After Bob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen is arguably the most important single artist to string blues, folk, psychedelic rock, and Americana music together in a thread that has moved the needle in each of these genres continuously for better than half a century. This Antioch College graduate also is starkly articulate in documenting his role in this process, so I interview him every chance I get. The quotes here are from many interviews conducted between 1995 and the present.
As a guitarist, Jorma has backed giants including Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. He defined the exploding role of electric guitar as a founder of the first successful psychedelic band, The Jefferson Airplane, and in blues he’s bridged the gap between acoustic and electric guitar as a solo artist and as leader of Hot Tuna, a folk-blues alternative to the more popular post-war Chicago blues. “Insofar as my relationship to the world, I’m very flexible,” he says. Then, he adds humbly, “I grade on a curve. Whatever’s going on, count me in.”
In Hot Tuna he breaks down and reconstructs the gospel-inflected Piedmont blues of finger picker Rev. Gary Davis and offers unique interpretations of songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jesse Fuller, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Robert Johnson sometimes acoustically and sometimes in a bold electric format that makes volume itself as central to the structure of a song as rhythm was to James Brown’s compositions. Call him a generalist who writes as many songs as he does covers. “You need some techniques in order to be able to play. There’s some stuff you need to know,” he says. “As far as who you become, take what you need and leave the rest.”
Rock and rollers like Elvis had done this by hybridizing blues and country. Hot Tuna does it by seasoning originals and classic folk songs with flavors that give a freewheeling West Coast spin to America’s musical heritage that was and is the yin to The Band’s East Coast yang. “I’m really not a pure blues guy,” he admits, “even though that certainly is the foundation of what I do. I always found that interesting. I’ve been tainted by rock and roll and moderate success.”
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane and Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers are all gone. Jorma remains as one of the more prominent guitarists to cut as wide a swath in his influence on contemporary roots music. Another is Warren Haynes. Like Haynes, Jorma has toured with post-Garcia iterations of the Grateful Dead. Like Haynes who fronts his own band Gov.t Mule, Jorma fronts several versions of Hot Tuna, some electric and some acoustic, the one constant being bass player Jack Casady with him from the start. Haynes is an alumnus of the legacy rock band The Allman Brothers. Jorma recently performed with a one-time “reunion” of his ’60s band The Jefferson Airplane for the 2016 Grammys Salute to Musical Legends show.
Jorma met the late Chicago blues master Michael Bloomfield the first year the Airplane was together in 1965. “Michael was staying with us. I had just started to play, and I had none of the electric guitar tricks that we all take for granted today. My kid plays that stuff better today than I did when I first got in the Airplane. And Michael didn’t take it upon himself to teach me blues, but he did open the door to playing electric guitar, not just amplified guitar.”
What’s the difference?
“When we had to move into the electric realm (with the Jefferson Airplane) in order to be heard, I had to transfer a lot of that stuff into or onto an electric guitar, and to be honest with you, some of it was more successful than others, but in the process of doing this, I don’t want to say I created a style of music ’cause I don’t think that I did.”
History will judge otherwise. The Jefferson Airplane changed the very paradigm of what constitutes a song.“I think the Californians at the time were a little less fettered by the desire to clone anything else. Not that that’s a bad thing. I just think we were very lucky because we went somewhere else. Also, a band like the Airplane couldn’t have been further from a blues band than anything else.”
“I just didn’t have anything else to do, and we started fooling around. It seemed like fun. It’s really funny. There’s no huge intellectual sentiment. It just seemed like fun. And of course we became successful very quickly, and it wound up being a challenging thing for me because the Airplane really is a pop band, and I came in a finger picking guitar player. When I listen to Take Off and Surrealistic Pillow I realize that I was really stretching to figure out what to play with this kind of music. It was fun”.
So, what did they learn and how does that impact Jorma’s blues?
“When I started to play with the Jefferson Airplane I didn’t know how to play electric guitar. That was all devised as the Airplane grew. Mike Bloomfield gave me – I don’t think he perceived it as such – but he really gave me one of my first guitar lessons and showed me how to do a bunch of stuff, and a guy named Steve Mann turned me onto Buddy Guy. When Buddy came to San Francisco I thought then, and I think now, that he (Buddy Guy) is one of the most innovative of the electric blues players. I don’t play anything like him, but he’s certainly influenced me in a lot of ways.
“Just the spirit of some of his solos, like back in the ’60s. He would take these wildly innovative guitar solos, many of which the timing (was) I don’t want to say out of time ’cause nothing is out of time, but the timing was so idiosyncratic that when it was over, he’d be there on the one. The message I got from that was, ‘You can do anything in your solo space as long as when you come back to the song, everybody’s there on the one.’ And I kind of liked that. I thought that was really neat.”
