Jackson C. Frank: The Forgotten Folk Genius

An intimate memoir by his ’60s sweetheart.

Jackson C Frank

HIS DEBUT ALBUM album was a touchstone for ‘60s British folk, but the life of cult American troubadour Jackson C. Frank was one book-ended by great tragedy. Horribly scarred in a school fire at the age of 11, he was tormented by depression and madness in later years.

To coincide with next week’s vinyl reissue of that 1965 debut Jackson C. Frank, we revisit Andrew Male’s exclusive 2009 interview with Katherine Wright (née Henry), the woman Jackson caught a boat to England with, who was there when he wrote his landmark classic Blues Run The Game, and who saw how his money, her pregnancy and his crumbling mind changed everything.

How did you first meet Jackson?

Such a strange story. It was very close to Christmas in December 1963. I’m an only child and my parents fought like cat and dog and should have separated long before they did. They never did as a matter of fact. It was one of those occasions when my mother was spending the holidays with relatives in Niagara Falls, which was 30 miles or something away from Buffalo, where we lived. I was gonna stay home and spend the holidays with my dad. We had a fight and I flounced out the door and decided to take a bus to where my mother was. The bus station in Buffalo was close to a few coffee houses and I was early so I though I’d stop in and see if anyone was there. There wasn’t much going on. Just one other person. It was Jackson. I don’t remember ever meeting him before then. The two of us being thrust together on what I think was Christmas Eve was unusual enough, and we sat around and talked for a while.

Jackson C Frank
Jackson C. Frank (1965) – the original sleeve.

What were your first impressions of him? What made you feel you could talk to this guy?

He was very charming. He had a way of encompassing me in a sort of a big warm hug and at the same time he had a sense of his own authority and superiority. I was a very different person as an 18-year-old freshman to the person I am now and he would have been two and a half years older than me. He kinda had an authority and a sense of being older, probably from what he’d been through. 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

What look was he rocking?

Button-down shirt, sweater over the top. Even before he got terribly heavy he was an incredible clotheshorse, a little better dressed than a lot of people who’d be sitting round a coffee house on their own at Christmas Eve. It was extremely unlikely that either of us would have been in the coffee house without being drunk or high or destitute. The world was a different place back then.

The long and the short of it was that he offered to drive me to Niagara Falls if I would hang about with him for a little bit longer because after a while I’d looked at my watch and said, ‘I gotta go, got a bus to catch.’ At some absurd hour for an 18-year-old, I wound up in front of my aunt’s house in Niagara Falls, and I’m sure I gave him my phone number and we had a number of orthodox kinda dates. I remember the whole relationship centering around the fact that he was a singer and a performer and I was his girlfriend.

“I was smitten right away.”
Katherine Wright

Did he tell you straight after that he was a singer?

He must have done. I don’t remember seeing him perform before. There were a couple of coffee houses, the Limelight and the Boar’s Head. It seems to me we were in the Boar’s Head, and I remember at some point in our relationship Jackson playing for a week at a time there. But he must have said right off the bat that he performed. Especially in that setting – it was dark and it wasn’t easy to see what his disabilities were – he was perfectly at ease, perfectly charming, as he often was anyway. So, I was smitten right away. Especially with his generosity of just saying, ‘I’ll drop everything.’ Of course it never occurred to me that anything untoward would occur and nothing did. It was just a different time.

I have to say that I think he probably didn’t have a chance of escaping the effects of the fire he was in [the 11-year-old Frank was badly burned in a school fire that killed 15 of his classmates, including his first girlfriend]. If I had to put a name to what I think was the problem, I’d say he was manic-depressive. He certainly had more than one personality. The one I saw at first was charming and adorable and funny in that kinda Irish way you have to say with quotes around it. He had an “Irish” sense of humour and a very deep laugh and enormous appreciation of irony and anything funny. He had a twinkle in his eye.

When you saw him for the first time on stage did that add to his character? Was he one of those people who came alive on stage? Or was he shy?

He was not shy at all. I never saw a moment of it. If anything I think there was an incredible release. He had a beautiful voice. He was an amazing guitarist as well, especially given the problems he had with his hands. I see him to this day throwing his head back and singing his heart out.

That voice was there from the start, the first time you saw him?

Absolutely. Given the fact that he was in that fire and there wasn’t smoke damage is astonishing. His face probably survived unlike many other parts of his body. I suppose it could be the case that he just didn’t suffer the smoke inhalation. Of course he smoked cigarettes, everybody did in those days. He hadn’t managed to inflict a lot of damage to his voice. And it was probably some time before I saw the darker side to him, the moodiness.

