Album of the Week: Jackson C. Frank’s S/T (AKA Blues Run the Game) (1965)

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.

Album of the Week: Judee Sill (1971)

Spring is a time for Spring things. Things returning, birth, rebirth, growing, flowers, trees, strings and stings. A small picnic in a big park. A nice time in the great outdoors. Plants and fruit. Passover arrived and we ate eggs (which are the most Spring food). Today is Easter. I walked off a bus down ten blocks east to my apartment where my new cat sat waiting. His eyes widened at “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown”.

Judee Sill’s self-titled debut is as Californian and psychedelic as the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty (1970). Since I’ve mostly been playing the Dead lately, it’s an easy jump to Sill, whose harmonious hippie-folk is an unbeatable soundtrack for ringing in the springtime. Breezy and bright, her songs can stand up to just about anyone who was doing the folk singer thing in the early 70s – and there were many! Her style is soft but steady, imbued with the kind of intimate Christian philosophy that only a sinner can possess. The characters in her tales turn away from darkness and enter the light. And you can feel the light, the warmth.

It seems Sill was not successful in her time. Though she died at a young age, her music is not forgotten at all. I’m sure she has more fans today than ever before, and you can count myself and maybe yourself in that group of those who have been touched by her celestial voice and cosmic music.

Listen to Judee Sill here.

Album of the Week: Roy Montgomery & Grouper’s Split EP (AKA Vessel) (2009)

In 2009, veteran New Zealand psych-guitarist Roy Montgomery (of Dadamah and Hash Jar Tempo, among other things) and Liz Harris’ Grouper released this magnificent split 12″ on Harris’ Yellow Electric label as well as ambient artist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s now defunct Root Strata label.

Montgomery’s side is dedicated to Sandy Bull. Bull was a groundbreaking folk-guitarist who became a staple performer in the Greenwich Village scene of the early 60s and pushed boundaries on his albums, mixing international instruments, sounds and genres. His “Blend” is presumably the inspiration for Montgomery’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Sandy Bull (Slight Return)”. Like “Blend”, “Fantasia” is a roughly 20-minute piece of marvelous acoustic guitar work, with multiple changes in tempo and melody. A significant difference is that on “Blend”, Bull was accompanied by jazz drummer Billy Higgins (of Ornette Coleman’s band, among others), where Montgomery’s “Fantasia” has no drums. This is made up for by the reverb on Montgomery’s guitar, which gives the effect of the artist accompanying himself. It’s a brilliant psychedelic piece to get lost in.

Grouper’s side comes from one of the strongest periods of her consistent career: between the releases of Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and AIA, arguably her two best full-lengths. If you’re a fan of Grouper you know what to expect: music that is hazy, delicate and touching. There are four songs, the standout being “Vessel”, which recalls (to me) the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. “Pulse”, the instrumental closer, features some prominent dog-barking (presumably from the one pictured here).

Harris and Cantu-Ledesma would later collaborate as Raum on 2013’s Event of Your Leaving, and Harris featured on Roy Montgomery’s 2018 album Suffuse.

This split is not on Spotify. Check out Grouper’s side on Youtube, below.

Weekly Mix: 12/6/20

It’s December. Wow! This week we add some folk songs to the mix. Well, not all of them are, but it’s a more analog than usual update to the GSG playlist. Check the songs below.

I’ve been on a big Hugh Masekela kick recently, and especially enjoying his live recordings. Abangoma from Hope (1994) still blows me away, so I’m starting this week’s mix with it. Next is Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again, which I discovered by way of Gary Burton (who appears on Hardin’s album). The Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real got a lot of plays this year, and not just for its amazing cover art. I’ve included their Dying From Home, and Lost here. Then perennial favorite Julia Holter’s fantastic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman. After that, the late Lhasa’s Pa’llegar a Tu Lodo. Then, gospel singer Tessie Hill’s Take a Day. The brilliant weirdness of Otis G Johnson follows with Are You Cleansed Annexus. Folk legend Phil Ochs is next with Rehearsals for Retirement. Rounding things out this week is recent favorite Tomberlin with Self-Help.

Check out the playlist on Spotify.