Jorma Kaukonen is something of a musical legend. He’s played with Janis Joplin, was a founder member of Jefferson Airplane, one of the biggest rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s, as part of the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and has performed with Hot Tuna off and on over the past 50 years.
Along the way he’s shared a stage with Muddy Waters (who opened for Airplane – “it just didn’t seem right, but there it was. I remember him as the most gracious of human beings”), headlined Woodstock, the first Isle of Wight Festival and the notorious Altamont Festival in Northern California in 1969 (“rock and roll’s all-time worst day”), and been an avid ice speed skater and motorbiker.
In addition, over the past twenty years, he’s re-invented himself as an outstanding acoustic guitar picker, releasing a number of top-notch solo albums, and has established Fur Peace Ranch in south eastern Ohio as a centre for guitar tuition and musical comradeship, drawing in top class guitarists like Larry Campbell, Warren Haynes, Tommy Emmanuel and Eric Bibb to share the instruction.
The rock and roll years took their toll – in his autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, he says, “alcohol, cars, motorcycles, girls, and all that jazz – yeah, I definitely took risks. I can only say that I was lucky to make it through.”
But make it through he has, happily married with a young family, and at…whisper it…at 80 years young, is still performing solo and with Hot Tuna.
Jorma took the time to chat with me from his Fur Peace Ranch, where he was accompanied by his two dogs – “our bigger dog is a boxer-doodle mix, but he looks like an Irish Wolfhound and our other dog’s a Chihuahua.” The occasional bark over the telephone line was matched by the complaints from our own two Lakeland Terriers about the temerity of the postman to come to the door. So, we both took the dog noises in our stride.
He was just about to embark on a major tour with Hot Tuna, which he said “we’re pretty darn excited about,” public appearances having been curtailed by the pandemic. Jorma did, however, do a lot of “Quarantine Concerts” online from his ranch, which were free to view and are still available on YouTube, all fifty or so of them.
The man clearly has a lot of energy – the tour schedule made me tired, just looking at it. Is performing just as energizing as ever?
“Well, first of all,” he told me, “for an 80-year-old, I’m really lucky. I’m really still pretty healthy It’s the first long tour we’ve done in a while, but we did a show here at the Fur Peace Ranch last week. And so far, it’s just as energizing as it ever was – maybe more in some respects, because I appreciate it so much more because we were unable to do it for a while.
“I think that my appreciation of music in general is much more multi-dimensional than it was when I was younger. I spend a lot more time thinking about, not just the hot licks and stuff – I love them, I’m a guitar player, what’s not to love? – but the harmonies and chords and stuff. They’ve started to mean a lot more to me.”
Hot Tuna was a band that emerged out of Jefferson Airplane which was essentially a collaboration between Kaukonen and his long-time friend, Jack Casady. The band typically plays Airplane material and covers of American country and blues artists such as Reverend Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Blind Blake. There have been various other musicians in the band along the way, but always it has been Jorma and Jack. The band’s fifty year lifespan show a quite an unusual level of longevity. Has that been down to Jorma and Jack’s friendship?
“Absolutely. No question about it. Jack is my oldest friend. He’s a little bit younger than I am but we started playing together in 1958. So we’ve basically been doing it ever since. And we are absolutely still friends.”
I had been reading a recent blog post from Jorma, where he was reflecting on the process of getting older. I found that interesting, because I had been talking to Jimmy Carter from the Blind Boys of Alabama recently, who at 87 has a new album out, his first solo album. [Here’s our interview] He was very excited about it and was telling me about his hopes and dreams for the future. That’s a remarkable thing, actually – continuing to have hopes and dreams for your life as you get older.
And, I put it to Jorma, the same could be said for him, establishing Fur Peace Ranch when he was around 60, with a vision for what a piece of land in rural Ohio could be. Along with his wife Vanessa, they envisaged a place where musicians could come together and surround themselves with music for several days and emerge with a new found inspiration.
“Well, first of all, Jimmy and I are both obviously very lucky because some people, for whatever reason, are unable to keep that kind of hope for the future. But the music still speaks to me with the same power as it did when I was a kid – that’s undiminished. So that’s part of it, but just generally speaking, in a normal world, I’d probably be a great grandfather, but I have a teenage daughter and a son in his twenties. I’m not saying that keeps you young because nothing keeps you young but being young! But it keeps you involved. And it keeps a view of the future closer at hand, as opposed to just being a grumpy old so and so.
“Almost 30 years ago, I lucked into a large piece of property in Southeast Ohio. It’s very rural and we’ve got over a hundred acres here in a county with less than 20,000 people. When I first moved to California in 1962, Paul Kantner, one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane, was one of my early friends there. And he got me involved in teaching and even in an era when I’m not sure what I had to teach anybody, I loved it so much.
