By Larry Benicewicz


I first met John Jackson, who passed away at 77 this past January 20th of liver cancer at his home in Fairfax Station, VA, at the first (and sadly only) Washington Blues Festival held at Howard University in 1970 and even then I marveled at his virtuosity. He was obviously younger than the recently rediscovered folk guitar wizards on the same program like Furry Lewis, then a spry 75, and the 71-year-old Sleepy John Estes, who were cutting 78's way back in the 20's. But he was more than conversant with their styles and was at ease with a wide range of material ranging from ragtime to even country and western. To my amazement, I soon found out that he was a relative newcomer to the public arena, having only played professionally half-dozen years. When I had the opportunity to cover the local blues scene as reviewer for Maryland Musician magazine (now the Music Monthly), John Jackson's name was at the top of my list. And in tribute to his eclecticism, I named my biographical sketch "Tidewater Troubadour" because he could literally do it all.

And what a player he was. An absolute master of the dauntingly intricate Piedmont style of finger picking, John could simultaneously supply a bass pattern (with his thumb), maintain rhythmical accompaniment, and select individual notes to carry the melody--all within a tight harmonic structure.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, his longtime agent and, I might add, guardian angel, Trish Byerly, presented him with a custom handmade (by the noted Ron Phillips, the California equivalent of Maryland's master craftsman, Paul Reed Smith), fourteen fret, replica steel National guitar, which he proceeded to pick up without a moment's hesitation and regale the customers in the basement European-style coffee shop of Nordstrom's department store in Fairfax, VA. This impromptu concert attracted a swarm of curious passersby with incredulous stares as if they were collectively asking "who was that masked man?" And all the while John was matter-of-factly performing the difficult task of open tuning between each number (adjusting for individual key changes), which was just another piece of cake to him. It's no wonder then that he was regarded as a national treasure in the folk/blues community.

But John's greatness extended beyond his music. A paradox of vulnerability and inner strength, he was a humble yet dignified man, a man of principles. In fact, a label of paragon of decency in his case would not be an exaggeration and he remained so throughout his life in a business that was not always on the up and up. "I'd go so far as to claim he was the spiritual leader of his generation," said his agent, Trish.

I remember that I was contacted a few years back to be MC for the 1995 Delaware Blues Festival in Wilmington. The promoter (who will remain nameless) wondered if I could corral John Jackson as a headliner, which, of course, would be a big coup and lend credibility to any such undertaking. In return, I was promised (as well as John and Trish) a room at the downtown Holiday Inn. As events transpired, I found out the next morning that my room was merely "reserved." To make a long story short, when John and Trish found out that I was stiffed for hotel bill, they sent me a check to cover expenses and wouldn't take no for an answer. That's the kind of man John Jackson was.

And he was a man of his word. Though gravely ill, he insisted upon fulfilling an obligation to perform at the Falls Church First Night concert on New Year's Eve, a mere three weeks before he died.

Dealing with many tragedies and vicissitudes in his life, including the loss of his wife, Cora Lee Carter Jackson, in 1990 and three sons, including the accidental shooting by the police of his son, John Jr., in 1978, he could have become bitter. But he remained warm and gracious through it all, accepting such circumstances with his usual equanimity and resignation. I can truly say that John Jackson never had a mean bone in his body and he touched and enriched everyone with whom he had contact.

So, it was not surprising that there was such an outpouring of affection at his viewing at the Ames Funeral Home in Manassas, VA, on the following Wednesday. Originally scheduled from 7-9 p.m., the doors had to be opened a half-hour early to accomodate the huge crowd of over five hundred mourners. The last of this legion of fans, many lined up outside the funeral home for a block in each direction, were admitted as late as ten o'clock. Among the people who paid their respects were many fellow musicians, including local luminaries like Ann Rabson and Gaye Adegbalola, members of Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women, Eleanor Ellis, Bruce Hutton, (John) Cephas & (Phil) Wiggins, Jay Summerour (of Little Bit A Blues) and Richard "Mr. Bones" Thomas. Famed Rounder recording artist and former apprentice and chauffeur of Rev. Gary Davis, Roy Book Binder, who collaborated on John's instructional video (The Fingerpicking Blues Of John Jackson, Homespun, 1995) also attended, as did Alligator acoustic guitar ace, Corey Harris. And there was no less of a throng at the service held the next day at Grace Baptist Church in Woodbridge, VA, wherein Bill McGinnis and his "discoverer" Chuck Perdue offered personal remarks. Simply put, in the Washington area, there was no more beloved a musician than John Jackson and everyone that was able wanted to say his last goodbye to him.

