Folk Festival Photo Collage
JOHN JACKSON: SINGER OF TALES
Interview with John McLaughlin
Reprinted from The Folk Life Quarterly
The Folk Life, Fall, 1979.
[John Jackson is an easy-grinning, mellow-singing grave-digger from the farm country down around Halifax, Virginia, whose two-finger-picking blues have entertained folks from Vermont to California, a good twenty years now, though hes been entertaining his friends and kinfolk at parties for at least that many more.
John is also a very special kind of representative of the old "country blues": a non-reading nor writing musician, whose apprenticeship was perforce totally oral in nature. He is, in the happy phrase of Albert Lord, "a singer of tales," who absorbed his tradition like the warm sunshine of the rural South in which he grew up. Old 78 rpm records of other bluesmen were involved in extending the basic repertoire, as he says in the interview which follows, but the basic technique was learned in childhood, as he also recounts here, in one of the more compelling interviews we have ever had the real privilege of printing in
The Folk Life.]
John McLaughlin: John, where did the two-finger-picking style you use come from?
John Jackson: I dont rightly know. Ive had a lot of comment on it. My father picked with four fingers and the thumb, I didnt learn any of his style of picking. He played left-handed, with the guitar upside-down. My two older brothers picked with the index finger and the thumb, and this convict I met on the chain gang, he also picked with the index finger and the thumb.
J: Was there a lot of banjo picking around when you were growing up?
JJ: It was really active just a lot of good banjo picking around.
J: I was wondering if it was possible that people applied to the guitar what they had learned from playing the banjo ?
JJ: Im quite sure a lot of the banjo picking came from the guitar. I know mine did. When I learned the banjo, it grew from not having a guitar around, so I started fooling around with the banjo.
J: So in your case it was guitar first, and then banjo. Did you know people who got started on the banjo first, and then went on to the guitar ?
JJ: Well, my father played both. He played guitar and banjo both, though I dont know which one he started out with.
J: Was your family always musicians?
JJ: Everybody in our family played music. We had kinfolks who were playing for the tourists on Skyline Drive, in 1898. They disappeared and were never seen no more. They went over the mountains somewhere, and they never did come back.
Their name was "Riggincraft."
J: Hows that spelled, so I can transcribe it later?
JJ: I wouldnt know I cant read nor write! (laughs)
J: Youre from the open country down in Virginia, arent you?
JJ: Oh, yeah. I grew up on the farm. I never did grow up in the city.
J: So your kind of blues isnt the city music people think of when they talk about the blues ?
JJ: Lord, no! Theres country blues as well as city blues. Blind Blake was more what youd call a country picker. Brownie McGee Lightning Hopkins they were really early country bluesmen.
J: Weve been in touch with your friend George Gritzbach?
JJ: Oh, yes! George is a good man hes a fine musician too.
J: Well, hes doing "The Sweeper At The Hilton Hotel," and he says that you were in it (Laughter). Where does that kind of thing come from, putting it on one guy, and then on another? He was out at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, and he put it on Gene Shay, who was in the audience, and then he came up to Bloomsburg, and he put it on me! (Laughter) Gene wasnt available, I guess!
JJ: Well, yeah, people do that all the time in the blues. Maybe this person hadnt heard the song before, so hell change it around, and then change it for the next one, you know. Thats how it goes, handed down like that. Just how it all began, I couldnt rightly say.
J: You mentioned that chap who was in the chain gang? How did you happen to meet him in the first place?
JJ: The first blacktop road that came up our way, through Rappahannock County, it had just hundreds and hundreds of convicts on the road. And we had a drought then. All the rivers dried up. It didnt rain from March until late December that year. And we had a big spring, with lots of water. People used to come from near twenty miles away with horse and wagon to get water. One of the particular convicts would just come, to tote water, day in, day out, to serve the other convicts when the water ran dry in all the wells. And so I met him one day at the spring, and we got to talking, and he wanted to know about what we all did around there. And I told him, my father worked on the farm, and he played a little guitar, and we dance, we shoot horseshoes. And he said to bring my fathers guitar, hed show me how to play a little. So then I stole my fathers guitar out of the house (laughter) and snuck it out to him, and hed play me a tune, and drive the horses back, and pretty soon hed come back, and hed play me another tune.
