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Snowfall Blues

The Hard Life and Clear Sound of Jackson C. Frank

[clock] 39-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2015

Jen Renninger

The best musician you’ve never heard of was born in Buffalo and grew up in Ohio and western New York. He started singing as a child in rural Elyria in northern Ohio, a place he described as a “wartime world” of chickens and country music playing on a radio at all hours. He performed, a kindergartener, as the youngest member of his church choir. Then his family moved back to New York, to the snowy town of Cheektowaga. He began playing the guitar as a kind of physical therapy: On March 31, 1954, part of his elementary school, the Cleveland Hill School, went up in flames after a coal furnace exploded. The furnace was below the music room, where eleven-year-old Jackson C. Frank sat in music class at the time. 

For weeks, according to rumor, students had been going home, complaining of headaches, but no one had thought to investigate the furnace. The furnace heated an annex, adjacent to the main school, which had been built as a temporary solution to an influx of new students into the district. The annex was made of wood. 

When the explosion happened, fifteen of Frank’s classmates were killed: almost half of his sixth-grade class. Ten children perished at the scene, five died later from their injuries, and more than twenty students and staff were injured. The annex burned to the ground in just thirty-four minutes. The windows of the music room were heavy—and jammed. They were difficult even to break—difficult, because of the many small panes. The children who survived the music-room fire jumped or were pushed. As Jeff Simon wrote in the Buffalo News, “For more than a decade, there wasn’t a parent in Western New York who didn’t freeze in terror—at least a little—the minute they heard those three words: Cleveland Hill fire.”

In a Life magazine story about the fire, there’s a picture of volunteers waiting at the Red Cross to give blood to the victims, standing since there’s no place left to sit. There’s a picture of scorched sheet music lying in the snow, in the rubble of the music room. The music is crumbled and black on the edges, but the title of the song is still visible: Snowfall.

Jackson C. Frank was grievously, almost fatally, injured in the fire. According to witness accounts, children put out the flames on his back with snow, but he suffered burns on more than half his body. He spent eight months in the hospital, receiving multiple skin grafts. The children in the burn ward read comic books and listened to donated records. Kirk Douglas visited, and there is a picture from the Buffalo Evening News of Frank meeting the movie star. Frank wears pajamas and a robe, his right arm, head, and cheekbones wrapped in bandages. Some of his hair is burned or shaved away. 

Teachers visited the hospital. One brought a guitar, hoping to cheer Frank up and encourage him to exercise his hands and arms. It worked. Soon, Frank was buying his own guitar from Montgomery Ward. 

Frank met Elvis at thirteen, after his family took a trip to Graceland to try to boost the boy’s spirits. The superstar invited Frank inside and posed for a picture in front of a jukebox. In the color shot, Elvis wears swimming trunks, a towel or cape around his shoulders. He’s bare-chested, healthy-looking, tan. Frank is a young boy in a blue pajama-like shirt, his hair so fair it looks white. He holds his right arm, the arm next to Elvis, stiffly, bent across his waist, as if it’s still wrapped in a bandage beneath his sleeve. He holds his arm like it hurts. 

He had “problems” with his hands according to one of his first girlfriends, Katherine Wright (née Henry). Still, he kept playing the guitar. He started performing in cover bands with friends. After high school, Frank was accepted into Gettysburg College, which he attended for a time, majoring in journalism. “It’s not clear if he quit or was asked to leave,” according to Wright, though other sources say he flunked out. 

Frank first met Wright late one night around Christmas Eve by a bus stop. Wright had had a fight with her family and run out the door. She was eighteen years old. It was cold, Buffalo at Christmas. Frank was the only other person around.

Wright said that Frank “kinda had an authority and a sense of being older, probably from what he’d been through. He felt somewhat apart from the normal. He was working as a copy boy at the Buffalo News.” There they remembered him, at least according to photographer Joe Mombrea, as “hideously disfigured…He had a pronounced limp from skin grafts they had to take from his leg to repair his face and chest.”

His scars feature prominently in fellow musicians’ and friends’ remembrances of him, which at first puzzled me. He looks handsome in most pictures. With his blond hair and blue eyes, tan complexion and football-player build, he looks, if anything, conventionally handsome.

The scars are visible if you know what to look for—raised skin on his face and hands that could be mistaken for veins, the high strange curve of the hairline that looks like early baldness but is not. In the color photographs of Frank that have survived, his skin sometimes has a red tone, patchy. It could be ruddiness. It could be many things. The skin seems bumpy, perhaps. Maybe the shadows are wrong. His face looks smooth and handsome: full lips, straight nose, until there—on the forehead. He kept his hair longer to hide. 

Strangers in western New York knew Frank in childhood by his walk, knew his story by his shuffle, the result of the painful leg grafts. They could recognize him from a distance. This child was one of them, the fire survivors. They could see him coming.

