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