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Peg's Bio

A biography of blues musician and medicine show performer Peg Leg Sam Jackson

His Life
19111977

Arthur Jackson was born on a farm near Jonesville, S.C., in 1911, and grew up sharing a one-room log cabin with his parents and 5 brothers and sisters. His father worked him so hard as a child that he was glad when a rainy day came. "I went to a school when it rained, " he says. "Outside of that I always had something to do on the farm....If I'd a-stayed at home I wouldn't have known a thing, wouldn't have been able to do anything but plow a mule. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. I did a lot of work in vain--sixteen hours in June, July, August, working from sun to sun. If you plow a mule all day and into the night, you feel just as tired when you get up as when you lay down. Plow all night too, dreaming."

At the age of 10 Jackson started running away from home. "Arthur would be out in the field plowing a mule, working in the hot sun," a neighbor recalls. "All of a sudden that mule's ears would prick up in the air, " and Arthur would stop to listen. Soon you would hear a freight train several miles away, coming in our direction. That'd be the end of his plowing. He'd leave the mule standing in the row and run off to catch that train. You might not see him again for months."

He hoboed into Canada and New England in the summers and toward California and Florida when the weather turned cold, doing odd jobs--digging potatoes in Maine, cutting cane in Florida, preaching in Maryland, working on a boat in the Caribbean, serving time in a reform school and on a Georgia prison farm, and intermittently settling down for brief flings at marriage. In 1930, hungry and half asleep from days of hoboing, he lost a leg when he fell from a freight train near Raleigh, N.C. "That's when I started playing the harp good, "he says,"--making something of it."

His Development as a Performer

Jackson first began to play the harmonica as a child. "My daddy bought me a 10-cent harp once for Christmas," he says, "and I heard people playing that song they call 'Reuben.' I wanted to play that song, bad. I got back by the chimney corner where the sun would hit me and practiced up." He picked up much from local musicians, and more from an harmonica player named Elmon "Keg-Shorty" Bell in Atlanta.

In 1922 he first saw the Spartanburg guitar player "Pink" Anderson, who was playing in Dr. Frank "Smiley" Kerr's medicine show. ("That's been 50-odd years ago. I said, 'Lord, I wish I was that rascal!' He was clowning, you know.") Jackson later picked up the medicine-show routine from Anderson, learning first how to "crossfire" lines as a straight man, then taking over the comic's role in his own right. After his accident he sometimes "busked" for small change on the street corners, but medicine shows paid better. For many years he performed in a series of troups run by Dr. Kerr, Dr. Thompson, "old Jeffries" (who weaseled out of paying Peg Leg Sam), and Dr. Silas Green.

For 25 of these years he also returned annually to Rocky Mount, N.C., to work and play music for 4 months for Fenner's Tobacco Warehouse. Fenner liked Peg's playing and sponsored him during these years on a 15-minute radio program each morning while the tobacco market was in session, and toward the end of this period even on local television. Peg's last regular medicine-show performances were with "Chief Thundercloud" (Leo Kahdot, a Potawatomie from Oklahoma, who began his long career playing piano and trumpet in vaudeville). Jackson retired from the road after Kahdot's death in 1973.

Two blues collectors--Bruce Bastin (of Flyright Records) and Pete Lowry (of Trix Records)-- had met Peg Leg Sam while visiting "Baby" Tate in 1970. They began to issue recordings of his music and introduced him to the college and festival circuit, first at UNC and Duke University, then at Philadelphia, Wolf Trap, Boston, and Washington, at the National Folk Life Festival. Peg died October 27, 1977 in Jonesville, South Carolina..

For rights and permissions contact: Daniel W. Patterson

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