Frank would later have a massive weight gain from a malfunctioning thyroid, a condition also caused by the fire. Only his voice escaped, a clear rich tone. That “there wasn’t smoke damage,” Wright said, was “astonishing.” 

On his twenty-first birthday, Frank came into money: a little over $100,000 before lawyers’ fees, an insurance settlement from the Cleveland Hill fire. At the time, it was an enormous sum. Mombrea said Frank was just “biding his time” at the Buffalo News until the money came in—and Frank took full advantage of it. He started buying expensive guitars. He pretended to kidnap Wright from her college dorm while brandishing an antique handgun. “He was having the time of his life,” Wright said. 

Frank and his music buddy, John Kay, whom he had met at a coffeehouse in Buffalo and who used to accompany him to shows—Kay would later come to fame as the lead singer of Steppenwolf—went up to Canada, where Frank bought a Jaguar right out of the showroom. Desire for more fancy cars—specifically an Aston Martin—led Frank to England, according to some sources. He had read in a magazine that England had the best cars, so he used part of his settlement to fund a trip.

Wright called this the “accepted Wikipedia version of events.” She said he went to England for her, for love. She was headed to England—a somewhat random choice, by her account—for a fresh start. But Frank booked passage on the same ship Wright was on, the Queen Elizabeth, and in the winter of 1965, headed abroad for a girl or cars. 

Frank also needed to get away from Buffalo where everyone knew him, knew about the fire, knew about the settlement; where he was hit up for loans, asked to cover dinner. Wright said he was becoming suspicious, paranoid that all his friends were after his money. Once, in the middle of a conversation, she said he began screaming at her in public, accusing her of taking advantage. He slipped into dark moods. She would have to talk him down from ranting, shouting fits.

In Frank’s song “Blues Run the Game,” the narrator blows money on hotels, room service, booze: 

Send out for whiskey, baby. 
Send out for gin,
Me and room service, honey,
Me and room service, babe, 
Me and room service,
Well, we’re living a life of sin. 

Like “Blues Run the Game,” Frank’s songs all start familiar: a high guitar, a sad melody. They sound at first like Simon and Garfunkel or Nick Drake: guitar and barstool, coffeehouse and cigarette. But Frank’s voice is like nothing else from that time (or any other): sweet and warm at once; a steady tone, thick as velvet and full of hurt, simple heartbreak that isn’t simple at all. It’s a chilling voice. It’s so pure, so clear, so good.

“Blues Run the Game” is about a man who just can’t get a break. Bad luck and the blues follow him like a shadow. The song is deceptively simple and calm. There is no bridge. It ends with Frank’s voice soaring, then tumbling down the scale. Simple though “Blues Run the Game” may be, music legend Bert Jansch said this song “influenced just about everyone who heard it. You could say that it changed the face of the contemporary songwriting world.”

Frank wrote it—by his account, his first complete song—on the boat crossing the Atlantic. 

I’ve got to leave her, and find another.
I’ve got to sing my heart’s true song.

But in England, Wright could not find work, and she had only brought a hundred dollars with her. She also became pregnant with Frank’s child, and the two left the UK after a short time to go back to the States and get an illegal abortion—Frank’s idea. He found the doctor, a man recommended to him by his high-school girlfriend. 

Frank returned solo to London. It was a haphazard choice, but for perhaps the first and only time in his life, Jackson C. Frank was in the right place at the right time. He got a room at the Strand Palace, close to the Savoy, where Dylan and Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie hung out. Frank found himself part of an emerging folk scene. He started going to coffeehouses and folk clubs in the Soho neighborhood of London, especially Les Cousins.

A club in the basement of a brick building that also housed a Greek restaurant and an illegal gambling business, Les Cousins was nothing fancy. It had no liquor license, and according to musician and journalist Colin Harper, only one small stage, one microphone, one electrical outlet. It had been a skiffle club in the fifties, and the dim space was decorated with fishing nets that hung from the ceiling and a giant wagon wheel. The club was new to London when Frank was new, having just opened in its latest incarnation in April 1965. Though small and dank, it was extremely popular, with jam sessions lasting all night.

Frank began attending more and more of these shows. He started writing and performing his songs. One night, he met a woman named Judith Piepe, a social worker and music fan, who introduced him to two aspiring folk singers staying at her apartment: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

Frank is mentioned in a 1997 interview Garfunkel did with deejay Vin Scelsa of WNEW-FM in New York. “Blues Run the Game” was included on the Simon and Garfunkel box set Garfunkel was promoting at the time. The duo covered the song, but had never released it, and the deejay interviewing Garfunkel had never heard of Frank. 

 “Jackson was part of our lives then,” Garfunkel said in the interview. 

“An Englishman? An American? What?”

“He was an American who was living there. He was a burn victim.”

Hideously disfigured. A burn victim. Music fan and biographer Jim Abbott would describe Frank as “like the Elephant man.”

My friends in the bars
Hell they only see the scars.

