“Kansas City” Jim Jackson
Memorialization & Preventing the Erasure of African American History
Born in a small hamlet in the northern Mississippi hill country called Hernando, Jim Jackson’s musical talents paved the way for many African American guitarists in the early recording industry. His 1927 smash Vocalion hit “Kansas City Blues” proved the country blues had vast economic potential. Jim Jackson’s career as a recording artist began in the mid-1920s, following an extended tour on Beale Street and the medicine show circuit. Though he briefly worked with Jackson talent scout H.C. Speir, he released his most popular music on Vocalion for talent scout Jack Kapp. Indeed, he was one of the earliest country blues recording artists to find some measure of success. His career, however, was cut tragically short in 1933. According to his death certificate and his obituary in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, an Orange Mound funeral home prepared and shipped his remains to Hernando, where his extended family buried the groundbreaking musician in the African American section of Hernando Memorial Cemetery.
No headstone has ever marked the grave of this important Blues artist.
But on June 3, 2023, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund will remedy this problem.
Hernando is a small Mississippi town located about twenty miles south of Memphis; it’s also the seat of government for Desoto County, a flat, rural farming community in the early 20th century where the sun seemed to burn mercilessly hot above the fields. The migration of farmers to the largely uncleared, yet perhaps most fertile, fields of the Delta started before the Civil War, which upended the social and economic order in the South. Due to African American’s high rate of success in post-war state elections, scores of African American farmers sought to experience the transition from slavery to freedom in Mississippi.
The flat, rural landscape of the Delta served as a beacon of light for formerly enslaved Mississippians, especially towards the end of the 19th century, when social Darwinist-infused attitudes on race inspired sinister new efforts at disfranchisement and strict enforcement of racial segregation laws. Prior to the ratification of the 1890 state constitution, which effectively prevented Black men from exercising the right to vote, the only African American political leader on the Constitutional Convention, Isaiah Montgomery, established the all-black town of Mound Bayou around 1887. It became a symbol of Black economic and administrative excellence, which challenged hardening racial discourse and highlighted the falsehoods at the core of racial stereotypes.
Hill Country Blues
Jim Jackson was one of the seminal musicians who developed the unique and gentle, yet rhythmically solid, kind of blues in the adjoining hill country counties of DeSoto, Tate, and Marshall Counties. Ideal for dancing, with the singing having much in common with the old field hollers, it later became very popular in the medicine shows that toured the South. The reason for its popularity and its diffusion was not only the dominating influence of fellow Hernando-native Frank Stokes, but also the popularity and well-travelled career of Jim Jackson.
Some time around the beginning of this century Jackson moved a few miles north, to Memphis, to play in the gambling halls along Beale Street, at parties and Sunday suppers given by white folks. So did large numbers of African Americans from the north Mississippi hill country. Among the bluesmen who followed in his steps were Garfield Echols (Akers) and Joe Callicott from Nesbit in DeSoto County; and Frank Stokes and Robert Wilkins from Hernando.
Medicine & Minstrel Shows
Jim Jackson traveled extensively with different medicine shows from about 1915 until the early ‘thirties. He started with Silas Green’s and Abbey Sutton’s shows; then for a long time traveled with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, one of the largest groups. Apart from singing, he danced and told jokes, helping to sell the medicine that was ‘guaranteed’ to do you good. He is also recalled as having toured with the Red Rose Minstrel Show, all over the south, in 1928; he was joined by Speckled Red, with whom, on one occasion, he recorded.
A Smash Hit
Jim Jackson entertained crowds and helped sell the Jack Rabbit Salve of Dr. Willie Lewis, whose medicine show was large enough to support a jug band, in which Jackson became a mentor of sorts for several future Memphis recording artists. Jackson’s jug band included Will Shade, who went on record with the Memphis Jug Band, and Walter “Furry” Lewis, who later travelled with him to Chicago and recorded in the famous first session that produced Kansas City Blues.
Jackson spent many of his active years working in medicine shows, which provided employment for innumerable blues singers and songsters. Gus Cannon, for example, would organize his popular Jug Stompers after playing in Jackson’s jug band for Dr. Willie Lewis’s show. He previously had travelled every year in one medicine show or another with his guitar-playing partner Hosea Woods. Cannon started at home on South Parkway in Memphis with Dr. Stokey’s show, and he met Chappie Dennison, who played a piece of plumbing pipe, on the show of Dr. W. B. Milton. After he got the idea to play a jug, he played on the shows of Dr. Benson and Dr. Hangerson, and Cannon explained, “I worked with a man out of Louisville. I worked through Mississippi. I worked through Virginia. I worked through Alabama, [and] I worked through Mobile, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis—far as I been down, playin’ my banjo on them doctor shows.”