In other words, the psychedelic sacrament of the West Coast lifestyle gave him and others (like Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe & The Fish, Sam Andrew of Big Brother & The Holding Company, Peter Lewis of Moby Grape, and David Nelson of New Rider of The Purple Sage) the freedom to explore the electric guitar as more than a plugged in acoustic. Jorma’s work in Hot Tuna formed as side project to the Jefferson Airplane in 1969 is the most blues-centric of the above mentioned contemporaries in Haight Ashbury. Jorma is customarily humble about the significance of his role in this fresh look at blues in particular.
“I just didn’t really play electric guitar. So, I didn’t know that much about it. I do know that when they tried to get me into the Airplane I was so totally immersed in the acoustic guitar that I really wasn’t interested in it. I don’t think in that moment I perceived “the popular music scene” as a genuine art form, and you got that from a lot of people.”
Jorma arrived on the West Coast in 1962. Originally from the D.C. area, he’d graduated from Antioch College in Ohio, and been lured to California in by his childhood friend and future Airplane and Hot Tuna bass player Jack Casady.
“I moved to Santa Clara. I of course arrived with an incredible superiority complex because how could these Californians know anything about the folk scene when we had it all on the east coast?
“Everybody was hootin’ and pickin’ and staying’ up all night back then, and I went to this little coffee house we had on First St. in San Jose that was called the Folk Theater, and they had an open mike or a hootenanny as we used to call them back then, and there was a bunch of folks there, and Janis Joplin was one of them,
“I had just come from the east coast, and I was kinda familiar with a lot of the music she wanted to do, some Memphis Minnie stuff, and whatnot, and I got to back her. It was really exciting. She was just so great and now, of course, if I had been managing her life and career, it would have been different. I would never have been polluted by rock and roll. At that time, she was just a really breathtaking lady blues singer. As we know, rock and roll is extremely seductive, and it got me, too, but at the time I was just strictly interested in the traditional stuff. You couldn’t have paid me to play rock and roll then.”
Jorma, in fact, would sometimes substitute for a no-show Janis when she was still doing strictly folk blues. “It’s one of those things that’s sort of like a moment of epiphany when you look back on it, but at the time it was no big deal because the gigs weren’t big deals.”
The Airplane fundamentally expanded the way Jorma viewed the guitar. “Before that, the guitar was just another instrument in the band except for the blues world. None of us really knew what the heck we were doing anyway. So, it wasn’t like, ‘You should sound like the Yardbirds,’ or anything like that. Of course, we all wanted to learn stuff, and ultimately you meet people that influence you like Mike Bloomfield and all these guys, but in the beginning we didn’t know what we were doing, so there wasn’t any pressure to do anything other than learn how to play the instrument, as if that isn’t enough.
“We were on a roll. We all had stuff going on for us. It was really fun. We were playing in different formats than we were used to. We were learning stuff at an exponential rate. I think all of us were able to go with it rather than go, ‘Well, you know, Freddie King didn’t do it like this.’ None of us thought about that.”
Hot Tuna existed for a while concurrently with the Jefferson Airplane and allowed Jorma to get back to his roots incorporating his East Coast folk influences from D.C. and Greenwich Village. “I mean, we sound like us at all times. We’re really completely free in terms of I don’t need to sound like Mance Lipscomb, thank God. I don’t need to sound like Skip James. All I need to do is sound like me which is great.”
Hot Tuna allowed him to indulge in the music of his single biggest influence, Rev. Gary Davis. BUT the Airplane’s looseness and loudness had its impact. Hot Tuna continues to this day to perform in both acoustic and electric formats. “I think we’re always searching for that balance because that was just our music. I don’t think we thought about melding the two things. It was just our music.”
The Reverend Gary Davis’ songs have become signatures of Hot Tuna’s repertoire both live and on record: “Hesitation Blues,” “Children of Zion,” “Mama Let Me Lay It on You,” “There’s a Table Sitting in Heaven,” “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” “Light of This World,” “Say No to the Devil,” “Candy Man” and “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here.”
Davis had been a breakthrough favorite of the East Coast folk scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Originally from South Carolina, he moved to New York City in the 1940s and introduced young Greenwich Village musicians to his unusual style of finger picking. Dylan; The Dead; Peter, Paul & Mary; Dave Van Ronk; and Eric Von Schmidt all covered Davis originals. Jorma refuses to call himself a protégé of his style. He has trouble giving himself credit for even approaching the genius of his biggest influence, partly because he couldn’t duplicate his complex finger picking. Not that he wanted to do that with any of the artists whose songs he covered. That said, he along with many of his contemporaries in the folk idiom were in awe of Davis.