“He felt somewhat apart from the normal.”
Katherine Wright

How did that manifest itself?

It’s easy at this point to say that the money he came into was a door that he stepped through and he was a different person on one side than the other. He got the settlement from a lawsuit that his mother and other parents had instigated to recompense for the fire. He came into the money, I think $80,000, and he came into it on his birthday, 2nd March 1964.

I’d known him for four months before he’d had the money – we’d spent every day together – and I would say the paranoia, although that’s probably the wrong word, the sense that people were taking advantage of him, started then. We were sitting in a coffee house, he was talking to someone else, and I didn’t even hear his conversation. He came storming over to my table and said, ‘You’re only taking advantage of me in this relationship! You heard me talking about the money I’m coming into.’

That was my first indication, not only that he had that kind of temper, but that it was absolutely tied up with the fact that he was gonna be pretty rich. I’m sure I denied it and there was eye-rolling and arm-crossing and toe-tapping. I somehow talked him down from it. That was the arc of that kind of behaviour all the time – he would explode and had to be cajoled back into another frame of mind.

What was behind Jackson’s decision to go to England?

The accepted Wikipedia version of events was that it was Jackson’s idea to go to England and buy cars and guitars. The fact of it is that when he went to England it was because I had finally left him after two years of this extremely difficult relationship.

Jackson C Frank reissue
Jackson C. Frank – the 2014 Earth Recordings reissue.

Weren’t you both travelling to England?

Absolutely. I decided that the way I was gonna leave Jackson was not to even talk about it. I’d been through arguments with him before and I knew how I could be swayed by him. So I went to a travel agent on Main Street in Buffalo, New York in the middle of the winter and said, I want to go to England. I’d decided to go to England because I was reading Ian Fleming. Why I didn’t go to the Caribbean I don’t know! This dear woman, the travel agent, said the Queen Elizabeth is sailing from New York and you can get a ticket for $212. So that’s what I did. I sold everything I owned and bought a ticket. With the ticket in hand I confronted Jackson and told him I wasn’t happy with the relationship and I was going to England. By the next day he was going to England too. I remember being so calm, I wasn’t going to shout or scream…

What was behind that gesture?

I thought, Oh my God! If only I’d put my foot down a year and a half ago in this relationship it could have gone completely differently. He was one of those people who seemed to be completely intractable until someone else issued an ultimatum and then all of a sudden he was like, Oh what a fool I’ve been, I can’t live without you! That was seductive at the time.

So I was heading for England – foolishly, as I found out, with no more than $100 in my pocket. I had a passport but I had no idea what requirements there were to get into the UK at the time. As a courtesy of the people who were travelling from New York to Southampton, you got to go through customs in the middle of the North Atlantic. So I knew by the time the boat got to Cherbourg that I had two choices. The UK would not let me into the country with the money I had. They offered either to let me off at Cherbourg or send me home and bill my parents. I couldn’t have that.

According to my passport I spent six days there before I took the ferry over to Southampton and met Jackson. But he’d had difficulty accessing his inheritance money, and because we weren’t married the customs officials still didn’t believe I could pay my way. They wouldn’t stamp my passport and it looked like I’d have to go back. Meanwhile, Jackson had taken a room at the Strand Palace. The cool place to stay was the Savoy over the road, where Dylan and Baez were. Buffy Saint Marie was there and I was mistaken for her as I was half Mohawk and half Irish and we were the only two Indian-Americans in all the UK.

Jackson C Frank Albums
Tom Paxton, Sandy Denny and Paul Simon are just some of the artists who featured in Jackson C. Frank’s life.

How long did you stay in England?

Until the 2nd of June. We had arrived in February. I was there for just four months.

Did you see Jackson begin to make his way in the music scene?

His relationship with the music scene didn’t seem to be significantly different from what it was in Buffalo and New York City. He’d auditioned for Albert Grossman [and] it just went nowhere. He sounded fantastic but Grossman just said what people do when they’re unimpressed: Thanks for your time. We’ll be in touch.

Is it true he wrote Blues Run The Game on the boat to Britain?

He might have, although it seems to me you have to have the experience before you can write about it. It would be extraordinary if he actually wrote it while it was happening to him. We spent a great deal of time in the ship’s observation bar where we would get blind drunk so it seems unlikely that there was a lot of songwriting going on. Like most performers he had a guitar in his hand all the time.

The story is that it was the first song he wrote. Were there songs before that?

