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  • John Jackson
    Rappahannock Blues: John Jackson
    by Barry Lee Pearson

Blues artist, songster, and storyteller, John Jackson (February 25, 1924 – January 20, 2002) was the most important black Appalachian musician to come to broad public attention during the mid-1960s. The so-called Folk Revival of that decade witnessed the rediscovery of artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, who had recorded earlier and then disappeared into obscurity. After years in musical retirement such artists found themselves performing for avid new audiences. Although Jackson had no previous recording experience, he could play in the style of these earlier recording artists and knew their songs from long-lost 78 rpm recordings, and from family and friends. Moreover, he, too, was coming off a self-imposed twenty-year period of musical inactivity; no one beyond his family circle knew the extent of his skills—and even they did not imagine the interest his music would generate. Jackson recorded ninety songs during his first recording session. It was as if a musical time machine had been uncovered. The Washington-area folk song community had found its most able practitioner.

Equally important, Jackson drew attention to the rich musical traditions of Appalachia, one of America's most significant, though often overlooked, musical stories. Although black Appalachian music never received the attention given to the transition from Delta blues to Chicago blues, and to rock and roll, in the mountains a shared black and white string band tradition served as the basis for various forms of American roots music, ranging from bluegrass to regional rockabilly. Moreover, there was a southeastern blues tradition influenced by ragtime and old time string band music that remained largely acoustic, and boasted such luminaries as Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, Jackson's two most prominent influences.

Because he alternated blues with country, gospel, old time, and even rock, Jackson was referred to as a "songster." The term, which comes from black vernacular, refers to singer/instrumentalists with large repertoires. Among scholars it also denotes artists whose repertoires span the 19th and 20th centuries, including such Folkways luminaries as Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, or Pink Anderson. From another perspective it designates blues singers who also know a wide range of non-blues songs, including spirituals, ballads, reels, or country dance songs, generally considered older than blues. Jackson was by no means the only artist who shared in this regional tradition, although he was one of the best. But he was also proud to be thought of as a "bluesman."

For the next thirty-plus years he was the Virginia/Washington, D.C. area's most prominent traditional artist, a festival favorite who reciprocated by throwing the best musical house parties in the region. Yet, coming from a generation that embraced hard work, he never thought of music as a job and always worked some form of day job, including as a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. He respected his work and he respected the musicians from whom he learned, often downplaying his own skill in comparison to those artists whose names and music he carried on. His other passion was the discovery and collection of Civil War artifacts. Armed with his metal detector, he scoured nearby historical sites for relics. Some he donated to local historical societies, and other pieces he kept at his home, a veritable museum of Civil War lore.

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John's father and mother, Suttie and Hattie Jackson, were tenant farmers. Typically, farm families needed to be large, and John was the seventh of fourteen children. As he recalled, they also tended to move around:

I was born in a little town of Woodville, Virginia, and my parents lived there about two years and then they moved from there over to Harlen, Virginia. I guess that was another, maybe five miles away; my father went to work for another farmer. Then they lived two years there, and then they moved from there up into Rappahannock County, the F.T. Valley. The F.T. Valley got its name after a big man came in there, called Francis Thorn[ton], and he owned all that land at one time. And that's where I grew up. I was about four years old when they moved there, and I was twenty-five years old when I left there and came to Fairfax, and have been in Fairfax ever since.

In the valley and surrounding mountains the rigor and rhythms of agricultural work were softened by music, and in the Jackson house music was a family affair to the extreme:

Everybody in the family played music—my mother, my father, aunts, uncles, my brothers and sisters. My father played; he played guitar, banjo, the mandolin, the ukulele. And he even had a six-string banjo, and these little pennywhistles he used to love. He used to play for parties and stuff all around the country. He was the onliest black man I know that went up in the white areas and played for some of the parties up there, around the mountains there. Everybody knew him, and he did play for some white parties there, I do know he did. He used to play for square dances. But he played left-handed, so I could never learn from him. My mother blowed the harmonica and played the accordion, and, of course, she never sang no blues. She was mostly a spiritual singer. My oldest brother, Dick, he played, [and] my brother Jack. And I still have a brother up in the country who still plays autoharp and the guitar.

