Three of folk music’s unsung heroes too good to forget
If dearly departed rock stars reside in that castle in the sky, then we can only lovingly hope that the tragic masses of folk’s forgotten wayfarer’s traverse up to a dive bar in the stars, where the whisky is always sour, the pearly gates are guarded by a burly bouncer whom they know by name, and the guitars are always slightly out of tune. Music and tragedy are never far apart, even Bowie nearly never made it, but folk and tragedy, in particular, is a harmonious match made in matrimony hell.
Bob Dylan described folk music as “a bunch of fat people.” This disdain for your own passion and craft is an archetypal trait of folk. It’s a field that snubs glam and promise like no other, with artists simultaneously embracing hardship while scorning their predilection for it in song.
It’s something universally known within the folk scene that bubbled throughout the 20th century. The esteemed Blue singer, Joni Mitchell, typified the genre when she said, “I sing my sorrows and I paint my joys.” In a genre where authenticity is king, those highs and lows have to be etched deep like scars to bear, and even then you’re most likely doomed to destitution and fated to failure.
For every Joni and Bob, acclaimed stars and famous worldwide for their expert songcraft, there’s a hundred Gaslight comrades and inspirations that have nearly been forgotten. Now, just about kept alive by some dusty old cover on a bootleg’s release, we’re looking back at some of folk music’s unsung heroes. Every month there seems to be more of these fading folk forebearers, saved from drifting to the final death like the lonesome Mariachi’s in Pixar’s Coco, by a reissue that draws just enough posthumous adulation in reviews and rundowns like this one to keep them alive.
Below we’re bringing you three of folk music’s unsung heroes.
Three unsung heroes of folk music:
Jackson C Frank.
There may be no darker backstory in music than that of Jackson C. Frank. “I don’t believe in curses exactly,” says friend and biographer Jim Abbott, “but he sure was in the wrong place at the wrong time an awful lot of times.”
The first and most prominent of those wrong places was Cleveland Hill High School. The school caught fire and, in the resulting blaze, 15 of his classmates died including his girlfriend Marlene, the muse for his song of the same name. Jackson was in 6th-grade music class at the time. He emerged from the inferno with scars, both physical and emotional, that would pain him for a lifetime, in which he grieved the loss of Marlene throughout. “My friends in the bars, they only see the scars” he sings, “and they don’t give a damn that I loved you.”
During his recovery, he received the gift of an acoustic guitar from his music teacher. Whilst the guitar would provide an avenue of expression for his sorrow, it would do little to ameliorate that same spiritual pain in a life that seemed predisposed to affliction.
His musical talents blossomed and as in his song ‘Blues Run the Game’ he caught a boat to England, where amidst the burgeoning beatnik folk scene of Bond Street he crossed paths with Paul Simon. He would record his self-titled debut in 1965 with Simon as a producer. Fellow London-based folk guitarist John Renbourn would remember Jackson as being “a lot more highly thought of on the scene than Paul Simon was. […] but Jackson just dropped into oblivion.” Ultimately his debut would be all that he could summon as the tragedies that marred his life began to have a capitulating effect on his health.
Following his album’s minor success, his lifestyle and drinking became increasingly profligate. As the money from his record and the insurance cheque from the fire dried up, he returned to Woodstock.
There he would marry and have 2 children, only for his son to pass away in infancy. His marriage failed thereafter, and the despair proved catastrophic, resulting in the singer being institutionalised. Periodically he would be released from the institutions, during which he travelled to New York in the glim hope of tracking down Paul Simon, seeking some sort of spiritual and financial resurrection, but essentially roaming the streets in a state of dereliction and homelessness. This amble of abjection led him to a city bench, where whilst relaxing under the sun, a group of teenagers with an air rifle fired a shot, permanently blinding him in one eye. He died of pneumonia on Massachusetts’s streets in 1999, a forgotten relic of the once-booming beatnik scene of which he was an integral influencer.
Even by folk standards that is a life with enough culminated hardships to make a thousand hard-luck artists rejoice in their relative good fortune and shun the four cursed chords of the acoustic in favour of disco-pop. So, when Frank sings “I am a crippled singer,” it captures an eerie resonance.
The rather more hopeful side of his story is that during his brief moment in the sun he captured enough greatness to produce a record of melodic melancholy brilliance that may well be too dark to get you through times of despair, but when you’re after a kick of the downbeat, there are few better places to turn.
