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  • Snowfall BluesThe Hard Life and Clear Sound of Jackson C. Frank
  • Alison Stine (bio)

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The best musician you’ve never heard of was born in Buffalo and grew up in Ohio and western New York. He started singing as a child in rural Elyria in northern Ohio, a place he described as a “wartime world” of chickens and country music playing on a radio at all hours. He performed, a kindergartener, as the youngest member of his church choir. Then his family moved back to New York, to the snowy town of Cheektowaga. He began playing the guitar as a kind of physical therapy: On March 31, 1954, part of his elementary school, the Cleveland Hill School, went up in flames after a coal furnace exploded. The furnace was below the music room, where eleven-year-old Jackson C. Frank sat in music class at the time.

For weeks, according to rumor, students had been going home, complaining of headaches, but no one had thought to investigate the furnace. The furnace heated an annex, adjacent to the main school, which had been built as a temporary solution to an influx of new students into the district. The annex was made of wood.

When the explosion happened, fifteen of Frank’s classmates were killed: almost half of his sixth-grade class. Ten children perished at the scene, five died later from their injuries, and more than twenty students and staff were injured. The annex burned to the ground in just thirty-four minutes. The windows of the music room were heavy—and jammed. They were difficult even to break—difficult, because of the many small panes. The children who survived the music-room fire jumped or were pushed. As Jeff Simon wrote in the Buffalo News, “For more than a decade, there wasn’t a parent in Western New York who didn’t freeze in terror—at least a little—the minute they heard those three words: Cleveland Hill fire.”

In a Life magazine story about the fire, there’s a picture of volunteers waiting at the Red Cross to give blood to the victims, standing since there’s no place left to sit. There’s a picture of scorched sheet music lying in the snow, in the rubble of the music room. The music is crumbled and black on the edges, but the title of the song is still visible: Snowfall.

Jackson C. Frank was grievously, almost fatally, injured in the fire. According to witness accounts, children put out the flames on his back with snow, but he suffered burns on more than half his body. He spent eight months in the hospital, receiving multiple skin grafts. The children in the burn ward read comic books and listened to donated records. Kirk Douglas visited, and there is a picture from the Buffalo Evening News of Frank meeting the movie star. Frank wears pajamas and a robe, his right arm, head, and cheekbones wrapped in bandages. Some of his hair is burned or shaved away.

Teachers visited the hospital. One brought a guitar, hoping to cheer Frank up and encourage him to exercise his hands and arms. It worked. Soon, Frank was buying his own guitar from Montgomery Ward.

Frank met Elvis at thirteen, after his family took a trip to Graceland to try to boost the boy’s spirits. The superstar invited Frank inside and posed for a picture in front of a jukebox. In the color shot, Elvis wears swimming trunks, a [End Page 29] towel or cape around his shoulders. He’s bare-chested, healthy-looking, tan. Frank is a young boy in a blue pajama-like shirt, his hair so fair it looks white. He holds his right arm, the arm next to Elvis, stiffly, bent across his waist, as if it’s still wrapped in a bandage beneath his sleeve. He holds his arm like it hurts.

He had “problems” with his hands according to one of his first girlfriends, Katherine Wright (née Henry). Still, he kept playing the guitar. He started performing in cover bands with friends. After high school...