So what we did on the weekend and before bedtime at night, everybody sat around and sang songs. My aunt played guitar...her name was Aunt Etta. She married a fellow from down there just around Jefferson, and she used to play the guitar and sing with it. She was my father's sister. And then it was another lady named Miss Ruby Lee that used to sing and play the guitar. In fact, she even played some parts of the clawhammer banjo, because I can remember [them] playing "Little Brown Jug," and "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and stuff like that. They used to play "Leather Britches," [and] a song "Walk Down Ladies, Your Cake's All Gone"; you know, just old mountain hoedowns. That's what they call them back then. It's one song that they did, they say was from the slaves. I don't know if it's true. One I learned from my father: "I'm going up north, pull my britches off, and dance in my long shirttail."

Then it was one song that he used to do that we loved so much, about "Rooster Couldn't Roost Too High for Him," and it said "if it roost above the moon..." I don't know how it all meant. And another one he sang about "When the Cock-a-doodle Crow, It's Gonna Be Rain or Snow." And he used to play "John Henry," and "Railroad Bill," "The preacher and the Big Grizzly Bear," "Coming Around the Mountain Charming Mary," "I Wish I Was a Mole Rooting in the Ground," and then "A Cool Drink of Water Before I Die." I don't know where he got that from.

John continued to play some of these songs he learned from his father, including the black ballads "John Henry" and "Railroad Bill." But his real induction into the musicians' fraternity came when his sister bought him a guitar:

My sister bought my first guitar for me. She paid $3.75 for it, and she ordered it from Sears and Roebuck, or Montgomery Ward, or one of them other companies. And it was a little, small guitar. They ordered it and the mailman brought it, it came in the mail. And that's how I got it. I played it around the house, and I used to carry it everywhere I went. I was nine years old when I got my first guitar.

A Jackson family legend tells of an encounter with another major inspiration who exposed the family to music from beyond the valley:

They were building the first blacktop road up through from Charlottesville, up through Rappahannock County. And they just had hundreds and hundreds of convicts with dynamite, mules, wheelbarrows, sledgehammers, and stuff like that, and they built a road; and this one particular convict used to tote water from my spring, we never did know his full name. Everybody called him "Happy," and he was the happiest man you ever saw. He was whistling, laughing, or singing all the time. And so I was kind of small, and he'd come get a bucket of water and I wondered why he made so much noise when he walked. So when I met him at the spring, I come to find out he had a little chain on his leg. And he got to talking to us, and he wondered what you all do around here, and I told him my father worked on the farm and played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, and my mom played the harmonica and accordion. He said, "If you bring your daddy's guitar down here, I'll play you a song." So I would take the guitar to the spring and he'd play me a song, and then he'd go. In a little while he'd be back, and he'd do the same thing. It went on like that for three or four weeks. And so my mother heard him playing one day when she come down there, and she told him [when he got off work to come to dinner]. So we little ones went up on the hill where we could look right down at the camp, and he got off at six o'clock, and we walked him back to the house. And he eat dinner, and sat there and played for us until it was time to go back to the camp. Us little ones walked him back to the camp. And it got that way every night pretty near. He'd come over and play, and then he'd sit me on his knee and try to show me how to play some. Man, that man could play! And my father got so amazed at him, he wouldn't play with him. It was one spiritual he did that my mom used to sing with him. I can't remember what it was; I declare I don't. But anyway, he was around there for about a year and a half, or two years. I really got into it when I heard the convict play. He really had a lot of influence on me because I couldn't leave the guitar alone after hearing him. I just kept right on along with it after that. "Happy." I never did know his real name.

