Jackson C. Frank

History is littered with characters like Jackson C. Frank. As equally immensely talented as he was troubled emotionally/physically, the few musical statements he released before the personal side overtook the talent, were immensely influential. As I course through trying to provide some kind of concise history of the rise of neo-folk traditions in England, his tale won’t be the last sad one to tell. There’s something so prescient about “Blues Run the Game”, my track of the day. Its breathy delivery, its much more personal lyricism, its intricate guitar playing and thoroughly emotional recording would serve as boilerplate for a new league of singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, John Martyn etc. who had too much to say in a way that older songs couldn’t.

Jackson Frank was actually born in Buffalo, New York. When he was around 11 years old, a school fire trapped nearly killed him and he suffered physical disfigurement. In the hospital, he was given an acoustic guitar to help him with his recovery. As he recovered, he quickly became an extremely gifted guitar player and singer playing coffeehouses around his area. These were the happiest times of his life. He was a bit of a manic depressive character, who could be both outwardly charming but at times shy and impulsive. Around the early ’60s he met Katherine Wright, another Buffalonian, who quickly became his girlfriend, she was smitten by his charm and great taste in clothes and music, together they experienced the change that would lead to the creation of this song.

Sometime in 1964, his family successfully sued and won a decision rendering him a large sum of money for the injuries he incurred during the school fire. This money introduced too much change that Jackson could not handle. Living in constant paranoia that people were using him or that he wasn’t doing enough with the money, he’d go into temper tantrums against his friends or spend lavishly needlessly to befriend someone. Katherine, by that time had enough of his mood swings and had decided to go chase some dream she had of living in England without Jackson. Somehow, Jackson convinced her to let him come with her. He’d travel by boat to England with her and hope to win her back. Katherine agreed to go with him, as she was still hoping he’d come to his senses, but secretly held little hope that she’d be able to stay in England with him.

Katherine and Jackson in Whitby, England

Together they sailed to England. On that boat, Jackson would spend time with her, get drunk, enjoy all sorts of foreign music sounds, and write a bunch of the songs that would be released on his first and last album Jackson C. Frank, his self-titled release. Songs like the track of the day would be shaped by the experience, and others like Yellow Walls, Milk and Honey, and Just Like Anything were showcasing an imagined English sound he was conjuring, that he’d never heard himself, but one that he could go into as if there was some convergent musical evolution he had with the neo-folkies rising up then.

When they landed in England, rather than experience that renewed convivial love they once had they experienced, they experienced more of a subdued relationship. Jackson would regale his new friends with drinks and would spend money on things he probably didn’t need, but he was becoming far more easy going than before. The problem was that Katherine became pregnant shortly after they arrived. They both agreed that they were too young to have a child and they traveled back to the States to get, for its time then, an illegal abortion. This abortion finished off their relationship, as it revealed to them that they weren’t really that close to begin with to raise a child together. Katherine stayed in the States and Jackson traveled back to England.

Jackson C. Frank album cover.

Initially, Jackson had success in England as it allowed him to successfully perform and get a recording contract. His first album was recorded by two artists who absolutely treasured his music, Paul Simon and Al Stewart. Paul would work as producer, he himself was trying to make it in England, and Al as second guitarist for tracks that required dual guitars. The sessions though started to show a change in him. Rather than be this renewed person, he was seen as an extremely shy person. He’d often record with screens hiding him from others so that he could feel comfortable enough to lay a track. The release of the album held great promise, as he was popular with musician’s and English fans, but he himself was unraveling. He had experienced writer’s block, had no idea how to followup his torrid debut, and he was running out of money from his insurance payoff. Somehow, for him he was discovering that no matter where he would turn the blues were all the same.

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Its a sad tale that eventually found him going back to the US, eventually marrying/divorcing a model, and suffering from great depression. This depression left him committed to a mental institution. Its a depression that never quite left him, even as his music kept getting rediscovered by legions of neo-folk artists. It was in the 80s that he was discovered suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and then in the 90s living homeless on the streets of New York City. Sometime in the 80s he had traveled there to see if he can find Paul Simon and somehow recoup money from his early album sales. He had it in his head that Paul was secretly hiding publishing rights from him. The final blow was when he was suffering from thyroid problems causing him to balloon in weight, which in conjunction with losing sight in one eye when he was shot by some kids with a pellet gun when he was living in the streets, that’s when he had to rely on others for once.

Somehow before he died in 1999 from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, at the age of 56, some kind people had started to re-released on CD for the first time his first debut album and some demos that he had recorded. It was the first time new generations could hear the same progressive folk music those first audiences had for a fleeting moment heard. To this day its those songs that are so astonishing since they point another way forward for English folk music. Its only a damn shame that for Frank, somehow the blues ran his life and it was something he could never outrun.

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Listen to Blues Run the Game at Grooveshark.

bonus track, my personal favorite (at this moment) the Fred Neil-like astral-folk of “Kimbie”…

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Listen to Kimbie at Grooveshark.