You can find only one video online of Frank playing live. It’s twelve seconds long. He’s playing his song “Just Like Anything,” and the video has captured the chorus. He perches on a bar stool on a small stage. The film is in black and white, and he wears dark pants and a shirt that looks floral, that looks like 1965, which it is. There are serious, listening people in rows to his right: boys with owl-eye glasses, girls who look like my mom. People in a back row appear to be nodding. 

Frank doesn’t look at any of them that we can see. He doesn’t look at the camera, either. In those twelve seconds of video, he closes and opens his eyes. He smiles sadly, sweetly, sexily after the first lyric. He sings, eyes shut, and smirks in time to his fingering. 

He reminds me of Johnny Cash. It’s not something that has occurred to me all the times I have listened to Frank’s songs, but seeing Frank actually performing one, I think of the man in black. It’s the smile. It’s the smoothness of the voice. It’s even the hair: dark on Cash, fair on Frank, but both men wore it back on top. Cash’s hairline was farther back. Frank’s hair looks like it’s receding maybe, missing on the one side of his forehead, the part too high, too wide, from the burns—or from the metal plate they put in his head. 

He looks much, much older than his twenty-three years.

Al Stewart described Frank’s manner of dressing as 

totally eccentric…I mean one day he would be in standard folk outfit of blue jeans and whatever, and one day I saw him in a business suit and a bowler hat… He had this long, ragged yellow hair and he was wearing a pin-striped suit and a bowler hat. He might even have been carrying an umbrella…The effect was startling.

Lorraine Lilja, Frank’s boss when he worked at a newspaper in New York, remembered his eccentricity as well. When she first met him, he was wearing “a long, black, theatrical cape.”

Frank was boisterous, larger than life. He often drove one of his Aston Martins (he owned several) or a Bentley—this big, blond American hunk hunched over the wheel. He was remembered as driving his mother around when she visited London, showing her the sights from one of those fancy little cars, a couple of expensive Martin guitars supposedly sitting up in the back. He collected the guitars, each the price, at the time, of a boat trip abroad. 

Frank threw his money around in London, as he had been expected to do back in New York, taking friends out to dinner and drinking, buying food or arranging shelter for struggling musicians. Friends thought he didn’t like the money; he wanted to use it up, to get rid of it as soon as possible; it may have reminded him too much of the fire.

In 1965, Frank cut his first album at a recording studio in London. It would be his only one. Jackson C. Frank was put out on EMI Columbia Records and was produced by Paul Simon, who is rumored to have paid for the recording using proceeds from “The Sounds of Silence.” The album had ten tracks. Some say the recording took only six hours. The songs feature guitar— just Frank’s guitar, for the most part—and that voice, crystal-clear and cutting. 

Most of the songs are about love—losing it, leaving it—and the blues. But there’s also a thread of madness: the creepy “My Name Is Carnival”; the claustrophobic “Yellow Walls,” which Wright said was about Frank’s long stay at the hospital burn unit, staring at the wallpaper and hall lights for months. 

Perhaps inevitably, listening to that song, like some of Frank’s songs, I can’t help but think of the fire, with lyrics such as: “Dark green windows / Stare never closed.”Graves appear in Frank’s songs, death, sleeping, walking around at night, black birds, tears, people disappearing in the morning. And yet, many of those songs are catchy. “Here Come the Blues” and “You Never Wanted Me” are upbeat, despite the titles. “Just Like Anything” is downright spry.One Frank fan from the sixties described “Just Like Anything” as the theme song for the Les Cousins crowd. They all knew it. They would get excited when he played it. Frank said once that “Just Like Anything” was just nonsense, just fun. 

But it doesn’t sound like fun, just playing, especially not when delivered in his voice, frank and earnest. In liner notes, Harper wrote that “nothing about Jackson’s writing felt gratuitous,” and he quoted Karl Dallas’s Melody Maker review of the album where Dallas said: “Partly, it may be because Jackson isn’t just putting on a mask of self-pity…He has had a pretty tough time, and the songs are genuine communications of what it felt like.”

Frank has a straightforward delivery, singing lines such as, “I need to…face the grave that I have grown”the way he delivers every line of every song: with the same earnest plainness. He sings in a clear tone, with very controlled vibrato. The effect is stark, almost shell-shocked. He doesn’t get worked up over anything, and there’s a disconnect between the dark subject matter—“I see you running and never moving”and the simple purity of his voice. He reminds me, weirdly, of a choir child. 

His is the voice of witness.

Along with Simon, Garfunkel and Stewart showed up for the recording of Jackson C. Frank. But with an audience, Frank couldn’t get through a note, insisting he be shielded first from the other musicians by screens. I can’t play, he is reported to have said. You’re looking at me.

“It was probably the strangest recording session I’ve ever been to,” Stewart said. “Even when Paul would say ‘OK we’re ready,’ often this would be followed by two or three minutes of total silence while he [Jackson] psyched himself into singing. And then this beautiful guitar and voice would emerge.”

