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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Black Top Road - a musical ode to Piedmont blues.

Credit: Ian Cochrane
`Hanoi', by the Backsliders – 2002

Finding John Jackson (24.02.1924 - 20.01.2002).

Upright sleeves of vinyl records – Mayall, Joplin and Bloomfield – sit above a dishevelled shelf of 70 assorted blues CDs, and these days an under-used turntable. I read the CD titles from left to right, tucking in a Broonzy and dusting off a Burnside.

I grab another, wrong way round, lifting it clear and prying it open until the printed jacket floats to the floor – the cover’s plastic nib broken – the artwork landing with track titles and credits up, along with the scrawl of Dom Turner’s initials in thick black text. Dom is the iconic blues guitarist of Australian group the Backsliders. I kneel and turn to the lyrics of track 5, Black Top Road. The Southern ratchet drawl is that of John Jackson, a Piedmont bluesman. I recall a time when I’d not heard that name.

I take another look, picking up where I left off, my eyes straying further along the shelf. There’s Carr, Clapton, Collard and Collins; there’s Guy through to Hooker, House, Hurt, two James and two Johnsons.

Music is my time machine, often taking me to other places; in this case a small Victorian fishing village on the Great Ocean Road to the west of Melbourne – part hippie, part farming – a curtain of mist hanging from a hazy Otway Ranges backdrop. A fresh salt breeze floats up from the bay.

The year is 2003. Inside the beachside pavilion lights are muted; the Backsliders bathed in a blue glow. The sampled words are pure gravel, worn and weary; the crackle of early vinyl from a small box speaker, vibrations on a wooden stage. Jackson’s phrases are repeated as an abrupt riff is wrenched from a single guitar – Dom Turner’s ‘Gerard Gilet’ 12-string – the ring insistent and loud; ex-Midnight Oil, Rob Hurst's drums thump and pound. The harp howls. The band’s been around for almost 20yrs, but it strikes me the pre-recorded voice is from another world.

Jackson was born in 1924 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, one of 14 siblings. They all played, with songs before bedtime mandatory. A young Jackson learned `special licks` from a chain gang kid; a water boy among the 100s of convicts slaving on Black Top Road all the way through Charlottesville and Rappahannock County.

In the 1920s and 30s, travelling bluesman Mississippi John Hurt sought shelter with Jackson’s family when passing through – joining in meals and neighbourly weekend sing-alongs. The songs came from all over, with the group often swelling to 200.
All this was put on hold when Jackson witnessed a country picnic turn violent, denouncing music and becoming a gravedigger.

In a chance 60s meeting Jackson was discovered picking again, teaching guitar to an insistent worker in a petrol station.

Jackson was convinced to travel to Washington to see Mississippi John Hurt, whom he had assumed was dead. A rejuvenated Jackson resumed playing publicly and touring the world. An Englishman named Eric Clapton asked Jackson for lessons.

The Piedmont bluesman performed a record 14 times at the renowned Smithsonian Folklife Festival before dying in 2002 – the same year the Backslider album Hanoi appeared.

I return the Hanoi artwork to its plastic cover, fiddling until it’s shut. I tuck the CD back on the shelf. My eyes drift further along to the name of King. There’s a McDowell, McTell, McGee and Rogers. There’s Smith, Sumlin, Thornton, Tilders and Tucker, Waters, Wilson and Winter.

Mmm, still no Jackson.



About the Writer

iancochrane is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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4 comments on Black Top Road - a musical ode to Piedmont blues.

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By Annie44 on March 14, 2013 at 06:01 pm

Wow...what a great read. Love how you reflect on all the many years and artists that came and went...a few returning for a revival.

My favorite lines, "Music is my time machine, often taking me to other places; in this case a small Victorian fishing village on the Great Ocean Road to the west of Melbourne – part hippie, part farming – a curtain of mist hanging from a hazy Otway Ranges backdrop. A fresh salt breeze floats up from the bay." Simply beautiful to my ears.

Loved this, Ian. By the way, was that R.L. Burnside you were referring to?

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By iancochrane on March 14, 2013 at 06:55 pm

Thanks Annie.

The Great Ocean Road really is an iconic part of Australia, & makes a beautiful site for an annual music festival held in marquees, restaurants, cafes & hotels, along with lots of busking in the main street.

Have mentioned quite a few blues names - many dead now of course - from all around the world. & yes, your'e spot on with RL Burnside.

Cheers, ic

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By Uttam Gill on March 17, 2013 at 12:09 am

Oh! You took a name and here I am listening to Jackson (http://youtu.be/RfoqELZWcp8)..................................

Clapton (http://youtu.be/vUSzL2leaFM) …This is the magic of music…Music has no language it reaches out to those who wish to read the nodes...Amazing is the power of music…Your article has revived the memories of my child hood.I can still vividly recall how in our neighborhood one Anglo Indian Family use to play these song loudly…My Dad was in Indian Air Force and as a tiny tot we had all the thrill over the catchy tune of ‘Come September’ (http://youtu.be/OKq-2kldJIY) in mess parties…Those were the glorious day..So much of fun… Thank you so much iancochrane for making me recall the times which I still hold so dearly too my heart…I brood miserly over the past and music glides me back into the real time when I danced umpteenth time over the tunes of classic numbers…

Even now reading your article I feel likes dancing…Is any one out here to join me…Put on your dancing shoes (http://youtu.be/0J_VcKMPZ4o) …Let’s dance

http://youtu.be/RfoqELZWcp8

http://youtu.be/vUSzL2leaFM

http://youtu.be/OKq-2kldJIY

http://youtu.be/0J_VcKMPZ4o

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By iancochrane on March 17, 2013 at 01:52 am

Haha Uttam, fantastic.

So glad you enjoyed my walk through those musical memories.

Cheers, ic

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