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UNION COUNTY — Although the blues music genre is commonly associated with areas such as Memphis, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont region of South Carolina was just as rich with blues culture as any other region, and one of the founding fathers of Piedmont blues lived in Union County.
Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson (Dec. 18, 1911-Oct. 27, 1977) was born in Jonesville; he was the fourth of David and Emma Jackson’s six children. He made his living playing harmonica, singing and telling stories at festivals, fairs and medicine shows (traveling shows which peddled “miracle cure” products between various entertainment acts).
Peg Leg Sam released four albums: “Medicine Show Man,” “Early in the Morning,” “Joshua,” and “Kickin’ It.” He was also the subject of a documentary entitled “Born for Hard Luck,” which was released by filmmaker Tom Davenport in 1976 and has aired on PBS. An excerpt from the documentary appears in the French film “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain.”
Jackson lost his right leg in 1930, and according to some, he told several different stories regarding how he lost his leg. The most popular one is that he lost it in an unsuccessful attempt to hop a freight train in North Carolina.
Those who knew Peg Leg Sam say he often referred to himself as an old showman and an “awful comedian,” referring to a large portion of his repertoire which included humorous stories and monologues such as his famous “Born for Hard Luck” routine. His primary talent, however, was his harmonica playing.
Peg Leg Sam often played the harmonica with both his mouth and nose, often turning the harp and putting the side of it in his mouth, and he sometimes played two harmonicas at once. All while keeping perfect rhythm.
Modest Keenan, owner of Keenan’s Barber Shop, said he can remember Jackson playing behind his and his father’s shop when it was located on Hunter’s Alley — an area that, at the time, contained several businesses owned by members of the black community.
“You could tell when he was back there playing because a crowd would be gathered,” Keenan said, explaining that Jackson would pass around a hat Keenan described as “well worn” when he finished playing.
“Sometimes he would even come inside the barber shop and play, depending on how much money he made.”
Keened said Jackson was a true entertainer.
“He could hold people’s attention,” Keenan said. “When he started playing, everybody would listen. I can remember him singing about those collard greens, ‘soft and easy, good and greasy.’”
Buffalo resident Freddie Vanderford — who was recognized in 2010 before the South Carolina House of Representatives with a Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award for his work in preserving the Piedmont blues — honed his craft by learning from Peg Leg Sam.
As a teenager, Vanderford first heard Peg Leg Sam on WBCU, and when he realized the blues legend — who had played alongside other Piedmont blues legends such as Pink Anderson and Baby Tate — lived somewhere between Jonesville and West Springs, he set out to find him.
“At the time, I thought he was a scary guy,” Vanderford said, describing his view of the musician who had one leg, a scar running from his mouth to the top of his ear, and a long, white goatee.
Vanderford said he told Jackson that he could play the harmonica and that he really admired the way Jackson played. Vanderford asked Jackson to play for him, but it took several visits to get the blues man to play. Vanderford said he chauffeured Jackson where he needed to go and helped him with chores, but it was all worth it when it came time to start learning the music.
“He was about rhythm,” Vanderford said. “What I really liked about him was he could play without anybody else. He didn’t have to have a guitar player, and I picked that up. I didn’t have that before I met Peg; I didn’t even know I needed it. I wanted to play like those Chicago guys – not that they didn’t have the rhythm going – but this was different.”
Vanderford smiled as he talked about the confidence Jackson had in himself.
“He would be playing and playing, then he would stop and look at me and say, ‘Boy, I’m the baddest you ever met,’ and he was right,” Vanderford said. “He would say it in rhythm with the lick, then keep going and never mess up the rhythm.”
Vanderford said he regrets never taking a picture with Peg Leg Sam or recording any of his experiences with him.
“At the time, I didn’t know what a major part of my life this experience was going to be,” Vanderford said. “He was just another old guy that played music, and I was just a teenager. At that age, you don’t think about things like that. You think people are going to live forever.”
Staff Writer Derik Vanderford can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 29, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.