Blues Tells the Truth: Why Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen Loves the Blues

2012
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Jorma Kaukonen at Wanee Festival 2014 (Photo by Rick Scuteri)
Jorma Kaukonen at Wanee Festival 2014 (Photo by Rick Scuteri)

One of the originators of psychedelic rock and roll in the 1960s, Jorma Kaukonen’s musical career has come full circle. Now 73 years young, he grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and learned to play guitar in the fingerpicking style of the folk and blues artists he admired. He has described his younger self as a “snotty east coast elitist” who would not be caught dead playing rock and roll. That all changed when he moved to northern California to attend college and got recruited to play guitar for Jefferson Airplane. Although he and bassist Jack Casady created the band Hot Tuna as a side project in which to play and share their beloved blues music, Jorma acknowledges that he is known first and foremost as a rock musician as evidenced by Rolling Stone naming him as the 54th best rock and roll guitarist of all time. In addition to continuing to tour the world with Hot Tuna, he conducts intensive workshops at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio and has recently opened the Psylodelic Museum which exhibits artifacts from that colorful period. Jorma took time to share his influences and memories with American Blues Scene.

Stacy Jeffress for American Blues Scene: Does the irony floor you some times that you were going to do blues and folk but ended up an icon in rock and roll?

JK: That’s an interesting thing. I started out playing bluegrass old-timey stuff, and we were blues fans but none of us knew what was going on. I didn’t really learn to play until I was 20-some years old and got exposed to fingerstyle guitar. I started to immerse myself in the blues. I’m not strictly speaking a pure blues guitar player, but there’s no question that blues and gospel are my most important muses. I got my visibility thanks to Jefferson Airplane, God bless ‘em. It’s really thanks to rock and roll, God bless rock and roll that people know about me. I won’t rank myself as a guitar player, but I do what I do pretty well. I guess we can put all this music we love under the Americana blanket. The nice thing about blues and gospel is, in my opinion, it’s really timeless. You can get your start whether you’re young or old, and if you’re good, you’re good.

I got the feeling that back in the early ‘60s you saw blues as distinct from rock and roll.

I started out with the blues muse before rock and roll. Of course the rock and roll of my era was very different from the other rock and roll at the time. Even before I could play blues, I loved it in the mid-50s, because the lyrics seemed more relevant to life as I would like to be able to perceive it rather than the sappy stuff in the pop songs of the time. I was in high school when all that stuff came out – “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Roll Over Beethoven” – those lyrics became so relevant to us in that space. But the blues was talking about “adult” things. Today, there are no boundaries for this stuff – I have a teenaged son and an 8-year-old daughter – and they listen to a lot of stuff that would have been considered adult back then. The palette has expanded unbelievably, but back in those days, the blues talked about real life rather than some sappy paradigm that somebody made up about a romantic story.

Rev. Gary Davis, his lyrics were so intense. Talking about death wasn’t going to cut you any breaks.

The inexorable progress of faith, right?

Today there are blues purists who won’t accept a certain artist, because they aren’t “pure enough”. I wondered back in the early ‘60s what the blues purists at that time considered the real deal.

That’s a really good question. I didn’t know any of these men and women back then, but I suspect there wasn’t an issue of purity; that was just the music they did. I think the arguments about purity this and purity that tend to be had by white middle class intellectuals. Back in my day when I was coming up, one of the huge compliments as a player was, “You sound black.” Nobody says that anymore, because that’s no longer an issue, and I think that shows incredible progress. You hear a lot of people talk about the purity of Robert Johnson. The only thing we as modern listeners know about Robert Johnson is the songs on the 2 albums that we all have. From what I’ve read and from what I’ve been told – I did get to talk to Robert Lockwood, Jr., whose mother dated Robert Johnson – if Robert Johnson got a gig, he’d play whatever the gig required. If it required playing a pop tune, he’d play a pop tune. Does that make him not a purist? No, it just makes him an artist who was making a living. I think the purity pressure in many respects is put on by those coming after the fact who deify the art form.

As I grew up, Janis Joplin was considered a rock and roll singer, but it seems the blues has gone back to reclaim her. You’ve described her impression on you as “a really breathtaking lady blues singer.” At the time she came up she was considered blues?

I know Janis’s sister Laura pretty well. Laura told me that Janis was always reinventing herself. The Janis that I knew which was ‘62 up until just before she became a rock and roll singer, that Janis was like Bessie Smith; was like a blues singer. That’s my favorite Janis, because that’s part of my story. I loved her as a blues singer. But as Laura says, she was a folk singer before that, then she was a blues singer, then she was a rock singer, but no one knows where she would have gone. She was a very talented lady. My memory of Janis as a musical persona is as one of the greatest blues singers I’ve ever heard.