Other musicians from the Deep South also brought their brand of blues into the Virginia mountains:

And we used to see people from out of Mississippi, use to be up in that area working. People like Tom Terrell; he was from Mississippi, [and] Ron Phillips. It was a big dog kennel and horse stable...about a mile and a half from where we lived. And they used to bring people from Mississippi breaking horses. It was, you know, a race horse farm, and they had the kennels that were for dogs and fox racing. And that's how we met them, the people from out of Mississippi who was blues players.

But along with these non-regional musicians, John was quick to advocate for the quantity and quality of local Virginia artists:

It was plenty bluesmen in Virginia around that area up there would have been just as good as Mississippi John Hurt or anybody else. The first slave settlements were in Virginia. There was a lot of good guitar pickers up in there—Charlie Bacon, Roosevelt Carter, Eddie Washington, [Slocum] Turner, Frank Turner, Izzy Washington, man, you name it. It was lots of them around there. But nobody could ever pick no guitar that come through there better than that convict could. I've never seen anything like it.

Although inspired by local musicians, he also learned from phonograph records. The family purchased a record player from two itinerant furniture dealers, and despite the family's poverty managed to slowly acquire a substantial collection of blues, gospel, and country recordings from traveling salesmen:

My older sister, who was doing washing and ironing for people and day work, would buy whatever records we was able to buy. And that's how we come by so many records. They'd leave us some that were either ten cents apiece or a quarter apiece. I don't know which. From the first time a record ever was made right up to the brand new ones. And they would buy two or three records every time he'd come. And he would go around just peddling these records, all around through the neighborhood. They would bring a bunch of records, and some come by mail order. It was people like the Carter Family, Old Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake, Lemon Jefferson, Frank Stokes; it was mostly black blues players from the South. And so that's how we come by so many records back then. It was just everybody whoever made a record near back to 1920s up to that time. I'd put a record on the record player and listen to it and then try to learn to play it. So that's the influences that I had when I grew up. You didn't know what they were, white people singing them or black people [or] who it were, there were no pictures on most of them. You could pick a voice out and pretty much tell who it was, but we never did know Uncle Dave Macon was a white man until way years later. Always thought he was black; everybody did around there.

That's the way I mostly learned to play was playing behind the 78 records. And what happened to those records? I had about five hundred 78 records; and the man that moved them broke up every one of them. And so when I got into the music, I still remembered all these blues tunes that I still had in my head when I quit playing in 1946.

Jackson's life changed dramatically in the 1940s. His father died in 1940, and he married Cora Lee Carter in 1944. In 1949, like many other rural African Americans, the Jacksons moved closer to the city of Washington, D.C., relocating to the then rural Virginia community of Fairfax Station. There he worked various jobs to make ends meet, and he and Cora built a house with their own hands. Starting his own family left less time for playing in public, and a fight at a party three years earlier led him to give up the house party circuit.

And I never went to any more dances. That was enough. I quit playing; I said to myself, "If I ever get out of here alive, I won't do this again," and I didn't. I put the guitar down and never played no more. That was in 1946, September 1946. I never touched the guitar no more until I met Chuck Perdue at the gas station in September or October 1964.
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John's encounter with folklorist Chuck Perdue came about through a series of serendipitous circumstances. A local mailman, who was an aspiring musician, heard Jackson playing at home for a group of children and asked Jackson to teach him the tune he was playing. John met the new pupil at the mailman's second job at an Esso gas station. As the lesson began, Perdue stopped for gas and, being a guitar player himself, coaxed a song or two from John; this began what would be a life-long friendship. Perdue, professor of folklore and English at the University of Virginia, was involved at the time with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and introduced Jackson to other blues and folk musicians in the region:

Now, he took me to meet Mississippi John Hurt, but I didn't play any then, just went and met him, Elizabeth Cotten, Skip James, and a whole bunch of other people. Two weeks later he took me to see Mance Lipscomb, Son House, and it was somebody else came in town, but I don't know who it was. And that's when they asked me to do two songs; and I played about half of a song and this man jumped up and said, "I want to make a record by that man." It was Chris Strachwitz [from] Arhoolie Record Company. They claim I did ninety songs when I did that first one. Back in 1965 and 1967 when they did the first two albums. Yeah, I did ninety songs. I started playing at eleven o'clock in the morning and played until eleven o'clock that night.

