The Basement Vapes, Volume 11: Public Service Announcement—Blues Run The Game

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers rouses himself for the greater good and remembers Jackson C. Frank’s secret handshake, Nick Drake, the early British folk scene, Paul Simon’s upbeat culpability and more.

I hate to be a downer, but it has always been so. It’s like I made a moody mix-tape for my college girlfriend decades ago and never came back. A bad case of the blues? Probably. Everybody’s got them, and apparently the only thing to do is get back to work and do my part. So then, let us consider that sad old song by Jackson C. Frank entitled “Blues Run The Game.” 

Born in Buffalo on March 2, 1943, Jackson C. Frank was no stranger to sadness. He survived a terrible school fire at the age of 11 where some classmates perished, and the tragedy left him scarred physically and emotionally. His life would continue to be painful and littered with misfortune, but as a young man, Frank took the money he’d received in settlement for the fire and boarded an ocean liner to England. There, he ingratiated himself into the burgeoning folk scene of the mid-1960s alongside rising local performers like Bert Jansch, Al Stewart and Sandy Denny, as well as another visiting American bard named Paul Simon. 

Within most folk-music circles, the main currency is either the singer or the song, and the U.K. folk scene was no exception. In a gesture of authenticity, some artists revived traditional folk songs of the British Isles. Vintage tunes like “Blackwaterside” and “She Moved Through The Fair” became part of many a folk singer’s repertoire. 17th Century ballad “Scarborough Fair” certainly passed though many hands. Singers Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins and even Marianne Faithful all recorded the tune before Paul Simon nipped the song arrangement from guitarist Martin Carthy and made it his own. 

Besides the new traditionalists, an advanced breed of singer/songwriters was emerging. Woody Guthrie protégé Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had long been familiar across England, but it was the time for Bob Dylan and his ilk to inspire. Somewhere between the traditional adaptations and the Dylan influences, strong original songwriting had finally become a premium among British folkies. Enter Jackson C. Frank and his aching lament, “Blues Run The Game,” a wandering troubadour’s song if there ever was one. For folk singers back then, performing your own version of this wistful tune was like knowing a secret handshake.

Catch a boat to England, baby/Maybe to Spain/Wherever I have gone/Wherever I’ve been and gone/Wherever I have gone/The blues are all the same

Frank recorded “Blues Run The Game” in 1965 as the opening track for his eponymous solo album, which was produced by Simon while the two were both living in England. Frank was insecure in the recording studio at age 22, yet his emotive voice and reflective songwriting carried the day. An autobiographical and uniquely personal meditation, the song conveyed a sense of searching, yearning and sadness—with lyrics that felt etched in stone. Other folk singers were immediately attracted to the timeless song, which could have been written yesterday or 100 years ago.

Frank’s melancholy style resonated with the U.K. folkies. Singer Al Stewart accompanied him in the recording studio that day along with producer Simon; Garfunkel was there, too. Frank dated British singer Sandy Denny at the beginning of her career, and she performed several of his compositions. Guitarist John Renbourn was a friend and admirer, as was his Pentangle bandmate, Scottish singer/guitarist Bert Jansch. In 1995, three decades on, Jansch was captured live, still performing the ballad to great effect. His sterling guitar work and pinched, world-weary voice suited the song’s poignant nature, and it remained in Jansch’s set list until his passing in 2011.

Send out for whiskey, baby/Send out for gin/Me and room service, honey/Me and room service, babe/Me and room service/Well we’re living a life of sin

The tragic nature of Frank’s life was complicated by mental illness. Disintegrating slowly, he went back to America, briefly returned to the U.K. and toured alongside the Fairport Convention, and finally retreated to Woodstock. Over the years, he was married, divorced, institutionalized, struggled with alcoholism, became homeless, destitute and obese. He even lost an eye to some kid with an air rifle before he died in 1999 at the age of 56. More recently, his talents and troubles led him to be remembered as a tortured artist cult-figure. His doomed mystique wasn’t romantic as that of someone like Nick Drake, but there is a new documentary about Frank in the works nonetheless.   

