Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Interview with Jorma Kaukonen
During a visit to Chicago to perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, the venerable folk-blues-roots guitarist discussed many topics, including his new CD, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, The Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Fur Peace Ranch, Widespead Panic and much more.
By Greg Easterling
Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen has been involved with music for most of his life and also for much of the rest of our lives too. As related so well in the liner notes of his 2015 Red House Records release, Ain’t in No Hurry, Kaukonen played his first songs on the back porch of his childhood home in Washington, D.C.
Early influences were classic: The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers and folk murder ballads. Later as an Antioch College student in Ohio, he was introduced to the music of legendary bluesman, the Rev. Gary Davis who has been a lifelong inspiration to Kaukonen. Moving between Ohio, New York City and D.C. in the early 1960s, Kaukonen experienced the Greenwich Village folk scene and the world of bluegrass music through festival appearances by Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and others.
Eventually, Kaukonen headed out to California to attend the University of Santa Clara, close enough to San Francisco to run into future rock icons Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Paul Kantner, the latter with whom he would form Jefferson Airplane in 1965.
From Jefferson Airplane Takes Off to Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, Kaukonen was the band’s lead guitarist, displaying his talents on rock classics such “Somebody To Love”, “White Rabbit”, “Volunteers” and “Crown of Creation”. Along the way, Kaukonen contributed his folk-blues stylings on prime cuts like “Embryonic Journey”, “Good Shepherd”, “Ice Cream Phoenix”, and “Third Week in Chelsea”. In 1969, while still with the Airplane, Kaukonen and his longtime friend and JA bass player Jack Casady created the blues oriented band Hot Tuna, a group that continues to the present day.
A solo career was inevitable as well and Kaukonen has been recording his own projects since 1974, starting with Quah, an appealing blend of originals such as “Genesis” and blues standards written by the Rev. Davis and others.
The road eventually led Kaukonen back to Ohio where he founded the Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar and music camp where Kaukonen and guest instructors are able to pass along their passion and musical knowledge to many others. Kaukonen was in town this past December to play Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music and we had a chance to talk about a wide range of topics, from his latest Red House Records release to his long time interest in the music of the Rev. Gary Davis.
Greg: In the liner notes to your latest album, you wrote that your choice of songs is an
effort to tell your story, sometimes anticipating things that you want to happen but also
things you fear might happen. Besides being classic songs, what are we to make of
Your inclusion of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “Nobody Knows You When
You’re Down and Out” in the new album? Anything personal there?
Jorma: No (laughs). They are both timeless songs of course. “Nobody Knows” is a
song I learned in New York, probably in 1960 and when I moved to California in ’62, I
backed Janis Joplin doing that song, I had never really played it much myself. I think it’s
on a live Hot Tuna record, maybe Live at Sweetwater but we had never done a studio
version of it. It’s just such a great song, it needed to be done.
Greg: Just looking around today at the current state of affairs in the U.S. and elsewhere with the homeless, it’s very timely.
Jorma: We were talking about Chicago traffic earlier. At almost every intersection where there is a place for a pedestrian, there’s some poor soul with a sign.
Greg: The Rev. Gary Davis has been an important influence on you and you usually record one or two of his songs on your albums.
Jorma: In general I do, but I didn’t this time. It’s not a conscious thing. People always talk about how you pick songs for albums.
For me, nature abhors a vacuum and when the vacuum no longer exists, the album is done. A lot of people might record more songs than they need but I’m not that person. So once I have what I need, I’m done.
Greg: Getting back to the Rev. Davis, what has attracted you to his music over the years?
Jorma: Well, there are a lot of things. There’s something so infectious about his style of
music. I’m obviously not the only one that’s attracted to his music, a lot of guys from my
my generation are attracted to him, not just me.
Greg: But you have been a real proponent of his for a long time.