Stewart makes his recording debut on Frank’s album. On the song “Yellow Walls,” he’s “doodling in the back on guitar,” Frank said in a 1995 interview. “He never received proper credit for that, I’m afraid, but that’s him.”

Also making her professional recording debut with Frank? Sandy Denny, shaking the tambourine. Denny and Frank were dating—living together along with Simon and Garfunkel in Judith Piepe’s loft—after meeting at a club when Denny was just a teenager. Frank was the one who supposedly convinced Denny, who had trained as a nurse, not to give up on performing, to quit school and make music her life. But soon, the relationship was over. Fans at Les Cousins remember Denny playing as, heartbroken, she insisted on performing song after song by her ex-boyfriend, Frank. 

A baby of the morning
Was sleeping

In 1967, Frank married Elaine Sedgwick, an English woman who had worked as a model. They suffered a miscarriage, then their firstborn child died in infancy. 

 Sedgwick was, like all women linked with Frank, gorgeous. A cousin to Edie Sedgwick, of Andy Warhol films and Factory fame, she belonged to a wealthy and storied family. It must have been a whirlwind courtship; not too long before their marriage, Frank was still with Denny. 

But the marriage would not last long. The couple left London to move back to the States, eventually settling in Woodstock, New York. One winter night Frank appeared on the doorstep of Lorraine Lilja, cofounder and editor of the Woodstock Week, one of the town’s newspapers. A publisher, advertising-company owner, and former reporter, Lilja had headed out to Woodstock following a divorce to make a new life for herself and her two children a few years before Frank’s arrival. Maybe she saw something of herself in him. Or maybe it was his spirit: a job applicant who had the audacity to show up on an editor’s front door, wearing a cape. 

Along with the cape, Lilja noticed “longish blond hair that was always falling over his face. That may have been intentional, for his face bore the shiny, puckered scars of severe burns.” Lilja gave him a position right away, “and he did a good job…It was a while before I learned of his musical talent. He gave me a record of his songs. I lost the record in a fire.” 

For a time, Frank served as the editor for the Woodstock Week. He seemed to find a place for himself in Woodstock. He helped with one of the Woodstock Sound-Out festivals (one of the smaller precursors to the 1969 festival). He enjoyed living in the country. As he described it: “life in the mountains here is serene.”

When Sedgwick became pregnant again, in the summer of 1968, Frank left her behind to return to England. He had the idea to make money for his family by touring (though he had to sell one of his guitars to afford the passage). And for a while it seemed as though Frank’s career would pick up in London right where he had left it. Most of Frank’s friends had done well in his absence. Stewart helped by adding Frank to the bill of his own tour with Fairport Convention. Denny, a rising star, was now fronting Fairport Convention, and Frank played with them at the Royal Festival Hall in London, a show that also featured Joni Mitchell.

There was still interest in Frank’s music at this point. He still had friends, connections. His performances still drew crowds. He was even featured in a 1968 BBC Radio program, hosted by John Peel.

But much had happened to Frank since his first album: a marriage, a miscarriage, an infant’s death. Something had shifted in him. His songs had changed as well. He tried to perform new material, trying it out on an audience, but Stewart described Frank’s songs of this time as

completely impenetrable. They were basically about psychological angst, played at full volume with lots of thrashing. I don’t remember a single word of them, but it just did not work. There was one review that said he belonged on a psychiatrist’s couch.

In 1969, Sedgwick gave birth to a daughter, Angeline, who lived. But Frank’s professional life continued to plummet. His album stopped selling, after never selling much to begin with. He missed gigs. Fans were told he was “ill.” His last show in England—a concert at St. Pancras with Roy Harper—never happened; Frank never showed up. He began to ask for money from friends. 

Is this when it falls apart? Is this what separates Frank from the others—Denny, Simon, Jansch, Stewart? They continued to write and record, to find audiences; Frank went back to New York and lived in Woodstock. His wife and young daughter supposedly stayed in a house in the hills, at least for a time, but Frank was out on his own, according to friends, maybe staying on couches or crashing on floors. 

Someone called “Gordon” posted these memories on Frank’s unofficial (and only) website, claiming he once drove around Woodstock in 1969 looking for his old friend Jack, not sure where or how to find him, if he even had an address. Then there was a knock on the car window. Like a spirit who had been summoned, Frank stood there in the street.

To make money, he took a job in a leather shop. “I was lonely (as in divorced),” Frank said. By 1970, his wife and child gone, he shared a room in a boarding house on Tinker Street, then rented a different room from a man named Tom Nusbaumer. When Frank ran out of money, he slept in the living room. Finally, Nusbaumer kicked him out: 

Soon, I remember this like it was yesterday, I saw him on the street during a snowstorm, his beard covered in snow and ice, he was standing up against a building trying to protect himself from the cold wind. It was so sad. I of course allowed him to return to the house and live there for free for the rest of the winter. Then I moved from Woodstock to New York City and never saw him again. But I have often wondered what happened to Jackson. Jackson was a tormented man, as, at the time, I was. I had come back from Vietnam disabled, and was bitter. Jackson and I had something in common, we had both survived a horror, but the legacy continued to give us great pain.