“I never studied with him. I couldn’t afford the $3 an hour he was charging back in those days (’59 or ’60), but I did see him play a lot. I met him, and he was an important man in my life. Still is! He had incredible depth, the artistic power of the man. I mean he was a strong personality, musically and as a man. I believe the Reverend is one of the important not just guitarists but musical figures in American music in the last century. I just think he’s incredibly important.
“The Reverend’s style is so idiosyncratic, and people who are Rev. Gary Davis specialists that have really gotten into it in some ways capture that. I mean, listen, I’m a white rock and roll player who plays some blues and stuff, and I like things to be in fours, and I like the meter to be moderately consistent. The Reverend is very, very sophisticated, and I just couldn’t get that. I’m always telling my students, most of the stuff I accomplish as an artist is a result of my inadequacies rather than whatever skills that I might or might not possess.
“The process I go through (to make a song mine) is to use whatever artistic and technical tools I have at my disposal in order to play that song. I never sought to replicate what he or other artists I was interested in did because I was never really good at that. What I was good at was to extract the things that were characteristic of whatever that song was. And so somebody could say that’s a Reverend Gary Davis song because of some lick or something that they recognize even if they don’t know the words to the song.”
Jorma’s view of volume was more fundamental to the sound of the song than it was a practical element of your average Chicago bluesman trying to be heard in a crowded barroom or as a rocker’s statement about male ego. Here, too, Jorma was influenced by Rev. Gary Davis’
“Rev. Gary Davis actually was a street singer. If he could have plugged in and been louder on a street corner in Harlem, you bet your ass he would have. Some people say, ‘Well, the Rev. never did it this way.’ I saw it. The Rev. played on the street a lot. I’ve heard him on the street, and he was a loud guitar player and a powerful, strong man, and I suspect had he lived in these more technological times, he would have had some battery-powered something.”
In other words, Jorma saw volume as fundamental to the songs themselves like his folky contemporaries whose love of volume was based on hearing acoustic artists projecting themselves without the aid of electric guitars and amps.
This was a subtle difference from the British Invasion white rockers who were one step removed from this source. They were emulating the Chicago Blues sound of Muddy and the Wolf and in turn were influencing mainstream commercial rock for decades to come. Jorma’s direct-from-the-source influence would eventually impact what would become known as Americana music.
“The volume is absolutely part of the music. You’re feeling this actual visceral sensation that’s provided by some of the volume. Now, we don’t have to play loud. We don’t have to, but it’s part of the thing. We have great Pas now.
“When they tried to get me into the Airplane ’cause I was so totally immersed in the acoustic guitar I really wasn’t interested in it because at that moment – and I know this sounds stupid – this was many years later – but I really don’t think in that moment that I perceived “the popular music scene” as a genuine art form, you know, and you got that from a lot of people.
In 1995, Hot Tuna opened up for the Furthur Tour, the first time the remaining members of the Grateful Dead toured following the death of Jerry Garcia. “He (Jerry ) doesn’t (hang in the air),” Jorma told me in 1995, “and I think he probably would have wanted it that way. I’ve seen stuff – before I came out, it was on the net. People talking about, “It’s kind of a tribute to Jerry, this and that.” And maybe that’s true, in a spiritual context, but it’s certainly not being milked for anything. I don’t know what the audience perception is because I don’t go into the audience, but I think among players there isn’t any of that feeling. Everybody is here to have a good time and I’m sure that Jerry would have wanted it that way.”
Jorma has always been able to adroitly avoid the cult of personality that dogged The Dead, giving him a certain allure to blues fans who expect their artists to be lean and a little hungry. “Guys like me and Greg (Allman) we do exist in a parallel universe. Whether the music we do is authentic on any level or not, whatever that means can be debated, but because of the rock and roll thing, it’s a parallel universe. It is. Many people have heard of us, and maybe we’d be playing those blues festivals, but not making anywhere near as much money, I don’t know. What do I know?
At 76, Jorma has a business manager wife, a teenaged daughter he home schools, a son he says plays better guitar than he did in The Jefferson Airplane, and he’s not above playing background guitar for the patrons of an Italian restaurant, and teaching guitar at his Fur Peace Ranch along with Rory Block, Keb Mo and other blues guitarists.
“I think it’s better to look forward to something than to be just waiting to get it over with. To me it’s always whatever I’m doing now and whatever I’m looking forward to coming next which is not to minimize stuff I’ve done in the past and I’m proud of, but once it’s done, it’s done.”
Visit Jorma’s website at: http://jormakaukonen.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.