Remembering John Jackson

John Jackson
 

John Jackson was a Bluesman.  I use the term with reverence.  It refers to a special group of people, many surviving life’s hardest blows while reaching deep within their spirits to pull threads of beauty and truth from pain and shadow.


As I grew to know them, bluesmen numbered among my favorite people.  By nature, they are complicated, often conflicted, capable of howling with the devil Saturday evening, then begging God’s love and forgiveness at Sunday church service.  They may be genuine, helpful, unreliable, generous, poor, sharing, unpredictable, inspired, daring, dangerous and fun.   Within this maze of contradictions, they flow gracefully through life’s toils and snares.   Those who survive weave an amazing tapestry of life’s struggles which alchemy imbues their natures with compassion and awareness.   Friends feel blessed simply to be in their presence.


I considerd John Jackson to be my friend.  Then again, so did everyone.  I was not a close friend, just someone who crossed his path several times over the course of a few years and sat to chat, perhaps even play when opportunity allowed.  John of course made everyone feel special.  His warmth and generous spirit was in many ways like a parent’s embrace.


If you do your homework on John Jackson, you’ll find he is listed as a Piedmont guitarist and one of the last of the Songsters.  By my reckoning, he played guitar like a diamond cutter, hitting every note with confidence and evidencing a personal style that was beyond duplication if not admiration.  He was a National Heritage Award winner in 1986 and, in his later years, traveled the world as honored guest at many musical venues and blues events.


Click image to hear John’s playing “Black Snake Moan” as we sit and listen.

Click Image to hear
He was born February 25, 1924, in Woodville, VA, and passed from liver cancer January 20, 2002, in Fairfax Station, VA.  His speech and vocalization as well as his performing style were an embodiment of musical and linguistic history, proving the astounding diversity of influences which pervaded even the remote backlands of America over the past century.
 

As 7th of 14 children, he came from a struggling family and never finished first grade.  When questioned regarding his vast repertoire of songs, Jackson, would explain since he could not read or write he was careful about keeping everything up here, pointing to his head as he spoke.  When he performed, he was capable of producing a never-ending array of songs but was equally known as a consummate storyteller, possibly preserving as many stories from the old hills as he did songs from the bygone era.
 

While still a youngster, John had opportunity to develop musically from his father and mother who both performed at house parties and weekend gatherings aiding the family’s survival.  I’ve heard John questioned on several occasions as to how he learned the instrument and perfected his skills.  He said he was inspired by his parents and also by some of the musicians that passed through over time.  Mostly, he benefitted from the commerce of traveling salesmen, who would show up with large numbers of records which poor folk could buy on time payments.  John said these records were his true awakening as a guitarist, and he would sit for hours analyzing various styles he encountered. Unlike blues traditions from other regions of the country, particularly the Mississippi Delta where the African rhythmic connection is profound, Jackson’s influences included personalities such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter family, and Jimmy Rogers as well as the plethora of phenomenal ragtime guitarists nurtured in the same region.  I remember John once sharing he had been learning the Jimmy Rogers repertoire for years never aware Rogers was a white man until later in life.  None of that mattered to John of course.  He was following a muse which knew no racial distinctions.

Click image to hear John explain how he first started to learn the songs he heard.

Click Image to hear

 

It was in the 1940's, while still in his 20's, that John completely stopped performing and, by his own explanation, pretty much laid down his guitar, not really touching it for several decades.  There are various accounts as to why this occurred.  It is generally accepted that John, a peaceful man, was uncomfortable with violent behavior that sometimes flared at parties where he performed.  There is at least one report of his brother using John’s guitar as a shield of defense, fending off an attacker.


You may have heard the amazing re-emergence stories of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. If not, take a few moments and scan the Internet.  Many of the bluesmen from the previous century have simply disappeared from history.  At the time of the folk revival in the 1960s, musical researchers and archivists were doing everything they could to locate whoever remained of those genius musicians.  The successful searches and rediscoveries of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James preserved a body of music otherwise under threat of permanent extinction and which, once rediscovered, inspired and propelled modern music in ways which can still be heard today.  If their rediscovery is the stuff of musical legend, then the quintessential legend of rediscovery may belong to John Jackson.  It was in the mid 60's when an extraordinary string of events unfolded propelling him virtually overnight into a personal meeting with Mississippi John Hurt and subsequent opportunity to perform.  Within weeks, he was invited to do his first recording session (where he estimates having recorded 90 songs).  I heard the story many times and never ceased to enjoy it.  John, ever courteous, allowed me to record it at one of those sittings.  Rather than hear my pale summary, lets’s have a visit from John, who in his own words will tell you exactly what happened.
 

Click image to hear the story of John’s discovery.

Click Image to hear

From the moment of his first emergence, John’s extraordinary talent was widely recognized and appreciated.  He had a guitar style which was singularly unique and included a vast repertoire of traditional songs setting an inimitable standard for those attempting to follow.  I remember once sitting in a room full of guitar players trying to play along with John, struggling to understand why we appeared to be missing some bass notes and runs.  It was only after considerable dialogue and John’s willingness to break his playing down to its minuscule elements we realized he was back-stroking with his right thumb against the bass strings, a technique virtually unique to his attack.  Again, he was a self-evolved American original.


