My indefatigable son-in-law has done it again, coming up with a fine singer-songwriter from the Sixties folk scene who had somehow eluded me - though, in view of his life story, that really isn't too surprising. Jackson C. Frank, who came over from Buffalo equipped with a Martin guitar, some fine songs and a rich, expressive voice, was a striking figure on the London folk scene of the mid-Sixties, where he caught the attention of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Al Stewart, Sandy Denny (his girlfriend for a while) and fellow expat Paul Simon, who produced his first - and, as it turned out, last - album.
So far, so straightforward, but Frank's back story was tragic, and worse was to come. When he was 11, a furnace exploded at his school, killing 15 of his fellow pupils, including his then girlfriend, and leaving him with burns over 50 per cent of his body. It was while he was recovering in hospital that he was given his first guitar... Ten years later, Frank received a hefty insurance cheque that enabled him to make the journey to London and launch his short-lived musical career.
It wasn't long before his mental health was beginning to deteriorate, with depression coming to the fore as he developed writer's block and his money ran out (the album hadn't sold, and had barely been noticed except by a few cognoscenti - including Nick Drake, who learnt a lot from it). He went back to the States, and when he made a brief return to London in 1968 he was clearly in a bad way - 'falling apart in front of our eyes,' according to Al Stewart - and couldn't find any work.
Back in Woodstock, where he'd set up home, he married and had a son and a daughter, but the son died of cystic fibrosis, the marriage fell apart, and Frank was committed to a mental institution. In 1984 he made his way to New York, hoping to track down Paul Simon, but ended up living on the streets, when not being shunted from one institution to another. Some years later, by chance, a fan who lived in the Woodstock area tracked Frank down and, although the singer was by then an unrecognisable overweight wreck, he got him singing again and dug out a lot of his old unreleased recordings - but not before Frank had been blinded in his left eye by a stray airgun pellet while sitting on a street bench. He died in 1999 at the age of 56, and at least some of his songs have lived on, in cover versions and on film sound tracks, as well as on that one album, which was rereleased on vinyl in 2014. There was even a Radio 4 programme about him a few years ago. I managed to miss that too.
But to the music. Frank's best-known song (covered by Simon and Garfunkel, Bert Jansch, Laura Marling and many others) is Blues Run the Game - here's a link - and it is also my three-year-old grandson Sam's current favourite song. He is a boy of sophisticated and eclectic tastes... This song, dedicated to Frank's girlfriend who died in the fire, was featured on the soundtrack of the film Martha Macy May Marlene. And here's another one... Listening to all of these (and there are more on YouTube), I can't help but think of the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis - and sure enough Blues Run the Game is covered by Colin Meloy of the Decembrists on the concert album (Another Time, Another Place) of that great film.