Q&A with legendary Jorma Kaukonen, one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music

"Well, I guess at the top of the list would be, no one’s perfect, there’s always something to learn and I guess the most important thing really is if you’re lucky, you never stop learning."

Jorma Kaukonen: Peace, Love & Music

In a career that has already spanned a half-century, Jorma Kaukonen has been one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music, blues, and rock. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy recipient, Jorma was at the forefront of popular rock and roll, one of the founders of the San Francisco sound and a progenitor of Psychedelic Rock. He is a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna. Jorma Kaukonen is a music legend and one of the finest singer-songwriters in his field. He continues to tour the world bringing his unique styling to old blues tunes while presenting new songs of weight and dimension. His secret is in playing spontaneous and unfiltered music, with an individual expression of personality. In 2016, Jorma, Jack Casady and the other members of Jefferson Airplane were awarded The GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award for their contributions to American music.

 (Jorma Kaukonen with his Harley-Davidson / Photo © by Scotty Hall)

In 2019 St. Martin’s Press published Jorma‘s autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, written to express his life both in and out of the music world. As the leading practitioner and teacher of fingerstyle guitar, Jorma and his wife Vanessa Lillian operate one of the world’s most unique centers for the study of guitar and other instruments. Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp is located on 125 acres of fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Jorma Kaukonen is constantly looking to take his musical horizons further still, always moving forward and he is quick to say that teaching is among the most rewarding aspects of his career. “You just can’t go backward. The arrow of time only goes in one direction.”

Interview by Michael Limnios / Katerina Lefkidou (Transcription)   

Special Thanks: Jorma Kaukonen, Cash Edwards (Music Services)

Jorma Kaukonen, 2011 Interview @ blues.gr

What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?

Jorma: That’s a good question. You know, I think, because there’s always good music, it’s not like the music is gone these days, sometimes a little harder to find, bit I think what I really miss is the relevance of the music to the society that I lived in, that I felt back in the ‘60s. Of course, that’s a long time ago and I’m an older guy now. When I talk to my kids, it’s a different world. I’m not sure that they feel like, they have a big passion about music also, but I don’t see that it means as much to them in their real world as it did to us. So, I think the answer is I miss that I could see the relevance of the music in the society I grew up in.

Too many experiences in your life. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?

Jorma: Well, I guess at the top of the list would be, no one’s perfect, there’s always something to learn and I guess the most important thing really is if you’re lucky, you never stop learning.

What characterizes your music philosophy and where does your creative drive come from?

Jorma: I guess everybody that’s an artist would have a different answer to this question, but I’m thinking about, because I’ve been playing music really all my life, I’m not a prolific song writer, even though all these years, I’ve written a number of songs that’s really not my main thing. I think that my main thing is always telling pretty much a story of life as I see it and that doesn’t presuppose that you always have original songs to do that. People go “Wow, you've been playing some these songs you still play for half a century”, I go “That’s true”. And the reason is, it’s still part of a story you know? I’m lucky as a performer that people still allow me to tell that story over and over again, with some new things into it. As far as a creative person I think one of the things that keeps me young, as a guitarist for example, is I’m always looking for new ways to, if not exactly say the same old thing but to sort of expand on my musical experience. For example; When I was a kid and I started out playing, if you listen to some of my music from the early half to whatever, not in Jefferson Airplane because I was playing as a lead guitar player there, but as an acoustic guitar player, I’m playing songs in a pretty simple straightforward way. Not using a lot of harmonically colorful chords. Over the years, I’ve learned more about that, now I’m not a jazz musician, I’ve no aspiration to being one, but I think the way I even play old songs tends to be a little more harmonically complex and that’s just the way it is. So, I’m constantly learning more and more about music in general and that surely helps keep me active in the game. The other thing is that I read, and I listen to a lot of music and every now and then some people kick me in the butt and make me write a song. I don’t write a lot of new songs. Every now and then I do. And so, I haven’t done a recording project for a while, but I’m collecting songs, I actually have a couple of new songs and hopefully within the next year I’ll have enough for an album, but in any case, I think the thing that really keeps me excited in the game is the opportunities to be a better guitar player.