The time since his first album stretched into five years, then ten, then thirteen. 

In 1978, after a glowing retrospective about Frank appeared in Melody Maker, B&C Records rereleased Jackson C. Frank with the perhaps not very inspiring title Jackson Again. On the album cover, Frank seems heavier, his eyes sliding to the side. He looks rumpled and weary, vulnerable. In the picture, an illustration done in pen and ink, he has a mustache and long, jagged hair. His brow is furrowed, chin in hand. He wears a bracelet that looks like a chain. 

The album, like its first incarnation, did not sell.

Here comes long lonely
Here comes the blues

Divorced, Frank moved back in with his mother in the Buffalo area. He lost touch with friends in London, and with the music world. He did not perform. At some point, for cash, he began selling off his record collection. 

And then in 1984, while his mother was in the hospital for heart surgery, Frank decided to take a bus to New York City, to try to find his old friend Paul Simon. Simon would help, he must have thought. 

Frank didn’t leave a note.

No one would hear from him for years.

Meanwhile, a man named Jim Abbott was browsing at a used-record store in Woodstock. He found an autographed Al Stewart album, signed to a “Jackson.” He held up the record and asked who Jackson was.

The guy behind the counter said: “Some homeless guy. He used to come in off the street and sell records.”

Frank didn’t find Paul Simon. His mother reported bank transactions for a few months. When they stopped, she assumed the worst. In the sixties, when Frank had first dropped out of the scene in London, rumors had circulated that he had been in a terrible car accident or plane crash; that he was engaged in illicit, tumultuous affairs with beautiful women; that he was traveling; that he was dead. 

But by the 1980s, most people had forgotten about Jackson C. Frank. Off the bus, in the wide city, he wandered. He swore he was somebody, signed with Columbia Records, friends with Simon and Garfunkel. He had dated Sandy Denny. They had all loved his songs. 

New York City police put Jackson C. Frank in a mental institution.

Frank was treated for paranoid schizophrenia and, for a decade, bounced from one state-run institution to another. Every few months, he was released onto the streets, where, before being institutionalized again, he survived by scavenging. He had an old Army blanket he wrapped himself in to stay warm. He did not have a guitar. By his own account, he was disoriented from the heavy medications, possibly drugs like Thorazine, the first generation of antipsychotics which had intense side effects: tremors, involuntary jerks, muscle stiffness—side effects that probably would have been especially distressing to Frank, who already suffered from physical and mobility problems related to the Cleveland Hill fire. 

The medications and side effects made Frank move strangely, feel confused—“I couldn’t make head nor tail of anything,” he said of the time. In interviews and in his writing, Frank’s mentions of mental illness are elusive. He believed he was suffering from heartbreak over the death of his newborn son. Likely, he was also dealing with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the severe anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a life-threatening trauma: an event such as a fire. It’s marked by nightmares, flashbacks, anger, insomnia, paranoia—traits Frank exhibited, according to friends. Performer David Freeman was once with Frank in the audience of a show: “I found myself standing next to Jackson in a very crowded room. I was struck by the severity of his scars—and suddenly he turned to me and said that he just had to get out—NOW.”

Cleveland Hill survivors felt the impact of the fire in myriad and lingering ways. As recalled in their own reminisces: One became a principal, stressing fire drills. One became a psychologist, yet still could not overcome her own fear of fire, stocking her home with dozens of smoke detectors. Survivor Dennis Cervi, interviewed by the Buffalo News on the sixtieth anniversary of the tragedy, remembered, for months after the fire, screaming in the middle of the night: “I pushed my dressers against the door. My parents had to push their way in.”

Patricia Anna Severance was a second grader at the time of the fire, with a brother in the sixth grade. In 2006, Severance wrote about the inability of many of the survivors to fully recover: “I never remember talking about the fire or my feelings with my parents. They didn’t want to talk about it, like it never happened…back then we didn’t have professional counselors to help us cope…We only had our parents to hold us.”

Eventually, Frank wrote to someone for help: a friend from his days at Gettysburg College, who had become a music professor at a community college near Woodstock. One of the professor’s students was a man named Jim Abbott, who had first heard of Frank when he had bought some old records of Frank’s at a music store. One afternoon, the two men started talking about folk singers. Abbott brought up Frank. He seemed pretty obscure, just the one album. Had the professor ever heard of him? The professor pulled out a letter. 

Frank knew he had to get out of New York; he had written to his old college friend asking if maybe he had a place where Frank could crash. Instead, Frank received a call from Abbott.

Well, I ain’t got much of value
And all I want’s to have you.

