Jackson C Frank: The forgotten folk hero whose tragic life overshadowed his genius

From childhood trauma to mental illness and destitution, the singer-songwriter led a tragic life – but, writes Alexandra Pollard, his brilliant music lives on

Saturday 08 December 2018 10:41
As a child, a fire broke out at Frank’s school, leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body
As a child, a fire broke out at Frank’s school, leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body

In the early Nineties, a group of teenagers were playing with an air rifle on the streets of Queens, New York, when they noticed a dishevelled man sitting alone on a bench. “Let’s get the homeless guy,” one of them yelled. He took aim, shot the man in the face, and scarpered. The boy had no idea that the “homeless guy”, whom he had just permanently blinded in one eye, was Jackson C Frank – perhaps one of the most important folk singers to have lived.

It was a sad and complicated journey that brought Frank to that bench. Having endured childhood trauma, divorce, tragedy, mental illness and destitution, the singer-songwriter lived the kind of life that would make other tortured artists count their blessings. In his 56 years, he only released one album, which hardly sold. Work on a second was abandoned.

And yet, Frank’s music has since been covered by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, John Mayer, Nick Drake, Bombay Bicycle Club, Bert Jansch, Marianne Faithfull, Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes. It has appeared in TV shows such as This Is Us, as well as films Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Brown Bunny, and Daft Punk’s Electroma. In Robert Redford’s swansong, The Old Man and the Gun, which is out in cinemas now, a crucial scene is underscored by Frank’s most enduring, and arguably greatest, song, “Blues Run the Game”.

The Old Man & the Gun - trailer

“Catch a boat to England, baby, maybe to Spain,” ponders Frank in the opening lines of the song, which featured on his eponymous 1965 album and whose swooping, wistful melody is as uncomplicated as it is astonishing. “Wherever I have gone, the blues are all the same.”

Frank, who was born and raised in New York, really did catch a boat to England. When he was 21, he travelled to London, where he met and collaborated with fellow folk musicians Bert Jansch, Simon & Garfunkel and Fairport Convention – but he wouldn’t have been able to were it not for a tragedy that occurred a decade earlier.

When Frank was 11, a fire broke out at his school, killing 15 of his classmates and leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body. He eventually received $100,000 in compensation, which funded his trip to London – but the trauma stayed with him for life. “Though the fire had burned her life out, it left me little more,” he sang on punchy blues song “Marlene”, a tribute to a childhood sweetheart who was among the dead. “I am a crippled singer, and it evens up the score.”

That song – as well as the rest of his album – was produced by Paul Simon. The album was recorded in a single, three-hour session, during which Frank was so nervous he insisted no one be able to see him while he played. “It was probably the strangest recording session I’ve ever been to,” British musician Al Stewart said. “Even when Paul would say, ‘OK we’re ready,’ often this would be followed by two or three minutes of total silence while he psyched himself into singing. And then this beautiful voice would emerge.”

Despite its melancholic beauty, and the backing of a major label in the form of Columbia, Frank’s self-titled debut flopped. He returned to America in the late Sixties, where he met and married Elaine Sedgwick. The pair had two children, but their infant son died of cystic fibrosis, and the marriage fell apart. “About 1973, after the divorce”, Frank would later recall, “my wife wouldn’t let me see the one child who had lived. I had an emotional breakdown.” The musician was forcibly hospitalised, and eventually treated for paranoid schizophrenia.

Frank always disputed that diagnosis, but his mental health issues persisted for the next few decades. After moving back in with his parents, he one day disappeared so suddenly, his mother assumed he had died. In fact, he had gone back to New York in search of Paul Simon, who he believed owed him royalties. He never found Simon, and ended up in and out of homeless shelters and psychiatric institutions.

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Eventually, a few years after the shooting incident, a fan called Jim Abbott tracked Jackson down. “I hadn’t seen a picture of him except for his album cover,” said Abbott. “Then he was thin and young. When I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought, ‘That can’t possibly be him.’ I just stopped and said, ‘Jackson?’ and it was him. He had nothing. It was really sad.”

The pair went out to lunch, and then back to the room Jackson was staying in. “It almost made me cry,” said Abbott, “because here was a 50-year-old man, and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. He tried to play “Blues Run the Game” for me, but his voice was pretty much shot.”

There’s no redemptive arc to Frank’s story; for him, the blues never stopped running the game. A few years after he met Abbott, he died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest. But his music, never truly recognised while he was alive, lives on.

Many years later, that same fan wrote a book – Jackson C Frank: The Clear, Hard Light of Genius. “His scarred body housed a beautiful soul,” he wrote of Frank. “I found him to be one of the most inherently good people I have ever known. And he made music as beautiful as his soul.”

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