Published June 25, 2014

By Kevin McFadden

John Jackson was born February 25, 1924, in Rappahannock County. His father was a tenant farmer on what had been a plantation prior to the Civil War. Jackson and his thirteen brothers and sisters grew up helping out on the farm.

At age four, Jackson began to play guitar on his father’s flat-top instrument, teaching himself by practicing and listening to the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, and Blind Boy Fuller. In addition, he listened to the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb, as well as a wide range of gospel, ragtime, and country hymns.

Photo by Tom Pich
John Jackson – Photo by Tom Pich

After moving to Fairfax, Jackson worked as a butler, chauffeur, philosopher, humanitarian, Civil War historian, and gravedigger. Charles Perdue—a folklorist who helped initiate the Virginia Folklife Program at VFH—heard Jackson sing in a Rappahannock gas station, and soon introduced him to audiences at folk festivals throughout the country.

Jackson became a master and innovator of the Piedmont style blues, known for its distinctive guitar finger-picking method, where the thumb plays the rhythmic bass-line and one or two fingers pluck out the melody of the song.

Over the years, Jackson toured widely across the United States and abroad, making numerous recordings, playing his distinctive Piedmont guitar blues, and also performing on the banjo. In 1986, he was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as a National Heritage Fellow, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon a traditional artist. In 1989, he joined the Piedmont Blues Guitarist Tour and was recorded by Garry Barrow, then-director of the Virginia Folklife Program.

There have been few states in the nation who have yielded as many National Heritage Fellows as Virginia – Jon Lohman

“Like many all over the world who met John, I felt I came to share a genuine friendship with him,” Barrow recalled. “When I visited with him once after the tour, we sat around the kitchen with a guitar and John showed me some riffs of a Blind Blake tune that had long eluded me, but that John had mastered effortlessly. I was floored by the elegant simplicity of it, and felt like John had just casually given away a priceless trade secret.”

Jamal and John Jamming
Jamal Millner (center) and John Jackson (right)

The guitarist Jamal Millner was involved with the tour as sound engineer: “I learned so much about music, history, and culture from John. He was always willing to help those of us expressing interest in what he had already mastered. I am still working on his version of Blind Blake’s ‘East Coast Rag’… maybe I’ll get it in a few more years.”

VFH has had an increasing role as “kingmaker” when it comes to the NEA’s highest honor. The current Folklife director Jon Lohman has successfully nominated six National Heritage Fellows from the Commonwealth.

“There have been few states in the nation who have yielded as many National Heritage Fellows as Virginia,” Lohman reported. Fourteen Virginians have received the award over the years:

Holmes Brothers
Holmes Brothers

In fact, the 2012 Richmond Folk Festival celebrated the list to date at the Virginia Folklife stage, hosted by Lohman, with performances and tributes. And the most recent addition to that list—the Holmes Brothers—are picking up right where Jackson left off.

“Obviously, this speaks to the incredible richness and variety of folk traditions and masters from our state, but I also hope that the advocacy and work of organizations like ours and many others throughout Virginia have played a small part in this level of national recognition,” Lohman said.

“These artists, as well as others waiting in the nomination pool, are true national treasures, and it has been a blessing to have known and worked with them over the years.”

About the Author

Kevin McFadden is the Chief Operations Officer at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, American Letters & Commentary, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review.

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