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Colorful bluesman likes to take the stage alone

Even in a First Night Annapolis program guide that touts Edgar Allan Poe, Cajun dancing, Celtic fiddling, Mozart opera, the Circus Beserkus and Queen Elizabeth I among the offerings, John Jackson, 70, stands out.

He's a bluesman, playing a style of acoustic guitar that takes you back to times long past, songs by Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Boy Fuller and others. On New Year's Eve, he will give four performances at the Arundel Center Hearing Room.

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Once a farmer, chauffeur and butler, his life, in the words of First Night's program, has been "as rich as a homespun quilt."

He still works as a gravedigger near his Fairfax Station, Va., home.

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And when he isn't on the road, he sometimes takes a metal detector out to the nearby Civil War battle sites and searches for artifacts.

In 1964, the Washington Folklore Society "discovered" him and brought him to the public.

Yet for all his successes, including international tours that have taken him to about 60 countries, this remarkable artist calls himself "just a working man."

And work, he does.

"I'm the old type of bluesman," Mr. Jackson says with a chuckle in his rich Virginia drawl. "I never had a band. It's nobody but me."

That was plenty for the First Night audiences who flocked to hear him deliver signature songs like "Boats Up the River" and "Rocks and Gravel" last Dec. 31.

"What we noticed was a tremendous feeling of warmth coming out of his concerts," said Elizabeth Welch, First Night's co-executive director. "John is unquestionably one of the most popular performers we've ever had."

Mr. Jackson, who is looking forward to a tour of the British Isles next year, clearly relished the festive atmosphere at his First Night debut.

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"They were overwhelming and wonderful," he said of his audiences. "Everybody liked it. Why, some folks even stayed for all the sets!"

For good reason. What drew them was the breezy good cheer of Mr. Jackson's music. His style is lighter and more countrified than the incessant I-IV-V 12-bar progressions that characterize the urban blues style.

His lively melodies and dextrous passage work on the guitar incorporates several genres, country, bluegrass and ragtime among them.

Style reflects experience after all, and Mr. Jackson grew up surrounded not only by blues but by hymns and hillbilly music as well. For a time, he even played electric guitar in a country and western band.

All these influences are there in the colorful songs he plays, a joyful musical melange delivered with heartfelt simplicity by an old pro who is truly a master of his craft.

"Come on in this old house," he sings, smiling as he phrases. "Nobody here but me."

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It is a delightful house of music John Jackson invites us to. And -- like the blues artists he heard in his youth -- he keeps it alone.

SUNDIAL

You can hear John Jackson if you call Sundial at 783-1800 and punch in the 4-digit code 6262. For other Sundial numbers, see the SunSource directory on Page 2A.



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