When times are tough, you can be thankful that you’re not Jackson C. Frank. I think I found out about the late folk-singer’s story in a RYM thread titled something like “Which musician had the worst life?”
Here’s a rundown: As a child in suburban Buffalo, NY, the young Frank survived a school explosion in which his friends and girlfriend died and he himself suffered severe burns that would cause lifelong injuries. After modest success from his debut, his mental health began to unravel. He married and his young son died of cystic fibrosis. He later became destitute and sick, occasionally sleeping on the streets of New York City. Sitting on a bench in Queens, he was shot in the eye by kids with a pellet gun and blinded. In 1999, he died of pneumonia in Massachusetts at the age of 56, poor, alone and unknown.
Fortunately for us, Frank’s only studio album is not quite as depressing as his life story. The blues are present, sure, but from the opener “Blues Run the Game” you can hear a sweetness in his voice, melodies and strumming. The talent is palpable. Apparently Frank was quite shy about singing around anyone, including his producer Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon). It’s not difficult to assume he was traumatized by his childhood. Which is a shame, not just for obvious psychological reasons, but because he had a great range and was more than able to carry a tune. “Here Come the Blues” is as righteous a blues song as one written by the great masters of the American south.
The second half of Frank’s album is even stronger than the A-side. The fingerpicking of “Milk and Honey” was atmospheric enough to be sampled on rapper Nas’s appropriately depressing “Undying Love”. This ballad was also covered by such folk luminaries as Bonnie Dobson, Sandy Denny (who dated Frank for a time) and Nick Drake (who recorded several Frank songs before his own death). “My Name is Carnival” has the mystical folk vibe of a group like Pentangle. “You Never Wanted Me” is a bittersweet closer, perhaps more upbeat than you might expect from the title.
On the reissue/streaming version we get some interesting bonus tracks. “Marlene”, a tribute to his childhood girlfriend who died in their school fire, is achingly beautiful and personal. One need only listen to the lyrics to get an idea of the singer’s pain. Some of the other songs are poorly recorded or preserved, as you can hear the tape messing up in “The Visit” and “Prima Donna of Swans”, but for me this is an endearing quality. It is unclear to me when the songs were recorded, but what is clear is that Jackson C. Frank could have made another great album with the proper variables permitting.
A French documentary film, Blues Run the Game – The Strange Tale of Jackson C. Frank, is currently in post-production. You can see an excerpt of it on Youtube here (it is quite sad).
Listen to Jackson C. Frank here.