Roots Blues artist Jesse Cahn talks about the reminiscence, honesty and human condition of the Blues

"I think that Blues speaks to the human condition in a way that few other forms of music do. I think that Traditional Country and Flamenco perhaps share this a bit."

Jesse Cahn: Ameri-Cahn-a Roots Legacy

Jesse Cahn grew up in the coffeehouse scene of the early sixties. His mother - Barbara Dane - is a renowned Blues and Traditional Jazz singer and his father - Rolf Cahn - was an accomplished and revered guitarist and teacher. Both of his parents owned and operated music venues. He says "One of my earliest memories is of Jesse Fuller -the famed songster and author of 'San Francisco Bay Blues' - coming to the house hauling along a prototype of his famous 'Footdella', a bass instrument constructed out of piano parts that he played with his right foot as part of his one man band."  Other influences were K.C. Douglas, Brownie McGee, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin' Hopkins, all of whom he knew personally and who's styles are blended into his own.                                                                       Photo by Holly Roach 

Jesse went on to play in several bands during the Rock era of the Sixties, (including drums with the great and legendary Chambers Brothers), in the late Seventies Jesse leaned towards Classic Country, fronting his own band - "Jesse Chisholm & The Goodnight-Loving Band" until the early Nineties.  Since the mid-Nineties he has concentrated on bringing his brand of Blues - Acoustic and Electric - as well as his well honed Originals and great eclectic AmeriCahnA to the Oklahoma City area. His latest CD is called "Jesse Cahn's AmeriCahnA".

Jesse specializes in teaching and performing acoustic fingerstyle Blues as well as Roots and Originals which he has gathered and composed over a lifetime of musical experience. Teaching the history of the Blues and doing guitar seminars and workshops is another rewarding aspect of his career. He also occasionally fronts a kickass electric Blues band - 'Junkyard Dogs' as well as an acoustic trio formed of himself and two other veteran artists. Another important dimension to this multi-talented entertainer and educator is the unique Duo he has had with Miss Blues. They did a presentation called "Reminiscence of The Blues" which was both entertaining and educational and was featured in February 2003 at the African American Museum in Dallas, TX.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Jesse Cahn sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

The “Jesse Cahn sound” is a little hard to pin down. I play so many different styles of Blues - from pre-war finger-style to Blues-Rock to post war 50s & early 60s styles. I lean much more towards the subtler, more nuance driven kind of stuff than the ‘shredder’ SRV, etc. kind of playing. My singing is always ME, I don’t try and copy anyone or sound like anyone but my own true self. I DO sort of channel the artists and characters in my songs and if I can’t live them in some way, I don’t do them. I shy away from the ‘booty’ kind of material because, to me, the Blues is much more than that, although I don’t have a problem with fun, sexy songs - as long as they are artistically solid. Doing ANY song as just a gimmick has always rubbed me the wrong way. HONESTY and relating to the Human Condition is a running theme in my music. I once said, and still believe, that “Blues is a conversation with circumstance.”

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

All the experiences of my life inform my art. The ‘ups’ AND the ‘downs’.

"Too many ‘shredders’ in the Blues guitar scene and not enough attention to detail and nuance."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Wow! Okay... The most busy and interesting period was probably my late teens and early twenties when I was on the road a lot. Playing drums with the Chambers Brothers was fun and exciting most of the time. My Country Rock band - “The Goodnight-Loving Band” in Santa Cruz, Ca. in the 80s was interesting and fun and full of adventure. My trips to Europe with my mother - Barbara Dane - in the early 2000s was an unforgettable experience. I Love Europe and the people there are great! Best and Worst moments? Hmmm... as the kids say “It’s all good.”

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think that Blues speaks to the human condition in a way that few other forms of music do. I think that Traditional Country and Flamenco perhaps share this a bit. Where ever people are falling in and out of Love and babies are dying and shoes wearing out and light bills not paid and fathers leaving mothers and mothers dying and the cold wind blowing people will warm their hearts with song.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Another hard one - after 50 years of playing. So many great gigs and jams!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Well, ALL the old Blues guys. Mance, K.C., Lightnin’, Brownie, Lonnie Johnson, Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, Big Mama Thornton, Little Milton, John Lee Hooker, and all the rest. And of course Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Janice Joplin. Best advice? LOL! Lightnin’ -when I was a crazy 15 year old - “When you get mad, hit a PILLOW! Remember you are a guitar picker.” Oh and everything that Carroll Peery ever told me. (He took care of, and handled - in various ways - lots of the people mentioned above when they came to Berkeley. He is a prolific Blues songwriter in his own right, and was my legal guardian and a lifelong, dear, friend.)

