A Lighter Shade of Blue

From the cradle: John Jackson has been surrounded by the blues for all of his 77 years.
Keith Jenkins

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."

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."

With Perdue's help, Jackson met other acoustic blues players living in the D.C. area, men who were enjoying small but significant success and acclaim in the region's folk boom. Jackson was soon face-to-face with Furry Lewis, Son House, Roosevelt Sykes and others. He also landed a record deal with Arhoolie Records, which released his first three discs. The label recently reissued material from Jackson's first sessions on 1999's Country Blues & Ditties, which features previously released and unreleased songs.

Jackson's most current work can be heard on 1999's Front Porch Blues,his latest Alligator Records release. It finds Jackson in fine form, stretching his chops and massive hands over sixteen solo cuts. The songs run from sunny odes ("Railroad Bill," "Chesterfield") and upbeat ditties ("Just Because," "Fairfax Station Rag") to semi-weary blues ("C.C. Rider," "Steel Mill Blues") and old-time gospel numbers such as "When He Calls I Will Answer." Jackson also performs under-the-moon instrumentals (the deftly played "Rappahannock Blues") and a few downtrodden laments such as the haunting "Death Don't Have No Mercy." All of these numbers feature the bluesman's stately, heartfelt playing and nimble, understated attack. And even when he performs darker material, his three-chord cries are marked by a few rays of sunshine. The tunes come across as blues that say "I got over it" rather than "I'm still down and blue."

Some of that happiness might come from the fact that Jackson's still surprised he's playing music for a living. Relatively speaking, making music is hardly a job for him. "We were playin' for our own muse and never thought about going and gettin' any money for it," he says of his upbringing. "I've worked hard all my life. I've worked for a quarter a day when I was growing up and was glad to get it. This is just playin', that's what I call it."

Jackson's days of hard work in the cemetery, he says, are also close to being behind him, though he still works in the graveyard on a part-time basis when he's not touring. And while there may be plenty of art in what he does with a guitar, he laughs out loud at the suggestion that their may be some art to digging graves and burying caskets. "Oh, no," he says through a fit of staccato laughter. "The only technique you use is to take both hands and some elbow grease and stick that shovel in the dirt and put it on down. My job is to come in and cover it up and see that it's filled in very carefully. You can't be throwing rocks and stumps down in there." (These days, he notes, burial crews have to be especially mindful of laying a body down carefully. "If you drop it down there and bust it open and somebody knows it," he says "you could get sued.")

Doing this type of work might sound like something that would give anyone an unshakable case of the blues -- built-in fodder for poor-me laments. But not Jackson.

"Somebody's got to do it," he says. "And besides, you can get depressed at any kind of work you do."

When it comes to the seemingly always sunny Jackson, that prospect seems highly unlikely.

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