Sleepy John Estes, Levon Helm, Elvis Costello and the Legacy of "Milk Cow Blues"

The long life of an canonical American blues classic.

Music Features Sleepy John Estes
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Sleepy John Estes, Levon Helm, Elvis Costello and the Legacy of "Milk Cow Blues"

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Not every canonical American pop song can be found in the Great American Songbook, as the history of blues proves. Some have taken a circuitous route from their birthplace in the South into territories their composers may never have dreamed of. One such standard, “Milk Cow Blues,” stretches back to the 1920s, with newer versions and interpretations spiraling out of it. Sleepy John Estes recorded “Milk Cow Blues” in 1930. Slide guitarist Kokomo Arnold did a version in 1934. Blues godfather Robert Johnson recorded “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” in 1937, and Elvis Presley made “Milkcow Blues Boogie” in 1955. And that’s just the start. The song has since made its way around the expanses of country, bluegrass, swing and rock, with dozens of performers making the song their own, including Doc Watson, George Strait, Willie Nelson and Aerosmith.

On Feb. 8, 1967, Estes, Yank Rachell and newcomer Taj Mahal performed a version of the song during their set at Ash Grove in Los Angeles, the extinct haven for folk and blues artists through the 1950s and ‘60s. In a simple but vigorously played adaptation, Estes remains loyal to Arnold’s version but with an upkeep of energy and soul.

Ten years later, Levon Helm included “Milk Cow Blues” in live sets with his brand new post-Band band, the RCO All Stars. Listen to the group—which included Steve Cropper on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harmonica, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and Booker T. Jones on keys——do a funky blues-rock number on the standard at the Superdome in New Orleans on July 2, 1977. The performance—less than a year after The Band’s Last Waltz, delivers a lively update to an otherwise straightforward standard, complete with a revised title to match: “Milk Cow Boogie.”

On Sept. 7, 1979, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen played unusual version featuring bass player Denny DeGorio on lead vocals. The music is essentially Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” with the “Milk Cow Blues” lyrics applied. Played here with an abrasive, bone-crunching tone on the guitar, Kaukonen solo is best described as demented. This song would turn up on his 1980 album, Barbeque King.

Also worth a listen is Elvis Costello’s 1984 version, “Sour-Milk Cow Blues,” in what would be one of his final tours with The Attractions before the original lineup’s falling-out. In this performance at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, the song is almost unrecognizable from its other iterations, with a faster, jarring tempo and Gary Barnacle’s embellishments on sax.