The last tune of the recessional was the aptly chosen "Lay Down My Old Guitar" before John was taken away to be buried at the Pleasant Valley Memorial Park in Annandale.

As with many first generation bluesmen, John Jackson's life began in lowly circumstances. Born February 25, 1924 in the rolling hills of Woodville, VA, in Rappahannock County, he was one of fourteen children. As the son of farmers who were no better off than sharecroppers, he was raised in a family that was dirt poor, but rich in musical heritage. His father, Suttie, left-handed, played a battered guitar upside down and often fashioned crude musical instruments like a penny whistle which he would play at house parties and other neighborhood functions. His mother, Hattie, preferred the spiritual side to the secular and favored the accordian and harmonica. Almost by osmosis, the young John absorbed this musical ambiance and by the age of four, he was already demonstrating his phenomenal talent for mimickry by picking on his father's guitar, and shortly after another which was purchased mail order by an older sister for the then princely sum of $3.95. However, he would still need a tutor to perfect his technique.

He found such a mentor in the person of the enigmatic "Happy," a water boy on a chain gang that was constructing Interstate 29-211 through south Virginia during the height of the Depression. John, who by then had to forego formal schooling in order to help the family survive, befriended the young convict, who, in turn, taught his protege open tuning and the nuances of the slide. Happy, in fact, lived with the Jackson family for a few years after his release and suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, but not before his pupil had acquired all the requisite skills.

It was a furniture peddler with a wagon who completed young John Jackson's musical education. He prevailed upon his mother to buy a Victrola on the installment plan and, when he came by monthly to collect the meager payment, he would sell the family used 78 rpm records at ten cents apiece. Included in this treasure trove were classic blues labels like Paramount and Vocalion with artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Blind Boy Fuller. But also there were more popular labels like Bluebird, Brunswick, and Victor with country artists like Vernon Dalhart, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Carter Family. Needless to say, John eagerly assimilated all these diverse musical genres, note by note. John recalled that back then a particular favorite of his was Hurt's signature rag, "Candyman."

It was not long before John, himself, was performing locally, earning a few extra dollars at parties and juke joints. But he, by nature a gentle man, eventually soured upon publicly entertaining after witnessing several violent altercations in drinking houses. In the mid-40s, he put the instrument on the shelf, firmly believing that he, as much as the liquor, was to blame for these sometimes savage brawls.

After the War, the economic conditions of Rappahannock County worsened, never fully recovering from the Depression. His sister had since moved north to Fairfax County, then a rural district. When she invited her brother for a visit, he welcomed the opportunity to temporarily escape the hardships and uncertainties at home. As if by Providence, John immediately upon arrival spied an inconspicuous sign advertising a job vacancy on a dairy farm where he could put his skills as a handyman to good use. He remembered the date clearly--December 28, 1948.

And shortly thereafter, he settled into his job first as caretaker then gravedigger, which he considered his "holy calling," at Fairfax City Cemetery. Always extolling the virtues of hard work, he relished the idea of rising early with his trusty pick and shovel. In fact, he eventually operated a burial business serving perhaps 30 regional clients but lamented recently that he had to acquiesce to a backhoe in order to meet commitments, a compromise that never gave him nearly the same satisfaction as doing the manual labor himself. Nor was he particularly fond of the common money saving practice instituted by some of the proprietors of local necropolises--four foot trenches. "A man's entitled to his six feet," John was wont to say, who, himself, excavated his mother's final resting place.