"I think if you asked me to go back in time, I would probably like to go maybe to the late twenties and early thirties, …But I would like to hear some of the people that I considered to be the masters of guitar blues. Robert Johnson, or Blind Arthur Blake or young Rev. Garry Davis or Blind Boy Fulller. To be able to hear those musicians in their time. I think that would be exciting. The other thing would be, I would like to move ahead, let’s say a hundred years to see what happened to guitar music then." (Jorma aka "Jerry" Kaukonen, Janis Joplin and Steve Talbott in San Jose, 1962 / Photo © by Marjorie Alette)

You started in the early ‘60s, where the beat generation, beat poetry, coffee-shops, folk music, of course blues, started. What were the reasons that made the early sixties to be the center of artistic research and experiments?

Jorma: That’s interesting and I guess there’s some of stuff going along with that. One of the things was that just because the nature of I think what was happening culturally in the world in general but of course the United States is the only country I was really aware of, a lot of the protest music, that was being played, that was exciting to people of my generation was played on the guitar. It wasn’t played on the piano, it wasn’t big band stuff. And because the guitar was such a personal instrument that anyone person could tell a story without a bunch of guys help him do it. Now, when I was a kid in high-school and I started out playing the guitar, the guitar was not the cool instrument that we think it is today. It was kind of a weird instrument, not many people played it. Everybody’s got a guitar today, whether they play it or not you know? So, all of a sudden here is a very portable instrument, the guitar, that is very versatile in a lot of ways, that sounds cool if you’re just playing single chords in the first position, or if you’re a more complex guitar player, so I think that what happened was that the instrument itself made it possible for a lot of people like myself for example, to start playing music without being weighed down by a lot of tactical means.

How did you come up with the idea to start the famous “Fur Peace Ranch”?

Jorma: Well. So, I’m sitting here as we’re talking, I’m at the Fur Peace Ranch today, it’s kind of a cold nasty day today, anyway, I started teaching guitar as a young man when I first moved to California in 1962 and I did it because even though I was a performer, already performing songs, you weren’t get paid. But all of a sudden one of my friends told me “You could teach guitar” and I went “Really?”. So, I started out, teaching guitar and I got paid to do it. And I found that I really liked doing it, I liked the process of explaining what it was that I was doing. And so, this piece of property where the Fur Peace Ranch is, is still large it’s about a hundred acres, I don’t know what that is in the metric system, but it’s a pretty sizable piece of property. Anyway, we wound up on this piece of land with nothing on it. And we looked at it and we said “What are we going to do with this?” other than maybe live there. And just joking around “We’ll start a guitar school and we’ll call it the Fur Peace Ranch”. You didn’t ask me where the name Fur Peace Ranch came from but I’ll tell you anyway. So, in English in country parts of my country there’s an expression. When somebody says “How do I get to town, they say the question, “How do I get to town?” and one of my local farmer friends would go “Well you know, that’s a fur piece from here!” That’s just kind of a local expression that’s a great distance from here. Of course, it’s not spelled f-u-r p-e-a-c-e-, that’s what we did ‘cause we thought it was cute. So, we decided you know, we’ve always liked teaching, we’ve got this piece of property, what are we going to do with it and my wife Vanessa, who makes things happen, that require actual planning, got together and we’ve got like 25 buildings here, so we wound up building the Fur Peace Ranch and this is our 24th to 25th year.

"First of all, I’m 81 years old and I’m a really lucky guy because, for whatever reason I’m still pretty healthy and that’s important, because I have friends that are not healthy as this and if you’re fighting that kind of thing, I can see it’s a little more difficult to enjoy life and I’m a lucky guy. I’m okay you know? So, to be able to do pretty much what I really love to do, which is to play music. In a normal world I’d be a great-grandfather but in this one I’ve got a teenage daughter who is a junior in high-school and a son who’s in college." (Photo: Jorma with his wife, Vanessa Kaukonen, Fur Peace Ranch, Ohio 2017)

You already have your autobiography, “Been so long”. Really what was the most difficult part of the book and what was the funniest part?