He was writing a lot of songs that turned up on that album. He was playing around with them, noodling. He would play with several songs at the same time; he wouldn’t stick with one until it emerged in its entirety. The music came before the words. Yellow Walls was the only one I remember him talking about, it being a hallucinatory experience of his being in hospital, probably in tremendous pain. It’s an amazing song.

When you were in England did you see his character changing/evolving? How was he during those months?

He came into being a wealthy person very quickly, it was absorbed into his personality almost instantly. The year spent in western New York was more difficult for him because it was taken for granted that he would pick up the tab if a group of us went out to dinner. People asked him for money, thousands-of-dollars projects. When we got to England and met other performers such as Tom Paxton and his wife who actually had money, it was as though this was where he belonged, with people who could buy their own dinner and drinks. He was a little more relaxed.

How did your relationship develop?

It settled down into the boredom of a matrimonial relationship. It was not very exciting. That picture of the two of us, we ended up going to the least interesting coast of England and wound up at Whitby. I didn’t go to one single museum.

It’s a lovely picture. You both look fantastic.

I think I might have been pregnant at that point.

Was it boredom or the knowledge that you were pregnant that brought you home from England?

It was to come back to America to have an illegal abortion. We stayed in New York with an old girlfriend of Jackson’s, whom I’d love to find again. Her name is Linda Ffolkes or Ffoulkes. She was a high school student when Jackson was a freshman. They were engaged to be married for a while. That relationship was Jackson’s first love. It was Linda who knew a doctor whose licence to practice medicine has been taken away. Just a horrific notion. He was in Washington DC, so we flew back.

It was Jackson’s decision to insist that I terminate the pregnancy. It was the right idea, absolutely the right idea. But again, there are a million ways you can go into a situation like that. The impression that I was left with was that not only were we far too young to take on this responsibility, but that the bond between us wasn’t strong enough anyway. That’s what finished off the relationship. Having risked my life – and that’s what it felt like, even though this guy had a doctor’s office and was supposed to be competent, it was very scary – I said ‘I’m going home’ and Jackson went back to England.

It was wonderful for him. It was him being on his own in England that forced him into contact with other people in a way that being part of a couple and living in Twickenham didn’t. We lived a kind of suburban life even if we went to coffee houses every night. It wasn’t the same thing as being completely on your own. He really immersed himself in the culture a whole lot better without me around.

“Something terrible had happened to his mind.”

Katherine Wright

After he’d gone back to England when did you hear from him again?

We spoke on the phone a lot. I remember calling him a lot. He came back at least once or twice. Then when he came back in the fall I was seeing someone else who was in my apartment. He knocked on my door unexpectedly, I don’t know what I said, but I didn’t open the door and he went away. At some point he gave me the album and it was inscribed to ‘Kathy, who kicked me into England’. I wasn’t aware of his relationship with Sandy Denny. Nick Drake was unknown to me until my daughter discovered him in high school, calling me up saying, You know that guy Jackson Frank you mentioned? It might have been then that it became clear that on some minor level, because of the internet maybe, there was a resurgence of interest in him. Around 2000. Right after he died.

So in later years there was no contact?

I called him once. I’m famous for doing this. Waking up and deciding to call someone I haven’t spoke to in 20 years. I called Woodstock information and there he was. It must have been ’95 or ’96. It was a terrible conversation. He knew who I was, or claimed to. One of the first things he said was that the money was all gone. It wasn’t like the old Jackson. I’d heard that he’d had a child. I thought we could establish some sort of camaraderie over the fact we had parenthood in common [but] there was no common ground that we could establish because his daughter was not a part of his life. I felt there was no way to establish a relationship with him again.

Were there no flickers of the Jackson you once knew?

None. Maybe a chuckle now and again, that deep-throated laugh, but nothing else. Not anything on an intellectual or emotional level. It seemed as though he had flatlined emotionally. No ups and downs or highs and lows. Everything came out at the same register and almost without emotion. Just as though something terrible had happened to his mind. It just wasn’t the same person. It was no fun to talk to him, absolutely not.

It is such a sad tale, but it’s good to speak to you and hear about his sense of humour and his warmth and personality…

I remember once, he kidnapped me from the common room in the college that I went to, it was hysterical. When he came into this money, he indulged himself in anything he’d ever wanted to and he had one of those old handguns and he walked in with his gun and said, I am capturing this co-ed! I remember the absolute warmth and joy from the man. He was having the time of his life. It’s one of my fondest memories of him and it has nothing to do with his music or lyrics.

Jackson C. Frank is released via Earth Recordings on Monday, January 13. Order your copy here.

PHOTO: Getty Images

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