Jorma Kaukonen continues to maintain his connection between prewar American songs and his own original, contemporary music. An elder statesman of ’60s rock, Kaukonen was a founding member of both the psych-rock architects Jefferson Airplane and the blues-revivalist-fueled Hot Tuna. Delivered in his inimitable voice, Kaukonen has spent much of his life performing country blues tunes by the likes of Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Blake, and Bo Carter (to name but a few). Hardly a purist, over the years Kaukonen has forged his own methodology of honoring these elders’ songs while opening up the material with spellbinding guitar improvisations. An inventive songwriter in his own right, since 1974 Kaukonen has released more than a dozen solo albums. His fruitful partnership with Red House Records, begun in ’07, has resulted in a series of notably strong releases, including his latest, Ain’t No Hurry. When Kaukonen returns to Northeast Florida for his Thursday, Aug. 6 solo gig at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, he’ll be performing tunes from that album and digging into a repertoire that spans nearly a century of potent traditional music.
Produced by longtime collaborator, guitarist Larry Campbell (who’s worked with myriad artists, ranging from Bob Dylan and Levon Helm to Emmylou Harris), Ain’t No Hurry features 11 songs that run the gamut from Jimmy Cox’s 1923 blues masterpiece, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” to the pensive “In My Dreams” and the cautionary country roll of “Where There’s Two There’s Trouble.”
Ain’t No Hurry shifts gears in song styles but maintains an unswerving and invitational vibe due in large part to the players involved, who, along with Kaukonen and Campbell, include mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff, backing vocalist Teresa Williams, percussionists Myron Hart and Justin Gulp and, naturally, bassist Jack Casady, who’s been Kaukonen’s co-pilot since the inception of both Airplane and Hot Tuna.
At age 74, Kaukonen still maintains a fairly rigorous tour schedule that would probably fell a lesser person. When he’s not on the road, he’s back at his Fur Peace Ranch located in rural southeast Ohio, where he offers weekend-long music retreats that include classes with Kaukonen, Casady, and other notable collaborators.
Folio Weekly spoke to Kaukonen when he was at home in Ohio, before he headed out on his Southeast tour. In the course of our conversation, we talked about providing music to a never-before-recorded Woody Guthrie lyric, the death-defying act of live music, and the power of passing it all on.
Folio Weekly: That opening cut on the album is one of my favorite blues standards: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” You recorded that with Janis Joplin on the heavily bootlegged The Typewriter Tape from 1964. I don’t think you’ve ever recorded a studio version as a solo artist since then.
Jorma Kaukonen: I’ve never done a studio version. I think, because I never really can remember this, but I think somebody told me it’s on Hot Tuna Live at Sweetwater. But when Larry and I were putting the songs together, we were just messing around and I said, “This is such a great song. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded it. Let’s do it.”
Was that any kind of a tip of the hat to Janis?
No. I mean, listen: Anytime you mention Janis’s name, people say, “Hey man, you jammed with Janis.” I occasionally backed Janis when she needed someone to play with her down in the [San Francisco Bay] peninsula but it wasn’t that many times, it was probably maybe a handful of times. And it was such an honor to play with one of the people who I consider to be one of the great female blues vocalists of all time. I always joke that if I had been her career advisor, I would have said, “Don’t worry about this rock-and-roll junk, just stay in the blues.” But, thankfully, I wasn’t [Laughs.], and she was obviously a great rock singer, too. But in that era, when I was fortunate enough to play with her — man, what a pure blues spirit she was.
Tell me the story behind putting the Woody Guthrie lyric for “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me” to music with Larry Campbell. How did that come about?
Nora Guthrie, the protector of the Guthrie legacy, has thousands of Woody things. She had asked Larry and me on separate occasions if we wanted to put some music to Woody’s songs. And we thought we could do it but the moment wasn’t right. But we were doing this project, here at my ranch, and we went, “You know? This is a good time to email Nora.” So we did and she sent me four Woody songs through DropBox, with photographs of Woody’s typing and handwriting and it was so cool. Three of the songs were like Beat poetry; I would’ve had to have been a jazz cat to put music to that. But “Suffer Little Children”: five verses, four lines each, chorus — I can relate to that. I like things to be divisible by either three or even numbers, you know? So of course we waited until the last minute, and I thought, “Man, we haven’t done the music.” And I sat down, picked my guitar and played that lick [hums riff] and just started playing. It’s something that I teach in songwriting, how this is not the best way to write a song, but we wrote the music for that song in about nine-and-a-half minutes.
Look, I know it’s the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane, but if it’s all right with you, I’d rather just focus on what’s happening now with you.
Hey, I’m an open book. [Laughs.] That sounds good to me.
You’ve been playing so long, and even playing Pakistani music when you were a teenager and I guess I’m curious if you’ve found a way now, not to codify, but have found a method where you jump right into the swim. You know, I don’t mean phoning it in.
No, I know what you mean. We’re so getting into kind of the “guitar geek” realm here but that’s OK. [Laughs.] A lot of guitar methods talk about the pentatonic scale and blues boxes and all of this, and look, when you analyze whatever kind of music you listen to, there are elements that make it that type of music. And you can focus on those elements to play “that kind of music.” But in my opinion, if you use a method to learn any kind of given music, whether it’s bluegrass, or jazz, or pop, or whatever it is, then your playing will reflect that method. I think that I wasn’t burdened with a method when I learned to play electric guitar. Was it a strength or a weakness? So I’m not a session guy who could quickly jump in and play a complicated chart with somebody else. If they gave me time to practice and work it out, I could do that. So I think this process is, regardless of who we are and how long we’ve played, we have a vocabulary of things that we know how to use. And how we move these little dominoes around and the musical bricks in our pile make it more or less interesting. See, I love live music. Live music is a death-defying act and sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t work. But if you stumble on something, once again you can chase that rabbit down the hole and there’s a whole world waiting for you.
I may be wrong, but it seems like you’re one of the most notable players of the ’60s music scene who really enjoys teaching music. It almost seems like you’ve been teaching music for as long as you’ve been playing guitar. Why do you feel that it has been so important for you to pass on these musical traditions?
Well, for some reason, I just stumbled onto that. When I was in my first year at Santa Clara University in California, when I met Janis and stuff like that, I made more money teaching than I did playing. And I enjoyed the dialogue between myself and students and, over the years, the love of that dialogue hasn’t lessened at all. I’ve become a better teacher, because I’ve spent more time at it, and I’ve become a better musician because of my teaching. I just think it’s important for those of us who can to pass these things along the best we can.