Regarding Drake, there’s no doubt that the forlorn, posthumously acclaimed poet laureate of British folk was a devotee of Jackson C. Frank. Before Drake released his first album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969, he made a series of home tapes, demos and private recordings. These early tapes were ultimately released on CD compilation Family Tree, and include young Drake singing a total of four songs written by Frank: “Kimbie,” “Milk And Honey,” “Here Come The Blues” and, of course, “Blues Run The Game.” 

When I’m not drinkin’, baby/You are on my mind/When I’m not sleepin’, honey/When I ain’t sleepin’\, mama/When I’m not sleepin’/You know you’ll find me cryin

Both Jansch and Drake’s renditions of “Blues Run The Game” contain the requisite amount of melancholy, Not so with Simon & Garfunkel, who performed it during a 1965 recording session for their Sounds Of Silence album. That track wasn’t included on the original vinyl LP, but the outtake appeared years later on the CD reissue as well as their Old Friends boxed set. While Simon grasped the tune’s affective power and major-chord craftsmanship, the upbeat culpability of S&G’s gentle harmonies actually make this sorrowful song of resignation feel less gloomy. 

Try another city baby
Another town
Wherever I have gone
Wherever I’ve been and gone
Wherever I have gone
The blues come followin’ down

The confluence of English and American folk music in the 1960s was reflected by the ubiquity of this tune, and like the song says, the blues can follow you anywhere. Hence the inherent ennui that can be found on the late New Zealand-born French singer Graeme Allwright’s 1968 recording, “Je Perds Ou Bien Je Gagne.” Allwright was well known in France during the ’60s and ’70s for his interpretations of songs by artists like Dylan, Cohen, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger, in addition to Frank (all righteous songwriters to be sure), and Allwright’s tender French version of “Blues Run The Game” has that certain je ne sais quoi, wouldn’t you say?

Livin’ is a gamble, baby
Lovin’s much the same
Wherever I have played
Whenever I’ve thrown them dice
Wherever I have played
The blues have run the game

Pop culture has caught up Frank’s bittersweet muse. In recent years “Blues Run The Game” has been used in This Is Us, Robert Redford film The Old Man & The Gun and a documentary entitled The Vietnam War. Another stark Frank composition, “My Name Is Carnival” was in the films Joker, Calvary and Catch Me Daddy. Contemporary performers like Counting Crowes, John Mayer, Laura Marling, Colin Meloy (Decembrists) and Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) have all covered “Blues Run The Game,” but their well-sung versions aren’t nearly sad enough for my somber taste. Like Charles Bukowski used to say, these folks sound like they never even had a toothache. 

Maybe tomorrow honey
Some place down the line
I’ll wake up older
So much older mama
I’ll wake up older
And I’ll just stop all my trying

A semi-disastrous performance by Mark Lanegan is more interesting. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest and a weathered survivor of the ’80s/’90s grunge-rock craze, Lanegan clearly has that depressive gene in his DNA. Although he recorded a studio version with the Soulsavers production team, this ragged live rendition better captures the true spirit of the song. It starts out suitably downtrodden, but one of the guitar amps starts screeching feedback and brings the show to a halt. Encouraged to start over he cautiously demurs. “Life’s very fragile,” says Lanegan. Finally, he starts up again in the middle of the song, playing with even greater focus and conviction. And that’s what it’s all about.

Catch a boat to England, baby/Maybe to Spain/Wherever I have gone/Wherever I’ve been and gone/Wherever I have gone/The blues are all the same

Bonus Track
Here’s an episode of forgotten BBC radio program My Kind Of Folk from November 1968, hosted by Frank. Sharing the program with the Young Tradition and a tune from supporting guitarist Chris Hardy, Frank plays a total of five songs, opening the show with “Blues Run The Game” and closing with “My Name Is Carnival.” Of equal note are Frank’s telling confessional performances of “Golden Mirror” and “I Want To Be Alone.”