All the experiences of my life inform my art. The ‘ups’ AND the ‘downs’. (Photo: Jesse with Barbara Dane and Byron Menendez, in Yosemite, around 1956 at Camp Curry)

Are there any memories from Barbara Dane and the late Rolf Cahn which you’d like to share with us?

When I was around 11 years old I sat in the 3rd row at the Ash Grove as my mom - Barbara Dane - performed an evening with her old band consisting of Wellman Braud on Bass and Kenny Whitson on Piano & Cornett. (This band can be heard on a CD of hers “LIVE AT THE ASH GROVE, NEW YEAR'S EVE 1961-62”) And at the end of the night when everyone had left and she was in the dressing room, I went up to the stage. Right where she had been standing there were two little holes ground into the plywood stage where her heels had been during the night’s performance.

Just 2 weeks before he died my father - Rolf Cahn - can be seen in a video jamming the night away with his friends at his house in Santa Fe. He was so happy and we were all so carried away by the music that we totally forgot how sick he was. We were all in the moment - and the moment was music and the music was magic. He always said “It’s in the Music.” And he was right!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Everything! LOL!! We will NEVER have the feeling of the old guys again. Listen to the precious recordings we are so lucky to have of them. Cherish these treasures. Having said that, there are a lot of really good players on the scene. Jack White, Ben Harper, Keb Mo’, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Gary Clark Jr. and on and on. And we are really having a sort of renaissance in a quiet way. The old clubs and radio stations are gone, but we have lots of festivals and house concerts and the internet. My Hopes are that we stay rooted in the traditions and NUANCES of this music and don’t give into the sort of commercial influences that tend to pull things down to the lowest common denominator. I have REALLY seen this - with tragic consequences - in the Classic Country, or what I like to call Traditional Country idiom. What passes for ‘Country’ nowadays is barely recognizable.  The same with what is called ‘R&B’ - NO relation to its roots. Wilson Pickett? Smokey Robinson? I don’t think so! LOL!! My fears are that we will forget where we came from and what we were doing in the first place. We must keep that human connection. Real people playing real instruments and singing without pitch correction, etc. The technology can be both a blessing and a curse.

Doing ANY song as just a gimmick has always rubbed me the wrong way. HONESTY and relating to the Human Condition is a running theme in my music. I once said, and still believe, that “Blues is a conversation with circumstance.”

Which memory from K.C. Douglas, Brownie McGee, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin' Hopkins makes you smile?

K.C... Just sitting at his house - in around 1963 or 64 eating BBQ and hanging out.

Brownie... Being on the road with him up in Boston and staying at friends’ houses because Jim Crow was still so near in 1965.

Mance... His humility and dignity. He never had to carry a guitar, because everyone was always glad to lend theirs. His name is short for “Emancipated” you know.

Lightnin’... That look he gives you when you goof up on one of his 13 bar turnarounds when you play drums with him. And the brilliant way he commanded an audience. His sense of humor and his great attitude about life.

In your opinion what was the reasons that made 60s to be the center of the folk searching and social conquests?

WWII. The baby boomers. The emergence of the American middle class. The inevitable class and cultural mixes and the emigration around the country after the depression and during the War. Radio. And then Television. The breakdown of regional differences. The access to college by millions of young people. The move from rural to urban society. I could - and should - write a book on that one!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Americana and World music?

A lot of this one is contained in my earlier comments. Jack White is a great example of a modern roots musician. ACCESS. The main thing that we have going for us today is ACCESS. We can Google almost anything. We can find great examples of epic performances on YouTube, etc. Social media has opened up the whole distribution and promotion process to all those willing to work it. Home recording of decent quality is now commonplace. I was very impressed a couple of years ago by some Barcelona artists that my sister - Nina Menendez - brought to the Bay Area. They were truly WORLD conscious and their art and music reflected it. My brother - Pablo Menendez - and his son, my nephew Osamu Menendez are doing amazing things with Jazz and fusion and Blues and Rock in Cuba. A few years ago I was in Holland and was very impressed with the Blues and Jazz scene there. China is just opening up to these outside influences, and that is very exciting. I have a friend from right here in Oklahoma City who has hit alt-rock, million seller CDs in Thailand! As long as we don’t surrender to the marketplace and technology we will be alright. What we do is ROOTS music. So as long as we stick to our ROOTS we will be alright!

How has the music changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Too many ‘shredders’ in the Blues guitar scene and not enough attention to detail and nuance. ‘Playing the rests’. That space BETWEEN the notes. That certain ‘feel’ that slightly withheld feeling, the just ‘behind’ the beat thing that DEFINES real Blues must be preserved - or else we are just playing Blues influenced Rock/Pop.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Too many choices... As far as music... It would be.. To be a fly on the wall at the “Kind of Blue” Sessions with Miles and the guys. That would be amazing.

Jesse Cahn - official website

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