After a two-year COVID hiatus, the John Jackson Piedmont Blues Festival returns later this month, featuring a lineup of artists known for keeping alive the music the Rappahannock native helped make famous.
The event on Saturday, Sept. 24, will again be held at Eldon Farms in Woodville, not far from where Jackson (1924–2002) was born into a family of tenant farmers before his mastery of country guitar style brought him international fame.
Celebrated Washington, D.C., blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, a headliner at the upcoming festival, remembers the first time he saw Jackson play.
Wiggins was still in high school, but his band was on the same bill as Jackson at a club in Alexandria.
“Immediately, I realized this was someone really special. An amazing musician,” said Wiggins, who like Jackson, has been named a National Heritage Fellow, the country’s highest honor bestowed on traditional and folk artists.
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Wiggins remembers that he was dumbfounded when Jackson invited him to join him at a future show.
“Here was this world-class player and he didn’t know me from Adam. Then he invited me out to his house. He was incredibly generous and open-hearted.”
A fairytale twist
No one who knew Jackson during his days in Rappahannock could have imagined him as an internationally acclaimed performer.
Born in Woodville the seventh of 14 children, he never made it past the first grade because he had to help on the family’s farm. At a young age, he taught himself to play on his father’s guitar the songs he heard on the family’s old record player.
In 1949, he moved with his own family to Fairfax Station, and kept playing for friends and neighbors until a violent confrontation at a house party convinced him to stop performing in public.
That all changed one night in 1964 when Jackson was giving a guitar lesson to a mailman friend in the backroom of a Fairfax gas station. Chuck Perdue, then president of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, happened to stop for gas, and he heard Jackson playing.
Perdue eventually convinced a dubious Jackson to record all the songs he knew—he covered 90 in a 12-hour session—and encouraged him to start performing at clubs and coffeehouses in the region.
Ultimately, as Jackson’s reputation grew, he was invited to do shows at folk and blues festivals around the world. He even performed for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. But he never gave up his day job as a cemetery caretaker.
Jackson played with famous musicians such as B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Ricky Skaggs, and at Carnegie Hall.
Yet despite his long list of talents and accolades, he remains almost wholly unknown in Rappahannock County, the place where his story began.
It’s time to change that and bring his legacy to light, according to festival organizers. John Jackson wanted to be remembered as a blues musician and songster.
Piedmont styleAlthough he could play many types of music, Jackson is most closely associated with what’s become known as Piedmont blues—country music built around challenging, but sweet-sounding acoustic guitar licks.
“Piedmont blues are definitely different from other blues,” said Erin Harpe, another festival headliners. “It isn’t so down and dirty. It’s more refined. You’re playing a syncopated melody with your fingers while you’re playing the alternating baseline with your thumb.
“It’s more intricate. It’s more danceable, too,” added Harpe, whose latest album, “Meet Me in the Middle,” was named “Album of the Year” at the 2021 New England Music Awards. “But it’s also more relaxed.”
A perfect description is the title of John Jackson’s album, “Front Porch Blues.”
Wiggins would agree. “I heard someone say this music was born in an era when people made their own music at home, like they baked their own bread and grew their own vegetables,” he said.
It’s a style, he pointed out, that evolved in rural communities from ragtime.
“If you listen to Piedmont guitar style, it sounds a lot like ragtime piano,” Wiggins said. “It was really trying to make the guitar function like a piano. Back in the day, it was music to make people move. Your job was to make people get off their butts and dance.”
Filling out the lineup at the show will be Rick Franklin, one of the region’s leading blues guitarists; Jeffrey Scott, a blues artist who’s also Jackson’s grandnephew; Rappahannock blues singer Bobby Glasker and Friends; Rappahannock Unity Choir; and the Rev. Williams & the Praise Team.
The emcee will be Frank Matheis, an author, radio producer and regular contributor to Living Blues magazine.
The event is a collaboration between Virginia Cooperative Extension and Eldon Farms, with additional support from the PATH Foundation.
Financial sponsors are William and Mary Greve Foundation, Virginia Commission for the Arts, Rappahannock Association for Arts and Community, Richard Lykes Fund, administered by Northern Piedmont Community Foundation, Charles T. Akre Family, and Ed Robinson.
Tickets are $10 at John Jackson Piedmont Blues Festival on Eventbrite or at the gate. Food and drinks will be available for sale. Rain or shine, bring your own lawn chair.
Event will include book signing, historical and cultural exhibits, jam session with attendees invited to bring instruments to participate, craft vendors and food trucks on site.
No pets or umbrella chairs. Handicap and elderly parking available. Picnics allowed.