Emmy Award winning singer-songwriter Jack Norton specializes in performing hokum blues and vaudeville folk music from the 1920s and 1930s. Hailed by one reviewer as “so authentic to the era you can practically hear the scratches of an old 78 phonograph record in Jack’s voice,” Norton delights audiences with his fresh and original interpretations of songs by artists like Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson.
Norton claims to be the estranged grandson of minstrel yodeler Emmett Miller (who recorded “Lovesick Blues” almost three decades before Hank Williams). There’s a problem with Jack’s family tree, however. In other interviews the artist has claimed to be the descendant of Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes, Howlin’ Wolf and P.T. Barnum as well. Perhaps the spirit of Barnum’s humbug sense of showmanship is most akin to Jack’s playful bending of the truth.
Over the years, New Orleans, Shreveport and Macon, Georgia have all been reported as Norton’s birthplace. He says he was born on October 29, 1929 marking himself as a Great Depression baby. This claim would also mean that Jack Norton looks incredibly youthful for a man pushing ninety years old today, so it’s best to take this birthdate with a grain of salt.
Truthfully, not much is known about Jack’s personal life and the enigmatic artist seems to like it that way. Newspaper clippings and reports place Jack performing in the streets of Toronto and Detroit in the early 1990s, and by the close of that decade Norton was linked to friendships with authors Hubert Selby Jr., Nasdijj and Nick Tosches (who hailed Norton as “my hope for the future of America!” in his seminal book “Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock’n’Roll”). Early in his career, Norton frequently appeared on BBC’s Radio 1 at the invite of legendary DJ John Peel – who was a huge fan of young Jack’s early recordings.
There appears to be some truth to Jack’s claims that Leon Redbone and Dave Van Ronk were his guitar teachers, as Norton toured with the later extensively during the folk legend’s final years.
Perhaps most surprising, is that Norton’s accounts of growing up with ukulele oddball Tiny Tim as his babysitter actually have been confirmed to be true! An article in People Magazine from 1994 verified their relationship and a photo shows a young Jack serving as one of the groomsmen in Mr. Tip Toe Through The Tulips’ wedding.
Regardless of the level of hokum which has shrouded Jack’s personal life in mystery, what can’t be denied is Norton’s incredibly prolific body of work over the years. He has recorded dozens of albums: working with everyone from jazz luminaries like Vince Giordano to writing songs for The Florida Project – an Oscar nominated film starring Willem Dafoe.
After time spent in Los Angeles and New York City, Norton relocated to Nashville – first staying with the widow of Townes van Zandt, while trying to get a place of his own. It was in Tennessee that Jack’s career took an unexpected turn: he and wife Kitty created a children’s TV show for the PBS affiliate in Nashville. The self funded and self produced show was unlike anything broadcast on PBS Kids. Inspired by the unlikely pairing of TV’s Soul Train and Hee Haw, Jack and Kitty’s uniquely DIY series became a runaway hit: eventually airing on over 150 PBS member stations across America. Broadcast partnerships with AFN Family Network, Trinity Broadcast Network and KidzBop’s OnDemand channel brought the series to 174 countries worldwide. Eventually, Jack and Kitty’s work would see six regional Emmy Award nominations.
Film seemed like a natural progression for the self-taught production duo, and a series of progressive, avant-garde shorts followed. In 2015, the Norton’s had a hit in art house cinemas and film festivals with the quirky and bizarre documentary feature Jug Band Hokum which includes appearances by Garrison Keillor, rap legends Bone Thugs N Harmony, bluesman Charlie Parr and Grammy Award winner Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Through his hectic production schedule with films and television, Norton continues to pursue his first love: music and performance.
In addition to his work as a solo artist, Norton records as one half of the (creatively named) folk duo “Jack and Kitty”. His wife has always been his frequent co-collaborator. A special fan site called The Only Constant Is Chaos was created to carefully curate, present and archive the many projects of the artistic high school sweethearts. Brizo Media Group, the duo’s production company and record label, recently launched “The Archives Series” – new albums by Jack Norton made from old out-of-print releases, bootlegs, demo sessions, live recordings and previously unreleased tracks.
In 2019, Jack is touring as a solo artist to promote his new album Busker’s Blues, which is a return, of sorts, to Norton’s early days of singing the blues on the street corners of Toronto and Detroit. It’s just a voice and a guitar – belonging to an eccentric young man ready to take on the world with his unique blend of ragtime folk, Delta blues and beatnik jive…all served with a vaudevillian’s wit and the wink of a carnival huckster’s eye.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
You asked…Jack answered. If you have a question, drop us a line.
Do you always appear as a solo artist? Do you have a band?
I have always been a solo artist at heart. I have been a bandleader and find it stressful and not nearly as fun as flying solo. I love the ability to improvise and do whatever I want on stage, so a solo act just works best for me. I’ve been told my live sound is pretty full…I think that’s because I spent years as a busker, or street musician. Performing on street corners makes you learn to stomp your feet, holler your lyrics and play your guitar like a madman. Nowadays, I bring my parlor guitar, a ukulele and a stomp box. Oh, and I never leave home without my mouth trumpet.
What kind of guitar do you play?
I have tons of old vintage guitars from the 1920s and 1930s, but my favorite to record with and play on stage is one I bought at a tiny music store in Saint Paul, Minnesota for forty bucks! From what I can tell the neck is from the very rare Silvertone Model 319.12029 Stella Style acoustic guitar. Those guitars were only made in the early 1960s, and I have found matching guitars online that all date from 1962. The sides of the body of the guitar are from a Sears parlor guitar from around 1917 and the top and bottom of the body were hand built by an unknown luthier recently. So basically my guitar is a Frankenstein monster – made up of random parts of old (and new) guitars. It’s funky, strange and there’s only one of them in the world! And did I mention it was only $40?!