When he came to New York to visit Frank, Abbott had only seen the singer in old pictures; specifically, Frank’s album cover from 1965. Abbott was shocked by the changes in Frank. Heavily medicated, Frank had additional physical ailments that had long remained untreated, like the thyroid malfunction, which led to massive weight gain, flaky skin, and weak bones. The handsome, young blond boy from 1965 now weighed nearly three hundred pounds. He looked like an old man. He had difficulty walking down the street. As Abbott remembered: “I thought that can’t possibly be him…I just stopped and said, ‘Jackson?’ and it was him. My impression was, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

Frank was living in state-run housing. He had a small room and little with which to fill it, Abbott recalled: “All he had to his name was a beat-up old suitcase and a broken pair of glasses. I guess his caseworker had given him a $10 guitar, but it wouldn’t stay in tune.”

Jackson C. Frank was fifty years old.

He was waiting for Abbott to visit him again, sitting outside by the housing projects, shortly before he was to leave them for good, when he was shot, point-blank, in the face.

It was a random shooting, police said. Frank was in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Why Frank? No reason; he was just there—but I think I can guess. He was there and he was aberrant. He was fat, he was scarred, he looked old, he could hardly walk. His hair was sparse. His hands that had written those songs shook. 

The bullet made its mark. Frank was partially blinded, and the bullet would stay there, lodged in his left eye, for the very short rest of his life.

Abbott is described as “discovering” Frank, also “saving” him. Harper describes Abbott as Christ-like, writing, “folk fan Jim Abbott seems almost destined to have been given the responsibility of being Jackson’s redeemer on earth,” while writer Jim Allen calls him “the altruistic Abbott” and writes in his byline for a Mojo article on Frank: “a million thanks to Jim Abbott who aided immeasurably.

It is clear that Abbott helped Frank. He got Frank out of New York, out of the projects and mental hospitals, off many of the medications and into an assisted-living facility, “the only decent place that would take him.” Thanks to Abbott’s intervention, Frank even started receiving long-overdue royalty checks from sales of his album. Abbott talked with Frank, he interviewed him, he listened to him play—he listened to him play new material. Then in November 2014, Abbott published a book, Jackson C. Frank: The Clear, Hard Light of Genius, with Ba Da Bing, a record company that, according to the book, plans to release a three-volume CD of Frank’s music, including previously unreleased songs, in 2015.

A handful of previously unreleased tracks appear on the 2003 reissue of Frank’s album. Many of these songs were from a 1975 recording session Frank did in Woodstock, reportedly using his own money. What’s left to release? In 2009, Abbott said not much, mentioning “one real treasure—a song written for Art Garfunkel.” Near the end of his life, overweight and partially blind, Frank sometimes played at open-mic nights with a guitar given to him by Abbott. Harper wrote that Frank’s songs of this time “have a ring of therapy about them. If anything of real musical worth happened, it was surely a bonus,” while Abbott said that Frank “couldn’t sing much worth a damn, but his fingers would always seem to work.”

For a musician whose voice is so stunning, whose guitar is so sweet, it is tragic that Frank’s songs found more of an audience when sung by other people, his compositions often erroneously credited to those who covered them: Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Marianne Faithful, Bert Jansch. In later years, The Decemberists would sing his songs, White Antelope, Counting Crows, Soulsavers. Daft Punk used his music in their 2006 experimental film, for a scene of a character on fire. Vincent Gallo utilized Frank’s music for his Brown Bunny, and in 2011, filmmaker Sean Durkin prominently featured Frank’s songs “Marlene” and “Marcy’s Song” in his film Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Jansch believed that Frank was instrumental in shaping the sixties, that much of “the music that came out of that period was most certainly due to him.” Frank’s influence may be felt in Simon’s songs, in Drake’s, in Denny’s. Frank also functioned as a muse for his talented friends. Denny’s song “Next Time Around” is about Frank, its lyrics in reference to Frank’s song “Dialogue”:

Who wrote me a dialogue set to a tune?
Always, you told me of being alone
Except for the stories about God and you
And do you still live there in Buffalo?

Roy Harper’s “My Friend” is also rumored to be about Frank:

So now you tell me that you’re leaving,
      my friend
And I can but leave you
Into your world blowing
There isn’t time to say goodbye…
I can hear you crying
Through the mist you stumble.

Though both songs portray a man in loneliness, a man alone, at one time, not too many years previous, Frank was the king of the British folk scene, the one they all tried to imitate, the one they crowded in to see. His credits are astounding. He played with Stewart, toured with Fairport Convention, counted Donovan among his close friends. As Harper wrote, “Jackson would remain, to many of those whose careers continued and grew, the star pupil who somehow never made it through graduation.” 

He is the most famous of the fire survivors, though famous is probably not the right word. Known for a time and then forgotten. Known in a circle whose members spun off and became planets orbiting all on their own: more successful, more respected, more profitable, more together than he ever would be, than he ever could be.

