional sound. “Leaving Trunk” from that album is his version of “Milk Cow Blues”. Here’s a video of Taj Mahal performing “Leaving Trunk" with the Black Crowes:

Derek Trucks is a modern guitar virtuoso with an ear for history and the blues. He is known for his transcendent slide guitar “voice” that combines technique and soul in a unique fashion. In some ways Trucks has taken after Taj Mahal, looking for ways to bring a sense of history and place into his original music. His 2003 recording of “Leavin’ Trunk” features Mike Mattison on vocals. This is an exciting live performance of the tune from 2005:

The Black Keys are a roots-rock duo that combine elements of blues and rock into a genre called “garage-rock”, popular with younger blues fans. They released “Leavin’ Trunk” in 2003.

Here are the complete versions of “Milk Cow Blues” and “Leavin’ Trunk”, tracked through time:

Sleepy John Estes “Milk Cow Blues” 1930

Taj Mahal “Leavin’ Trunk” 1967

The Derek Trucks Band “Leavin’ Trunk” 2003

The Black Keys “Leavin’ Trunk” 2003