Jackson, John 1924–2002
John Jackson 1924–2002
Blues singer, guitarist
The Virginia vocalist and guitarist John Jackson was unusual among the figures who gained fame during the revival of traditional folk and blues musical styles in the 1960s. Such musicians as Son House and Sleepy John Estes hailed from the deep-southern heartland of the blues, but Jackson came from Virginia’s Piedmont or foothill district and preserved in his music an eclectic East Coast blues style that was less common. That style, unlike the elemental Delta blues, included elements of various musical genres—country, storytelling ballads, ragtime, and more. Jackson’s music merged all these elements into an appealing whole that offered an authentic picture of rural African-American traditions from the years when he had begun to perform.
Jackson was born in rural Rappahannock County in western Virginia on February 25, 1924. He was the seventh of 14 children, and his formal education amounted to three months in the first grade. His parents were tenant farmers who sometimes played music at parties—his mother played the harmonica and accordion and his father the guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Jackson’s father tried, largely unsuccessfully, to teach him to play the guitar, but Jackson learned from another source. Despite the family’s poverty, he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, there was money to buy records from traveling furniture salesmen who “had boxes of records for 10 cents apiece by everybody who made a record in the ’20s and early ’30s … That’s how I learned to play, listening to 78 [rpm] records.”
Those records included not only those by blues performers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, but also discs by country performers like Uncle Dave Macon, the Carter Family, and the genrecrossing “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers, whose material Jackson continued to perform later in his own career. Jackson also learned to play the slide guitar, at age ten, from a chain-gang water boy grateful that Jackson had let him take water from the family’s spring. Jackson picked up finger-picking guitar styles and learned to play the banjo from his aunt’s Native American husband. He learned some blues pieces directly from musicians who had traveled to Virginia from farther south.
At a Glance…
Born on February 25, 1924, in Rappahannock County, VA; died on January 20, 2002 in Fairfax County, VA; married Cora Lee Jackson; seven children.
Career: Performed at parties and dances, early 1940s; gave up performing due to violence encountered while playing, 1945; worked as dairy farmer, chauffeur, butler, cook, and gravedigger; discovered in gas station while giving guitar lessons, 1964; began performing in Washington, DC area folk clubs; debut album Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia, 1965; recorded for Arhoolie and Rounder labels, 1965-99; performed in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America.
Awards: National Heritage “Living Treasure” fellowship, 1986.
Starting with stints accompanying his parents at age eight, Jackson became a working musician. He learned to give a crowd what it wanted to hear. House parties were “all we had to look forward to on weekends,” Jackson was quoted as saying by the Times of London. “If it was a song that they liked to dance to, sometimes you played it all night long and nobody got tired of hearing it.” The result of all these influences was an unusually varied repertoire. Jackson declined to be classified as a blues musician—“a bluesman don’t play anything but blues,” he once remarked, as quoted by the Washington Post.
In 1945, however, when he was only 21, Jackson brought his musical career to a temporary halt. In interviews later in life he gave several reasons for his decision. Partly he was reacting to the general retreat of acoustic rural African-American styles before the powerful new sound of urban electric blues, but it was also clear that Jackson was disturbed by the violence that sometimes comes with musical events. After one particularly ugly brawl, during which his brother destroyed Jackson’s guitar by using it as a kind of shield, he called it quits. The incident later became the basis for a song called “Why I Quit Playing Guitar,” on the album Country Blues and Ditties (1999).
Jackson moved his family to a Fairfax County, Virginia dairy farm and also worked at several other jobs—cook, butler, chauffeur, and gravedigger at the Fairfax cemetery. He dug graves by hand, and even after money began to flow from music once again he returned to gravedigging when funeral services for his friends were held. For many years he didn’t even own a guitar, and even after he acquired an old Gibson as collateral for a loan Jackson’s only musical activity consisted of teaching guitar to children who lived in his neighborhood.
The tale of Jackson’s rediscovery as a musician, in the words of the London Independent, “has entered the folklore of folklore.” A mailman who had witnessed Jackson’s lessons to children asked for some of his own and arranged to meet Jackson in the back room of a local gas station where he worked part time. One late night, University of Virginia folklorist Chuck Perdue, who was well plugged into Washington, D.C.’s burgeoning folk scene, stopped in for gas and heard the strains of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man” emanating from the back room. Jackson was reluctant to play more music for the excited Perdue, but it wasn’t long before Jackson was playing at Washington’s Ontario Place coffeehouse for $150 a show.
Perdue produced Jackson’s 1965 recording debut, Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia, released on the folk-oriented Arhoolie label. The most distinctive aspect of Jackson’s sound for the modern hearer is his nimble and rhythmically lively fingerpicking, suffused with ragtime rhythms and evoking the styles of white country guitarists such as Doc Watson (whose work in turn had strong African-American roots) as well as those of earlier bluesmen. Also notable was the range of Jackson’s material: it included straight blues such as “Black Snake Moan,” a classic version of the railroad ballad “John Henry,” ragtime and hoedown dance tunes, the yodeled “Muleskinner Blues” originally popularized by Jimmie Rodgers, the highly influential slide-guitar “Knife Blues,” and several other styles. For folk music fans, listening to Jackson’s music was like taking a tour of the African-American musical world of the pre-World War II era.
For the rest of his life, Jackson continued to perform and record, becoming one of the Washington area’s best-loved musicians and undertaking tours that took him to blues festivals around the United States and to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. He made nine albums in all, and his three 1960s LPs for Arhoolie were reissued in collected form on a CD entitled Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. Jackson’s 1999 Front Porch Blues album was critically praised, and many observers marveled at Jackson’s ability to recall old material and create new songs. Jackson credited his own illiteracy for his powers of recall, pointing to his head and telling the Washington Post that “I don’t read or write, and I have to keep everything right up here.”
Jackson, who was designated a “living treasure” and given a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 1986, outlived his wife Cora Lee and three of his seven children; one son was shot by police who mistook him for a burglar. In 2001 he was diagnosed with cancers of the liver and lung, and though gravely ill he insisted on performing at New Year’s Eve celebrations in Falls Church, Virginia, that year. He died on January 20, 2002, surrounded by fellow musicians; one played “Hand in Hand” on the banjo as he breathed his last.
Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia, Arhoolie, 1965.
John Jackson, Rounder, 1966.
John Jackson, Vol. 2, Arhoolie, 1968.
John Jackson in Europe, Arhoolie, 1970.
Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, Arhoolie, 1970.
Step It Up & Go, Rounder, 1979.
Deep in Bottom, Rounder, 1983.
Front Porch Blues, Alligator, 1999.
Country Blues & Ditties, Arhoolie, 1999.
Denver Post, January 27, 2002, p. E10.
The Independent (London, England), January 24, 2002, p. 6.
New York Times, January 29, 2002, p. B9.
Newsday, January 22, 2002, p. A45.
The Times (London, England), February 6, 2002, Features section.
Washington Post, March 16, 1994, p. C4; July 2, 1999, p. N14; January 22, 2002, p. B7; January 22, 2002, p. C1.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim