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By Tom Murphy
When most Americans think of acoustic blues, they hear the moaning and groaning, my-baby-left-me-and-I'm-down sounds of the Mississippi Delta. John Jackson, however, plays Piedmont blues, a decidedly different breed that's distinguished from its Deep South counterpart by the same trait that marks Jackson's personality. Piedmont blues, the 77-year-old Jackson notes in a distinctive drawl, "is happier."
So, it seems, is Jackson. His uplifting good cheer remains undimmed after nearly eighty years, a lifetime that's seen him raise seven kids, till soil as a farmer and perform in all manner of roughneck establishments to earn his keep as a musician. These days, when Johnson isn't touring as a blues artist, he works as a supervisor at a Fairfax cemetery, a job he reached after years of digging graves. Somewhere along the way, Jackson also found himself elevated to the status of a living blues legend.
When Jackson muses on his past, his voice embodies his Rappahannock County, Virginia, homeland, a region tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the coastal waters of Virginia's deltas. His timbre blends the old-world English heard among ancestors of Virginia's first coastal inhabitants with the rural intonations of the state's mountain folks. When rolled off of Jackson's tongue, the word "out" becomes "ow-ut," "chord" melts into "cho-wud" and "three" becomes "thray."
John Jackson Piedmont blues guitar workshop
1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28
Swallow Hill, $15-$17
Jackson's blues have their own kind of accent, one expressed in subtle, stylistic differences not unlike those that develop between different verbal dialects. "Delta Blues," he says, "is something that you sing kind of slow with just a strum. You don't do much pickin' in it. Piedmont blues, it's a finger-pickin' style -- you pick everything you play. You sing a verse and then you haul off and pick a verse same as you sing it. And it's got ragtime and country-styled blues, and there's folk music mixed up in it."
Jackson's mastery of Piedmont blues has made him one of the genre's greatest practitioners -- and one of its most enduring. He was a special guest of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's when the Carters were America's First Family, and he's played for the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as for kings and queens around the globe. In 1986, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him the National Heritage Award, the outfit's premier nod to traditional artists. Along the way, Jackson's cut records for Arhoolie, Rounder and Alligator and picked with some of the acoustic blues realm's greatest players of the past forty years. Today he's one of the last of those old-timey players still standing.
Jackson's lengthy career began in 1924, when he was born into a musical family and weaned on live sounds from parents, older siblings and music-playing relatives. He copped some of his first guitar licks from a man on a chain gang who was building a road past his home. "We never knew his real name," Jackson recalls of his early teacher. "All we ever knew him by was 'Happy.' We asked what he done to be on the chain gang, and he swore nothin'." Jackson learned tuning variations and a few chords from the man and developed these skills by playing along with records on his family's Victrola. Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Blind Blake -- "The greatest player there ever was," Jackson notes -- were among his favorites. He saw some of these artists in person when they passed through his town.
Jackson became an accomplished guitarist and performed at various social functions in his community while in his twenties but eventually gave up his hobby. "I quit playin' in '46," he says. "There wasn't much demand for this kind of music and [at] the places I was playin' -- parties and dances -- people used to fight so bad. I just hated violence, and I just quit playin' on account of that."
In 1964, nearly twenty years after giving it up, he returned to guitar playing through a fortuitous chain of events. Jackson, who had moved his family to a Virginia suburb close to the Washington, D.C., area, dragged his guitar out of the closet under pressure from some little girls in his neighborhood. The children were smitten with the moves of Elvis Presley and wanted Jackson to provide them with music to which they could swivel their own hips. While Jackson was honoring the children's requests, his postman -- an aspiring guitarist -- heard him play and asked if he'd be willing to give lessons; Jackson later met the man at a local gas station, where he worked part-time.
While Jackson was tutoring the mailman on the night shift, fate walked in -- in the form of folklorist Charles Perdue. Perdue was wowed by Jackson's renditions of songs by Mississippi John Hurt and other greats and showed up the next day at Jackson's house to hear more. That weekend, Perdue carried Jackson across town to meet Hurt, who was one of a handful of blues and folk artists who had moved to D.C. in the '60s. For Jackson, the meeting was like a dream. "I didn't believe it was him," he says. "I'd been knowing 'Candy Man' [a Hurt tune] all my life; I grew up with it. I thought he was dead after all these years."