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John Jackson Tells a Ghost Story for Halloween


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.

Spooky Stories for Halloween 2022 on the Folklife Today Podcast

It’s October, so it’s time for a new season of the Folklife Today podcast, and a new Halloween episode!  In this Season 5 opener, John Fenn and Stephen Winick talk about the new updated Halloween and Dia de Muertos Research Guide. Then we introduce some of our favorite spooky stories: a witch story told by singer and activist Aunt Molly Jackson from Kentucky, a ghost story told by songster and blues musician John Jackson from Virginia, and the story of Jack O Lantern told by folklorist and International Man of Mystery Jack Santino. And of course we included the stories! Sound good? Very well then…Get your podcast here!

Halloween and Día de Muertos Research Guide Expanded and Updated

Get ready for two upcoming holidays with the expanded and updated research guide on Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) from the Library of Congress! “Halloween & Dia de Muertos Resources” highlights collections from across the Library, including the American Folklife Center, Prints and Photographs, the Hispanic section, Rare Books, Manuscripts, and the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC). Items we’ve added for this year’s Halloween season include a player where you can listen to Jack Santino’s classic Halloween lecture discussing the deep history of the holiday as well as folktales and other Halloween lore. We’ve also added: links to notable books to get you started in your Halloween reading; a player to watch the first film version of Frankenstein from 1910; a gallery of classic Dia de Los Muertos posters from the Mission Grafica/La Raza Graphics collection; and links to lots of new content like the witch tales from Aunt Molly Jackson that I blogged about just last week. Find it all at the link in this blog post!

Aunt Molly Jackson Tells Witch Tales for Halloween Season

This is the 10th Halloween we have celebrated at Folklife Today with stories and songs about ghosts, witches, spirits, death, and the Devil. As usual, this year we’ll feature several Halloween posts leading up to the big day. We’re starting with this one, presenting some fascinating belief stories about witches from early 20th century Kentucky. The speaker is Mary Magdalen Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos, known by the professional name Aunt Molly Jackson. In the post, you’ll find embedded audio of Jackson telling the stories, along with complete transcriptions of the texts. Happy Halloween!

La Llorona: Storytelling for Halloween and Día de Muertos

La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. In some versions she’s a ghost, but in others she’s an immortal wanderer, not dead but not really alive either. So far in the series, we’ve introduced the legend, given some of its history, explored songs related to La Llorona, and discussed the story’s role in growing up. Now, we present a telling of the tale. The post contains audio and a transcript of a performance by Joe Hayes, one of the best known storytellers from the American southwest. Hayes’s bilingual Spanish-English storytelling has earned him a distinctive place among America’s professional storytellers.

La Llorona on the Folklife Today Podcast

Halloween and Día de Muertos are almost here! So, believe it or not, Season 4, Episode 1 of the Folklife Today Podcast, our 2021 Halloween and Día de Muertos episode, is ready for listening! It features interviews about the Weeping Woman, La Llorona, a spirit from Latin American folklore, plus related songs and stories. The people interviewed are Juan Díes, leader of the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Camille Acosta, who wrote her masters thesis on La Llorona before interning at AFC, and Allina Migoni, AFC’s Latinx subject specialist. This blog contains links to download the podcast, background on our guests, and links to full audio of the songs.

Growing Up with La Llorona

This is the fourth blog post in a series about La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. We’ll present comments on the legend by the writer Rudolfo Anaya, the scholar Domino Renee Perez, our former intern and Llorona expert Camille Acosta, pioneering Costa Rican writer Manuel Argüello Mora, and Esperanza Sernas, a restaurant worker interviewed in 1977 by fieldworker Philip George for AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. This blog also contains one of the most gruesome traditional descriptions of La Llorona we’ve seen so far! The whole series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021, so stay tuned….

Picante Pero Sabroso: Songs of La Llorona

This is the third blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. In this post we talk about songs associated with the La Llorona legend. I spend the most time with the traditional song from Oaxaca, which was featured recently at the GRAMMY Awards and in the movie Coco. I also discuss a widespread (and completely different) folksong called “La Llorona” in the son huasteco repertoire, and “La Llorona Loca,” a song composed in Colombia that has become a mainstay in Mexican music as well. What all La Llorona songs have in common are the themes of death, remembrance, and mourning, which makes them all appropriate for Día de Muertos or Halloween. We hope this post will be useful in building your own personal playlist for these upcoming holidays. 

La Llorona: Roots, Branches, and the Missing Link from Spain

This is the second blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos 2021. In this post, I’ll show some of the story’s long history, especially in Mexico. I’ll give links to primary sources from the 1570s showing the story was already present among Indigenous Mexicans at that time and earlier. I’ll also present what I believe is new evidence of a strong link for some La Llorona stories with Spain.

La Llorona: An Introduction to the Weeping Woman

In Latin America, in Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S., and especially in Mexico, no ghost story is told as often, discussed as enthusiastically, or interpreted as widely, as the legend of La Llorona. With this introduction, AFC kicks off a short series of blogs on La Llorona stories and songs between now and Día de Muertos