And so on like that for about six months. And they took the chains off him and made him a trusty, and every evening about six oclock hed get off the gang, and hed be free until about nine oclock at night, when he had to be back in town, and hed come to our house until the time he had to be back. And it went on like that for about another six months, and then they set him free, and then for the next six months he lived with us. But then he got up one morning, and he said he had to go away for two or three days, and we helped him to the nearest little town, and we never did lay eyes on him again.
J: What was his name?
JJ: We never did know his real name. He was called "Hap." Happiest man you ever did see. He was always laughing and joking, whistling all the time. Thats all we ever did know him as. And we never did know where he went to.
J: And hes the one who first got you into playing music?
JJ: Yes, he really had a lot of influence on me, he really did. He played a lot like old Lonnie Johnson you know, open tunings, running the bass, a lot of things like that. All the picking I ever learned from him was in open tunings, and thats that I did.
J: You never do use a capo, do you?
JJ: No, no capo. Never did. I never play a lot down the neck, no way. I fool around at the top of the neck, you know
J: But I was watching you play "Kansas City" last night .
JJ: Well, yeah, that one I do play down the neck.
J: Where did you get that one from?
JJ: That was Jim Jackson who wrote that, back in the Twenties.
J: But your version of it is .
JJ: Well, thats my way of playing it, is all.
J: When did you start grave-digging?
JJ: Oh, back in 1950.
J: What were you doing before that?
JJ: I was a farmer. I left the mountains and moved down and started to work on the farm. And then some people didnt have a caretaker at their place, and they asked for me to work one day, and then they wouldnt let me go back to work on the farm. Id start work at seven in the morning, and get through at four in the evening and then Id work on handy-work jobs. Then a man who was an undertaker moved into Halifax, and about a month after he moved in he could not get anybody to dig a grave for him, and he came along and he asked me if I would help out. I told him I would, and hen when I got there I had two graves to dig! So when I dug them both in the same day, and they never got anybody else to help, Ive been digging graves ever since.
J: Thats what you get for volunteering to help out, isnt it? (Laughter) Do you think theres any connection between your working as a gravedigger, and playing and singing the blues?
JJ: (Laughs) I dont think theres any connection! You hear an awful lot of oh, fairy tales about dying and the dead, and ghost stories . Theres even an awful lot of songs made up about it! But theyre all dead theyre not the ones can hurt you!
(laughter) I dont think it had too much to do with my playing.
J: That began way back before you started out digging graves?
JJ: Well, thats right. Its just the work I had to do. I never did easy work all my life. Its all hard labor.
J: I guess Im interested in where the old blues came from.
JJ: Well, I really do think the blues came from the old gospel music. People know threw was blues played in this country as far back as 1880. Theres people doing research on this right now. You could find out their names in a library book. Oh, somebody came along about old Scott Joplin, and he was an old ragtime piano player. Which is how Gary Davis fell on the music. A lot of people dont realize that, but if you listen to things hes done, like "Maple Leaf Rag" and so on, its got a whole lot of the piano rolls in it.
J: You know, I wonder about the conflict between blues and the gospel you know, its "Saturday night music," and thats wicked fun?
JJ: Yeah, thats true, there is that conflict between the blues and the gospel. I remember a lot of the old Baptists, they learned not only in the church, but outside too. And they called this old guitar, "the Devils instrument." My goodness, you couldnt go near the church with a guitar theyd run you right out! So I guess I figure I must be working for the Devil! (Laughter)
J: But theres some guy Ive been hearing about recently, hes hired to play blues at festivals, and he goes up on the stage with his blues-harp
JJ: -- and he wont blow nothing but the gospel through it? Oh, yeah, thats right!
