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Cover Story (34): Blues Run the Game. Jackson C Frank, Bert Jansch or Martin Simpson

Jackson C Frank

Salut! Live wishes its scores of readers, sometimes hundreds (OK 100+) as it is creeping up if slowly, a happy and healthy 2018. Cover Story, our look at the same songs by different singers, reaches its 34th instalment today.

It's a series that people seem to think has some merit and you can check the archive at this link. As ever, guest contributors are warmly welcome. And Andrew Curry, a fellow enthusiast of folk music and also a fellow, suffering Sunderland AFC supporter, has come up with a gem of an entry in the series.

Why didn't I think of Blues Run the Game as an obvious contender for the series? I love this song. I remember it being sung by my friend Phil Steele at the folk clubs we frequented or ran in the North East (or at least I think I do; the memory may be playing tricks). I remember Jackson C Frank's original and, in particular, I remember learning about Frank's tragic life. Andrew captures all the elements of a classic of contemporary folk and discusses other versions, too ...


Martin Simpson’s latest record, Trails and Tribulations (that’s not a misprint) has on it a version of Blues Run The Game, first recorded in London more than 50 years ago by the American singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank.

Frank is an enigmatic figure in the history of English folk music, and certainly a tragic one. As a child, he was badly burned in a boiler explosion at school which killed some of his classmates. At the age of 21, he received a compensation payment of $100,000 – somewhere towards a million dollars, by today’s standards — which he spent on expensive cars, guitars and on travelling to London.

Once there, he slotted into the emerging British folk scene, helping to book acts for the Les Cousins club, going out with the 19-year old Sandy Denny, and befriending musicians such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones.

He was already a technically accomplished player and, unusually among his contemporaries, had written a sheaf of songs. He composed Blues Run The Game (if you know the song, you know it starts “Catch a boat to England, baby/ Maybe to Spain”) on the liner while crossing the Atlantic. It is the first song on his record, Jackson C Frank, which I came across when it was re-released on CD in 2001.

The three-hour session for the disc sounds like one of those ‘60s things one can only imagine now. His housemates, Paul Simon, Simon Garfunkel and Al Stewart were there; Simon produced, Stewart, then unrecorded, added guitar on a track, and Garfunkel apparently made tea. Frank insisted on playing behind a set of screens so that no-one could watch him.

The whole record stands up well and has several fine songs on it, but Blues Run The Game has become a folk standard. It is worth listening to it to tease out the reasons: a simple bluesy chord structure, a deceptively desolate lyric with a three-line near repetition in the middle of each six-line verse, matched with a tune that is melodic, even upbeat.

Frank was only 22 when he recorded it, but the vocals sound far older, of a man already wearied of the world.

The song has been covered by everyone from Nick Drake to Simon and Garfunkel to the Counting Crows, but Bert Jansch made the song his own, playing it frequently in his own sets. Jansch’s versions — there are several online — have a more sophisticated guitar accompaniment and he always feels as if he has lived the lyric.

Like Frank, who struggled with alcoholism, Jansch had his own problems with alcohol [I recall him telling me, a few years before his death from lung cancer, that he had given up booze - Ed].

There’s a thread that links the song to Frank, Jansch and Simpson. When the Jackson C Frank record was re-released as a CD, it had fallen into such obscurity that the label photographed Jansch’s copy of the original LP for the cover. And when Simpson compered the Celebration Concert to commemorate Jansch at the Royal Festival Hall, the show’s producer asked him to perform Blues Run The Game. Jackson C Frank

Simpson can’t compete with the others for the sadness packed into the vocal, so he goes the other way, speeding up the tempo, making the melody brighter and the arrangement fuller. It's difficult to choose between these three versions; they're all by fine musicians at the top of their game. Jackson C Frank was not a commercial success, and Frank returned to the US as his money dwindled.

A later return to England didn’t go well. The rest of his life was dogged by misfortune. His only child died of cystic fibrosis, and his mental health became precarious.

His physical health was poor, an after-effect of the fire, and he lost the sight of one eye in a random shotgun attack. At one point he went to New York, possibly convinced that Paul Simon had suppressed his record [may be worth noting that Martin Carthy also thought he had a viable grudge against Simon but later realised he didn't; see a reference in this earlier contribution from the author of this article - Ed].

There are a few late recordings, unreleased in his lifetime, prompted by a fan who coaxed him into a studio.

He died penniless in his mid-50s. His best-known song seems sadly prophetic; for Jackson C Frank, the blues did run the game. Andrew curry  - 1

* See Andrew Curry's blog at https://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/

 

Comments

Bill Taylor

Odd. I don't remember Phil Steele doing this one. I wish I did; I'm sure he did a lovely job of it.
I had no idea Counting Crows had done it, either, though when I looked it up it's really just Adam Duritz singing with (I think) Dan Vickrey playing acoustic guitar. It's a nice version, though.
Bert Jansch, as Andrew Curry says, made the song his own. But for my money, Simon & Garfunkel are hard to beat. There's a... vulnerability, for want of a better word, in Simon's voice that is quite poignant. It's as if he's still coming to terms with a situation that Jansch has accepted and learned to live with.

Cliff Wedgbury

Jackson would drop in to Al Stewart's Friday night Bunjies session which he shared with Peter Ballamy. Paul Simon also dropped in to do a floor spot. It was an exciting time and venue for young folk fans, because the nights were all so random and unexpected. Then we'd all pile over to Cousins when the Bunjies session finished. Al started a songwriters night at The LeDuce Club in Soho, to which he invited me to sing. Sandy sang just after my floor spot, and Jackson also performed at The LeDuce. A memorable concert at that time was a Sunday Lunchtime session at St. Anne's Churchyard, Wardour Street, Soho. The weather was fine and sunny and Jackson sang so powerfully and to my eyes and ears, with great confidence. His performance of those memorable compositions was superb!
I still listen to him with much affection and many memories of those exciting times in the mid 1960's.

Colin Randall

Great memories, Cliff. My own experiences of Les Cousins were mixed - great music but gnoring fatigue after hitching down from the north, once or twice getting close to falling asleep standing up. I hope Sandy didn’t have to struggle too much to follow you ...

Steve Peck

To hear a recently unearthed version of this classic by Jackson C. Frank himself, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMNQjvoxdOc where a long lost BBC radio show from 1968 "My Kind of Folk" is posted. Jackson hosts the 30 minute show and "Blues Run the Game" is the lead off track. I find this to be an excellent alternate performance of the classic. The whole show is amazing and includes a long lost Frank original, "Golden Mirror." The Young Tradition and Chris Hardy join Jackson. Highly recommended!

Bill Taylor

Nice! That's quite a find.

Dave Williams

Ok Colin, so you cleverly enticed me in 😜.... really have enjoyed the read & listen. It’s Frank’s followed by S & G version for me.
Keep em coming

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