As part of an ongoing series about rule breaking, Alison Stine answers questions I posed about conventions of genre, expectations of reader, when genre or context or venue changes truth to Truth and back again. As I read her essay Snowfall Blues in the winter issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, I thought how very much that essay reads like a journalistic profile, not exactly like anything's of Stine's I'd read before. Here, for Essay Daily, Stine describes how her essay twisted through many incarnations of "the rules," finding one set of rules to follow there, another here--NW.
When I first heard his voice coming from the kitchen, I had no idea what a hold his story would have over me. I didn’t know anything about him yet. I only knew I had to hear him again.
My husband had bought the album after hearing it in a NYC record store, and for weeks, lonesome tunes floated about the duplex. Every time one of the songs came on, I would ask, Who is this? I couldn’t remember his name, couldn’t seem to stick it in my head; I had certainly never heard it before.
But as soon as Jackson C. Frank sang, something would come over me, freeze me where as I stood. The songs were aching, but the voice was strong.
Who is this?
When I researched the musician’s life, I felt the unmistakable tugs of a story.
Singer songwriter Jackson C. Frank, born in upstate New York and raised there and in Ohio, was a fire survivor, one child of only about half of his sixth grade class to escape a disaster that decimated his school in 1954. He was severely scarred. After a difficult recovery, Frank had gone on to live the kind of remarkable life that movies are made of: met Elvis as a child, loved Sandy Denny, was roommates with Simon and Garfunkel, married Edie Sedgwick’s cousin.
It was also a life filled with misfortune and pain. Frank released only one self-titled album in 1965. Though it influenced a generation, defining the 60s British Folk Revival, his music remains obscure; many fans still think the dozens of musicians who have covered Frank’s tunes (including Nick Drake and Al Stewart) wrote them. He never got a second album together. He never got it together.
The first Frank song I remember is “Kimbie,” a traditional folk tune, first set down by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who called it “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”
The narrator is in trouble, with a woman and maybe the law. In Frank’s spare, aching cover, he sings: “She wants a nine dollar shawl—/ and I need a mackinaw.” In the same breath, he asks: “baby, where you been so long,” then answers, “I been in that state pen, / with those rough and rowdy men.” When the woman asks his whereabouts again, he repeats his answer: “I been in that state pen.” Then he sings—softer now, swallowing the words, the vowels like lonesome caves—“and I gotta go back again.”
Lunsford’s song is dark, but Frank’s version is heartsick. He sings from the point of view of a drifter, an ex-con who’s messed up again, already heading back to jail, who’s leaving in the morning, and would buy his girl an expensive, trivial thing rather than take care of himself.
The lyric “I wish I was a mole in the ground” may have originally been in reference to a wish to work as a miner, once a more profitable and safer job than working on the railroads. But in Frank’s version, this line doesn’t feel like a metaphor. Desperation snags at his voice, and it feels like he really is wishing he was an animal, was someone or something else, was capable of tearing down the mountain of misfortune looming over him.
Frank likely suffered from mental illness, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and dealt with many physical ailments: malfunctioning thyroids, pain from skin grafts, scars, massive weight gain, problems walking. He was institutionalized multiple times. He was homeless. His first baby died. He once disappeared for a decade. He was partially blinded by a bullet late in life. He lived the blues.
And he did not live long.
I started writing about Frank. Ten pages turned into thirty, then sixty, then ninety.
I was working on my PhD at the time. I scrapped my original dissertation—and wrote some more about this strange singer (I also wrote about a graffiti artist, a circus performer, and the abandoned factories of my home). I passed my defense. One year flew by, then three.
I had heard Lunsford’s version before—but it was Frank’s “Kimbie” I listened to for hours, so much so that I considered naming my first child after the song. When I learned the midwife’s granddaughter was actually named Kimbie, it felt like some kind of sign.
And when my son was born, for months “Kimbie” was the only song to which he would fall asleep, maybe because he had heard it so often in the womb.
Last year, Virginia Quarterly Review accepted my essay about Frank. But they wanted some changes. The piece was way too long. What was left out, taken in dribbles, excised like the Operation game, the editor and I lifting bone by bone shard, careful not to trigger, not to set off an alarm?
Pieces of me.