I read somewhere that you and she had recorded some tracks together that went out on a bootleg record?

I had a tape recorder, and we used to play together periodically. Whenever we’d rehearse, I’d let the tape recorder run. These things do still exist from the typewriter tapes when my ex-wife, may she rest in peace, was typing. They were just rehearsal tapes. When I am able to listen to those, or to play for them for other people, I’d say this is the blues singer I was talking about, because that’s who she was to me.

Do you still have copies of those recordings?

Somewhere. They should be at the top of my pile. Most of them are out there, but there are a couple more of the typewriter tapes which have not been made available which I do have somewhere. If I ever get around to cleaning my studio, I’ll probably find them.

Wouldn’t that be a treasure?

Yes it would be. I’ll be so excited when I do. I know I haven’t thrown them out.

Margareta was on the typewriter in the background. Was that as percussion or just because she was typing?

She was writing a note to her mom.

You didn’t know the history you were making at the time.

Absolutely not.

I understand that you learned the fingerpicking style that wasn’t done in rock and roll. Was it the fingerpicking that made you distinct in the rock world?

Some of the California rock guys played with their fingers. I got pressed into service playing with the Airplane. I was just a fingerstyle guitar player, and I really wasn’t much interested in rock and roll. Rock and roll is fun; it’s very seductive. One of the things that happened was that rather than learning to sound like one of the “professional” rock bands of the time, the Airplane was an idiosyncratic bunch of people. We rehearsed endlessly. We’d play 7 or 8 hours a day, that’s all we did. I had no idea what a lead guitar player was supposed to do. I wasn’t a Chicago-style blues guitar player like Mike Bloomfield or Elvin Bishop. I was basically a folkie blues guitar player. The Airplane guys and gals allowed me, in the relentless practicing we did, to experiment with stuff until things came up. As I tell my students when I’m teaching, most of the stuff we do is defined by our limitations rather than the incredible genius we think we possess. The fact that I couldn’t play like Mike Bloomfield allowed me to come up with something that was my own.

I read that you were really turned on as a kid by Chicago blues music. Can you tell me a little about what you heard, who it was, and why it touched you so much?

I think a lot of it had to do with the subject material we discussed earlier. It was real life stuff. Relationship problems, sex, which people take for granted today but was like a mysterious subject back in the ‘50s. One of the things also was the texture of the sonic landscape. If you listen to some of the things that I started out listening to, early Muddy Waters, early Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, even Bo Diddley. The sonic landscape these guys did with their instruments whether it was harmonica or lead guitar or the way they sang was so different from anything else you could to listen to; it was like a breath of fresh air.

Did you know J.B. Lenoir at all?

I did not. I discovered him in the ‘60s. Somebody gave me a German album of his. I never got to meet him. I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve listened to lots of his stuff. One of things I loved about J.B. Lenoir is that he is an atypical Chicago blues guy. I should have listed him, too. His music is not like any of the other people I mentioned, and that’s cool. Just goes to show how much diversity is in that art form.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Jimi Hendrix, another figure that the blues has now reached back and claimed as their own. Do you have any comments about your meeting or playing with Jimi back in the day?

We met Jimi at Monterey, and of course no one at that time had heard someone that expressive on the guitar. We take a lot of that for granted now. At the time it was something that nobody had heard before. He was just an interesting guy. A couple of years ago I was in Nashville, and I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame. They had an exhibit there, Nighttrain to Nashville, and it was black rhythm and blues in Nashville which we don’t think about. One of the video clips was Jimi playing with a black rhythm and blues band, all of them wearing the kind of suits that the guys wore back then before he became the Jimi we know. He was playing a Rickenbacker 360, not the kind of a guitar we tend to associate with blues. He sounded just like Jimi. I love showing my students clips of things I find interesting. I say, look at this, here’s Jimi Hendrix playing with a rhythm and blues band back in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. He’s not playing a Gibson; he’s not playing a Fender. He’s playing a Rickenbacker 360, and he sounds likes Jimi. It’s the man, not the machine.

I wondered if something that made you open to blues and folk music was that your dad had quite the record collection, Django Reinhart. Did that expose you to some other kinds of music that you normally might not have heard?

Sure. I loved the Django stuff, but I never wanted to learn as it as I wanted to sing songs. One of the things that my parents exposed me that I think really did influence me was gospel music. I’m from the Washington, D.C., area, which in spite of the fact it is our nation’s capital, it’s really a southern town. When I was growing up my parents and grandparents took me to see Mahalia Jackson. I really loved music. I think as I grew into being able to play, my exposure to that an earlier age had an influence on my musical taste.

