When Jackson C. Frank died in 1999, his lone, beautiful, self-titled album, originally released in 1965, was out of print. It has since seen several re-releases, notably on Castle Records in 2001 featuring five unreleased, later recorded songs, then as part of a two-disc collection titled Blues Run the Game from Sanctuary in 2003, adding 33 additional cuts recorded during assorted attempts to return to songwriting. Now, Ba Da Bing offers The Complete Recordings on three CDs or six LP2, with 24 more previously unreleased performances, bringing the total to 67 tracks. Many might wonder whether such encyclopedic treatment is justified for a performer mostly overlooked in his home country and who only released roughly a dozen songs during his lifetime.
I respond with a qualified yes. Not everything on The Complete Recordings is something that listeners will want to hear repeatedly. Taken as a whole, though, it presents a collection of valuable historical documents that provide insights into the development of the artist who recorded Jackson C. Frank in 1965, clues to how that artist would have developed had personal demons not engulfed him, and reassurances that, despite Frank’s many setbacks, his artistic spirit was never fully snuffed out. That alone justifies the release. Amidst it all are the ten unassailable tracks that comprised Frank’s sole album and a handful of gems that amplify what a tragedy it was that Jackson C. Frank never followed up on that classic start.
Tragedy seemed to stalk Jackson C. Frank. Eleven-year-old Jackson was practicing in the music room of Cleveland Hill Elementary School outside Buffalo, NY, one March morning in 1954 when the school’s old boiler exploded. The ensuing fire killed 15 of his classmates, while Frank suffered burns to over half his body, necessitating a seven-month long hospital recovery. Doctors grafted skin to his face and chest, but were unable to do much for his hands or fingers, and feared that he’d never regain their full use. A family friend bought him a guitar, hoping that it might help him regain dexterity. It did more than that: it gave him something to live and dream for, the thought of becoming a professional musician. Frank’s fingers never fully regained flexibility, which forced him to develop a unique picking style and to explore alternate tunings better suited to his limitations. Ironically, the scars left by his childhood tragedy contributed directly to his distinctive playing style. When, at 21, he received an insurance settlement that made him instantly wealthy, he set off for England to blow the money on high living and to try his luck as a folksinger.
Any fan of late ’60s-era folk, especially of the British folk revival, should include Frank’s self-titled 1965 album in their collection. Produced by then-fellow expatriate Paul Simon, its influence on British folk cannot be overstated. John Renbourn championed his work, while Burt Jansch declared that Frank’s influence upon his circle of peers was deeper than that of Bob Dylan. Evidence of that deep influence can be found in the fact that fellow folk enigma Nick Drake recorded of four of Jackson C. Frank’s ten cuts on his home practice tapes, which became widely bootlegged as the Tanwerth in Arden collection after his early death. Frank’s moody, defiant “Blues Run the Game” has become a widely covered folk standard, equaled by its sister cut, “Here Come the Blues”. One would be hard pressed to find a song as terrifyingly claustrophobic as “Yellow Walls”, Frank’s reflection on his long hospital recuperation, while “Just Like Anything” is as joyful and uplifting as a Sesame Street sing-along. The album’s masterpiece, though, might be “My Name Is Carnival”, a forebodingly real carnivalesque vision of confusion and self-loss no doubt influence by his experience of the school fire. In all, this album should have established Frank on both sides of the Atlantic as a major talent and set high expectations for what should have been a long and rewarding songwriting career.
That long career was not to be. After Jackson C. Frank failed to sell, Frank began to exhibit signs of clinical depression which contributed to an impenetrable writer’s block. He returned to New York, settling in Woodstock and marrying Elaine Sedgewick, fashion model and sister of Warhol “superstar” Edie, fathering a son and daughter, but his mental health continued in decline. When their son died of cystic fibrosis, Frank crossed over the breaking point and was institutionalized. There followed the dissolution of his marriage, periods of odd behavior that estranged his friends, misdiagnoses and invasive treatments for paranoid schizophrenia, and periods of homelessness interspersed with institutionalization. By the 1990s Frank was living on the streets of New York City, blinded in one eye by some errant children with a pellet gun who thought it would be fun to hunt the homeless. It was then that Jim Abbott, a longtime fan, found him. Abbott worked to make the last years of Frank’s life comfortable, and even provided him with a guitar and the encouragement to try to write and perform again. Abbott’s biography of Frank, Jackson C. Frank: The Clear Hard Light of Genius was published by Ba Da Bing in 2014 and is available pre-packaged with The Complete Recordings from their web site.
The Complete Works presents the whole of Jackson C. Frank’s recorded legacy in mostly chronological order. It opens with his eponymous solo record from 1965, then jumps back to 1961 and the beginnings of Frank’s explorations with performing and songwriting. Of particular interest are the seven tracks cut for John Peel’s radio program in 1967 which reveal the warmth of Frank’s playing and singing, 1972’s “Shotwell Sessions”, and “The Kitchen Tapes”, recorded in 1997. “China Blue” from the 1972 recording shows the promise of what a follow up record could have sounded like. And it is heartbreaking to hear the toll that the years took on Frank’s voice by 1997, yet it is equally uplifting to listen to the power of sincerity as he sings such new compositions as “Singing Sailors” and “(Tumble) in the Wind”, which reveal that despite all that had befallen him, Frank still possessed the soul of a songwriter. This fully remastered collection should now be considered the definitive document of Jackson C. Frank’s enigmatic career.