I wasn’t trained as a journalist, but I know the rules, and the biggest one was: Keep yourself out of it.
I was born the year Frank’s album was re-released (to little fanfare), during a blizzard that buried a semi tractor, and killed a woman as she walked, blinded by drifts, to her barn. The storm stranded my mom and me in the maternity ward for a week—the roads impassable, my dad trapped at home. My parents were Mods. My dad had horn-rimmed glasses. My mom wore an avocado green mini to their rehearsal dinner. They lived in married student housing until my mom, 19 at their wedding, finished her teaching degree. My dad escaped Vietnam because of a bad back.
There were albums around the house: Simon and Garfunkel, Denny. I remember spending afternoons as child lying on our corduroy couch, holding the Best of Peter, Paul and Mary above my head, staring at the pictures on the cover, flowers and lambs and butterflies.
Did my parents buy Jackson C. Frank Again the year I was born? If so, they didn’t keep it. Did they see it at the store, for sale alongside Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon, Dylan’s Masterpieces or Street Legal, Stewart’s Time Passages, Fairport Convention’s Tipplers Tales?
So many of Frank’s friends had albums out that year, such a big year for that crowd. Was his album even for sale? My parents didn’t remember it. Neither of them had heard of Frank.
I bought my mom his album a few years ago, slipping it into the CD player in the kitchen. I told her the story of his life. She looked away from the stove, holding a spoon as if she had forgotten what it was for.
The magazine had fact checkers. Thorough ones. The piece was mostly history: lists of the names Frank had influenced, how he had influenced them, the songs he had recorded, the tragedies he had survived. Those were the facts. Those were checkable.
Other aspects of the story were not so.
It was a story full of holes. Most of the characters, including Frank himself, were dead. Accounts of Frank’s life contradicted each other, differing dates and names. There just wasn’t much on Frank, which made his story both compelling and difficult. The editor called me when I was in line at Kroger. I did a major re-write on Thanksgiving. The process of fact-checking a mystery left us both exhilarated and stumped.
Everything had to be true, right? But what was true? Some of the lyrics didn’t have definite sources. Most of the photographs were black and white, or grainy. Was that a long-sleeve shirt? Was his hair more white or yellow? What had really caused the fire?
There were many I don’t know’s in the piece. Many if’s. Many, many more questions than answers. How I discovered Frank, why I personally was drawn to him, why I couldn’t let go—those questions were not going to be answered, either, not in the essay.
VQR published my story in early January 2015: “Snowfall Blues:The Hard Life and Clear Sound of Jackson C. Frank.” VQR also commissioned for the piece a collage by artist Jen Rinnger, of vintage photos of Frank, disintegrating into flames. The fire in the image is sharp and bright, a yellow-orange wisp, flecked by black char, that hurts the eyes.
Frank’s eyes in the old photographs, avoiding the reader’s stare, hurt too.
Why did I fall for Frank so hard? Why am I haunted by his story, still?
It’s just not just the music, which is stunning. It’s not just his life, which is unbelievable—but I believe it. I know it. I am a person with an invisible disability: I was born partially deaf, which I have been told by those who don’t know any better, I hide very, very well—and he was a person with an obvious disability.
He could not hide his scars. Intentionally or unintentionally, I have been hiding mine all my life.
A rule I broke and broke hard? I saw myself in him, my true self. Frank on the outside was me on the inside. Maybe the same thing in me responds to him that responds to graffiti. Maybe the same thing in me that loves abandoned places, impoverished flyover towns, loves Jackson C. Frank.
With writing the piece, with publishing it, I just wanted to draw attention to Frank. I just wanted people to know his music, to say his name, to search for and purchase his album, to realize the impact he had, to understand his suffering—to understanding suffering in general. Frank was broken, as I am broken, as the places I come from and love are broken.
Frank lived, Frank tried, these things happened, though in what order and in what time and place we do not know for sure anymore. There is no surety, not anymore. There is only his singing: that sweet, strong voice, sure and true, unbroken as a bell.
Alison Stine is the author of three books of poetry—Wait (Wisconsin, 2011), Ohio Violence (North Texas, 2009), and Lot of My Sister (Kent State, 2001)—and a novel, Supervision (Harper Voyager, 2015). Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Awl, the Toast, Defunct, and Southern Humanities Review.