About 1960, he acquired, for a paltry sum, a used Gibson "flat top box" acoustic guitar from an aquaintance and played it from time to time to just amuse himself. Although it had been fifteen or so years since he first put the instrument aside, he found that he still retained his touch. Rarely did he entertain visitors to the farm. But on one such occasion, it would have a dramatic impact on his life.

In the early 60's, at the peak of the hootenany craze which included Sadie Hawkins dances, the Rooftop Singers just had a million selling folk song in "Walk Right In" (Vanguard 35017). Although credited to Eric Darling, a folkie, it was actually an old 1928 Gus Cannon banjo composition when he then was leading the Jug Stompers based in Ripley, TN. John instantly recognized the tune from an old 78 and played it for some school children strolling by. Even though the guitar picking enthralled the students, it made more of an impression on the postman who implored John to teach him to play. John was reluctant at first, but finally relented and agreed to lessons at a local Amoco filling station where the mailman worked part-time. As luck would have it, at one of these infrequent sessions, Charles "Chuck" Perdue, government employee and founder of the then fledgling Folklore Society of Greater Washington and now a professor of folklore at the University of Virginia, chanced by and heard John "woodshedding" in the back. Needless to say, he was astounded, especially with how John ably dispatched the complex "Candyman."

To say the least, it was the most propitious time to be rescued from obscurity. The folk revival was in full swing and by then the recently deceased Thomas Bird "Fang" Hoskins, an area music researcher, at the behest of Dick Spottswood (still a DJ of historical recordings over WAMU, 88.5 FM) located the long lost Mississippi John Hurt in 1963 in Avalon, MS, and brought him to Washington, DC, where both he and Hoskins moved into #30 Rhode Island Avenue. This event precipitated both John Jackson's and fellow Piedmont guitar giant Archie Edward's appointed rendezvous with destiny.

Chuck, after much coaxing, finally persuaded John to attend some of the concerts of his boyhood heroes, including Hurt, at clubs like the now-defunct Cellar Door and Ontario Place in Georgetown. John, naturally, was skeptical that old-timers not only Hurt but also Skip James and Sleepy John Estes could still be alive. Yet, here they were and a thoroughly mesmermized John returned again and again. At one such show by Mance Lipscomb, who, himself, was uncovered in 1960 in Navasota, TX, by Chris Strachwitz, John was welcomed onstage to play a couple of songs. Again, as if by a miracle, Strachwitz of Arhoolie, looking for new talent for his California-based Arhoolie label (now situated at 10341 San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito) was in the audience. This pioneering folk blues producer literally could not believe his ears.

Chris, immediately sensing "a rare individual (to use his own expression)" just had to have this "sweet and gentle guy that history had almost passed by" for Arhoolie and was polite but persistent, finally wearing down the decidedly disinclined John. On April 19, 1965, Strachwitz came out to Fairfax Station with a rather primitive portable recorder, "a Magnecord with a Capps omnidirectional condenser mike," to do a taping, a marathon eleven-hour session done much in the same manner as when he recorded Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como, MS, in 1964. The material of this visit is included in Arhoolie LP F1025, Blues and Virginia Dance Tunes-Volume I, a project that was so promising that two years later, Strachwitz returned for Volume Two (1035) In all, John recorded three fine LPs for Arhoolie, including one while on his first European tour in Stuttgart, Germany, in October of 1969 (which included guitarists Earl Hooker, Juke Boy Bonner, and Magic Sam Maghett, Zydeco ace Clifton Chenier, harp player Carey Bell, and pianist Whistlin' Alex Moore) appropriately titled John Jackson In Europe (1047). During that same tour, John was accorded two titles on a CBS (English) LP (63912), an anthology of artists who appeared at a concert at the storied Royal Albert Hall in London.

In 1993 Arhoolie released John's first CD (378), Don't Let Your Deal Go Down, which was originally envisioned as an album in 1970 but now it contained 26 selections culled from the three above sessions from which Mel Bay transcribed 25 tunes (excluding the solitary banjo cut) as a guitar self-help book (also available through Arhoolie) by the same title. And in 1999, Chris Strachwitz issued John Jackson's Country Blues & Ditties (471) a similar 25-track tribute which represents the best of each of the former three LPs. In commenting upon the former CD, the critic Bruce Eder adds that as "good as his playing is, John's singing is also to be admired, as his baritone voice surges with a quiet power and forcefulness, and a rich tone." But Eder is very much taken also with the "killer slide" of "John Henry" and "Knife Blues"--"a slide guitar showcase worth the price of the disk itself," he added.

