In 1964, folklorist Chuck Perdue heard John Jackson singing and playing an acoustic guitar at an Amoco Station in Fairfax. Perdue immediately recognized the 40-year-old local gravedigger as a gifted artist in the Piedmont blues tradition, the East Coast style that integrated ragtime and hillbilly influences into the plantation blues. Within months, Perdue's wife Nan had introduced Jackson to Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz, who recorded three albums by Jackson over the next five years.
Those three albums have now been reissued on two CDs, 1992's 26-track "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" and this year's 25-track "Country Blues & Ditties." The new anthology includes Piedmont classics by Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller but also reaches further afield to tackle tunes by Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ernest Tubb. On these early recordings, you can hear Jackson as an eager acolyte of such blues legends as the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie McGhee.
Thirty-five years later, Jackson has become a genuine blues legend himself, performing in his own distinctive style, beholden to no one else. This evolution has finally been documented on "Front Porch Blues," his first album of new music in 16 years. Like many an older artist, Jackson has pared away all the unnecessary notes to reveal the essential dialogue between his gravelly baritone voice and his sparkling, skeletal guitar lines.
Just compare his 1999 version of the traditional tune, "Railroad Bill," with the 1965 version on "Country Blues & Ditties." The new arrangement is cleaner, leaner, more relaxed, more confident, more definitively Jackson's. Produced by local folklorist Joe Wilson, the new disc applies the same self-assured minimalism to Piedmont classics by Davis and Fuller as well as three of Jackson's own compositions.
Appearing Sunday at the July 4 celebration at the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds with Shirley Caesar, Tito Puente, Eddie Kamae & the Sons of Hawaii, Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun, the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, Eddie Bo & Ernie K-Doe and Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys. To hear a free Sound Bite from "Front Porch Blues," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8125. For a Sound Bite from "Country Blues & Ditties," press 8126. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)