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John Jackson Tells a Ghost Story for Halloween

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A close up of a man with a guitar.
This portrait of John Jackson is by Tom Pich and is included in AFC’s National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Program collection. (We also have a framed copy on the wall in our office!) Pich spoke about his portraits of NEA National Heritage Fellows with folklorist Barry Bergey at the Library of Congress in 2018. Find the video at this link.

John Jackson (1924-2002) was a fantastic singer and guitarist; he was one of the most significant Black Appalachian musicians to begin his professional career in the 1960s. You can read all about his blues career on numerous websites including that of Smithsonian Folkways and in the sleeve notes to his many albums. But did you know he also liked ghost stories? In this blog, you’ll hear (and read) his version of a story about two preachers who attempt to spend the night in a haunted house. He called it “The Preachers and the Spooks.”

First, some of that musical background. Jackson’s roots in the Virginia mountains put him at the nexus of Piedmont blues, rural gospel, early ballads, and old-time string band music. This broad repertoire allowed him to fit comfortably in the category of “songster,” but he also embraced the moniker “bluesman.”  He grew up playing music, which he learned mainly from a very musical family in which everyone sang and played multiple instruments. He also learned from recordings of such masters as Mississippi John Hurt and the Carter Family. He played many house parties and dances in his teens and twenties, but he stopped playing in public in the mid 1940s after witnessing a violent altercation at a party where he was playing.

In 1964, folklorist Chuck Perdue met John Jackson in a gas station and struck up a friendship. Uncharacteristically, Jackson was playing outside his home because he had agreed to give a guitar lesson to an acquaintance at the station, where the other man worked. After hearing Jackson play, Perdue realized what a major talent he was, and arranged some concert appearances. This led Jackson to meet and play with most of the prominent blues musicians in his area, including John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Archie Edwards, Warner Williams, and Jay Summerour. His friendly personality made him a favorite of all who met him, but his great talent was even more extraordinary. He was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1986.

Jackson was also a favorite here at the American Folklife Center during our formative years. He was one of several musicians to play at the reception celebrating AFC’s founding in February, 1976. He also played in our Neptune Plaza Concert Series in 1983 and 1986.

A man plays the guitar.
John Jackson, on the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza in 1986.

Less well known than his musical prowess was John Jackson’s talent as a storyteller. Although he occasionally worked tales into his concert performances, he particularly loved stories about the supernatural, which he mostly told privately. Our friend Carl Lindahl’s book American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress alerted us that some of these ghost stories were recorded and the tapes are in the AFC archive.

Jackson was personally convinced of the existence of supernatural creatures such as ghosts and the Nightmare, based on his experiences and those his friends had recounted to him. Truth be told, he might have had more occasion to experience the supernatural than most of us, since during a good part of his life, he made his living in the Washington, D.C. suburbs as a gravedigger!

This story, though, is not from personal experience, but a tale told to him by his mother. As is common in telling second-hand tales, Jackson begins many of the segments with the word “said,” reminding us that this was something his mother said, not something he witnessed himself.

Hear the story in the player below, and follow along with the transcript below that.

Happy Halloween!

John Jackson Tells the Story of The Preachers and the Spooks

A man plays the guitar.
John Jackson, on the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza in 1983.

Mama told a tale one time about this haunted house
about nobody couldn’t stay at it.
Said they hired this preacher to go along and stay.
Said he was gonna stay and find out what this ghost was.
Said he got there and made him a good fire in the fireplace, and sat back smoking his pipe.
Said, finally,
said a little cat come whining.
Said he let him in and commenced to playing with him.
Said the cat laid by the fire ever so long, and got warm, and stretched out, and
said after he laid there a few minutes
said, he sort of dozed off to sleep, this preacher did.
And said he happened to think about the cat, and looked over and
was a great big, spotted dog with the biggest red eyes and red tongue looking at him.
Said the preacher commenced to batting his eyes and looking.
Says he commenced to getting bigger,
said all at once, said the preacher just rolled up and went right out the window and left.
Said it wasn’t long, said the spook was too much for him.
He went and told what he saw,
and there was another preacher come in and said he was going there and gonna stay.
Said he went on in and made him up a good fire and sat there.
Said finally after he sat there a while and the fire got to going good,
said all at once something rolled down the fireplace.
and knocked fire all over the floor everywhere!
Said, the old preacher jumped up and took the broom and swept it back.
And he didn’t see anything, so he sat down
Said finally, two little dogs came down and sat down on the fireplace by him
and said, after a while it turned in and got bigger and bigger.
Said the old preacher setting there kept a-looking at em smoking his pipe and singing a hymn:
“Nearer My God to Thee.”
Said, he sat back and kept a-singing!
Said, finally, said, it finally formed into two little boys and then they formed into two men.
Said the preacher asked ’em, said: “What in the name of the Lord do you want?”
And said, “The people (the first people that was there) killed us, and buried us here,
and buried us down underneath the floor.”
Said, “If you’ll dig us up and tell everybody where we’ re at,”
said, “we’ll go away and never come back no more.”
And said the next day, he went and told the people what he found,
and said sure enough, they did.
They dug up and found two dead bodies down underneath that floor,
why, the people had killed ’em and buried ’em down under all that.
And the house never was spooky no more after that.

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