Jorma: I think that the most difficult part when I got started was trying to be honest and not self-conscious. It was important to me to be as completely honest as I could be, otherwise what’s the point. In the process of doing that I think the beginning was difficult, but I’ll tell you, especially after I got into it as well, I have no secrets, I have an interesting life, but lots of people have had interesting lives and so just to get over that hurdle of me and be able to look at myself in a moderately objective way, that was kind of tough but once I got over it, that was okay, I will say, that when I did the audiobook, cause I read the book for audiobook stuff, when I read the audiobook it was very difficult to me to read the part about when my mother died, to read that out loud and the producers that I worked with on that really helped me out a lot and I gotta say this is why I miss the experience, cause this was really an emotional moment for me, but to be able to get through it, so I could tell that story and actually be able to read the story that was really important to me, it was an amazing experience.

81 years old, you are a veteran, you are a survivor of the ‘sixties. So, what do you think is key to a life well-lived and also, what is happiness for Jorma?

Jorma: That’s a good question. First of all, I’m 81 years old and I’m a really lucky guy because, for whatever reason I’m still pretty healthy and that’s important, because I have friends that are not healthy as this and if you’re fighting that kind of thing, I can see it’s a little more difficult to enjoy life and I’m a lucky guy. I’m okay you know? So, to be able to do pretty much what I really love to do, which is to play music. In a normal world I’d be a great-grandfather but in this one I’ve got a teenage daughter who is a junior in high-school and a son who’s in college. So, to have younger people around me all the time, I think that helps me stay in the moment and just be another whole guy, you know? I think the fact that I’m a) as old as I am and as long as I’m healthy and b) in a world that demands my attention, you know? You can’t just go around complaining about stuff, I mean I complain about stuff just like my dad did, but all things considered it’s okay. And I completely believe, again because I have younger people around me a lot of the time, I believe that the world is going wound up being more less okay. I’m an optimist. 

What is the impact of your generation, what is the impact of your generation’s music on the sociocultural implications? And I talk about the human rights, civil rights, spiritual, political...

Jorma: I mean again we’ve got all kinds of political turmoil going on in the U.S. as I’m sure you’re aware etc. etc. And you wonder, you know, things are genuinely speaking better than they were when I was young, but it’s not perfect, so it’s a work in progress. I think that when we were like in our 20’s that a lot of the stuff that what was going on in the sixties, I think that there was a moment when many of us thought that we had won the battle, maybe even won the war. And as I got older, I realized that you might win battles, but for war, for justice, for whatever war you want to apply to, you know, people being able to live a righteous life and being free. That's something that goes on all the time. And you can’t rest on your laurels. So, I think it was important in a lot of ways that we made some progress and just because of the way things were in the sixties, we got a lot of visible covers in the press of that time. That’s a whole different world, everybody’s got a voice today, given the Internet and all this kind of stuff, so, I think that, I mean we got a lot stuff going on about voting rights in the U.S. right now and again I will say it’s better than it was, half a century ago. But it’s not perfect. And those of us that say if you don’t vote then you can’t complain about stuff, well you can but it doesn’t matter. So, I think that especially, I can only speak about my country, as it’s the only thing I know everything about, that the battle was on all the time. Think those of us that are older guys, men like myself, I think we’re a little more used to using our voice, than some of the young people were, but at the same time, my teenage daughter, is very outspoken about her political beliefs and she is a very liberal person, you know? Which is not a big surprise for a young person.

"I think the future of music is going to be safe. It’s going to be good. The music environment that we are living at today is not as guitar centered as it was even twenty years ago, but that’s okay. Because you know, the kids, people are always going to be doing something. I think that as somebody that plays, I don’t want to offend anybody, I want to use the word real instrument, but I don’t mean to be dismissive of people who use computers or stuff like that, there’s a lot of ways to be creative." (Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, San Francisco, in late 1966 / Photo © by Herb Greene)

From Triumphs, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna and of course your solo albums, why do you think that Jorma’s music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Jorma: Wow, I wish I had a real answer to that and again, as an artist I’m so fortunate that’s the case. I think that, I talked about this to my friend Jack Casady this summer and I think that one of the reasons, I mean I’d like to think that the music, the quality of the music as an art will endure, but I think it’s more than that, cause there’s a lot of really great players and great musicians out there. I think one of the things that plays into the that sort of enduring quality, is that for the most part I’ve been completely honest with my art. I don’t bullshit anybody with the stuff that I say in music. Some of the songs I think that are more significant from an artistic point of view than others, but I’m an honest artist and I think that has a lot to do with it.