“Anyway, fast forward to the eighties, Happy Traum got me doing a couple of videos for his Homespun instructional videos. And I loved that as well. So when we looked at this huge piece of property we said, what are we going to do with this? And Vanessa – God bless her, she had a real life before she married me, and was a civil engineer – said, we could build this, we could do it. And it sounded like a great idea to me which would not be mutually exclusive with my ability to tour. So here at the Ranch, after almost 25 years, we now have close to thirty buildings.
“We have cabins, we’ve got a theatre. We have a little video production studio. We do a radio show for our local national public radio station. And we’ve been doing live classes for all these years. It’s about getting together with a bunch of like-minded spirits….we have lots of different teachers who all do different stuff, but basically we just love the music and geek out about it and play with each other. And our classes tend to run from Friday morning to Monday morning.”
Teaching, Jorma told me, has made him a better player. Is that, I asked him, because it makes him think more carefully about what it is he’s doing on the guitar?
“I think there are a lot of levels to this. My teaching style tends to be anecdotal – I’m not a theorist and I teach pretty much from songs. Looking at the music that I have loved for so long, I get a much more three-dimensional view of it now than I did when I was a kid. And that makes me a better interpreter, a better player. And certainly, it’s made me a better singer – even later in life, in the last decade or so, my singing has got better. I’m a lucky guy, because I’m in good shape, I’ve got good lungs!”
I mentioned to Jorma that I’d learned the old blues song Trouble in Mind from his Homespun instructional video years ago, and he was kind enough to suggest a cool new way to play part of it which he’s recently discovered after Jack Casady had found an old tape of Jorma playing the song from 1960. (I’ve now tried it out, and, yes, it’s pretty cool!). And, guitarists – check out his online instructional videos here.
Notwithstanding the psychedelic rock years with Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen has been a roots musician all his days, ever since hearing a friend play him A.P. Carter’s Worried Man Blues in 1956 as a teenager, after which he rushed home and told his dad he wanted a guitar and lessons. In his autobiography, he says, “Strange to say, I started out as an acoustic player, but I had been sidetracked by rock and roll for many years.” What, I asked him, is it about roots music, blues music, that appeals to him? It’s music that has been around for a hundred years or more, but why does it still appeal to people?
“Well, there are lots of levels to this. First of all, it was just so cool. And in my era, when I was a teenager and I started to play it, so much of the popular music was just so insipidly boring. But here were songs that had lyrics that spoke about real life. Now, it wasn’t real life in terms of me as a middle-class white kid – because I’d never been in prison, I didn’t pick cotton, I hadn’t suffered racial inequities and all this kind of stuff. But the blues lyrics just seemed to show a real side of life that I wasn’t getting from my mom and dad.
“And the music is so permanently hip anyway. Everybody doesn’t have to sound like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, but even so, just to have that pure honesty coupled with music that’s still to me after all these years so unbelievably hip.”
One of the artists that has been important for Jorma from he was a teenager is the Reverend Gary Davis, and he continues to play Gary Davis songs both as a solo artist and with Hot Tuna. Rev. Gary Davis, the blind son of dirt-poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, went on to exert a major influence on the folk scene of the 1960s and the early rock scene of the 70s. Bob Dylan called him “one of the wizards of modern music” and for Alan Lomax, the folklorist, he was “one of the great geniuses of American instrumental music.” What makes Gary Davis special for Jorma Kaukonen?
“When I had got turned on to Reverend Davis, that would have probably been in the late winter of 1960. I’d never really heard anything like that before, and if you studied the Reverend’s style, he’s a heavyweight guitar player. He knows a lot of stuff. But his right hand, he only uses his thumb and his first finger. He’s a two-finger picker. As was Ian Buchanan, the guy who was my mentor – he and the Reverend were friends. But it was just immediately apparent to me that it would be easier to go where I think I wanted to go by using three fingers rather than two, because it made it easier to play triplets and stuff like that.
“But all that being said, there was something that was so spiritually invigorating about the Reverend’s music. And this is interesting because, I mean, I’m a Jewish guy from an utterly unobservant Jewish family. But because my dad traveled around [during his career as a State Department official], I’ve been at a lot of Christian schools. So I’m comfortable with denominations and stuff like that. And the Reverend with that fundamentalist Baptist preaching stuff, seemed to made sense to me. Not in a religious way, but in a spiritual way, because I consider the two things are different. Reverend Davis was such a lover of life.
