John Jackson
Front Porch Blues
Alligator ALCD 4867

Even tough guys get wistful looking at books full of pictures of old diners, trains, gas stations and theaters. No doubt about it, accessing the past can be sooth to the soul.

Enter John Jackson, who brings us a compact disc of good, old-fashioned acoustic blues. When he first surfaced in the folk revival of the 1960s, some reckoned him less a heavyweight than comparable artists on the scene who had cut 78s for historic labels.

Not that his LPs for the budding Arhoolie label were ill-received: Some critics likened the Virginia native (whose day gig was digging graves) to Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, and though he’s neither as aggressive nor intricate a guitarist as either, his gentle, meticulous playing has plenty of appeal, and his voice is warm and chummy. In a land of hyperbolic marketing, Front Porch Blues is a tower of appropriateness — you really feel like you’re there with Jackson.

He makes genre standbys “C.C. Rider” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” as authoritative as they were when you first heard them. The latter is dark and spooky, as befits this Rev. Gary Davis classic about the reaper. “Chesterfield” is Jackson’s rag about the cigarettes of that name, delightfully old-timey and with a good puff of wit.

“Railroad Bill” is beautiful: Bill’s a train-robbin’ badman, straight out of American folklore, brought to life again in this musical tale Jackson learned from his dad. There’s more nice guitar on the wispy, quite short (1:26) instrumental, “Rappahannock Blues,” which envisions rolling rivers and wavy wheat.

Jackson’s fatherly, confiding voice is at its most compelling on two traditional religious songs, “When He Calls Me” and the tantalizingly titled “The Devil He Wore a Hickory Shoe,” in which Lucifer is thus shod and also wears lengths of chain — fascinating imagery conceivably dating from a time when such things were worn by people put to public penance.

“Midnight Hour Blues” and “She’s So Sweet” are fine readings of pre-war gems by Leroy Carr and Blind Boy Fuller, respectively, while “West Texas Blues” is from Jimmie Rodgers.

Ours is a past of trains, robbers, country religion, cowgirls and an incarnate devil. Anyone can name these things in song but few as evocatively as the well-traveled Jackson. His music’s good tonic for us all.

Tim Schuller

©1999 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA