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Buffalo's Jackson C. Frank, a folk hero long forgotten, reenters the spotlight

It's hard to blame the rest of the world for remaining largely oblivious to the work of Jackson C. Frank. After all, here in his hometown, the man and his music remain obscure at best, unknown or forgotten at worst.

And yet …

Stop by YouTube, and you’ll find an all but endless list of singers — young, old, obscure, famous, male, female — pouring their hearts into their own interpretations of the closest thing Frank ever had to a hit, the 1965 tune “Blues Run the Game.”

The likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Mayer, Bert Jansch, the Counting Crows, Mark Lanegan and Laura Marling have recorded their own versions of Frank’s melancholic folk-blues.

Frank’s masterpiece has even broached the mainstream. A "Blues Run the Game" cover by Janileigh Cohen was used to dramatic effect on the hit television show “This is Us, ” and the song is also featured in "The Old Man & the Gun," the recently released film that is possibly Robert Redford's last as an actor.

Though he was greatly admired by his musical peers and seemed poised for significant notoriety at a young age, Frank saw little success in his lifetime. He made one album, which was produced by a young Paul Simon and released in 1965. He lived a relatively short and deeply troubled life. But somehow, his music continues to resonate across generations, long after his death in 1999 at the age of 56.

Grace Stumberg (Harry Scull Jr. /Buffalo News}

An 'ethereal darkness'

“To me, he’s the most organic, melancholic, honest writer,” said Buffalo singer, songwriter, guitarist and — since 2012 — backing vocalist for Joan Baez, Grace Stumberg.

“He sings about the painful parts of love and life — the parts so many would prefer to avoid. When I hear him, it’s like, ‘Yeah, man. You get it.’ He goes straight into the soul. He’s got that ethereal darkness of the heart that I can relate to.”

Fifteen children died in the 1954 Cleveland Hill fire. (News file photo)

That “ethereal darkness” has its roots in the devastating fire that claimed the lives of 15 sixth-graders and injured 20 others at the Cleveland Hill School in 1954.

The dead were Frank’s classmates. He numbered among the injured, suffering severe burns that would remain as scars for the rest of his life.

Those scars were not solely physical. Frank was haunted by his memories of the fire, which resulted from an explosion that occurred while the 11-year-old was in the middle of music class. For Frank, his greatest love — music — would always be suffused with an air of suffering.

This was the essence of Frank’s understanding of the blues, a feeling that, as he makes plain in “Blues Run the Game,” followed him wherever he went and tainted all his experience.

Jackson C. Frank, labeled No. 16, with many Cleveland Hill students who were victims of the fire. (News file photo)

It was this sense of heavy tragedy, so evident in his gorgeous, haunted singing voice, and hanging like a thick, velvet curtain around Frank’s music and life, that attracted an independent French filmmaker with a love for tales of enigmatic, under-appreciated figures in the world of the arts. Damien Aimé Dupont had already earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cinema and worked for a few years in television in Paris when he first heard Frank’s music and felt compelled to investigate him further.

“When you hear for the first time ‘Blues Run the Game,’ ‘Milk & Honey,’ ‘Dialogue,’ ‘Marlene’ and others, his tremendous talent is obvious,” Dupont said. “After that, you want to know who is behind these songs, because they say something about his life.

"When I started to find out about him, there was almost nothing on the web and no book. He was almost unknown. But I managed to find some information about the Cleveland Hill school fire, his friendship with Paul Simon, his importance in the English folk scene and his tragic ending. I wanted to know more about him and tell his story.”

Dupont set out to do just that by financing a documentary he’s calling, fittingly, “Blues Run the Game.” He has traveled to Western New York several times over the past 18 months, interviewing Frank’s surviving family, friends and peers.

Along the way, perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s run out of money. A trailer for the film offers a riveting suggestion of what the finished product might look like. But Dupont and his crew are relying on a crowd-funding campaign to raise the funds necessary to see the project through to completion.

“We want to finish this movie, for Jackson and his relatives,” Dupont said. “Making this film is a struggle because, except us, nobody wanted to invest in this production. With my own money, we traveled the USA and UK several times to investigate and meet Jackson’s friends.

"We have to say that the people of Buffalo were always a great help for the movie. We have wonderful images and very emotionally charged interviews. The rushes are simply exceptional. We managed to obtain unique files that, until now, have been unreleased to the public.”

'Catch a boat to England, baby'

It’s quite possible the settlement Frank eventually received years after the Cleveland Hill fire did him more harm than good.

After a few years kicking around Buffalo, gigging at long-gone haunts like the Limelight Gallery on Edward Street, and waiting for his check to come in — the settlement was reportedly for $80,000 in 1964 dollars, which would be worth around $640,000 today — Frank met a Buffalo woman who would become one of his first serious loves. Katherine Wright was a major factor in Frank’s decision to move to England and pursue a life in music.

“He kinda had an authority and a sense of being older, probably from what he'd been through,” Wright told British music bible MOJO in 2009, recalling her initial impressions of Frank. “He felt somewhat apart from the normal. I'm sure he wanted to seem worldly and intelligent. He'd been to school and left. It's not clear if he quit or was asked to leave. He was working as a copy boy at The Buffalo News.”