Jorma: I certainly have and there’s a lot of stuff. The guitar playing. As a neophyte
finger style guitar player when I discovered him, he was sort of the Holy Grail in many
respects and he still is. I’m not a Rev. Gary specialist but I have listened to so much of
his music over the years. But on top of that, there’s the lyrics even though all of his
songs are not upbeat, like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” but he is such a lover of life.
That’s the message I always got from his playing. Whether he was singing about death
or ‘oh glory how happy I am’. He’s such an upbeat person and if you think about the life
he must have lived. Now keep in mind, I met the Reverend and he was friends with
friend of mine though I was not a physical student of his. But from
what I’ve read, this man had a hard life but he was never a downtrodden guy.
Greg: You sing Rev. Davis’ songs in such a non self-conscious sort of way. A lot of his
song lyrics are very biblical and kind of evangelical. Some might feel uncomfortable
singing them if they are not religious but you always have. Is there a spiritual match
between you and the songs or is it more of a homage to a bluesman you respect?
Jorma: That’s a good question, I never thought of it before. I think there is a special
match and that’s interesting because I’m Jewish. I’m not a strictly practicing Jew but (that is)
the cultural milieu I come out of. There are a lot of us middle class Jewish guys
attracted to his music. And for me, the way I was brought up, my dad was in the service.
I grew up overseas a lot and I went to Catholic or Anglican schools. I’m very
comfortable with the metaphor whether it is Christian or Jewish. I was never self
conscious about singing church or evangelical songs. I’m certainly not a Bible
thumping individual of any sort but the metaphorical message always seemed
comfortable and natural to me if that makes any sense.
Greg: That’s interesting, I didn’t know you were Jewish because of your Finnish name.
Jorma: My mother was Jewish so….Are you a Jew?
Greg: No, I’m a WASP (e.g. white Anglo Saxon protestant) (laughter)
Jorma: I don’t like dogma of any sort in any religion, but the message put
simply is do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Which I think we all agree on.
With the text of the Reverend’s songs, I was always comfortable with it. One of the first
songs I learned was “Worried Man Blues”, “it takes a worried man to sing a worried
song.” Shackles on my feet and all this. I would sing this song and finally my dad wasn’t
able to stand it anymore and said, “What do you know about being worried and wearing
shackles?” What I wanted to say since I was a teenager was I know a lot about it! But
wisely I said nothing.
Greg: Did you meet Rev. Gary in person in New York City?
Jorma: I met him in New York, between 1960 and ’61.
Greg: What other bluesmen did you meet? Mississippi Fred McDowell?
Jorma: I never met Mississippi Fred. I was fortunate later on in life to meet Brownie
McGhee in California. I was a huge fan. I remember when I was in New York to play
Gerde’s Folk City to play the hoots. Guys my age were complete non-entities back
then. I met John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s. He came out of the dressing room and I use
that term loosely, talking about that club! John Lee was dressed up, the way he always
was with two striking blondes and I thought, I would love this gig! (laughs). I met him
again later and he was a cool guy. From a guitar player point of view, a guy like John
Lee, his style is so elemental in some respects and yet so complex in others. And that
groove, “Boogie Chillen’”, where would we be without that? I remember at the time I
was more interested in the more articulate stuff, things like the Rev. Davis was doing.
But I got it, that and the sound of John Lee’s voice. Lightning Hopkins, same thing. If
you’re not really into what Lightning’s doing, it’s oh yeah, he doesn’t play that
sophisticated stuff. Mississippi John Hurt, again same thing, superficially very simple
until you try to actually figure out one of those songs.
