John Jackson grew up in rural Virginia, listening to the older musicians around him and the blues stars whose records he heard on his family's wind-up phonograph. For a while in his youth, he played at country dances, but mostly he just picked the guitar and banjo for his own amusement, and his tastes ranged from the Piedmont blues of Blind Blake, Josh White and Blind Boy Fuller to the hillbilly yodels of Jimmie Rodgers and an old-time banjo style that reached back to the 19th century. “I can play most anything I put my mind to if I want to,” he would say, with a big smile. “Blues, mountain hoedowns dance tunes... I don't get into soul or disco or rap music or nothing like that, but I ain't got anything against it; it just didn't come along when I did.”
Jackson always seemed supremely relaxed and easy-going, but under his friendly country manner he was an indefatigable worker. He recalled a time when musicians would walk twenty miles over dirt roads to get to a house party, play till the wee hours of the morning, then walk home and put in a full day on the farm, and he kept numerous jobs – most famously as a grave digger – into his seventies. He was just as dedicated onstage, an all-around entertainer who mixed his songs with jokes and stories and tried to give his audiences a sense not only of the music he loved, but of the world that had produced it.
That world is long gone, but it lives on in the loping rhythms of Jackson's intricate guitar picking and the mellow flow of his honey-slow Virginia drawl. This is old-time, back-porch country music, played by a man who always seemed like he was just kicking back and enjoying himself with some friends, but put all he had into every note.
AN AMERICAN SONGSTER Documentary by Renato Tonelli, 1986 HORSES SING NONE OF IT! 1999 Diddie Wa Diddie, Ralph Litwin Introduces John, Chesterfield, Albums That John Recorded, Bootlegger Blues, John’s Hunting Story, Boats Up The River, About Playing Banjo, When You And I Were Young, Maggie, Key To The Highway, Buckets Got A Hole In It, Troublin’ Mind, Growing Up and Playing Music, Midnight Hour Blues, Reuben, Banjo Technique, Kneel At The Cross, A Fishing Story, San Francisco Bay Blues UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON 1970 That Will Never Happen No More, John’s Rag
Running Time: 88 minutes
Review: This 88-minute DVD features material that was only previously available on video, and most of the footage up until now has been very hard to locate. An American Songster, a documentary directed by Renato Tonelli and released in 1986, starts the disc off on a high note showing Jackson at home, at work, and in concert over a seven year period. The charismatic Jackson speaks about his early life and his musical influences, and his passion for his music is obvious and infectious. The film shows him digging graves, which he did for many years, but thankfully by 1986 he is using a back hoe. He talks with passion about his impressive collection of Civil War artifacts, which he has dug up around Fairfax, Virginia, his home. There is delightful footage of his wife Cora telling how she would travel with her husband but would not fly.
Folklorists Charles and Nancy Perdue recall when they first met Jackson, in 1964, and explain how they subsequently launched his concert and touring career. One of the highlights of this outstanding collection is the footage filmed in New York City in 1986 in which Jackson talks and plays alongside New York City-based musician Larry Johnson. From the same session comes tantalizingly short footage of Cephas and Wiggins performing, including a wonderful outing with North Carolina acoustic bluesman John Dee Holman. A number of shots show Jackson performing in concert, where his complex and authoritative acoustic guitar playing is at its very best.
Two of the films here, which appeared on television in 1999, feature Jackson as the guest of Ralph Litwin on his show Horses Sing None,of It. Jackson appears relaxed and happy and talks freely about his life with grace and humor. Jackson even plays the banjo on the show- (he is quite a picker) and slide guitar, laying the guitar across his lap.
The last two songs, That Will Never Happen No More and John's Rag, both recorded at the University of Washington in 1970, bring this collection to a perfect close, with Jackson playing and singing with authority. For the later part of his career Jackson was ably managed by his friend Trish Byerly, who brought his music to a much wider audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Jackson only released a few albums, and his last release from 1999, Front Porch Blues (Alligator ALCD 4867), is worth tracking down; along with his collection it will only enhance his reputation even further. – Bob Tilling / Living Blues
Review: Considered by many as one of the finest country Blues pickers ever, John Jackson grew up in rural Virginia and absorbed the music of those around him, as well as the Blues he heard on the family's wind up phonograph. Learning guitar and banjo for his own amusement, his tastes ranged from the Piedmont Blues of Blind Blake, Josh White and Blind Boy Fuller to the yodels of Jimmie Rodgers and 19th century banjo styles. Throughout this interesting visual and aural insight into the life of someone who has been a farmer, butler, chauffeur, gravedigger, civil war historian and folk-blues musician, Jackson portrays a very gentle and almost shy character. The first video, An American Songster, is a thirty minute look at his life (his wife, hobbies, such as metal detecting for civil war relics, and stories of how he started in music). All of this is interspersed with Jackson playing in various places. The second video contains footage taking from an interview conducted in a studio. Jackson can tell some tall stories about hunting and fishing, but also plays plenty of tunes (interviewer Ralph Litwin accompanies on harmonica). Most interesting here is the story of how he learnt guitar at the age of 6 from a convict on the chain gang and then progressed by playing along to the phonograph with a pencil and rubber band as a capo. This is very much old-time, front porch country music. – Merv Osborne/Blues Matters!