Jeff Simon, former News arts and books editor, had just started his lengthy career at The News when he met Frank.

“I was a copy boy and Jack was a dictation clerk back then," Simon recalled. "He had thoughts of becoming a reporter, if they'd let him. We bonded as guys with writerly ambitions. He was only here for a few months. He was waiting for his insurance settlement, which he blew through relatively quickly on a car and going to Europe, among other things.

“And then, in England, came the album.”

Vibrant scene in London

Frank reportedly booked his transit to England as a response to Wright’s doing the same — according to the MOJO article, she was doing so in order to extricate herself from what had become a deeply conflicted relationship.

Despite their problems, the two set up house in the London suburb of Twickenham, but headed back stateside a few months later, when Wright became pregnant. The birth was aborted, and shortly thereafter, Frank set sail for England again, according to legend, composing “Blues Run the Game” during the boat crossing.

This time, Frank avoided the suburbs and set his sights on the vibrant folk scene in London. His striking singing and game-changing songwriting turned heads.

"Artists like Nick Drake, John Renbourn and Sandy Denny have aspects of Jackson Frank in their music,” Dupont said, recalling the folk music milieu in which Frank found himself in London. “Paul Simon and Frank influenced each other. Art Garfunkel asked Jackson to write songs for his first album. Sandy Denny and Roy Harper wrote songs about Frank.

"In England in 1965, he was one of the first to write his own songs. We talked with Al Stewart and Renbourn for the film, and based on what they said, it's obvious that he had a fundamental influence on folk music.”

With Paul Simon on board to produce his debut album, and EMI/Columbia set to release it, Frank stood poised to become a major star. The album was strikingly stark, beautifully sung, Frank’s nimble finger-picked acoustic guitar virtuosic and elegant, his sparse, smartly observed lyrics incisive in their clarity.

“Jackson C. Frank” is a stunning debut album. It would be the only album Frank ever recorded.

'Too much darkness'

Why was Frank was unable to capitalize on the opportunities he’d found in England?

“Too much tragedy, too much darkness,” Dupont said. “Frank couldn't make a career in music. He had to struggle with his life, his voices and all the dead people around him. It was impossible for him to record a second album.

"The saddest part is that the English musicians were sure that he was going to become famous. Recording an album was a big thing in 1965. But we know now that he was already ill. He began to hear voices and he was hospitalized in England. After that, he had to go back to the U.S.”

When he did, shortly after marrying an English model named Elaine Sedgwick, things went downhill quickly for Frank. He ended up in the mountains surrounding Woodstock. The couple's first child, a boy, died of cystic fibrosis. The money from the settlement was gone.

The album didn’t sell. His marriage fell apart. He crashed on various friends’ couches, and eventually moved back to his mother’s home in Buffalo, where he began pawning his record collection for cash.

The popular story has Frank impulsively leaving Buffalo in 1984 for New York City — while his mother was in the hospital undergoing heart surgery — thinking he might be able to get his career going again, with the help of Paul Simon. It’s unclear what happened, but Frank ended up homeless and destitute.

“Yes, this is the true story,” Dupont insisted. “He begged in the streets not far from Paul Simon's office, but the hardness of the street life made him unrecognizable. He stayed in New York for 10 years. Ten years in hell, with nothing.”

Things began to look up a bit, briefly, when a Woodstock-based fan and musician named Jim Abbott happened upon Frank through a mutual acquaintance. Abbott quickly made helping Frank a major focus of his life. He found him at an assisted living residence in New York, then helped him move back to Woodstock when it became clear that city life was detrimental to Frank’s health.

Abbott, who published the 2014 biography “Jackson C. Frank: The Clear, Hard Light of Genius,” urged Frank to begin writing and performing again.

It would all prove to be too little, too late, sadly. Frank, his body worn down by pneumonia and badly bloated due to a thyroid disorder, suffered a heart attack and died the day after his 56th birthday.

'How could it be otherwise?'

In the end, the Cleveland Hill fire never stopped tormenting Frank.

“I have to say that I think he probably didn't have a chance of escaping the effects of the fire he was in,” Wright, one of Frank's first serious loves, told MOJO in 2009.  “If I had to put a name to what I think was the problem, I'd say he was manic-depressive.”

“He was haunted by this tragic event for his whole life,” Dupont said. “Half of his classmates died in this fire. Twenty-two years later, he wrote a song about his friend, Marlene Du Pont, who also died in the fire. He was disabled, heavily scarred, walked with a limp. He couldn't move around comfortably or raise his arms. Of course, he was haunted. How could it be otherwise?”

Out of that ceaseless suffering, the sole good that seems to have emerged is Frank’s music, that single album, a collection of songs that twist tragedy and sadness into something beautiful and enduring.

“I appreciate his music because he sang and played with such honesty, with no filter,” the songwriter Stumberg said. “He goes down to the depths for you, so that you can join him there. I love that in a writer.”

For Dupont, still hoping to gain the funding necessary to complete his film, the fact that Frank remains a virtual unknown is an unconscionable situation.

“Jackson Frank deserves to be known in his own country,” Dupont said. “Take 10 minutes and just listen to three songs and you will know what I mean.”

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