Newton native and a member of the both the Iowa Blues and Jazz Halls of Fame, Joanne Jackson is getting ready to say goodbye to her hometown, possibly for the last time.
As she prepares to move to California to live with her son and daughter-in-law, Jackson reflected on a multitude of items. She spoke about her entertainment career, growing up in Newton at a time of racial segregation and what her future plans are.
“I went to Drake on a Maytag Scholarship,” Jackson said. “At Drake I took classical music, but I wanted to be like a jazz singer or a pop singer at the time. So, I went to California and I lived there for a long, long time. About 25 years. That’s how I got to go to all the places I went to and get into show business.”
As a performer, Jackson has traveled all over the world. She’s recorded an album in Sydney, Australia, spent weeks at a time in Italy, France, Germany, and Switzerland during a production of “Porgy and Bess” and has still performed here in Newton from time to time.
Jackson said that in California she got her start by answering a newspaper ad by a songwriter looking for a singer. In addition to her overwhelming vocal talents, Jackson credits her education here in Newton for landing her that first gig.
“I learned to read music right here in Newton, Iowa,” Jackson said. “That’s what you needed to do for songwriters. I could read music and they paid by the hour. I read it like a book. If I couldn’t read music, I wouldn’t have got parts.”
Growing up in Newton
When asked about her legacy, Jackson said that it was based on the lessons her father, the late Harvey Jackson Sr., instilled in her as a child.
“I did everything the way my father taught me about work ethic,” Jackson said. “What I’ve tried to do while I’ve been here, is to show everybody that I still had that work ethic. I never miss work. My father worked 25 years at Maytag and he never missed a day. In 25 years and that’s really something. All of my brothers and sisters have the same ethic. We try to carry ourselves with dignity and class.”
Jackson said that her father was the first Black employee ever at Maytag, and that connection helped bond her family with the Maytag family.
“I was having lunch with Fritz Maytag several years ago,” Jackson said. “And he goes, ‘You know, we are like the first families here?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, he is right.’ He said, “The Maytag’s and the Jacksons.’” Mr. Maytag, Fritz’s father, gave my father a job at Maytag back in the ‘50s.”
Jackson said that before her father was hired, the elder Maytag warned him about what the situation he was putting himself in.
“He told my father, ‘You’re going to have a hard time, people here are prejudiced and you’re going to be the first Black man to work at Maytag,’” Jackson said. “Well my father had a horrible time. They used to do all kinds of terrible things to him, you know?’
“Mr. Maytag told him, ‘If you hang in there and do not become violent, and you’re going to want to, you will have a job for life,’” Jackson said. “And that’s what happened.”
Jackson said breaking the Maytag color barrier for her father was no easy task. She said other workers tried to run him off by doing all kinds of things. Some things she listed were having his work station tampered with, placing snakes in his locker, pelting him with snowballs, throwing mud at him, defecating in his food, and when it was icy outside shoving him on ground.
“Still he never missed a day,” Jackson said. “I remember him coming home and sitting with his head in his hands and shaking his head with tears in his eyes. He was frustrated because he couldn’t do anything.”
Jackson said things eventually got better and working at Maytag became a family affair. Her brother, Harvey Jr., is a Maytag retiree and several others relatives worked for the company.
“I think that is why Mr. Maytag did what he did,” Jackson said. “He was a wonderful man and innovative, way ahead of his time. He told my father, ‘The world is changing and we are going to have to change with it and there’s no stopping it.’”
While she loves her hometown, Jackson said that it was sometimes a challenge growing up as a person of color in Newton. She said she would have to search outside the community for dates to dances, couldn’t get hair done in town, and as a child couldn’t swim in Maytag Pool.
However, she said that changed after Fritz’s parents found out about that. She said Mr. Maytag made a few calls and demanded that “You let those Jackson kids swim in that pool.”
This coming Wednesday Jackson is heading back to California, where she got her start in show business. Jackson said that recent health problems and a conversation with her son help spur the decision.
“He and his wife invited me to live with them. They don’t have any children, so I’m going be like their kid,” Jackson said jokingly.
Jackson can’t say one way or another if she will go for another run in the entertainment industry, but she is still planning on giving singing lessons to any interested students via Skype. Her screen name is JoanneJackson73 and she charges $20 an hour.
Jackson is heavily credited as a key figure in the central and eastern Iowa Blues scene and has more than left her mark on the area. While she is still packing her apartment for her impending departure, she shared a few more thoughts on Newton.
“It was really cool growing up here in its way. Back then, we didn’t have to worry about drugs or anything like that. The most you got busted for was a beer party,” she said jokingly.
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Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641)-792-3121, ext. 426, or at firstname.lastname@example.org via email.