I am a crippled singer
And it evens up the score

Perhaps this passes for comfort: At the end of Frank’s life, he did have music; he did have something to do, open-mic nights to play; he did have some money from royalty checks; he did have a place to live; he did have a guitar; he did have recognition: pieces and interviews in Folk Roots and Dirty Linen, a 1996 reissue of his album (the second reissue, if you’re counting; a third reissue appeared in 2014). There was even some talk of a new album. There was hope. 

Frank wrote this in 1978 (but it could have been written decades later): 

I am emerging from the years of quiet in a backwards-forewards [sic] rocking motion, always the best for leaving a cocoon…Once the world was burning and now the world is old…thank you for allowing me to burn in ways I had joy and hope and control over.

On March 3, 1999, a day after his fifty-sixth birthday, Jackson C. Frank died of cardiac arrest and pneumonia in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

There are still many questions, and some of the people in this story may embellish. Many are forgetful, hazed by drugs or drinking or time—Frank himself mixes up dates in interviews, contradicting himself, getting his own history wrong—and sadly, many are dead. Denny died of a brain hemorrhage in 1978. She was only thirty-one. She had started drinking, crashing her car, forgetting her baby in pubs. Four years earlier, Drake died; he had started taking pills. Les Cousins had closed. Jansch died, Piepe died.

Melba Siebold, Frank’s music teacher at the Cleveland Hill School, outlived Frank, dying in 2010. She had survived the fire, but suffered a broken back, smoke inhalation, and burns on her throat, and would have difficulty speaking—and the scars, of course—all her life. She, a student teacher, and a choir-gown salesman in the classroom at the time of the fire, had broken the windows when the explosion happened, and had thrown or pushed children through to save them, Siebold only jumping through herself when she thought all the children were out. 

They were not, of course. 

Siebold did not know if the fire department was coming. According to her recollections, she could not hear any sirens. She thought, despite her broken back, that she would run to the office for help. On the fiftieth anniversary of the fire, the Buffalo News interviewed her. Half a century later, Siebold continued to be haunted, asking, “I often wonder…do people think I should have done more?”

She died at St. Joseph Campus of Sisters Hospital, having never moved away from Cheektowaga.

And the dead cannot speak to us. Only sing.

I’ll wake up older
So much older, mama
I’ll wake up older
And I’ll just stop all my trying.

I can’t explain why I am so drawn to Frank. It’s a combination of his voice and his story, those wrenching, exquisite songs, and how little he was compensated, respected, or known for those songs. How few he got to sing. How little he is remembered. His talent and his tragedy were both massive and intertwined. When he wrote his first song, maybe in some corner of that creaky ship to England, in his early twenties, chasing a car or a girl, did he realize those lyrics would come true, in a way? Were they coming true already? 

I had thought there were few photographs of Frank after the fire where he was not covered up, not hiding his scars. But in one of the last known photos, Frank holds a guitar in his hands, a cigarette in his mouth, burned almost to embers. His stomach looks ample in a wide, striped shirt. The shirt is short-sleeved, so much of his arms can be seen: pale skin with reddish-purple marks. The scars look like veins on meat. His face appears red and rough, pebbly marks on his forehead, neck, and cheeks. The picture was taken after he was shot, and his left eye is a white, clenched world. 

There’s another photo from around the same time, a picture of Frank with Abbott. Abbott looks delighted, beaming. He has his arm around Frank’s shoulder. It’s an echo of the Elvis shot, only reversed. Flash forward decades: the characters grown up, blown up, bloated, grotesque. Abbott, like Elvis, stands a head taller than Frank. Frank is on the right side, his good side, but still his arm is not around his biographer. His arm hangs down, as it did when he was a boy meeting Elvis. The redness on Frank’s face appears prominently, as does the scarring, his hurt eye drooping and white. 

And Frank is not smiling, not at all. He looks surprised to be photographed, his mouth hanging open, shoulders slumped. He looks as if he is bearing a weight upon his back. He looks as if he can’t breathe.

And do me a favor God
Won’t you let Marlene come in?

In “Marlene,” one of the songs not released until 2003, Frank seems to address a classmate from Cleveland Hill. Two Marlenes died in the fire, and Frank was never clear about which one the song meant. Maybe both. Maybe neither. 

Marlene Dupont was a girl with high cheekbones, a sweet smile. In the sixth-grade class photograph taken before the fire, she sits in the front row. She is long-legged, looks wiser than her ten years. Marlene Miller sits in the front as well. She has a huge smile, shining eyes, and a white dress, her ankles crossed in bobby socks and gleaming saddle shoes. There’s a picture from Miller’s funeral in the Life story, Girl Scouts in uniform walking ahead of the coffin down the aisle. 

In “Marlene,” Frank sings of a tragedy more clearly than in any other song. It’s almost too painful, too plainly said, to listen to: “The ghost of her [sometimes written as “her hair”] / Floats over there.”He sings of a blast in the present tense, as if it is still happening: “The world it explodes.”And he sings of survival: “To fly, to fly away / Was the lesson.”