Greg: Moving forward to the present day and your latest album, you’ve been recording
pretty steadily in recent years. A lot of guys from your generation don’t these days. But
you keep putting albums out. How do you feel about the newest recording, Ain’t In No
Jorma: I’m really lucky because I’ve never done a record that I’m really ashamed of. I’m
fortunate. I’m really pleased with the way that it came out. I like the people that I’m
working with, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Myron Hart, who’s my guitar tech
plays bass on it. We’re neighbors and buddies. To be able to make music with our
friends, it just doesn’t get any better than that really. And I got to thinking about my
career in general. I’ve always played with people that I like. And whenever the
chemistry dissipated then we just didn’t play together anymore. I recorded this record
at my little theater at the Fur Peace Ranch so I was at home. It’s the least self-
conscious I have been in the recording process. Recording is so interesting because
you are under a magnifying glass. And I don’t care how long you’ve been in the
business, it’s like, wow, I wish I could have done that better. I don’t feel that way about
this one. I felt completely relaxed and everything flowed naturally. It was a very easy
project to record.
Greg: Was this the first album that you recorded at your Fur Peach Ranch?
Jorma: It is, we did it right on the stage of Fur Peace.
Greg: Are you still pretty active these days with the guitar camps there?
Jorma: We are open from March through November. When the economy went into the
shitter back in 2008, we had problems like everyone else did. We are a luxury business,
people don’t need to go to the Fur Peach Ranch. But I could no longer afford to be as
adventuresome with some of the instructors as I was before. For awhile there, it didn’t
matter whether I got cool guys and had only one or two students. After 2008, I could no
longer be ok with that. We had to go with people who filled the classes. But the Fur
Peace is still going strong, we made it through the tight times but we’re doing ok. So
far so good!
Greg: A musician I bet you know, Roger McGuinn got his start here at Old Town School
of Folk Music at the original location.
Jorma: That’s right it was a house. When I was in Antioch, Ohio back in 1959, the Old
Town School was the holy grail of that stuff. I didn’t have the money to come to Chicago
from Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Greg: Yellow Springs? Wasn’t Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) from there?
Jorma: Yes, his mom owned a gift shop next to the barber shop.
Greg: There must be something in the water around there!
Jorma: Yes, I guess. It’s an odd little place, let me tell you. About a decade ago, I got
a lifetime achievement award from Antioch College. It’s between Springfield and
Xenia, Ohio, little bit east of Dayton.
Greg: You put out a Hot Tuna album on Red House Records a few years ago. Is Hot
Tuna still an active project for you?
Jorma: Oh absolutely, Jack Casady and I did over seventy dates last year, I think.
We were just at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam down in Asheville. What a great show
that was. We also had two shows at the Beacon in New York City. We are still
active. 2011 was when the latest Hot Tuna album Steady As She Goes came out.
Next thing, we’re going back to basics and do an acoustic duo album.
Greg: You have been playing with Jack Casady since the early 1960’s?
Jorma: It was 1958. We were in high school together in Washington, D.C.
Greg: What is it about Jack Casady that’s kept you together all these years?
Jorma: That’s a good question, we are really different people. If he was here, I wouldn’t
need to talk since he’d be talking! We are just old buddies. We respect each other as
people and artists. We don’t argue about everything. We never had a band meeting,
that had a lot to do with it (laughs). Band meetings have broke up many a band. We’re
Greg: Linda Cain, the editor of Chicago Blues Guide.com, mentioned that you sat in
with Widespread Panic some time ago. Are there any more contemporary bands that
you are partial to?
Jorma: Widespread Panic had done “Bow Legged Woman” and “Genesis’. They
actually approached me to sit in with them at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco.
I’ve been real close friends with their bass player Dave Schools as a result. I hadn’t
done any electric work for quite awhile and I was at one of Warren Haynes’ Christmas
Jams. The Panic guys were there and they had me do “Bow Legged Woman” with
them. That was sort of the thing that got me interested in playing electric music again.
Just a great bunch of guys. But I’m not really tuned into modern music. I’m fortunate to
hang out with Warren and people doing all kinds of music. I tend to like music from the
the 1920s and ‘30s more than anything else. Music is alive and well. There’s so many
great players out there, it’s going to be fine. But popular mainstream music is no more
or less insipid than it ever was!
Greg: Now, I would like to mention a few titles from your catalog and get your reaction.