J: I think theres a lot of connections between them.
JJ: Well, thats right the sermons have got a lot of blues in them! But when Gary Davis got religion, you couldnt get him to sing much blues, either. Years ago, in his last years, he wouldnt play no blues. And Ive seen him take spells when he got on stage, and hed get to preaching instead of playing!
J: When did you meet Reverend Gary Davis?
JJ: In 1964.
J: Was this in New York City?
JJ: In Newport, Rhode Island. At the Newport Folk Festival! (Laughter) They had Bob Dylan that year, Joan Baez, a whole lot of people. Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry I met a whole lot of people there. Son House, Mississippi John Hurt. I met Skip James in 1964, at Dan Terrells place in Washington. And me and John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, we got to be good friends. And when John wasnt playing any more, in his last years, we all used to get together at a party. They would all come out to my house, or wed go to a party wherever they was, on a weekend, and wed sit around and wed swap songs.
J: Must have been a lot of good music.
JJ: Oh, yeah. And of course I know it was Mississippi John Hurts "Candy Man" that got me discovered, by a man name of Chuck Perdue, when I was playing it one day for the mailman, and the kids, and nothing would do but Id go to this gas station about a block from the house and Id show the mailman how to do it. So we were out in back of this gas station, and this man drove in for gas, and he heard the playing, and he come running in back of the station, and he wanted to know who was that, what we was playing. I said, "Nothin," and he said, "Well, you got a guitar, you must be playing something!" So then I played him Mississippi John Hurts "Candy Man," and then he asked me where I learned it, and I said, "Off an old 78 record," and then I played him a Blind Blake song, so he asked me where I learned that, and then he asked me to come over to his house, and I said I would. Next thing I know he was sitting on m porch when I come out, and so I played him some more and he asked me how Id like to meet the man who wrote "Candy Man," and I said, "The man aint living now hes pushing up the tulips!" (Laughter) And he said thered be nothing to it, and we went over to meet him, and he asked me to play a couple of songs, and this other man, he jumped up and said, "I want to make a record of that man!"
J: Would that be Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records?
JJ: Thats right.
J: How many records have you made for them now?
JJ: Three. The last one was in 69.
J: Then youre about due for another one now, arent you?
JJ: Im hoping to have two come out later this year.
J: Will these also be for Arhoolie?
JJ: No, theyll be for another company for Rounder Records.
J: Do you have any idea what will be on them this time?
JJ: Deed, I have no idea what will be on them. I just played a whole bunch of
songs for them, and they go ahead and choose what they want to put on the record. So I have no idea. I leave it all up to them. I mean, they didnt ask me for very many of my songs. They just wanted old songs. I think maybe one song I wrote, called "Red Lips" is on, and maybe "John Jacksons Down With the Blues," and maybe one other one.
J: You know, John, I heard your "Key to the Highway" once before.
JJ: Thats a Jim Jackson song, from the Twenties.
J: Theres a friend of ours, Ed Hundley, from Tennessee we met him up in Bloomsburg. And he was at a birthday party down in Halifax, and he had a tape of it He loaned it to me, and said, "You might be interested in this this guy is great. He really should be out in concerts, but he just sits around home and so on. Name of John Jackson (laughter) I said, "You dont think he performs around anywhere, or on records or anything?" And he said, "No, and its a pity hes just a guy around town, and hes real good "! (Laughter).
JJ: Oh, theres a lot of parties down home. But I dont get to too many of them, because Im out on the road, playing other places, most weekends. I dont get to pickin too as much as I used to. Getting slowed down, I guess!
[Dont you bet on it. Johns a fixture at the National Folk Festival in Wolf Trap, hes been up at Croton Pint, at West Orange, at the Black Mtn Camp in California, at the Philadelphia Folk Festival besides the records that he mentions here see the Arhoolie and Rounder Records websites so, if youre looking for some easy-grinning blues, you know where to find it. John Jackson is a gentleman.]