I contributed a column to Salut Live‘s excellent series, ‘Cover Story‘, on songs and their cover versions. My choice: the Jackson C. Frank song, Blues Run The Game. This is the version I sent to Salut Live, but it’s worth going to the site for Colin Randall’s editorial interpolations and his follow-up commentary.
Martin Simpson’s latest record Trails and Tribulations (not a misprint) has on it a version of Blues Run The Game, which was 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 his school, which killed some of his classmates. At the age of 21, he received a compensation payment of $100,000–somewhere near 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 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 (“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 (G-C-D), and one of the most desolate lyrics you’re ever likely to here, 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 Laura Marling 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.
There’s a thread that links the song to Jackson Frank, Bert Jansch and Martin 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 CD for the cover plates. 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. There are a few late recordings, unreleased in his lifetime, prompted by a fan who coaxed him into a studio. He died penniless. His best-known song seems sadly prophetic; for Jackson C. Frank, the blues did run the game.
The image at the top of the post is by Andrew Curry, and is published under a Creative Commons licence.