Medicine shows set up their stages on vacant Iots in southern townships . A young “doctor” in Stetson hat and goatee beard introduced a team of performers; a few “hoofer” dancers, perhaps, or a jug band, or just a young man “cutting the pigeon wing” to the stop time guitar of his accompanist. With no scruples about selling the medicine, the doctor produced a bottle of miracle tonic and one troupe member, after taking a swig, feels impressed to approach the nearest woman as proof of its efficacy. The crowd responds raucously and bottles start selling.
In the South, African Americans had very limited options for medical treatment, and the clinics that offered free treatment were a mere handful. Thus, the tonics sold in medicine shows were at least some kind of relief. While the “doctors” mostly lacked qualifications and sold worthless medicaments, the preparations did relatively little harm and sometimes did good. To drum up interest and soften crowd resistance, medicine show doctors travelled with a small company and set up for only a brief stand in each community.
Jim Jackson worked in the Red Rose Minstrels with the pianist Speckled Red. Setting up in towns across the states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, it was a medicine show, according to Speckled Red, where:
the man sold all kinds of medicine and stuff. One medicine good for a thousand things — and wasn’t good for nothin’. A whole lot of pills, everything. He had a big show where there was a whole lot of women and I was playing pianner. Sometimes I was on she stage, trying to dance, and I could talk, crack a whole lot of jokes — me and Jim [Jackson].
Jackson sang old minstrel show songs such as In the Jailhouse Now or Travellin’ Man, which offered stories about the lived experiences of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, and he boosted the morale of crowds with stories about heroes who outwitted white folks. Uninhibited by the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, Jackson raised a warm response with lyrics that highlighted the economic inequalities of racial segregation.
In the last two verses of a song he recorded as Goin’ Around the Mountain in 1928, he explained:
Well a white man gives his wife a ten-dollar bill
He thinks that’s nothing strange
But a colored man gives his wife a one-dollar bill
And beat her to death ’bout the ninety cents change.
Sing I’m goin’ round the mountain charmin’ Betty
I’m goin’ round the mountain Pearlie Lee
Now if I never see you again, Do Lord, remember me.
Well a white man lives in a fine brick house
He thinks that’s nothin’ strange.
But we poor colored men lives in the county jail
But it’s a brick house just the same!
Sing, I’m gain’ round the mountain etc.
—Jim Jackson “Goin’ Round the Mountain”
Furry Lewis: “used to hear about him down in Greenville. He used to travel with the medicine shows, you know. I played with Jim Jackson. You know, he could pick a guitar just like I did. Sometimes just us two was playing together. Jim Jackson’s been dead about thirty years ago. I couldn’t tell you if he was two or three years older or younger than I. We was about the same age.”
Gus Cannon: “I was at the same recording session as Jim Jackson when he cut Kansas City Blues. We used to play together in Memphis in the streets and, in medicine shows. Sometimes he would play with Frank Stokes too. The people who recorded Jim didn’t allow me to play with him on the records. He was from Hernando.”
Kansas City Blues
The Kansas City Blues was a smash hit for Victor Records in 1927. The success of this record paved the way for numerous additional recording sessions for not only Jim Jackson, but also many other Memphis country blues artists.
Jim Jackson was recruited by filmmaker King Vidor to work on the Hollywood film, Hallelujah, in 1928. This image features Jackson holding his guitar, and Vidor holding one of Jackson’s records. It is not clear, however, what role Jackson plays in the film.
Hernando Memorial Park Cemetery
The death certificate of Jim Jackson does NOT acknowledge the exact location of his internment. It only notes that Robinson & Woods Funeral Home removed his remains to the city of Hernando for burial. Yet, in the early 1930s, the primary location for burials in the African American community of Hernando was the segregated section of Hernando Memorial Park Cemetery, which contains hundreds of headstones from the time period. Since we know that the remains of Jim Jackson were sent back to Hernando for burial in 1933, we can make an educated guess that the cemetery contains his unmarked grave. The burial ground is not well-maintained in 2023. Thus, the installation of this memorial will transform an abandoned cemetery into an international tourist destination.
Obituary – Memphis Commercial Appeal
The obituary of Jim Jackson was published in the Memphis (MS) Commercial Appeal on December 23, 1933. It contains previously unknown information about his descendants and extended family. Jim Jackson was the devoted father of James, Henry, and B.D. Jackson, and he had two siblings, a brother named William Jackson and a sister named Jessie Bennett, who married and had three children named Relicker, Haven, and Leon Bennett. His nephew, Onell Jackson, the son of his brother, apparently lived in Hernando.