Through the connections of Perdue and Strachwitz, John's career as a singer got off the ground in a hurry in the mid-60s and it has been a whirlwind of concert appearances and tours since then. Wherever he played, his genius was universally acknowledged. As testimony to his talent, the Smithsonian requested that he inaugurate their first annual Folklife Festival in 1967 and he had remained a fixture there since. By the end of this decade, he had a half-dozen major blues jamborees under his belt, including the Newport and Philadelphia Folk Festivals, and was devoting less and less time to day jobs, such as chauffeur and gravedigger.

There was simply no let up in the 70's, as he was now being nationally and internationally recognized. In 1970, at the aforementioned prestigious Washington Blues Festival, a three-day event at Howard University, John appeared on the same slate as Howlin' Wolf, J.B. Hutto, and Luther Allison--a lineup the equivalent of a black Woodstock. Also there were invitations to Wolf Trap's National Folk Festivals in Virginia and appearances on WTTG, Channel 5 in Washington. He also became the unofficial ambassador of goodwill, as worldwide tours under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency (under the aegis of the State Department) took John to South America in 1974, where he flirted with danger in the Allende upheaval in Chile, and to Southeast Asia, where there was an uncomfortably close encounter with a king cobra snake in Bangkok, Thailand. In addition, in the 70's, John recorded a medley of country dance tunes for the Blue Ridge Institute (BRI 001), a historical anthology album which included the first recorded effort, "John Henry," of another local favorite, the aforementioned John Cephas. A fitting culmination to this decade was a contract with Rounder records of Cambridge, MA, which released Step It Up and Go (Roun 2019), his fourth album in 1978.

As the 80's dawned, his schedule became all the more tighter, if that can be imagined. Some highlights of the decade include presentations at the Leisurefest in Las Vegas, the New Orleans JazzFest, the rapidly expanding Norfolk Folk Festival, and the Chicago Blues Festival. There were also new demands on his time in the recording studio. John journeyed to Boston for a second time in 1982 for a protracted taping session which yielded his second Rounder masterpiece, Deep in the Bottom (2032). By the way, both of his Rounder releases originally issued on vinyl are still currently available but only in cassette format.

And his reputation was expanding rapidly. In his promotional portfolio is a personal "thank you" from President Carter for his special White House concert on Labor Day, 1980. But another presidential letter is more indicative of the high esteem in which he is held in the artistic community of the country. It is a congratulatory note from Ronald Regan to John for having received the National Heritage Fellowship in 1986, an award by nomination from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). Considering the brevity of his career at that juncture, it had to rank as a truly remarkable accomplishment. In addition in the mid-80s, the aforementioned Eleanor Ellis, with the encouragement of Joe Wilson of the National Council of Traditional Arts, began directing and filming Piedmont legends such as a John, Archie Edwards, Cephas & Wiggins and Flora Molton at John's country home. The resulting, highly acclaimed documentary, Blues House Party, was finally presented with much fanfare at Washington's Ethical Society in 1990 with John and Archie providing musical interludes.

With the onset of the 90's, John, now with agent/manager Trish Byerly to handle his affairs, seemed to really blossom as he accepted fresh challenges and as well took some risks. He seemed never quite content, at ease to be "merely" the repository of the nation's collective memory--to be pigeonholed or dismissed as just an anachronism, playing his "oldies," curious but irrelevant to modern issues. On the contrary, as time wore on, he appeared all the more receptive to creative undertakings and intriguing new projects and ideas. In February of 1990, he contributed to the soundtrack of the Greenpeace movie, We All Live Downstream, which concerned itself with pollution of the Mississippi. In 1991, in a performance piece at the Meridian House International in Washington, D.C., he worked closely with the avant-garde acoustic trio, Hesperus, in an attempt to find relationships in blues music to Medieval songs. It was hypothetical quest in order to ascertain the original roots of modern blues and jazz. The man, to put it simply, always kept an open mind.