You have met so many great musicians and personalities, which meetings have been the most important experience for you and what was the best advice anyone ever gave you and you keep it like a motto in your life?

Jorma: I’ve had a lot of meetings over my life, and I guess I kind of tend to live in the present so a lot of the recent ones are important. But let’s go back to the beginning. I think one of the most important meetings in my life was when I met this guy, when I was in college in 1960 named Ian Buchanan and I talked about him, he passed away a long time ago, but you can find his tracks online. Anyway Ian, he is the one that took me literally by the hand and taught me how to play, fingerstyle blues guitar. And I think had I not met him, my, it would have been a whole different lifetime. So, I think, if you ask who’s the most utterly important person, I think I would have to say Ian and the other thing also is that I don’t think he verbalized this, but one of the things that I got from him was, it’s nice that people like what it is that we do, we all like to be liked and as an artist, somebody that likes your stuff is a complimentary, that’s a really good thing, but we don’t really do it for that. So, I think that the advice to be pure to whatever it is you believe as an artist and I think for the most part I’ve tried to do that, not always but for the longest part and I know I’m successful and I do that, so I think the most important advice really is to be true to yourself as an artist.

What are your hopes and what are your fears for the future of music?

Jorma: I think the future of music is going to be safe. It’s going to be good. The music environment that we are living at today is not as guitar centered as it was even twenty years ago, but that’s okay. Because you know, the kids, people are always going to be doing something. I think that as somebody that plays, I don’t want to offend anybody, I want to use the word real instrument, but I don’t mean to be dismissive of people who use computers or stuff like that, there’s a lot of ways to be creative. I think it’s important from my view of our industry that people need artists who don’t lose track of traditional instruments and I consider the guitar to be a traditional instrument. That being said, kids they’ve been doing all these things with computers, I recognize those are instruments and that’s a form of art also, but I think there’s a certain organic thing to be able to hold an instrument whether it’s a saxophone, whether it’s the guitar, well you’re not going to hold the piano, but you know what I mean, you’ll sit at one.

"So, I think it was important in a lot of ways that we made some progress and just because of the way things were in the sixties, we got a lot of visible covers in the press of that time. That’s a whole different world, everybody’s got a voice today, given the Internet and all this kind of stuff, so, I think that, I mean we got a lot stuff going on about voting rights in the U.S. right now and again I will say it’s better than it was, half a century ago. But it’s not perfect." (Hot Tuna from album "Burgers", Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Papa John Creach and Sammy Piazza, 1972 / Photo © by Bruce Steinberg)

What does the blues mean to you and also do you find any similarities between the blues and the folk around the world, and I talk about flamenco in Spain, tango in Argentina, fado in Portugal or rebetiko in Greece?

Jorma: I mean first of all, I think what blues means to me is the truth. Good blues tells the truth and that’s an important thing. And blues is sort of evolved, I mean people play it all over the world, but I guess it’s sort or relocated in America as an art form. But yeah, I mean think about flamenco, you know on so many levels, it’s not blues in form because people like to put forms to stuff but I think it’s blues in spirit. I mean blues is not necessarily sad music, there’s a lot of very happy blues dancing and stuff like that. Or take reggae for example. Traditional reggae, fundamental reggae not some of the modern stuff now. It gave a tempo for people, like Bob Marley for example to tell his story. Blues, if we’re talking about the blues form that people like to talk about, the one who has five chords, or whatever boundaries you put around it, it’s a tempo for people to tell a story. But, yeah, I think the spirit of the blues is worldwide, we might talk about it in different ways, I’m far from an expert of music in general but I listen to a lot of it. Think about the bouzouki as an instrument for example. In a lot of ways, to me that’s a blues instrument, without making it sound like Buddy Guy or an American blues musician. I don’t know if you know what I mean. That’s a personally expressive instrument, what could be more bluesy than that?

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would really want to go with a time machine?

Jorma: I think if you asked me to go back in time, I would probably like to go maybe to the late twenties and early thirties, …But I would like to hear some of the people that I considered to be the masters of guitar blues. Robert Johnson, or Blind Arthur Blake or young Rev. Garry Davis or Blind Boy Fulller. To be able to hear those musicians in their time. I think that would be exciting. The other thing would be, I would like to move ahead, let’s say a hundred years to see what happened to guitar music then.

