A folk superstar who was never destined to blossom.
Jackson C. Frank had cut his teeth on the American folk circuit for three years before he recorded this essential and singular debut album. Produced by Paul Simon and made up of nearly all original compositions, Jackson C. Frank, originally released on Columbia in 1965, is the confident work of a fully-formed artist. Yet he never released another album. Frank’s complete recordings have been issued by Ba Da Bing, but a new vinyl reissue of his sole album gives listeners a chance to rediscover the 1965 document of a folk superstar who was never destined to blossom.
Frank’s personal story is the stuff of tragedy; he survived what is known as the Cleveland Hill School disaster. In 1954 a then 11-year-old Frank was in the middle of music class, ironically, when a boiler exploded and sent a fireball roaring through the halls of his school in Buffalo. Students and teachers had to break through small, closed window panels to escape, and 15 of Frank’s classmates didn’t make it. Frank himself suffered third-degree burns over more than half of his little body. The fire did so much damage to his bones that his arms were permanently fused, one at a right angle at his elbow and the other completely straight.
Frank suffered mental issues over the years, but his physical torment in fact fueled his gift; his arms were fixed at a perfect position for playing guitar. And when he came of age, the resulting insurance settlement sent him on a spree that included a trip to England, where he fell in with the developing folk scene and recorded the album that formed his legacy.
Legend has it that opener “Blues Run the Game” was the first song he wrote, and that in fact was written on the ship that took him to England (it certainly references an ocean voyage to Europe ). Wherever it falls in his chronology, it has the freshness of ‘60s pop and the wisdom of an ancient voice singing about current times: “Send out for whiskey baby/ Send out for gin/ Me and room service honey…/Well we’re livin’ the life of sin.”
With just his voice and guitar, Frank built a varied record, from the finger-picking blues of the opening “Blues Run the Game” to the exuberant rhythm chords of the civil rights protest song “Don’t Look Back” to the introspective picking of “Kimbie,” the only non-original on the album. This last is a radical reworking of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” a staple from Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. While Lunsford’s banjo-picking original backed up a more fatalistic tale sung by a man who had just ended a rough prison sentence, Frank makes it his own, creating the wistful ballad of a man who’s physical damage has enriched his soul so much that his deep croon is uplifting. It’s an optimism that would be rare in Frank’s later life.
Frank is as convincing as a bluesman as a folk balladeer; “Here Come the Blues,” later covered by Nick Drake, begins as an authoritative four-bar blues, but Frank turns the chorus into something more contemporary. On “Yellow Walls,” with a second guitar played by Al Stewart (who later hit with “Year of the Cat”), a confident guitar tells what is reportedly the story of his painful recovery after the fire that scarred his childhood and life. “My Name is Carnival” turns his talent in yet another direction, singing with vivid imagery in a minor key: “Here there is no law but the arcade’s penny claw, hanging empty/ The painted laughing smile.”
The album’s storied sessions were attended by a who’s-who of future folk music legends. Simon, of course, was there, having coaxed the shy Jackson into the studio in the first place. So was Sandy Denny, Frank’s then-girlfriend and future member of Fairport Convention, who later covered album closer “You Never Wanted Me.” Simon’s musical partner Art Garfunkel was there too, and, according to Jim Abbott’s Frank biography The Clear, Hard Light of Genius, remembers going out to get tea for the musicians—and whiskey for Frank.
While Jackson C. Frank has a somber mood hanging over it, it’s not the kind of album like Big Star’s Third where you can hear its auteur’s impending mental breakdown. So it’s that much more tragic that Frank’s life began to fall apart not long after the album was released. His substantial insurance payment would run out, and while Frank would get married and have a child, his son succumbed to cystic fibrosis, which sent the musician’s mental health down even further. In his later years, Frank was often homeless, and spent time in and out of mental institutions. When he died in 1999, he was only 56. Readers should seek out the demos Frank recorded in the ‘70s and ’90s, but this is where the legend begins, and any lover of folk music should own it, if they don’t already.