In the personal moments I had with John, we had opportunity to discuss a bit of his life.  There was his marriage to Cora Lee, and his pride in having built the home he lived in.  In his life, he reportedly worked as a farmer, chauffeur, cook, butler and gravedigger.  Even as his performing career evolved and gave him opportunities to be appreciated around the world, he would not infrequently return to the normal affairs of life and to the things he had always done.  For him, there was joy in the ordinary.  I understand he even continued to dig graves for friends who passed in the later years.

Most importantly (for me), John Jackson was an avatar of human spirit. As a loving and compassionate human being, he set the measure for proper conduct for those with a mind to follow.


Walk with me for a moment as I share a remembrance in testament.


The year was 2001, the location Port Townsend, WA.  This was the annual mid-summer week of blues workshops and performances which culminated in Saturday evening performances by the headliners (of which John was usually top bill).


Without getting into the details, I had taken ill prior to my attending Port Townsend.  There was a surgery just days before I scheduled to leave and I was about to cancel when my friend Art Sartwell thought it would be a good idea for me to go anyway, if only to convalesce in a healthy surround (his words, not mine...spending seven days and nights with hard-playing non-sleeping musicians would strain anyone’s stamina).  Art literally picked me up and carried/drove me.  Though it was a battle, Art’s plan proved to be the right course for the week.  Despite my discomfort, I had opportunity for considerable growth and exposure to musical ideas that would have been lost had I stayed home.
 

By Saturday evening’s finale, while still looking much the ghost, I was ambulatory and took opportunity to attend the concert.  John had just finished his performance.  Once he was done, I stepped outside to get some air.  I was recovering but still worn and sensitive. The performance venue at Port Townsend is the Ft. Worden McCurdy Pavilion.  This is actually a converted dirigible hangar, which is popular throughout the year for various types of musical performances.  Stepping out, I went behind the pavilion, where I knew from experience several picnic tables were placed for performers to relax quietly in the shade of nearby trees.  Almost simultaneously John emerged from the main stage exit and came over to chat.  He commented I looked under the weather and was concerned.  He noted I was not dressing warm enough as it was a cold evening (every evening in Pt. Townsend was cold to John, who was accustomed to blistering Piedmont summers).  I let him know how much I enjoyed his performance.  John of course was always impeccably dressed, usually with Stetson hat.  Stories abound as to how it is impossible to take a bad photograph of John Jackson.  He always looked just about perfect, and those meeting him for the first time would be careful to note what he wore, if only to adopt style into their own lives.  That’s how he was that evening.  As we got to talking, I commented to John that, in the several years I’ve had the pleasure of his acquaintance, I never had the sense to get a photograph of us together, which I hoped to do before we parted that evening.  He asked if I had a camera; I confirmed. He said to take it out, and the first person we saw we would get to take the picture.


We talked for several minutes, then Trish, his friend and manager, came by, letting John know it was getting late and he was due back at the guest house.   Trish was always concerned for his well being.


John stood up, and in his inimitable accent said, “Trish, before we go, here’s Bill’s camera.  Let’s get a picture of me and Bill together”, and Trish was happy to oblige.  She took the camera and backed up to shoot.  John suddenly began to gasp.  His hat tilted askew and nearly dropped off.  He stumbled a few steps, staggering.  I stood horrified, thinking John was having a coronary.  This man, who at every turn had appeared to be in glowing health, was now choking, clutching his throat and tearing his collar open.  I glanced at Trish.  She was ripping through her bag, then ran up to John with some sort of spray, stood him up and administered.  John almost immediately stabilized and stood motionless for a few seconds, when Trish said, “We’d better go, John.”   John mumbled imperceptibly, still dazed, stood, took a step or two away, then said, “Just a second, Trish ... we didn’t get Bill’s picture.”   He turned about, brushed off his hat, shook his suit top once or twice, put his hat back on and before my disbelieving eyes re-emerged in full regalia.


I was speechless.  Trish took the picture.  I remained silent, started to back away and John said, “Just a second, let’s take another one, just to make sure he’s got one.”  She snapped a second shot, and of the two, this is my favorite.

 


I know, I know, I look like the one who is near death.


We shook hands goodbye.  I was heading out that night, and John was leaving early the next morning.  It was the last I saw of him.  I did not know how ill he was on that day, politeness barred my asking, but I had my suspicions.  Six months later, he was gone.


The world is a scary place, riddled with uncertainty.  We fear living, and we fear death.  Our cities are filled with masters who purport to have life’s answers for us...the ever unknowing.  Somewhere in the currents, are folks like John Jackson, who touch with light and joy all they meet.  Despite his humble beginnings, and even his humble endings, John remains a beacon of human potential for all who understand that humility, kindness, compassion and generosity will stand one true...always

Here’s how John appeared shortly after his re-emergence.

 

 

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