Donate to the Grapevine

Express your thanks by leaving the pirate a tip!

July 19, 2010

John Jackson - Rappahannock Blues

I haven't really posted much of anything lately, owing to the fact that I now have two jobs and little time for philanthropiracy... so I also neglected to post this news which is now a month late, about a newly-released album by folk-blues troubador John Jackson, which was sent to me by Smithsonian Folkways. Without further ado:

John Jackson represented, if anything, the crossroads. No, not the silly Robert Johnson devil-styled crossroads. I mean the place where different traditions meet. Blues, Folk, Minstrel/Medicine-Show Tunes and Appalachian banjo styles all came together in a single man with a warm Virginia country voice. John Jackson is the place where Blind Blake meets Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Brownie McGhee, the Delmore Brothers, Blind Boy Fuller, and Hobart Smith. John Jackson is the place where they all sit down on a shady southern mountain house porch and pick some guitars after they've done all the picking of cotton & corn. There is nothing about this music that is not raw. Like fresh-picked wheatgrass, it will wake you up. Like a fresh-dug grave, it will lay you to rest in a deep, warm, earthy bed. And you'll be dreaming of candy on a stick, rocks and gravel, and a long Cadillac car with a little bump in the back-left wheel.

Biography by Barry Lee Pearson
For much of his life, John Jackson played for country house parties in Virginia, or around the house for his own amusement. Then in the '60s he encountered the folk revival, becoming the Washington, D.C. area's best-loved blues artist. Undoubtedly one of the finest of traditional Piedmont guitarists, Jackson exemplified the songster tradition at its best. His eclectic repertoire embraced the music of his guitar heroes Willie Walker (who once visited his father's house), Blind Boy Fuller, and -- most notably -- Blind Blake. Besides the blues, rags, and dance tunes associated with these masters, Jackson played ballads, country songs, and what he termed "old folk songs," such as "The Midnight Special." His confident fingerpicking, down-home Virginia accent, and contagious good humor marked his performances, live or on record, as something special. A world-class storyteller and party-thrower as well as a National Heritage Award-winning musician, Jackson recorded a half-dozen albums and toured the world as often as he wanted to. He died of liver cancer on January 20, 2002.

John Jackson
By Greg Johnson

For over 36 years, John Jackson was arguably the purest exponent of Piedmont Blues working the festival circuit. An artist in possession of a wealth of musical knowledge, along with his strong baritone vocals, he kept the sound of the traditional southeastern United States alive. Passing on the songs of artists such as Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller to younger generations, as well as introducing his own finely-crafted material. His recent death has left a void that'll surely be hard to replace.

John Jackson was born in Woodville, Virginia, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rappahannock County on February 25, 1924, the seventh of fourteen children. His parents were farmers by trade, but they also were working musicians who played for parties on holidays and weekends. This exposure captured young John's attention early and he began teaching himself to play his father's guitar by the age of four. It was evident to his family that there was something magical in the child's desire and an older sister purchased a guitar for him when he was just five.

Along with his family's participation as active performers, John also loved to listen to the collection of records his parents owned. They consisted of early Country and Blues artists; people such as Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, and especially Blind Blake. John studied the 78s passionately, learning the chord progressions as closely as he could. Another individual that the youngster found as a teacher came from the unlikely source of a water boy on a chain gang who went by the name of Happy. While working on the construction of I-29-211, Happy found the time to offer lessons to young Jackson.

Jackson never truly had a formal education. He was forced to leave school after only attending a few short months in the first grade to assist his family on the farm. Because of this, Jackson never learned to read or write.

By the time he was in his early teens, he had joined his parents working the local house-parties. He continued to play with them throughout the 1930s and well into the 1940s. But, by the end of the `40s, he became disenchanted with music, feeling that it led to violent behavior and walked away from it altogether.

In 1950, John Jackson moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Now a family man himself, with his wife Cora and their children, Jackson took work on a dairy farm. In 1954, he took on the occupation of a grave digger at the Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church, Virginia. It was a job that he enjoyed and would hold onto throughout his life, even well after he became a recognized musician. Music came back into Jackson's life around this same time. A friend in need of money sold his guitar to Jackson and soon he was playing for family friends and local children in his spare time.

While driving through Fairfax County in 1964, folklorist Chuck Perdue stopped at an Amoco gas station. What he didn't expect to find was Jackson, teaching guitar to a mailman. Stunned by the brilliant playing of Jackson, he introduced himself and soon had the guitarist performing in coffee houses in the greater Washington area. It was at the height of the age of "Rediscovery" for Blues and Folk artists and Jackson's knowledge of the Piedmont style was a natural fit.

John Jackson recorded his first album for the Arhoolie label in 1965. Titled, "Blues And Country Dance Songs From Virginia" it was a fine example of his deep repertoire, containing Reels, Rags, Gospel, Hillbilly tunes and Blues. It was the first of eight albums that Jackson would release for Arhoolie during his lifetime and it opened the door for his demand at festivals around the world.

