2 March 1943
3 March 1999 (aged 56)
Jackson Carey Frank (Buffalo, New York, March 2, 1943 – Great Barrington, Massachusetts, March 3, 1999) was an American folk singer-songwriter and guitarist.
Although he released only one official album in his lifetime and never achieved much commercial success, he is reported to have influenced several better-known singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and Nick Drake.
When Jackson Frank was 11, a furnace exploded at his school, sending a ball of flames down corridors until it ended up in Frank's music classroom in the Cleveland Hill Elementary School in Cheektowaga, New York. The fire killed fifteen of his fellow students and burned Frank over more than half his body. It was during his time in the hospital that he was first introduced to playing music, when a teacher, Charlie Castelli, brought in an acoustic guitar to keep Frank occupied during his recovery. When he was 21, he was awarded an insurance cheque of $110,500 for his injuries, giving him enough to "catch a boat to England."
His eponymous 1965 album, Jackson C. Frank, was produced by Paul Simon while the two of them were also playing folk clubs in England. Frank was so shy during the recording that he asked to be shielded by screens so that Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Al Stewart (who also attended the recording) could not see him, claiming 'I can't play. You're looking at me.' The most famous track, "Blues Run the Game", was covered by Simon and Garfunkel, and later by Wizz Jones, Counting Crows, Colin Meloy, Bert Jansch, Laura Marling, and Robin Pecknold (White Antelope), while Nick Drake also recorded it privately. Another song, "Milk and Honey", appeared in Vincent Gallo's film The Brown Bunny, and was also covered by Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and Sandy Denny, whom he dated for a while. During their relationship, Jackson convinced Sandy to give up nursing (then her profession) and concentrate on music full-time.
Although Frank was well received in England for a while, in 1966 things took a turn for the worse as his mental health began to unravel. At the same time he began to experience writer's block. His insurance payment was running out so he decided to go back to the United States for two years. When he returned to England in 1968 he was deemed a different person. His depression, stemming from the childhood trauma of the classroom fire, had increased and he had no self-confidence. Al Stewart recalled that:
"He proceeded to fall apart before our very eyes. His style that everyone loved was melancholy, very tuneful things. He started doing things that were completely impenetrable. They were basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing. I don't remember a single word of them, it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychologist's couch. Then shortly after that, he hightailed it back to Woodstock again, because he wasn't getting any work."
While in Woodstock, he married Elaine Sedgwick, an English former fashion model. They had a son and later a daughter, Angeline. After his son died of Cystic Fibrosis, Frank went into a period of great depression and was ultimately committed to an institution. By the early 1970s Frank began to beg aid from friends. Karl Dallas wrote an enthusiastic piece in 1975 in Melody Maker, and in 1978, his 1965 album was re-released as Jackson Frank Again, with a new cover sleeve, although this did not encourage fresh awareness of Frank.
In 1984, Frank took a trip to New York City in a desperate bid to locate Paul Simon, but he ended up sleeping on the sidewalk. His mother, who had been in hospital for open heart surgery, found him gone with no forwarding address when she arrived home. He was living on the street and was frequently admitted and discharged from various institutions. He was treated for paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis that was refuted by Frank himself as he had always claimed that he actually had depression caused by the trauma he had experienced as a child. Just as Frank’s prospects seemed to be at their worst, a fan from the area around Woodstock, Jim Abbott, discovered him in the early 1990s. Abbott had been discussing music with Mark Anderson, a teacher at the local college he was attending. The conversation had turned to folk music, which they both enjoyed, when Abbott asked the teacher if he had heard of Frank. He recollected:
"I hadn’t even thought about it for a couple of years, and he goes, ‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, I just got a letter from him. Do you feel like helping a down-on-his-luck folk singer?"
Frank, who had known Anderson from their days at Gettysburg College, had decided to write him to ask if there was anywhere in Woodstock he could stay after he had made up his mind to leave New York City. Abbott phoned Frank, and then organized a temporary placement for him at a senior citizens’ home in Woodstock. Abbott was stunned by what he saw when he travelled to New York to visit Frank.
"When I went down I hadn’t seen a picture of him, except for his album cover. Then, he was thin and young. When I went to see him, there was this heavy guy hobbling down the street, and I thought, ‘That can’t possibly be him’…I just stopped and said ‘Jackson?’ and it was him. My impression was, ‘Oh my God’, it was almost like the elephant man or something. He was so unkempt, dishevelled.” a further side effect of the fire was a thyroid malfunction causing him to put on weight. “He had nothing. It was really sad. We went and had lunch and went back to his room. It almost made me cry, because here was a fifty-year-old man, and all he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn’t stay in tune. It was one of those hot summer days. He tried to play Blues Run The Game for me, but his voice was pretty much shot."
Soon after this, Frank was sitting on a bench in Queens, New York while awaiting a move to Woodstock, when someone shot him in his left eye and consequently blinded him. At first no details were known, but it was later determined that children from the neighborhood were firing a pellet gun indiscriminately at people and Frank happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Abbott then promptly helped him move to Woodstock. During this time, Frank began recording some demos of new songs. Frank’s resurfacing led to the first CD release of his self-titled album. In some pressings, Frank's later songs were included as a bonus disc with the album.
Frank died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on March 3, 1999, at the age of 56.
Though he never achieved fame during his lifetime, his songs have been covered by many well-known artists, including Simon and Garfunkel, Counting Crows, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch, Laura Marling, and Robin Pecknold (as White Antelope) of Fleet Foxes.
Frank's song "I Want To Be Alone", also known as "Dialogue," appeared on the soundtrack for the film Daft Punk's Electroma.
Soulsavers covered "Blues Run the Game" on their single "Revival" (7" vinyl, 30 April 2007).
Marianne Faithfull covered Frank's arrangement of a traditional song, "Kimbie" on her 2008 album Easy Come, Easy Go and included the song in the repertoire of her 2009 tour.
Erland & The Carnival also covered "My Name Is Carnival," apparently Frank's favourite song. Bert Jansch also covered this song as a gesture to Frank.
Sandy Denny's song, "Next Time Around," contains coded references to Frank, her ex-boyfriend.
"Marcy's Song" is played by Patrick, John Hawkes' character, in the 2011 film Martha Marcy May Marlene and "Marlene" plays in the closing credits.
Laura Barton's BBC Radio 4 programme "Blues Run the Game", first broadcast 20th November 2012, included interviews with Al Stewart, John Renbourn, Jim Abbott and John Kay as well as archive material of Jackson C. Frank talking and singing.
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