“I mean, think about this guy, born in the eighteen hundreds, going out blind in the American South, this can’t have been a lot of fun for him. But he never complained in his music. Although I didn’t know him in the way that guys like David Bromberg and Stephen Grossman knew him, I did meet him a couple of times, and he was an upbeat guy, and, even with a song like Death Don’t Have No Mercy – not the most cheerful song in the world – I never turn away after a Reverend Davis song depressed. I’m always, like, there’s hope for the future.”
[Check out Ian Zack’s great biography of Rev. Gary Davis, Say No to the Devil]
I was intrigued reading Jorma’s biography to see him refer time and time again to “G-d” and saying how he felt God was willing things along the way. In the midst of all the chaos, somehow God was at work. Had I got that right?
“Yes, exactly. I consider myself more of a spiritual person than a religious one. I’m able to look at my life today and I realize in spite of everything, I’ve always been a blind optimist. Maybe even sometimes I shouldn’t have been, but again, like we said, you know, the Reverend’s got that song There’s a Bright Side Somewhere. And I think I always felt that.”
In Been So Long, Kaukonen is very honest about a lot of his personal struggles and the chaos there was at times. But towards the end of the book, he talks about living a good life. I asked him, reflecting on all he’s experienced, the good and the not so good, what makes for a good life?
“That’s a really good question and it’s more than it’s more than material stuff. You know, I think it’s being able to be honestly at peace with yourself. I mean, listen, obviously every day’s not a blissful day. But basically speaking, I’m able to be honest with my daughter, my wife and my son in a way I probably couldn’t have been a number of years ago, and I think I’ve come to know myself pretty well most of the time, and I’m okay with the way things are. To me that’s a good life.”
Jorma has released an album with his long-time friend, John Hurlbut, The River Flows, which grew out of the Quarantine Concerts. It’s a wonderful album of acoustic roots music in two volumes, the first thirteen songs which include classics from Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder and the Byrds, and the second live versions of a number of the songs. Hurlbut takes the vocals and rhythm guitar and Kaukonen backs it up beautifully with some exquisite solo work. I asked Jorma about his collaboration with John Hurlbut.
“Johnny and I have been friends for probably 40 years and we’ve played together off and on, and he’s my ranch manager. And over the years, from time to time we’ve gotten together and played just ‘cause it’s fun. Well, it became apparent to me even before the pandemic, one of the things that I got to do playing with him, was what I got to do with Jefferson Airplane, which was there was no burden on me to be a front guy, whereas in Hot Tuna I am obviously singing and playing solo. But with Johnny I’m just trying to do my best to fill in the blanks for him.
“But then the pandemic came and shut us down, but we still kept on doing some outdoor lunches and stuff – with social distancing. And all of a sudden it occurred to me, I’m really having a good time playing with my buddy here. And since we have nothing else going on, let’s make a record! So I called up my friend, Justin, who’s our drummer in Hot Tuna, and he came down from Woodstock to be the engineer and the co-producer on the record, and Johnny and I cut all those songs in two days. And we did it all live. We just had such a good time. Just being able to make music with an old friend, with no pressure on me, was what it was about.”
Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar accompaniment throughout this album is exceptional – it’s everything a guitar accompaniment often isn’t – it’s tasteful, it doesn’t interfere with the singing and it just enhances the songs. Listen to any one of the songs – especially Knocking On Heaven’s Door, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Today I was listening to the Jefferson Airplane’s version of We Can Be Together off the Volunteers album. It’s a long song and there’s all these parts, and I’m thinking, wow! When we produced that song, there was so much thought that went into all these parts, and it worked, and that’s good. But one of the things that I got to do with Johnny, because of the way he and I play together is to just try to add whatever you want to call what it is I, do my musical art or whatever. It’s to be able to surround his voice and his playing without calling too much attention to what I’m doing, because it’s all about the song.
“And he makes it so easy for me to do that. I mean, if you saw him play, he plays with a flat pick and his right hand is the weirdest looking thing you’ve ever seen, but it works for him. And his rhythm is so solid that I don’t need to worry about anything except to try to support the lyrical content of the melody. So it was just really a lot of fun to play along with it.”
The River Flows is a fine album for sure – as are Jorma Kaukonen’s other acoustic albums from the last twenty years (I confess Stars in My Crown is my own favourite). Check them out.
I found Jorma Kaukonen not only generous with his time chatting to me, but remarkably unassuming for someone with his musical history. He’s a man who clearly has found himself, and, along with continuing to press on with his musical journey, he’s found a level of contentment. Maybe a visit to one of his guitar workshops in Fur Peace Ranch is in order…