Rather aptly the song ‘Blues Run the Game’ has been covered by everyone from Paul Simon himself all the way to Laura Marling, bringing Jackson to new generations like a folklore tale of old. With people like Daft Punk featuring the careworn artist in the climax of Electroma, it would seem from doggedly desperate ends, the legacy of Frank will not be forgotten.
A rather less tragic but equally prophetical tale is that of Sibylle Baier. If you found Frank’s tale a little hard to bear, then this one is much sweeter. There was no reissuing of Baier’s work to bring it to the attention of the masses. There was simply the first release.
The German artist recorded the tracks on the album Colour Green using a reel to reel tape machine in her family home between 1970-1973. The recordings themselves seem intimately wrapped in the duvet-trapped dreaminess from which they were conceived and chronicled. She handed out a few of these deeply personal tapes to friends and retired the masters to a box in the basement. Thereafter, she got on with the business of living.
30 years later, her son discovered the tapes and there’s simply no imagining the billowing of emotions he experienced when he first hit that fateful play.
If her songs were any more delicate then they’d struggle to be held on something so bulky as vinyl, they’d have to be etched into silk. The ethereal nature of her music is perhaps captured best of all on ‘Forget About’, a song so wistful it conjures up emotions that only usually spring forth in daydreams on long window-gazing commutes through familiar hometowns.
Perhaps there is something in the fact that these songs, unlike almost every other album you’ve ever listened to, never really intended to exist beyond the artist’s home and a few other selected living rooms, with lyrics like, “tonight when I came home from work / there he, unforeseen, passed me the guitar and said ‘I’ve battered my car right now won’t you please give me a tune,’” which has made the record resonate with so many. It’s these little moments that may make up a life, but rarely make it to music.
There is a springlike quality to her work, which is a fortunate notion for any music writer as it neatly provides an analogy for some sort of cosmic rebirth. Her son writes that his mother is quite perplexed by the success of her dusty old reel to reel memories and though smitten, she prefers to hear of her accolades through the eyes and ears of her family. Colour Green is a gorgeous little rebirth, unearthed like buried treasure 33 years after the fact that never was.
A lyrical genius held in the absolute highest regard by all 10 of us who’ve heard of him. Blaze stumbled along to the crossroads where country and folk meet and rather than sell his soul for success when he got there, he staggered onwards to the liquor store. Though the ‘Drunken Angel’ of the Texas outlaw music scene failed to garner much success, it’s hard to see whether the legend he cut out for himself isn’t a more fitting legacy. He never did seem to care much for success anyway.
Dubbed ‘The Duct Tape Messiah’ for the patchwork strappings that held his boots together — boots which should, by rights, have been fitted with a mileometer — this urban cowboy’s legend is as mystical and convoluted as the serpentine path he wove through America.
If he wasn’t drunk, he was drinking, and if he wasn’t performing, he was thinking. Blaze was a man who even looks incomplete without a guitar somewhere on his personage.
His whole life seemed as perfectly disorderly, yet characterfully crafted as his own music – whether that be the fact that when he wasn’t sofa surfing, his most permanent and stable residence was a treehouse, or that he was shot and murdered when defending a friend over his son stealing his welfare cheques – the man’s life seemed predestined by some Texan prognostication.
Nobody saw the rambling path that lay ahead of Blaze quite like the songsmith himself, capturing the truthful essence of it in the beautiful lyrics to ‘Clay Pigeons’: “I’m tired of runnin’ round looking for answers I already know / I could build me a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go / Count the nights and the days that it takes to get back in the saddle again / Feed the pigeons some clay, turn the nights into day / And start talkin’ again when I know what to say.”
He was buried in a duct tape-covered coffin. Not long after it was laid in the ground it was dug up by fellow musician Townes Van Zandt to retrieve the pawn slip from the suit pocket Blaze was buried in so that he could retrieve the guitar from the pawnshop which Foley wanted him to have.
His whole life was a story primed for an indie movie incarnation and, as that story goes, his very last words were “please don’t let me die.” Fittingly, therefore, his music may well live on for some time yet thanks to an Ethan Hawke directed biopic on the life and music of the messianic marauder of Americana. However, his story would be incomplete if his in Memorium existed only on the big screen. In contrast to that celluloid celebration, there also exists somewhere in the depths of youtube a very truthful depiction of the man performing his heartbreaking ‘If I Could Only Fly’ at some sort of backyard wedding reception, he’s bearing his soul and very few onlookers seem to notice, making for what might just be one of the most subtly gutwrenching videos online.