Friday, January 05, 2007

Blues Run the Game, 1965, Jackson C. Frank

Blues Run the Game
Jackson C. Frank
Jackson C. Frank was a brilliant and largely unknown folk tragedian whose life was, not surprisingly, an intensely heartbreaking mess, dotted with the kind of accidental and self-made disasters that conspired to make the last half of his time on earth extremely difficult. Perhaps the most harrowing episode that Frank lived through occurred in 1954, when the wooden annex that housed music classrooms at his school in Cheektowaga, New York caught fire, causing the eleven year old Frank to spend seven months in the hospital, terribly burned and irrevocably scarred. The fire had disastrous physical effects on the young Frank but the insurance settlement he garnered upon turning twenty-one, afforded him the opportunity to live fast and free; and to record this indelible folk classic. "Blues Run the Game" is a study in beauty, economy and the trans-Atlantic fluidity of the Anglo-American folk tradition—a criminally under-appreciated effort that has been knocking on the door of legend for some time.

By 1964, the youthful Frank along with friend—and future Steppenwolf leader—John Kay, were running about the northeast, making a stir in Frank’s newly purchased Jaguar, and trying to spend the insurance settlement as fast as they could. Frank, ever the automobile enthusiast, boarded the Queen Elizabeth in late spring, 1965, heading for England to acquire British cars. On board he wrote the title track of "Blues Run the Game." Frank’s signature song, a wistful paean to wandering and drinking, is perhaps most exacting in it’s description of the futility of life: “living is a gamble, baby, loving's much the same, wherever I have played, wherever I throw those dice, wherever I have played, the blues have run the game.” It is an extremely mature and beautifully realized effort for a young man of 22. Frank’s materialistic quest was disturbed by his desire to write and perform folk music in what he described as “Swinging London.” The outgoing American had no trouble making contacts and soon was befriended by two other young Americans, who, like Frank were also folksingers; their names were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Within a year, Frank would record "Blues Run The Game," his first and only album, at the CBS Studio on New Bond Street in London. Frank’s new friend, Paul Simon was behind the board producing. To alleviate his embarrassment, Frank recorded the entire album shrouded from view by a bed sheet.

American and British folk music have similar and very fluid traditions, but by the Sixties much of American folk music was of two main categories: that which was light and breezy, often preformed by corny trios in matching, pressed outfits, and that which was serious and oftentimes political and performed by Benzedrine addicts in New York coffee houses. Simon and Garfunkel would eventually manage to straddle that vast gulf with the type of élan that translated in to heavy record sales, but in 1965 the duo were in England, establishing an Anglophilic-tradition based bulwark against the scrubbed Kingston folk crassness that would dog them, having yet to record their masterwork, "The Sounds of Silence." In the same year, the man most associated with the American folk tradition after 1960, Bob Dylan, formerly known as Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing Minnesota, was also doing his time across the pond. Dylan, a tousle-haired boy of 24 and already a myth, was crisscrossing the island with his documentarian D.A. Pennebaker in tow, famously making a petulant ass of himself.

The English folksingers though, were a more serious lot, and not prone to the clean-cut goofiness of that particularly American strain of folk music. They were so serious in fact that they had as their de facto clown-prince, a diminutive and solemn Glaswegian named Donovan Leitch, who, in America would be cruelly known as Dylan’s acquiescing foil, and had not yet advocated the smoking of banana peels. Most of this lot engaged in an almost faith-based traditionalism, something that was largely unknown in American music—among them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Roy Harper, Sandy Denny, the angel-voiced Anne Briggs and slightly later, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, and the remarkable Vashti Bunyan. The weirdly eccentric guitarist John Fahey practiced the closest approximation of tradition-based folk music in America, which had any impact during this era. Even among the most serious American folk practitioners, the distinctly American sound, and by extension relative modernity of the blues, folk’s earthier cousin, almost always filtered down to the artists work, especially in the case of Fahey, and inevitably in Frank's, who was the most British-sounding of the sixties, American folk masters. The British traditionalists however, seemed to have wanted to erase all musical traces of modernity, they left the blues to their famous brethren, the rock and roll practicioners. Frank’s own ill-at ease blues moment is titled, "Here Come the Blues," and is easily the weakest entry, a standard kind of guitar-walking blues with uninspired lyrics.

Frank fit rather awkwardly into this framework of folk artists, and perhaps that is why his work, though lauded by critics and famous fans alike, has never caught on with the vast amount of people who have afforded those who become legendary their status. In the cases of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, two extremely talented but self-absorbed songwriters, longevity has been the key (both having written as many bad songs as good ones). Frank, like many other artists, was never afforded the opportunity to be profligate about his talents, he could not waste them on albums that detailed being born again for instance. In fact Frank never recorded another album, the rest of his discography is a collection of song fragments and scraps; "Blues Run the Game" is his lone musical legacy.

The rest of Jackson Frank’s life was a downward spiral. As a man about town in London, and well-respected folk artist, Frank was living a dream that would soon dry up, a life that he could never recapture. Frank, a former beaux of Sandy Denny, (who recorded a version of his stunning "Milk and Honey"), returned to America and took up with a fashion model in Woodstock, New York, a home base shared by Bob Dylan. After the death of his child though, Frank fell in to a deep depression, the depths of which he would never truly recover. An immensely tragic figure, Frank suffered through tests that even Lot was spared—he was institutionalized intermittently for psychological problems that included schizophrenia (which was erroneously diagnosed); he was rendered bloated and dazed from thyroid medication; he lost sight in one eye as the victim of a random drive-by shooting; slept for a time on the streets of New York City after taking a bus there, seemingly on a quest to reacquaint himself with his former friend and producer, Paul Simon, and then for years lived in a decrepit Bronx housing project. Frank was helped along in his later years by an angel of mercy, a folk fan named Jim Abbot who helped him move back to Woodstock, and get a backlog of royalty payments. But by then, his dreams were all shattered.

By 1965 though, Frank had produced a beautifully realized album, and to him, what must have seemed like a dream. Like Paul Simon, he too could bridge the gap between the fluid British and American folk traditions, only better and with more passion than the often-bloodless Simon. "Blues Run the Game," and the magnificent "Milk and Honey" are the albums true standouts, but "Kimbie," "Yellow Walls," "Dialogue" and "You Never Wanted Me" are all extremely affecting. There is no question that Jackson C. Frank, like Skip Spence and Roky Erickson was an artist of immeasurable quality who was beaten, left for dead, and almost allowed to slip past us completely. Almost.



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