February 24, 1924-January 20, 2002
John Jackson, blues and country singer and pride of Fairfax County, VA, died Sunday, January 20, 2002 of kidney failure. He would have been 78 on February 24.
Born in Rappahanock County, VA, one of 14 kids, his parents were farmers and played music on weekends. About age 4, he started playing with his father's guitar. A traveling salesman sold the family a Victrola, and among the records that fascinated him were releases by Blind Lemon Jefferson,
Blind Blake, Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmie Rodgers. He was hooked. He learned blues and old-time music from those recordings, playing the guitar and banjo. When he about 10, a chain-gang convict working nearby encouraged his music and taught him some slide guitar. John continued to play music for weekend dances and parties into the 1930s and 40s, but a violent evening at one of them nearly got him killed, and he decided the work was too dangerous. He quit.
Continuing from Alligator Records website:
"John moved to Fairfax, Virginia in 1950 with his wife, Cora, and children to work on a dairy farm. He ended up spending most of his time working around the farmer's home as a cook, butler, chauffeur, and general caretaker until the early 1960s. A friend of John's, in need of some quick cash, pawned John his guitar, and John quietly started playing again. At this point he became a gravedigger to support his family, occasionally pulling out his guitar for fun. One day, while John was playing guitar for some neighborhood kids, his mailman asked him for lessons. John agreed to meet him at the local gas station, where the mailman had a second job. While John played at the gas station, Chuck Perdue, the president of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, pulled in for a fill-up. He heard John playing and knew that he stumbled onto a true original. Within weeks, John was playing at coffeehouses in the Washington D.C. area, where he gradually regained all his old musical powers. "
John recorded several albums in the mid-60s for the Arhoolie Label, a couple for Rounder and his last, released last year, was for Alligator. John was one of the last of the original bluesmen. Best known for his blues, he also played the old-time music he learned as a kid. He generally didn't play old-time unless he was asked specifically for it, because he didn't practice or play it much. Well, I used to make a point of asking him for it when I hosted a workshop with him. One Christmas night I had a live, on-air folk music party. He was one of the wonderful musicians who performed, and just for me he played Jingle Bells on the banjo. He said he'd do anything for me -- bet he told a lot of people that. I'll have to pull out that tape. Heck, I just liked to listen to him talk. He had the most wonderful stories and accent to tell them with. It was a thrill for me to interview him about his life and music for the Folk Alliance conference in DC.
John's was not any easy life, but he was a man of joy. He and Cora raised seven kids. She was a dancer, a lovely lady who died some years ago. He also lost a son to sudden illness, and another son was mistaken for an intruder and shot by police while trying to protect the school where he was janitor. His son Jim performs some of his music. In recent years John was learning to read and write (he'd quit school to work the farm). I will always treasure the Christmas card sent from Ireland with his strong signature on it.
John Jackson toured the world making the music he loved. He befriended people great and unknown. He always had a strong handshake and a smile. He was a gentleman, a lovely man. I saw him perform New Year's Eve. He'd lost a lot of weight, but he sang strong and played strong. In fact, I think his guitar work had grown stronger and more percussive over the years. He had liver and lung cancer. He began chemotherapy, but his system couldn't deal with it.
My condolences to John's family, to Trish Byerly who helped him keep playing right up to the end, and to his folk family who loved him dearly. Indeed he was a National Treasure.
Mary Cliff, TRADITIONS
Thank you Mary for permission to print this.
Interview with John Jackson