Although Jackson recalled a thriving blues guitar tradition in his home community, few black Virginians were recorded. During the 1920s and 1930s only three musicians produced a significant body of recordings. William Moore, a barber from Tappahannock, recorded for Paramount in 1928. Half of his eight issued songs were ragtime or country dance instrumentals reflective of the pre-blues string band tradition. Lynchburg's Luke Jordan also recorded a number of sides for Victor in 1928 and 1929. Carl Martin, a native Virginian, moved out of the state as a youngster, but his 1930 recordings show his Appalachian roots. Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay made a single recording for Victor in 1928, harmonica player Blues Birdhead cut several sides for Okeh in 1929, and several inmates including Jimmie Strother were recorded by John A. Lomax and Harold Spivacke at the State Farm in Lynn, Virginia, in 1936.

During the 1940s and 1950s Alec Seward of Newport News made some records in New York City; Silas Pendleton from Rappahannock, Virginia, was field-recorded by folklorist Horace Beck; and John Tinsley of Franklin County made a single recording. Spurred by the Folk Revival of the 1960s, other artists with Virginia ties were located, including Richmond-born songster Bill Williams, a brilliant guitarist who claimed he had toured with Blind Blake. Pete Lowry recorded Pernell Charity of Sussex County, and Kip Lornell recorded a number of musicians for the Blue Ridge Institute, most notably the Foddrell family. Franklin County's Archie Edwards recorded several fine CDs in 1991 and 2001. Only John Cephas, from Bowling Green, Virginia, recorded as extensively as Jackson. Jackson on the festival circuit in 1970, with Michael Cooney, left, and John Cephas. Besides recording John also began touring on the folk and blues revival circuit:

And from then on they used to drive me to Newport to the festival there; the Philadelphia Festival, and one time they brought me clean into Chicago; Atlanta, Georgia, you know, different places. And that's how I got around; and I would play some at each and every one of them. I met Lightnin' Hopkins and Roosevelt Sykes, just about everybody, you know, at one time or another over the years. I didn't go to Europe until 1969. And I had made two records for Arhoolie. In 1969 Chris took me on tour around Europe, and we went to pretty near every little country over there. And then he asked me to do a recording in Stuttgart, Germany. That was in 1969, and that was my first tour there. I can remember everybody that was on the tour; it was myself, Earl Hooker, Magic Sam, and Clifton and Cleveland Chenier with his band out of Louisiana, and whistling Alec Moore, who was a blues piano player. That's who was on that tour. Magic Sam was very nice; I liked Magic Sam. He was very cool. But Earl Hooker was very sick on that tour, and they both died later on that year.

He also toured in Asia for the State Department, teaming with country rather than blues artists:

That was in 1984. We went on tour around the world; it was a great tour. Ricky Skaggs was on that; and Buck White and the Down Home Folk; Jerry Douglas and myself.

Two years later he was designated a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts for his role as a teacher and traditional artist. A quietly confident heritage caretaker, he carried on the family traditions, bringing his version of American roots music to a worldwide audience.

In October 1990 his wife Cora died; three sons and one daughter preceded him in death. Through it all he continued to work, performing his last show on New Year's Eve 2002, just twenty days before he died. Shortly before his death, he spoke of how he wanted to be remembered:

I think I've been discovered as a bluesman, [but] I'm more of a songster than a bluesman, because I play music other than blues. But I would like to be remembered the same as Josh White, or Blind Boy Fuller, or Blind Blake. I really would like to be. Of course, I don't say I'm as great a blues player as Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller and those people, but I would like to be remembered that way.

Note: All quotes come from personal interviews with the author conducted over a thirty-year period.