Chances are you know Lead Belly, the iconic, influential, and greatly celebrated folk and blues master. You will not be surprised to learn that he is the subject a forthcoming documentary film directed by Curt Hahn featuring reflections on the singer-guitarist from such heavyweights as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and B.B. King.
But do you know the relatively unheralded and underrated 1960s singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank? He has a fascinating and tragic life story, and died in obscurity years after his brief hey-day, when he was admired by the likes of Paul Simon and British folk artists such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Sandy Denny, Roy Harper, and Nick Drake. His best-known song, “Blues Run the Game,” has been covered in more recent times by such singers as John Mayer, Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes), and Laura Marling, and it also appeared in the recent Ken Burns–Lynn Novick PBS series Vietnam. Now, a Jackson Frank documentary, directed by Damien Dupont, promises to bring the troubled musician’s life and music into the spotlight more than ever before.
Frank grew up in the upstate New York town of Cheektowaga, New York (near Buffalo), and the formative event of his early years occurred when he was 11 and the furnace at his elementary school exploded, killing 18 of his classmates and burning Frank severely all over his body. It was during his long hospital recovery that he was given an acoustic guitar, which immediately became the focus of his interests. He hung out in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s but eventually gravitated to London, where he shared a flat with fellow New Yorker Paul Simon, who was in England trying to establish a solo career after the initial failure of the first Simon & Garfunkel album (Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.). Simon was impressed enough by Frank’s songs that he produced Frank’s stripped-down eponymous 1965 debut record, which included both “Blues Runs the Game” and the other song with which he is most associated, “Milk and Honey” (which I first heard through Nick Drake in the early ’70s). Listening to that album today, it’s easy to see why Frank caught Simon’s ear. His sound was gently melancholic, his songs introspective without being self-pitying, and his fingerpicking guitar style quite close to Simon’s own. Though not a commercial success particularly, the album was popular and widely admired in the English folk world.
Unfortunately, Frank was unable to capitalize on the initial buzz in England with a second album, and he increasingly slipped into a debilitating depression that exacerbated his festering insecurities and stage fright. Moving back to New York in 1969 did not change his fortunes, and within a short period he started living on the streets and was also institutionalized more than once. He recovered his bearings enough to try to make a second album in 1977, but by that point he couldn’t elicit any serious interest in his newer material from publishers. Depressed again, and also beset with all sorts of physical issues that had been plaguing him to varying degrees since the furnace explosion, Frank once again bounced in and out of hospitals. A fan eventually found him in a state housing project in the Bronx and helped the singer-songwriter return to a modest performing career. However, Frank died in March 1999, a largely forgotten man.
The Damien Dupont documentary (Blues Runs the Game: A Movie About Jackson C. Frank), which still does not have a release date, is certain to be a fascinating glimpse of this troubled but brilliant singer-songwriter-guitarist. It includes interviews with John Renbourn, John Kay, Al Stewart, and others. While we wait for that film, though, check out the Jackson C. Frank album on YouTube. It’s quite a revelation!