How about “Embryonic Journey” from Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album? Leo Kottke has recorded it too.
Jorma: That was the first song I ever “wrote”. I was doing a guitar workshop at the
University of Santa Clara. I had just graduated from college and somehow I got
involved. I had recently heard Drop D tuning from this guy Roger Perkins, he’s also the
guy I heard “Good Shepherd” from. Somebody loaned me a twelve string guitar and I
spent about twenty hours getting it in tune, just kidding! I was just messing around and
a friend of mine had a tape recorder. He said you gotta listen to it, I think it’s a song and
what he taped became “Embryonic Journey”. Fortunately he recorded it or it would
have been gone as if it never happened. The reason I got it on the album was like this:
They were doing vocal overdubs and I was in the reception area at the RCA Studios on
Sunset in L.A. I was playing “Embyonic Journey” and Rick Jarrad, the producer of
Surrealistic Pillow heard me and said you’ve got to put that on the album. And I thought
nah, you don’t want this old thing but his wisdom prevailed and we recorded it.
Greg: It was quite different from the other tracks on the album but obviously a very
special moment. You mentioned “Good Shepherd” earlier, one of the great tracks
on Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers album.
Jorma: “Good Shepherd” was written by a guy named Jimmy Strothers. I heard it from
Roger Perkins. When Roger sang the song what I heard was “Stay out of the way of the
blood stained bandits” but the song was originally entitled “Blood Strained Banders” and
was about the Ku Klux Klan. Interesting stuff about Jimmy Strothers, he’s a blind
guy who went to prison for shooting his wife who was an abusive spouse. He got a
pardon from the governor of the state of Virginia. He was blind for god’s sake and she
tried to kill him with an axe! He recorded a few songs and “Good Shepherd” is in the
Smithsonian collection and you can get it on i-Tunes. Now, the way I do it is much like a
folk strum ‘cause that’s how I heard it. With those minor chords, it’s very interesting for
a song recorded in the 1930s for a black blues guy. Not a typical blues or even a blues
gospel song. I give Jimmy credit for it, I did not write that song.
Greg: A local guy who used to be in the Cryan’ Shames, the late Isaac Guillory recorded your song “Ice Cream Phoenix” which appeared on the JA album Crown of Creation. He later played with Al Stewart and Donovan.
Jorma: One of your local guys I like a lot is Dave Specter. Tell him I said hi! I played at
SPACE (in Evanston) and he got me all fired up about Fender Jazzmasters. I have two
of them as a result. Dave is a great guy and I enjoy his work a lot.
Greg: One of the first solo things we heard from you was the Quah album with Tom
Hobson back in the mid-Seventies. There’s some great tunes on there like “Genesis”.
How did you come to write that song?
Jorma: The thing about “Genesis” is that a lot of people use it for their weddings. God
bless ‘em it’s a great song and if I could write ‘em like that all the time, I would!
Not all of the songs I’ve written do I consider to be good. Some are more significant
than others. My ex-wife and I were going through some difficult times back then and
that’s why I wrote that one.
Greg: Another one that I’ve played a lot on the radio is “Water Song,” a great
instrumental song from Hot Tuna’s Burgers album. How did you come to write that one?
Jorma: Once again, the guitar tells you what to do. I was into G tuning and was messing around. I just started picking and it started to go somewhere. I didn’t stop until it told me to stop. That’s where that came from.
Greg: Switching topics, I saw the Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man (2009) recently
and they use a lot of Jefferson Airplane music. In a fairly bizarre scene, an aged rabbi
starts naming members of the band and when he gets to you, it’s “Jorma…what’s his
Jorma: That’s hilarious!
Greg: The pronunciation of your name has posed an issue for many of us disc jockeys
over the years. For the record now, is it Kow-CONE-en or KOW-cuh-nen?
Jorma: It’s the latter, just a typical Finnish name!
Greg: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Jorma.
Jorma: You’re welcome, thanks a lot.
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM). He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.