Despite that demand, Jackson very rarely liked to travel far from his home in Falls Church. Over his career, he would play in more than 60 countries, at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. He would play for royalty and also was a featured performer at the White House for the annual Labor Day Picnic during Jimmy Carter's term as president. In 1986, Jackson was also honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. But, it wasn't until 1999 that he actually played formally for his own hometown when he appeared at the annual Falls Church Watch Night held to celebrate New Year's Eve, an event he would repeat for the remaining two years of his life.

Nineteen ninety-nine also saw the release of Jackson's final recording, "Front Porch Blues" on the Alligator label. The album would recap three W.C. Handy nominations that year, including one for the "Acoustic Album of the Year".

Shortly after Christmas 2001, John Jackson was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was unfortunately in such an advanced state that surgery was not an option. Despite his condition, Jackson appeared at the Falls Church Watch Night celebration a few days later, which would be his final performance. On the afternoon of January 20, 2002, he died while at home of kidney failure. It was reported that he was comfortable and not in pain. He was 77.

On the following Thursday, January 24, the life of John Jackson was celebrated by his friends and family. Many musicians, including the members of Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women and Cephas & Wiggins were all in attendance offering reminiscences of Jackson while his music quietly played in the background. He was later buried at Pleasant Valley Memorial Park, in Annandale, VA.

During his career, John Jackson was called the "King of the Piedmont Blues." But, he was more than just a musician; he was also a strong participant in the Civil Rights movement for Northern Virginia. Falls Church was the location of the first rural chapter of the NAACP and Jackson was a key member from its inception. He very rarely turned down any offer to perform as a benefit for this cause. He also wished to see the tradition of Piedmont's music to be remembered and to prosper as well. During the last month of his life, Jackson had began planning for a Center for Piedmont Blues in Falls Church in association with the local Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation. His musical legacy will surely carry on through this endeavor.

Obituary by John Pareles:

John Jackson, a master of the Piedmont tradition of blues, country and ragtime, died on Jan. 20 at his home in Fairfax, Va. He was 77.

The cause was kidney failure, but he had also suffered from lung and liver cancer, said his manager, Trish Byerly.

In a honey-cured Virginia drawl, backed by the gentle, spunky fingerpicking of his acoustic or steel guitar, Mr. Jackson sang a repertory that summed up rural life in the early 20th century. There were sly blues, hoedown tunes, storytelling ballads and God-fearing warnings of mortality. Mr. Jackson had only a first-grade education, and he continued to work as a gravedigger for decades after he was discovered during the 1960's blues and folk revival. In 1986 he was given the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Jackson was born Feb. 25, 1924, the seventh of 14 children in a farm family in Rappahannock County, Va. His parents, Suttie and Hattie Jackson, played at parties on weekends, and Mr. Jackson started playing guitar when he was 4.

He learned songs from his parents and from the family Victrola, listening to records by rural bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake, as well as by country singers like Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmie Rodgers. Mr. Jackson learned slide guitar from a chain gang convict named Happy.

He dropped out of school to do farm work and learned to read and write later in life. Mr. Jackson continued performing with his parents into the 1940's, but because he felt music encouraged violent behavior, he quit by 1950.

He married and moved with his wife, Cora, to a dairy farm in Fairfax, Va., where he worked as a cook, driver and caretaker for the farmer.

In the early 60's two friends pawned him a Gibson J50 guitar for $50. Mr. Jackson started playing again, entertaining children. He kept the guitar for the rest of his career, calling it Stand By because, he said, it always stood by him.

A mailman heard Mr. Jackson playing for neighbors and asked for lessons. Mr. Jackson was instructing him at the local gas station, where the mailman had a second job, when the president of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, Chuck Perdue, pulled in for gas and stayed to listen. He encouraged Mr. Jackson to start performing at coffeehouses around Washington.

Arhoolie Records released Mr. Jackson's first album, ''Blues and Country Dance Songs From Virginia,'' in 1965, and he made his way onto the blues-festival circuit. He performed at a Labor Day picnic at the White House during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

In 1980 he was part of the United States Information Agency's ''Southern Music U.S.A.'' tour, which went to Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans. Mr. Jackson made albums for Arhoolie (which released more material from his 1964 sessions in 1999), Rounder and Alligator Records, most recently ''Front Porch Blues,'' released by Alligator in 1999. His final show was on Dec. 31 in Falls Church, Va.

Mr. Jackson is survived by two brothers, Freddie and Thomas, and a sister, Roberta Wigington; four children, Lee Jackson, James Jackson, Timothy Jackson and Cora Beth Johnson; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Although he regularly played 100 to 125 shows a year, Mr. Jackson also continued to work as a gravedigger.

''He took pride in being a good gravedigger,'' said Joe Wilson, the executive director of the National Council for Traditional Arts, who produced ''Front Porch Blues.'' ''His holes were always exactly squared off. He was a workman.''

- from the Times

Read an essay called 'Rememberin John Jackson' here.


