WATCHING THE NEW Robert Redford movie, The Old Man & the Gun, a song popped up onscreen that sounded familiar. It recalled Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy: solo acoustic guitar, 2-finger picking, restless male vocal, spare arrangement. Eric Andersen? “Wherever I have played, the blues have run the game…” I liked it immediately and gave the director (David Lowery) points for picking a forgotten song that deftly underlined the story of a romantic outlier robbing banks (nonviolently) for the thrill of it, in Texas and other places, in the 1970s and ’80s. A tamer, older Sundance perhaps, with Redford, now past 80, looking comfortably crusty and dusty in the role, a mysterious drifter whose compulsive illegality is complicated by a chance encounter with a winsome ranch widow (Sissy Spacek).
But what was that song? The end credits rolled by too fast to I.D. it, and the movie’s official website and IMDB listing do not include the songs in the soundtrack. (What’s up with that, by the way?) Finally I found a website, filmmusicreporter.com, that showed the movie’s song list, followed by a reader comment, “At last, someone else has discovered Jackson Frank. Beautiful song from an underrated and tragic singer/songwriter.” That had to be it, and a trip to i-Tunes confirmed as much, along with discovering it’s used in one of the film’s trailers.
“Blues Run the Game” is the title, but who is Jackson C. Frank? Turns out I’d heard of him but forgotten. Born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he was a singer-songwriter who in his early 20s found his way to England about the same time as Paul Simon — both drawn to the rich folk scene there as the Beatles were conquering America. They became friends. (Robert Hilburn mentions him in his recent biography of Simon.) Frank recorded his only album there in 1965, which Simon produced, and it included “Blues Run the Game,” the cut that is heard in The Old Man & the Gun.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL recorded a version and almost put it on their Sounds of Silence album. (It’s included on a later collection, Old Friends.) Eric Andersen, as best I can determine, did not record the song, but many others did, including English folk icon Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who dated Frank for a time. Many others have covered it — John Renbourn, Nick Drake, John Mayer and Counting Crows. The song was also used in a 2016 episode of the TV show This is Us.
So, yeah, I knew I’d heard it somewhere. Frank, sadly, is not around to enjoy his newfound fame as he died in obscurity in Massachusetts in 1999, at the age of 56 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest after years of schizophrenia, ill-health and a period of homelessness. This, according to Wikipedia. He seems to have led a hard life that could be traced back to surviving a furnace explosion in grade school that killed 15 of his classmates and left him with lasting injuries. You figure he could not have imagined his words and voice — and a song he wrote and recorded in England in 1965 — one day matched to the big screen face of the actor who played the Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward and so many other memorable roles.
It occurs to me that underappreciated ’60s folksinger Dave Van Ronk is someone who could have relished Frank’s posthumous recognition, but then he, too, died before witnessing his own cinematic redemption, as the model for the title character in the Coen brothers’ 2013 film