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Growing up in Depression-era Rappahannock County, Va., John Jackson used to listen to blues and country 78s on his parents’ wind-up Victrola: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmie Rodgers, and John Hurt and his fellow guitar legends of the Mississippi Delta. But the locals played a fiddle- and banjo-driven music far older than the blues. His father, Suttee, led a string-band ensemble whose style dated back to colonial times. His mother’s cousins had been the house band at the Panorama Hotel, performing for tourists on vacation in the nearby Blue Ridge; around 1910, Eddie, Jesse, and Frank disappeared, and nobody heard from them again.
Not long afterward, when record companies began scouring the South for talent, they were after the then-new sounds of the raw country blues that sprang from the cotton fields, not the “old-fashioned” string bands nestled in the mountains and piedmont. “Nobody stopped in Virginia; they went on down south,” says Jackson. “There’s a lot of people they missed. In the area I grew up, there were people like Roosevelt Carter, Snookum Turner, Charlie Beckum, a whole lot of good guitarists. Most of them are in the cemetery now, I guess.”
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The record scouts likewise passed by Jackson, who’d learned to play on his father’s $4.98 guitar. It wasn’t until the ’60s that he was discovered, and by then he had traded his guitar for a gravedigger’s shovel. Back in 1949, he had moved his family to Fairfax, and music was the last thing on his mind. Jackson had given up his hobby after a bar brawl in 1946, and the records, too, were a thing of the past: His brothers had decimated the 78 collection (“They used to put ’em up on the fence posts and target practice with their hunting rifles”); the hundred or so remaining discs hadn’t survived the moving trip. In 1964, Jackson was teaching the local mailman a song on guitar at a gas station when a folklorist stopped in for a fill-up. Soon, Jackson was playing at the Ontario Place in Washington, the folk-festival hotspot where his boyhood hero Mississippi John Hurt, a recent rediscovery himself, was holding court. A record producer was in the audience and signed Jackson on the spot.
In the years since, Jackson has become a beloved figure of the folk-festival circuit—and the sole musician to preserve on record the long-gone traditions of Rappahannock County. He has won awards, played for presidents, and traveled the globe. Like Hurt, Jackson is more of a songster than a bluesman, known as much for his bolo ties and stately presence as his virtuoso finger-picking. His music does not conjure the tortured genius of a Robert Johnson or a Skip James, but rather the entire songbook of black America, from ragtime to ballads to blues to spirituals.
Several religious numbers appear on Jackson’s latest, Front Porch Blues, his first record in more than a decade. (It arrives just as material from his first several Arhoolie records is being reissued on one CD, Country Blues & Ditties.) One of the spirituals, “The Devil He Wore a Hickory Shoe,” was a standard of his mother’s congregation at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Woodville. The CD’s closer, “Have It Your Own Way,” features Jackson’s son James carrying on the family tradition. There are several new originals as well, including “Fairfax Station Rag,” a tribute to the former country crossroads where he has lived for three decades in a house he built himself. At 75, Jackson remains in sure command of his craft, and he has little interest in rehashing his old material. “Songs I did 10 years ago, I ain’t even playing them anymore,” he says. “I know enough old music to play for two or three days if I wanted to.”
In the last few years, Jackson has been touring more than ever. A recent stint had him playing in Seattle one day and Charlottesville, Va., the next, not far from his birthplace. All those years after he quit playing house parties, he’s a full-time musician, relishing life on the road. As a lifelong working man, though, Jackson can’t resist getting his hands dirty once in a while: “Sometimes I go out to the cemetery, maybe help ’em knock off a grave, but I ain’t doing no digging anymore—just help out a little bit.”—Eddie Dean
John Jackson performs Sunday at the American Roots Fourth of July concert on the National Mall.