The most haunting picture of Frank is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first published one: that sixth-grade class picture from Cheektowaga, reprinted in Life. Of the thirty grinning children with cowlicks and saddle shoes and freckles and lost teeth, a little more than half would survive. Frank is the only one from that music classroom who found a kind of artistic fame—but the survivors distinguished themselves, many going into lives of service: teaching, social work, medicine. Perhaps this is a testament to their early experience and understanding of suffering. Perhaps this is a tribute to their drive, their empathy—their will, not just to survive, but to thrive.

Children in other classrooms were hurried out of the elementary-school building and across the street. They held hands as they crunched together through the snow, many without coats or boots. On the walk, being pushed along past blaring fire trucks, teachers carrying the injured in their arms, burning bodies being put out in the snow, some of the children had vomited out of shock or fear. 

The high school had been warned. Someone held the door open, and the children filed in, shivering. Survivors remembered being sent to the cafeteria and fed vegetable soup while they watched black smoke drift by the windows. 

Eventually the Cleveland Hill children were assembled in the auditorium, and the counting began. How many were missing? How many? How many? One of the town ministers, Reverend Smith, went from child to child, according to witness accounts, kneeling before each child, hugging them, assuring them they were safe now. They were safe, they were safe. 

How long before he realized his own daughter was not among them? 

Reba Smith died in the fire, along with her friend, ten-year-old Blaine Poss, who had pushed three children to safety, then turned back to try and save Reba.

Did the fire set it all in motion for Frank—mental illness and imagination, misfortune and talent—or was it already there, in that smiling, unscarred boy? Would he have picked up a guitar if his hands were never maimed? Would he still have been haunted if the school had never burned? Would his voice have sounded sweet if he had never been scarred, so scarred?

I am old enough to know my love will not save you. It will not change or redeem you. I cannot by holding you or wanting to or taking care of you or remembering you salvage you. 

Still, if I could find a way to go back before your death, before your obscurity, before the blinding, before the homelessness, before the weight gain, before the medications, before the misdiagnoses, before the mental hospitals, before the breakdowns, before the bus trip. Before the divorce and the birth and the death and the failed comeback and the miscarriage and the marriage and the first album and the folk clubs and the boat to England and the money and Elvis and the guitar and the fire, before the fire— 

If I could go back to that picture, that boy in that class picture with the rosy cheeks, half hidden by the child in front, your huge grin still visible—you have been placed next to the teacher, perhaps because of a tendency to wreak mischief, perhaps because of height, perhaps for no reason at all. You look genuinely happy, relaxed, free, with a smile, an expression, you will never make again. The Marlenes are in the front row; the furnace ticking below the floor; the snow, as always, outside falling, a cushion, a remedy, a white balm. 

If I could go back to that day, that morning, I would tell you—tell all of you: Run. Run. To fly away / Was the lesson.


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Glen Mattiello's picture
Glen Mattiello · 1 year ago

I'm the son of Lorraine Lilja, mentioned early in this article. As a child of 4 or 5, I remember meeting Jackson in our home, which also served as the paste-up room for The Woodstock Week.

On several occasions Jackson would perform for us right there in our living room, and his lyrics still echo in my mind some 50 years later... especially those of "Carnival".

I recall lyrics like "Whatever it is to sing.. to sing... to sing. It's a state of mind. See  how high the rain  falls, see the colors in my hair. Speak  of gold in porridge bowls and hear the paper tear."

Perhaps I remember as much about Jackson because my mother had told me that he was famous... that he had played command performances for the Queen of England and so on.

I remember the scars on his face which we were wared in hushed tones not to mention, and recall vaguely Jackson having a column in another Woodstock tabloid with either the title or the by-line "The Cripple".

I'm 55 now, and just last week my brilliant and talented mother Lorraine passed away after fighting a losing battle with COPD.

Thomas Becker's picture
Thomas Becker · 1 year ago

One additional small detail about the recognition that Jackson C. Frank received: he became widely known among fans of folk and acoustic music throughout Europe when his signature song "Blues Run the Game" was included on the 1975 4 LP box set "The Story of Folk into Rock." Sadly, a 1990's CD version of the same name no longer included that song. Everybody who heard "Blues Run the Game" back then was blown away by it, and it was played a lot at open mics and smiliar occasions. Inevitably, every performer would then ask the audience, "Does anybody know what happened to Jackson C. Frank?" Every once in a while, someone would have some a little anectdote, like having lived in a hippie commune in an old castle in Scotland where Jackson C. Frank had passed through, but nobody knew where he was. It wasn't until the arrival of the Internet and Wikipedia that the mystery was finally solved. But by then it was, of course, too late to bring him back to Europe.

Dana Stone's picture
Dana Stone · 11 months ago

This was beautifully written.  I spent about an hour after reading the article listening to Frank's songs on Spotify.  Thanks to the author for bringing a little known artist to light.


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