Saturday, April 16, 2016

Blues Run The Game: The Story Of Jackson C. Frank.

I intended doing some gardening today but it rained non-stop so I spent the afternoon in the kitchen listening to an album that I bought recently. It is called Blues Run The Game by Jackson C. Frank. I am indebted to an internet friend  for bringing this influential singer-songwriter to my attention because I had never heard of him before. I think he must have read some of my previous stories of musicians who had faded into obscurity and are only now being re-discovered and thought I might be interested in listening to Jackson C. Frank.
I am really pleased I bought this album because some of the songs are as good as any I have heard in the folk genre. The story of Jackson C. Frank is also one of the saddest I have ever read about any musician.  Although he released only one official album in his lifetime he was very influential on the likes of Paul Simon, Sandy Denny, Al Stewart, Dave Cousins,John Renbourn, Bert Jansch,Nick Drake and Roy Harper. It was only a series of misfortunes that stopped him from being remembered as one of the great folk singers.

Tragedy struck early in his life at the age of eleven. He was attending elementary school in a suburb of New York when a heating furnace exploded which caused a fire that killed fifteen of his classmates including his first girlfriend Marlene Du Pont. He later wrote a song about Marlene which is on the album. Jackson survived the fire but had burns to 50% of his body. It was during the long recovery process that he learned to play the guitar and began writing songs. In 1965 while studying journalism at Gettysburg College he received $100,000 in  insurance  compensation for his injuries. He dropped out of college and sailed to England to try his luck on the folk scene. It was on that voyage that he wrote the song Blues Run The Game.
Jackson soon made a name for himself in the Folk Clubs of London and made friends with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Paul Simon was so impressed with his talent that he offered to produce an album. The whole album was recorded in only three hours. Before long Jackson became quite famous in Britain. He persuaded his girlfriend at the time Sandy Denny to give up her job as a nurse and concentrate on singing. We should be grateful to him for that act alone because Sandy became arguably the greatest British female singer of all. Sandy recorded three of Jackson's songs for her first solo album in her pre-Fairport Convention days.

The following year though things began to go wrong. Firstly, he developed writers block and was never happy with the songs he came up with and also he began to suffer with really bad stage fright. It was the beginning of the mental illness that was to haunt him for years to come. Also his money ran out. In only two years he had managed to blow the lot. He returned to the states and moved to Woodstock which was a haven for many artistic people at that time. He landed a job as a journalist and married a former fashion model. New songs were written and he was just about to relaunch his music career when disaster struck once again. His infant son died of cystic fibrosis and the marriage fell apart. These events drove him over the edge and he descended into an abyss of depression, finally ending up homeless on the streets of New York. Things got even worse when he was shot by a gang of street toughs which left him blinded in the left eye. For twenty years he was virtually forgotten and had lost all touch with family and friends.

A guardian angel then appeared by the name of Jim Abbott who was an American folk music fan who managed to track down the long lost singer. Jim took Jackson to see sympathetic doctors and his condition immediately began to improve. He had been mis-diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic but what he was actually suffering from was post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the terrible fire of his childhood. As soon as was taken off the anti-depressants and given trauma therapy instead there was a remarkable recovery. His music career was revived and his work was issued for the first time on CD with previously unreleased material.
Sadly, in 1999 Jackson C. Frank caught pneumonia and died of a cardiac arrest at the age of only 56. He has left a small but great legacy of music though and his influence continues to grow. His songs have been covered by Simon & Garfunkel, Counting Crows, Laura Marling, Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes, Marianne Faithful and many others. His songs have also appeared in movie soundtracks such as Daft Punk's Electroma. Only today I discovered there is a book about him by Jim Abbott and a documentary film is a work in progress at the moment. His legend is finally beginning to grow.

The album I am listening to at this very moment contains all the songs from his eponymous album of 1965 plus five unreleased songs from 1975. I must say I love it, you can see the influence he had on Paul Simon on songs like Dialogue. To hear these haunting songs live in a folk club back in 65 must have been an amazing experience. The five songs from 1975 make me think what a shame it is that he left such a small body of work. One song called Madonna Of Swans I find particularly powerful.

 Marlene,the song about his girlfriend who perished in the fire is also very moving. To give you a taste of the album I have put a video of Blues Run The Game below which I urge you to listen to. Thank you very much once again to Gerard  for turning me on to the music of Jackson C.Frank.


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