What current artists, blues artists particularly, do you listen to?

Interestingly enough after all these years, I’m still a huge Buddy Guy fan. One of the first Buddy tracks I heard I think was on a Vanguard record with Johnny Shines on one side and Buddy on the other. There are so many great guitar players – I’m a huge T-Bone Walker fan; I still listen to him a lot. But Buddy back in the day was so different from B.B. or any of the Kings. He had these totally out ways of approaching these blues fills. I still think he’s one of the most innovative of the older electric blues guitar players. I’m not completely tuned into a lot of the blues artists. I’m a huge country music fan – not the slop that passes for country pop today but the more traditional country music which I consider to be very closely related to a lot of the blues we’re talking about.

Sure! What was Johnny Cash if not a blues singer?

Absolutely right. If he hadn’t come up out of Nashville, he probably would have been a bluesman. I’m very fond of singer/songwriters; I like lady songwriters a lot. This week I’ve been listening to a lot of Suzy Bogguss stuff – I really like her writing; I love her playing. There’s a Nashville writer name Gretchen Peters who also performs solo – I listen to her a lot. These are not blues artists. But the thing is not to categorize so much whatever one considers blues to be but songs that tell the truth about stuff. Blues tells the truth.

Let me shift into more current events. To what do you credit your longevity, both physically and musically?

Physically – I’m no angel, but I credit that God had other plans for me than to have me die young as some of my pals did, and I’ve got great genetics in my family. I’m so blessed by that. I’m 73 years old, but I’m really in good health. I can’t take credit for that for over most of my life. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. As far as my art is concerned, me and my pals are so fortunate that after all these years of doing what we do that there are still people who want to hear what we do. The longevity is so rare really. What makes that happen? I look at myself as a storyteller. After all these years of playing guitar I don’t primarily see myself as a “guitar player.” My guitar is a vehicle to tell stories. People are still interested in the stories that I tell. Some of my stories are from blues songs I learned 50 years ago, but they’re still great stories. It’s all about the song. A good song carries you along with it.

Tell me about the Psylodelic Museum you’ve got going.

My wife Vanessa is a genius. I’m always joking with her that she’s not happy unless we owe the bank money. She’s younger than I am, and she’s very fond of that mid-60s, mid-70s era – the psychedelic era. We bought a silo, we put the silo up, and we have 2 stories on it. We have different exhibits – we’ve had an exhibit of my ex-wife Margareta’s artwork; we had a bunch of artifacts from Woodstock; right now we have a Grace Slick exhibit. We have a light show, we have music, all kinds of artifacts. So it’s a real roadside thing. Now you’re in Kansas.

Yup.

I drive through Kansas a lot. Kansas is a long-ass state. One of the things that I go to in Kansas on I-70 is Oakley, Kansas, home of the world’s largest prairie dog. They also have Roscoe the miniature donkey, the five-legged cow, the six-legged steer, the rattlesnake farm. I love stuff like this. I’m a big roadside America fan. I’m not criticizing any other roadside America, but our Psylodelic Museum is a lot more interesting than the world’s largest ball of twine.

I bet it is – I would love to see that. And you have an artifact from Janis, is that right?

Oh yeah, I have the typewriter from the typewriter tapes. I had a gal friend back in ‘62, ‘63 who was a professional photographer. We’ve got pictures of me and Janis, Janis as a young girl that no one’s ever seen before.

In addition to touring the U.S. and Japan, you’re still running all these workshops at Fur Peace Ranch. I don’t know how you do all this and have an 8-year-old daughter. Tell me about your workshops.

We just had the opening of our 17th year last weekend. I’m not the only teacher – I’m there most of the time but not all the time. The 4-day workshops are from Friday morning until Monday morning. We may have Bob Margolin or a singer/songwriter like Guy Clark. Everyone lives on the facility; we have 22 double-occupancy cabins. We’re a destination; we’re not a way point. We’re right off U.S. 33 in Pomeroy, Ohio. To be able to pass my insights, such as they are, into the music, to be able to give that gift back is just incredible.

I saw a picture of y’all at the ranch. You had Bob Stroger, Kenny Smith, and George “Mojo” Buford. How exciting is that to have these stellar blues folks there?

It’s unbelievable. To be able to get guys like this come play our stage and be part of our radio show – it’s the real deal. Words don’t express how blessed I feel when these guys come and play. I’m thinking, life is good.

Jorma Kaukonen Official Website