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In Jackson Frank’s music, intimations of pain, survival

This month marks 50 years since Jackson C. Frank's eponymous and only studio album was released. The Buffalo-born folksinger recorded it in London, in a single session — produced by Paul Simon, then pursuing a solo career — with the self-conscious Frank sequestered behind screens. "Jackson C. Frank" was a quintessential cult album, selling poorly but treasured by songwriters, performers, and cognoscenti. Its bewitchingly world-weary opening track, "Blues Run the Game," became a folk standard.

It was a highlight of a life shadowed by trauma. In March 1954, when Jackson was 11, fire swept through the Cleveland Hill School in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Fifteen of his classmates died; he suffered severe burns over half his body. His recovery was long; a teacher gave him a guitar to help pass the time. By the time Frank traveled to London — the trip financed by a long-awaited insurance payout — he was a complete artist, with a brilliant, delicate guitar style and a burnished voice.

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But his scars — physical and mental — were persistent. The darkness in Frank's personality became deeper, more pathological. After a second, abortive English sojourn, Frank returned to upstate New York. He married in the early '70s, but his son's death from cystic fibrosis accelerated his downward spiral. Frank spent years in and out of mental hospitals; in the 1980s, he ventured to New York, in search of Simon, ending up on the street. In the 1990s, after the intervention of a fan, Jim Abbott (who published a biography of Frank last year), Frank regained some footing, recording a few more eloquently sad songs. But the music drifted away. He died in 1999 at 56.

One might hear Frank's music as the mirror of his tragedy, but the songs complicate that by their emotional exactness. Even at their most autobiographical (or, alternately, their most obscure), Frank's lyrics balanced poetry and almost clinical precision. The ruminative folk style, in Frank's hands, became intriguingly labyrinthine. In "Here Come the Blues," Frank laconically deformed a standard 12-bar blues progression with harmonic longueurs and off-balance turnarounds. He had a special way with a folk commonplace, the time-filling oscillation between tonic and subdominant harmonies (which, for instance, dominates "Blues Run the Game"), making it something like an inverted, repeated Amen cadence, answers turned into questions.

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The asymmetry draws the listener in and on, wondering in every sense; the lack of equilibrium is both telling and meaningful, rolling the music forward, hesitantly but inevitably. Frank's songs recorded pain and bitterness, but also a sometimes equivocal but undeniable accomplishment: survival.

Matthew Guerrieri


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.