Do you feel more comfortable with electric or acoustic sound and what touches you from finger-picking?

Jorma: To me, the guitar is the guitar obviously, but to me electric guitar and acoustic guitar is apples and oranges in a lot of ways because, when I play electric guitar, I come to play with a band a sort of different mindset, in terms of what I’m doing. I think my first real love is acoustic guitar for a lot of reasons. And one of the things is ‘cause I started out doing that, I still love those intimate sounds and you can either as an acoustic guitar player, you could go somewhere and just play for somebody or play a gig, by yourself without having five friends one of them who owns a van or a truck to carry all the stuff. That being said there is a different kind of excitement playing the electric guitar and everybody who plays the electric guitar knows exactly what I mean. You just kind of, you’re sort of able to soar above the clouds with it you know? It allows you to do so many more textural things, that’s just the nature of the beast. So as a guy that plays both electric and acoustic guitar, I’m incredibly lucky, cause I get to do both. The good news is I have lots of friends when I want to play electric guitar. The good news of the acoustic guitar is, if I want to play by myself, all I need is the guitar.

"I think, because there’s always good music, it’s not like the music is gone these days, sometimes a little harder to find, bit I think what I really miss is the relevance of the music to the society that I lived in, that I felt back in the ‘60s. Of course, that’s a long time ago and I’m an older guy now. When I talk to my kids, it’s a different world." (Jorma Kaukonen with his acoustic guitar / Photo by Scotty Hall)

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and artist and has it helped you become a better musician?

Jorma: I’ve been teaching for a long time. And one of the things that I think happened was and I’m not sure that the word obstacle really applies there, but I’m not coming up with a good answer for you, but to be able to actually explain as a teacher, what it is that I do on the instrument in a way that is unintimidating to students and makes them realize that it’s accessible and they can do that, that was a tough obstacle to overcome but over the years I’ve been able to do that. The other thing was the blessings of all this process is that teaching seriously for the last quarter of the century or so has made me a much better player. As a guitar player, you know anybody plays will know that, when you’re sitting down to play you don’t architect every move, you’re not thinking about how am I going to this, what am I doing etc. You just do what you do. But handing on your process of understanding the tools at your disposal, I think it makes it easier to select the right tool without thinking about it and that’s really important.

Are there any memories from the famous “Human Be-In" event (San Francisco, 1967), which you’d like to share with us?

Jorma: Oh boy. So, you know, people get together in large crowds all the time. I don’t see another thing like the Human Be-In happening again in my life, but you never know. I mean if you just think about what was happening in San Francisco at that time, with the city, a loud, a large number of freaks to exist in a life-style of their own choosing and congregate in large numbers and entertain each other. That was an amazing thing, a truly amazing thing. To have the freedom to do that and not be suppressed by “the man” or the system, that was an amazing think.

How did the idea of the golden tooth start?”

Jorma: So, the in early 70s, I was ice-skating with my ex-wife and I did a hockey stop and my feet stopped, but my body didn’t and there was a fence around, and my hands caught the fence, but there was a poll, holding it up, it was right where that tooth was and it clipped that tooth. It didn’t even hurt my nose, I didn’t get a bloody lip, it knocked that tooth out. So, now I don’t have a tooth. I go to the dentist, and he put a tooth in, it wasn’t gold. I never liked the way it felt, it just didn’t feel right. And here’s the funny part of the story. I had a friend who was a boxer. And we’re in the studio, this boxer guy his name was Bad News Green, was showing my ex how to throw a punch and she threw this punch as I was walking by, now she claims that was an accident I don’t know, all I do know is I was walking by she threw this punch and again it hit me in the mouth and knocked out the new fake tooth and it didn’t hurt my lip it was just like it was meant to knock that tooth out. I went back to the dentist. I said I need another fake tooth, but I never liked the way the other tooth felt, and he said, well I could give you a gold one but you’re not going to like that. Now, today people do all kinds of stuff with their teeth, but they didn’t do that back then. So, he gave me the gold, I loved the way it felt, and I still have the same tooth.

Jorma Kaukonen's website    Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch

(Jorma Kaukonen, Fur Peace Ranch / Photo © by Scotty Hall)

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