[This is the second in a weekly series of articles in which Tacoma weekly contributor Sean Contris will elucidate on obscure or forgotten bands that music lovers need to know about. – Ed.]
Genre: Folk, blues, sad-core
“Blues Run The Game” “Milk and Honey” and “Ananias"
Looking over a brief summary of the bizarre and tragic life of Jackson C. Frank, it can be difficult not to crack a smile, or even break into a small fit of chuckles. Laughing at someone else's pain and misery is something that even in the right context really should never be done, and in fact you should probably consider me a bad person judging by the introduction of this article. However, when a man has a life so full of poorly timed moments, bad circumstances, and just flat out crap luck, it becomes difficult not to look on with a darkened sense of humor.
Jackson C. Frank was one of many forgotten but brilliant American folk singer/songwriters that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s to small acclaim, great talent and no audience. Still, his relatively small body of work has left behind a strong legacy in the landscape of American and English folk music. Frank is comparable in the lyricism and musicianship of Nick Drake, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many others. To date, everything that Frank recorded can be found in the double CD set, “Blues Run The Game,” which includes the entirety of his sole album, a set of alternate takes and B-sides from that recording session, and a large set of recordings made after a bizarre rediscovery and shortly before his death at the age of 56. Still, even though much of what can be found on “Blues Run the Game” is fantastic, Frank’s most definitive statement rides entirely on the shoulders of his debut album. “Jackson C. Frank” (1965) is a folk record for the blues minded crowd, a ten-track tour de force of pain and suffering made by a man whose entire life would almost ONLY be pain and suffering.
At the age of 15, a boiler erupted, sweeping the halls of Frank’s school and killing 15 of his classmates. It left him badly scarred. After finally acquiring a large sum of money from the accident, he purchased a ticket and rode to England on a boat to pursue a career as a folk musician. It was here that he met two of the most important people in regard to his recording career – Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Frank worked as an opening act for Simon and Garfunkel on tour, and it was Paul Simon who would end up producing the entirety of his debut album. Frank was gifted; there was no doubt about it. The recording session for his debut album lasted only three hours, and highlighted a nervous Jackson C. Frank hiding behind three layers of wall to block out any viewers. However, once the album was finished, nothing came of it. Frank married, had two children and allowed his passion for folk music to fade into the background. That was, until the death of his son, an event that emotionally crippled the bluesman and ended with Frank being committed to a mental institution. After leaving his wife and daughter, Frank had literally nothing to his name aside from a broken guitar and a pair of glasses. However, in an interesting turn of fate, Frank took a trip to New York in an attempt to locate old friend Paul Simon. When this failed, Frank ended up sleeping on the street. Though he could not find Simon, he found a long time fan, Jim Abbot, who would later take Frank in as a friend and would allow him to record the tracks that would make up many of the songs on “Blues Run The Game.” Abbot suggested that the unhealthy and weakened Frank move to Woodstock and live in a sort of retirement home, at least temporarily. However, in another unfortunate turn, Frank was accidentally shot in the eye with a pellet gun, blinding him in one eye. Frank moved to Woodstock and would continue to record until his death of cardiac arrest in 1999 at the age of 56.
Despite a tragic life, Frank left behind a wonderful, if brief, body of work. As I have already stated, much of the power of Frank's material remains with his debut album, an all too brief 32 minute, 10-track synthesis of blues and folk. “Jackson C. Frank” has a clear turning point in terms of sound and content, while the first half of the album, though far from happy, showcased a slightly more upbeat Frank, in a mode that resembles something of escapism. The second half clearly took a strong influence from his idols, Simon and Garfunkel, creating a decidedly bleaker and more neurotic Jackson C. Frank. Frank clearly had a stronger influence in blues than folk, and this shows in his lyrical styling. “Ananias” is taken directly out of the handbook on how to write sad blues songs about salvation, and “Blues Run The Game” is absurdly direct and to the point, going so far as to reference events in his life such as “Catching a boat to England.” No, the simplicity isn’t a bad thing; Frank has a wonderfully warm voice that becomes almost friendly and nostalgic on repeated listens, like a sad former friend you haven’t heard from in ages. I didn’t take the whole Simon and Garfunkel thing lightly either; the entire second half of the record draws so strongly from “Sounds of Silence” that one would be forgiven for thinking they were recorded in the same session. “Milk & Honey,” perhaps Frank’s most well known song (due to a cover being performed by the late and great Nick Drake), owes more than a little credit to Simon and Garfunkel and is, in fact, a fantastic song when one really gets down to it.
Yet to give credit only to his debut album is a massive disservice to the rest of the content that the man had within in him. Many of Frank’s early songs were created with age and the suffering that he sang about in 1965, but are dwarfed in comparison to the lifetime of suffering and pain that he puts into his later songs. Though Frank was never truly a master of songwriting or on the same level as his contemporaries or those who would follow in his footsteps, he was still an emotionally effective figure, drawing in the listener and beating them heavily with a stick. When he sings about the death of his son, the loss of his family, and the emptiness that would come to haunt his life, you feel it in a guttural way that only the best blues songwriters can access.
Happily, “Jackson C. Frank” will be enjoying another reissue run on vinyl this September, and I can only hope that maybe Jackson will at last find his audience amongst those who gave Nick Drake a try after hearing “Pink Moon” on some car commercial. Come on guys, give him a try – he’s waited long enough.
Sean Contris is a student at Wilson High School. Oftentimes he comes too close to embodying the classical, and often times stereotypical, persona of a young male writer. Sean enjoys listening to a wide range of music and locking himself in his room to read sad Russian novels.
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