Smithsonian Folkways is releasing 'Rappahannock Blues,' a 20-track album by John Jackson, on June 15. Jackson (1924–2002) was the most important black Appalachian musician to come to broad public attention during the mid-1960s. The album is the latest addition to Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy Recordings series, co-produced with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Raised in a large, musical farm family in Rappahannock County, Virginia, Jackson got his first guitar, bought by his oldest sister Mary for $3.75 from a catalog, when he was nine. He learned a wide-ranging stock of songs from his father, his aunt Etta and from 78-rpm recordings by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but after a fight at a house party in 1946, didn't touch an instrument for nearly 20 years.

Rediscovered at a gas station by folklorist Chuck Perdue, Jackson was quickly recorded by Arhoolie in 1964, laying down 90 songs in 12 hours in his first session. For the next three decades, he enthralled audiences with his vintage style and repertoire, though he worked day jobs his entire career, including a long-stint as a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker.

Although black Appalachian music never received the attention given to the transition from Delta blues to Chicago blues and then to rock and roll, in the mountains a shared black and white string band tradition served as the basis for American roots music, ranging from bluegrass to regional rockabilly. Emphasizing that shared heritage, Jackson toured Asia in 1984 with Ricky Skaggs, Buck White and Jerry Douglas. Two years later, he was designated a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Culled from hundreds of live concert recordings in the Smithsonian Folkways archives, the twenty tracks of 'Rappahannock Blues,' which include Blind Blake's "Too Tight Rag," "West Coast Rag" and "Diddy Wah Diddy," Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man," and "Red River Blues," recorded by Josh White as “Blood Red River” and by Blind Boy Fuller as “Bye Bye Baby,” highlight John Jackson the way he said he most wanted to be remembered — as a bluesman. All but two of the tracks are previously unreleased.

The release of 'RAPPAHANNOCK BLUES' will be celebrated at the “2010 Tinner Hill Blues Festival – A Tribute to John Jackson”, June 10-13, 2010 in Falls Church, VA (Washington DC area). For more information, visit

John Jackson - Rappahannock Blues

Year: 2010
Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Review by Steve Leggett
Appalachian guitarist, banjo player, and singer John Jackson, who died in 2002, was a bona fide American treasure whose recorded work and live performances were amazingly consistent and refreshingly real and unadorned. He was a fine guitarist in several styles -- he could fingerpick in the Piedmont style, then pick up a slide and go Delta -- and his claw-hammer banjo style bubbled with joy, while his singing was strong, warm, and always appropriate to whatever song he was doing. This set is drawn from live performances Jackson did between the mid-'70s and the late '90s, and it focuses on the blues end of his repertoire with solid and refreshing versions of blues pieces like “Rocks and Gravel” and “Frankie and Johnny,” as well as a gorgeous slide guitar take on the traditional “John Henry.” He also tackles a rag with “John Jackson’s Breakdown,” and pulls out the banjo for the string band reel “Cindy,” making this a fine introduction to a remarkably gifted folk musician.

Track Listing
1. Rocks and Gravel (John Jackson) *
2. Too Tight Rag (Blind Blake) *
3. Candy Man (Mississippi John Hurt) *
4. Truckin’ Little Baby (Blind Boy Fuller)*
5. Railroad Bill (traditional)
6. Nobody’s Business (If I Do) (traditional) *
7. Don’t You Want to Go Up There (trad.; arr. John Jackson) *
8. The Year Clayton Delaney Died (Tom T. Hall) *
9. John Jackson’s Breakdown (John Jackson) *
10. Red River Blues (traditional) *
11. Brown’s Ferry Blues (The Delmore Brothers) *
12. Cindy (trad.; arr. John Jackson) *
13. You Ain’t No Woman (Bill Jackson) *
14. John Henry (traditional)
15. Diddy Wah Diddy (Blind Blake) *
16. Just a Closer Walk with Thee (Kenneth Morris) *
17. Frankie and Johnny (traditional) *
18. Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down (trad.; arr. John Jackson) *
19. Step It Up and Go (Blind Boy Fuller; arr. John Jackson) *
20. West Coast Rag (Blind Blake) *

(*denotes previously unreleased track)

Cheers to Smithsonian Folkways for continuing to release these important recordings; check out the album here, where you can listen to all the tracks, download the booklet, and get a free download Frankie and Johnny, plus the opportunity to purchase a physical or downloadable copy of the album. Remember, Folkways is a non-profit. They're good people to support!

also see their Artist Spotlight page on him, with video, text, & rare photos.

also check out the Wirz Discography


Muddy said...

If John Jackson ever played a wrong note, no one ever heard it. His music is worth seeking, and finding.

Delta-Slider said...

Was just listening to him today. Love "I'm a bad, bad Man" and "Steamboat Whistle"

spinning in air said...


Thanks so much for posting about JJ. He was much beloved in the D.c. area, and I'm really happy to see him getting some props from the Smithsonian... glad you put in a good word for SI Folkways, too! They don't have much to work with in the way of a budget...