Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 83-89
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John Jackson, one of the last remaining Depression-era bluesmen, passed away in Virginia on January 20, 2002. Born in 1924 to Virginia farmers who played music at parties on the weekends, Jackson learned to play guitar at age four and was accompanying his parents by the time he was eight. His parents bought a second-hand Victrola when he was six, and Jackson grew up with the sounds of Blind Boy Fuller, Jimmie Rodgers, and Uncle Dave Macon, among others. When he was ten, he learned guitar techniques from a chain gang laborer who was working near the Jackson farm. His musical styles included Piedmont blues, ragtime, folk, old time hillbilly songs and ballads—all transformed by his distinctive playing style and rich baritone voice.
Kidney failure took the official rap, but for my money, sixty years' worth of unfiltered Pall Malls are what really did bluesman John Jackson in. Wire reports and an NPR spot went on to mourn the passing of this "National Treasure" by citing an impressive record of career accomplishments. All said was true enough, but detached media tributes to his musicianship ultimately seem inadequate and compel me to share personal vignettes from time spent with this exceptional human being.
My grandfather, my dad, and John Jackson are unquestionably the three significant men in my life. Each contributed generously to different phases of my upbringing, with John becoming a gentle mentor and steadfast friend from the moment we met.
Thirty years ago, give or take a few weeks, a ratty little import with Virginia tags rumbled into Mr. Nixon's Washington and discharged its load of underage hooligans. Ostensibly their mission was to attend an outdoor concert being given by Chicago, a decidedly uncool Top 40-ish band that reeked of polyester. In truth, the youthful adventurers were just seizing an opportunity to prowl among GWU coeds. I know. I was a ringleader and rode shotgun.
Predictably, the music did nothing for us and, surprisingly, we did nothing for the college girls. While we were slinking away, a modest flyer touting "The Blues of John Jackson" caught our attention. Whoever the heck that was, he was playing nearby in about an hour. For free. Well, his music couldn't be any cornier than Chicago's and, hey, hey, this time there might even be a willing crop of coeds to harvest. Resilient youth in action.
The dingy auditorium was abuzz with serious concerteers in-waiting. Hmm. No Woodstock here. An audience of academics, hippies, and various combinations thereof was anticipating something special. But what? The lights dimmed, and an emcee I can't remember made a brief introductory speech I've likewise forgotten. Applause ushered in a middle-aged black guy cradling a worn Gibson. John Jackson. I simply could not imagine what sort of "act" this unimposing fossil could pull off. At least he had a mike and wasn't charging admission.
Now, we're conditioned to expect dramatic musical accompaniment with each and every epiphany. The Flash of Truth demands underscoring by Beethoven at [End Page 84] the very least should The Celestial Choir happen to be on coffee break. Right? Well, the soundtrack for my Revelation was a simple three-chord ditty on six strings.
The show's opener, "Nobody's Business," powerfully evoked and brought into focus an older, more rural South that had always beckoned softly from my peripheral vision. I mentally followed Jackson's musical conduit into that colorful landscape and proceeded to stake my claim. To this day I've yet to snap out of the trance that song induced.
My fedora-crowned Siren was picking in the rollicking Piedmont blues style that had once thrived between Virginia and Florida. The player's right hand is a band unto itself, using the thumb for bass runs while providing the melody line with two or more alternating fingers. I knew immediately that I'd be chasing this stuff down with gusto and was no longer a strumming Stephen Stills wanna-be. Oddly enough, I can...