Throughout the 90s, John, never without his trademark felt fedora, was a familiar figure both here and abroad. On the homefront, he became a fixture at the annual Bluebird Blues Festival in Bowie, MD, and the Herndon, VA, Blues Festival and worked closely with the D.C. Blues Society's many functions, including its yearly shindig, now held at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. And at the close of the decade, he agreed to perform an engagement at the nearby (Hagerstown) Western Maryland Blues Festival. But in all honesty, he was all over the U.S. map from regular workshops in Port Townsend, WA, to the JazzFest, to the Chicago Blues Festival, to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in John Deere Memorial Park in Moline, IL, and to his May 2, 1998 appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall as part of Nick Spitzer's (another prominent DJ at WAMU) Folk Masters Series. Another recent Big Apple event for John was his inclusion in the Live At Lincoln Center program.

And junkets abroad during the 90's also kept him in the world spotlight. Some notable peregrinations included Amsterdam, the Handzame Blues Festival in Belgium, the famed Montreux in Switzerland, and the San Remo and Rovigo, both in Italy. Late in the decade, Mike Roach, musician and former head of the D.C. Blues Society, with renowned British blues writer, Paul Oliver, requested that John journey to Exeter in Devonshire, England, to present a blues workshop in which he was most warmly received by all, including Chris Jagger, the brother of Mick.

His prodigious touring schedule notwithstanding, John Jackson's crowning achievement during the 90s was a long overdue and much anticipated release on Alligator (ALCD 4867,in 1999) Front Porch Blues, a 16-track recapitulation of a grand career, which contains songs of topical and personal nature, including "Chesterfield (he later kicked the habit)," "Fairfax Station Blues," and "Rappahannock Blues"--all the songs listed in the liner notes were accompanied by John's reminisces. But perhaps the most prophetic was the inclusion of Reverend Gary Davis's "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Perhaps at 75, John knew even then that his time was just about up. In this regard, it was interesting that he wished that son James, also an accomplished guitarist, sing the last song, as if he intended that he carry on the grand tradition. This Handy-nominated undertaking (He lost out to Wilson Pickett!), lovingly produced by both Trish Byerly and Joe Wilson (who also oversees Cephas and Wiggins for Flying Fish) and engineered by Pete Reininger at Private Ear studio in Hyattsville, still remains a most fitting memorial to an artist of such uncommon magnitude.

John's passing doesn't quite mark the end of an era, as John Cephas at 71 still manages to keep Piedmont blues alive. But who's going to fill these big shoes? As Chris Strachwitz remarked upon John's death, "The world has changed so much, become so homogenous, that it's impossible that someone so original and pure like John can come out of the woodwork. As far as the real folk blues is concerned, probably every rock has been overturned. I don't think there is anyone out there of any substance that hasn't yet been discovered." But we both consoled ourselves in the fact that unlike many genuises of the guitar, at least (thanks to Arhoolie, Rounder, and Alligator) John Jackson left something of himself behind for us to cherish for the ages.

John, a few years back called me and I had to chuckle as I heard his unmistakable lilting, cadence-filled dialect in which every normal syllable receives at least two accents. "La-a re-e, I-ya gotta que-eh-stion for-or you-ou," he said. Anyway, he said he was being pestered by this guy, an Englishman (he thought), who wanted to come out to the house and hear him play, maybe take some lessons. He wanted to know if I had heard of him. "He-e sa-yez hi-iz na-ame i-iz Eah-ric Cla-a-pton."

But it was his artlessness and naivete that made him so appealing and charming because it was genuine. He'd often open a show with the classic "Key To The Highway" instead of a rollicking attention-grabber, as when he was selected for the Baltimore Blues Society's "Blues In Schools" program. Nonetheless, the audience always appreciated him because his real character always shined through. He was a true innocent and played from the heart. And no one could ask more of a performer.

----Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.


© The Folk Club of Reston/Herndon, 2005
Created by Armen Karimian