Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, Sandy Denny, Al Stewart and others borrowed a few tunes (and whole dollops of melancholy) from this great songwriter. The life of Jackson C. Frank, who died 20 years ago, unfolded like a remake of the Book of Job, without the happy ending.
Nick Drake did not write the song “Poor Boy” for Jackson C. Frank (that we know of) but he very well could have. Frank (1943-1999), an American singer songwriter, had a major impact on the folk scene in Great Britain in the mid-1960s and is, in fact, the only songwriter whose work the equally melancholic Drake ever covered (four versions of Frank’s songs are included in posthumous album releases of Drake’s work). That alone is a testament to the quality of this songwriter’s small but powerful legacy.
Others of equal stature have covered Frank’s tunes, including Paul Simon (who produced the only album released by Frank in his lifetime), Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Al Stewart, Sandy Denny (solo) and Fairport Convention.
Nick Drake covers Frank’s best-known song, “Blues Runs The Game”:
When you hear Jackson C. Frank’s life story, though, you understand why the impulse is great to sigh, shrug and say, “Poor boy…”
Raised, an only child, in Buffalo, N.Y., he was dealt a blow at age 11 from which few children would be able to fully recover. A furnace at his elementary school exploded, creating an inferno that killed 15 students and physically and mentally maimed many more, including Frank, who had burns covering more than half his body. The trauma also compromised his thyroid glands, causing extensive joint problems later in life. While in the hospital, he was given an acoustic guitar by a teacher. At that point, music became his salvation.
One event stands out from that otherwise bleak time in Frank’s life—the children damaged by the school fire were, in 1957, were bussed down to Memphis, Tenn., to meet Elvis Presley (at the King’s request). Another silver lining: when Frank was 21, an insurance payment from the fire arrived, allowing him to move to England to pursue his songwriting muse.
In an amazingly short period of time, Frank became a popular figure among the emerging London folk scene. He met Paul Simon, another expat who’d relocated there when his duo act (with Art Garfunkel), Tom & Jerry, failed to make a mark stateside. With Simon’s help, his debut (and only) album, Jackson C. Frank, was released in 1965. Well-regarded in the U.K., Frank could garner no interest stateside, other than Simon & Garfunkel covering “Blues Runs the Game” on their first official album.
A painfully shy performer (like Drake), Frank began to lose confidence in his abilities after the initial buzz of his debut album died down. He had also depleted his insurance nest egg. By 1966, he moved back to the U.S. for two years, settling in the Woodstock, N.Y. area where all the other walking wounded went (Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin, Freddie Neil, Paul Siebel, etc.). By Frank’s return to the U.K. in 1968, his incipient depression had begun to get the upper hand, likely fueled by long-repressed PTSD from the childhood fire (though they didn’t diagnose stuff like that back then).
“Juliette” by Jackson C. Frank:
Finding no takers for his new songs—which his friend Al Stewart later described as “completely impenetrable…basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing”—Frank moved back to Woodstock, married Elaine Sedgwick, a former model, and they had two children. After his young son died of cystic fibrosis, Frank fell into an intractable depression and was sent to a mental hospital. After his release, now divorced, Frank went to live with his parents until 1984, when he suddenly left without telling anyone where he was going. He became homeless, living on the streets of New York, reportedly having gone there to enlist the aid of his old friend, Paul Simon. Eventually, Frank landed in a series of psych wards, and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
Happily, if only briefly, a couple of good Samaritans emerged, in the form of Mark Anderson, a college professor, and Jim Abbott, one of Abbott’s students; both were devotees of original folk music and fans of Frank’s songs. Anderson and Abbott arranged for a temporary place to live for the desperate Frank back in Woodstock. However, when they went to New York City to retrieve Frank from his dire situation, Anderson and Abbott could not believe what they found: a physically hobbled, borderline obese man in filthy clothes.
In his book, Jackson C. Frank: The Clear, Hard Light of Genius (2014, Ba Da Bing), Abbott recalled: “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 Runs the Game’ for me, but his voice was pretty much shot.”
Before Abbott and Anderson could move him to the safety of Woodstock, Frank—true to his Job-like streak of bad luck—was caught in the middle of some street violence in Queens. A pellet from a gun, shot at random by some young thugs, hit Frank, blinding him in his left eye. Despite this new cruel and unusual punishment, Frank was finally able to move to Woodstock where he recorded some demos of new material. His debut album was reissued on CD, bringing in some desperately needed cash.
Jackson C Frank – Halloween is Black as Night
But a lifetime of mental and physical ailments had taken their collective toll, and Frank died of pneumonia and cardiac arrest in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in March 1999, at age 56.
The demos he made toward the end of his life were not released until 2014, on an album called Forest of Eden by Secret Records, long after Frank had died. That collection includes a new song, “Forest of Eden”, alongside demos of “Heartbreak Hotel”; two Christmas songs, and three home-recorded demos of his original songs made prior to his 1965 album. These original song demos are of “I Want To Be Alone”, “Here Comes The Blues”, and “You Never Wanted Me”.
Short bio and tribute of Jackson C. Frank produced by Buffalo, N.Y. ABC-affiliate Channel 7: