Sleepy John Miller – a little story I woke up with this morning.

Sleepy John Miller

Sleepy John Miller was an itinerant Blues busker who played for dimes on the corner of Michigan and East 43rd in Chicago, outside the diner, during the height of the depression in the early thirties. Most days he made enough to enable him to eat. He needed nothing more. His home was the park bench in Jackson Park. Sleepy John was unusual because he only played his own material, autobiographical songs of poverty, hard times tinged with hope for better times to come.

The Chesk brothers were Polish immigrants who ran a hardware store on Wabash Ave. Above the store they had a small recording studio. It was very primitive, not really a studio at all, just a bare room with a portable recording machine. They ran a little side-line recording the local talent and selling the old 78 records to the black population who lived in that part of town.

On a summer evening the sound of those records could be heard leaking into the sweltering streets. Sleepy John would smile to himself when he heard one of his own songs being played. He took great pleasure in knowing it was being listened to.

Sleepy was a regular at the Chesk store. He’d come in, record his new songs, accept a pittance, along with a promise of royalties that never seemed to materialise, and leave. He never asked for much and seemed content just to know that his songs had been recorded.

In 1933 the Chesk brothers were sitting together in the back room with a glass of brandy holding what they called their business meeting, a meeting that usually went on into the early hours and involved cards.

‘You know that guy Sleepy Joe we’ve been recording?’ Len Cask remarked. Phil and Henry looked expectantly at him. ‘His records are selling like hot cakes. I can’t press them up fast enough. His sad old songs seem to be hitting the spot during this depression.’

The brothers divided up the work. Phil was the one who usually carried out the recordings. Len ran the shop and Henry oversaw the ordering and saw to the business side of things. It worked well. Even in the hard times of depression they were making a good living.

‘Yeah, I noticed that,’ Phil said, thinking back to the recording sessions. ‘He’s got something about him.’

‘I’ve sold hundreds in the last year. Literally hundreds. We owe him a fortune in royalties.’

‘Does he ever ask?’ Henry said abruptly, placing his glass purposefully on the table.

Phil and Len looked at each other. ‘No, never.’

Henry nodded and picked up his glass.

‘Probably enough to get a nice place,’ Len remarked whimsically, swirling the amber liquid in his glass.

No more was said about Sleepy Joe.

In the winter of 1933 a blizzard blew in off the lakes. The temperature dived to -27 degrees. The next day, under a pile of newspapers on a park bench in Jackson Park, Sleepy Joe Miller was found to have taken his last sleep – frozen stiff, his arms cradling his battered guitar.

As there were no next of kin the city hurriedly buried the frozen body in an unmarked municipal grave.

‘At least he’s left us another eight sides,’ Henry remarked to his brothers.

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