Jorma Kaukonen Interview

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen

My first meeting with Jorma Kaukonen was pure fluke. In February 2009, just months after I had uploaded to youtube a cover of “Hesitation Blues,” a song Jorma made famous both with Hot Tuna in the 1970s and with Janis Joplin on a bootleg recording called The Typewriter Tapes,  my dear friend and I went to see him perform with G.E. Smith at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a legendary small venue in Santa Monica, California. The many times I have seen Jorma since then attest to the fact that it was a terrific show, but it was special for me in more ways than that.

Before he and G.E. played “Hesitation Blues,” Jorma told the audience that he had just seen a thirteen-year-old girl “sing the shit out of this on youtube.” There I was, in the middle of an unspeakably awful 9th grade year– complimented by my absolute musical hero. After I explained the situation after the show first to a McCabe’s employee and then to Jorma’s manager, Jorma used his few minutes between the early and late shows to meet me, an experience for which I am still grateful. Turns out that not only is he a terrific musician, but also an exceedingly kind and generous person.

Since that show, I have seen and spoken to Jorma several more times, but it was only recently that I decided to attempt an interview– the following is the email transcript.

Jefferson Airplane, 1967– Jorma is the one in stripes

LA: You taught guitar in the early 60s before your work with Airplane and Hot Tuna. Was it strange going back so many years later to teach at the Fur Peace Ranch?

JK: Indeed, I started teaching early on in my fingerpicking career. I had really only been playing that style about three years when I moved to California and found that for a while I could make more money teaching than performing. I didn’t really get back into teaching until the mid 80’s when I taught for two semesters at the New School For Social Research in New York City. In the late 80’s, Happy Traum of Homespun approached me to do an instructional and over the next decade I did a number of them for him. When wer got the Fur Peace Ranch off the ground in 1998, it was like coming home.

LA: What motivated you to get back to teaching guitar?

JK: It just seemed like it was something that I needed to do. I enjoy being able to pass on what I have learned, the fellowship of musicians is very special and incidentally it has made and continues to make me a better player.

LA: Do you feel that all your years of touring and recording have made it easier to teach?

JK: There is a co-dependent relationship here… as things have transpired, I think teaching has made touring and recording easier.

LA: If you could impart one thing about playing music to your students, what do you think it would be?

JK: First of all… love to do it. Then focus on attainable goals… learn to be constructively self critical and don’t forget to practice.

LA: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about roots in music, and variety in musical styles. 

In listening to both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, I am probably struck most of all by the mix of different styles in both—you can discern rock, blues, jazz, folk, and pop in Airplane, and folk, blues, rock, jazz, and gospel in Hot Tuna. Do you think it’s important for groups not to limit themselves to one genre or one style?

JK: If you consider the disparate bunch of characters in the Airplane it is not surprising that there is such an eclectic artistic mix. Generally speaking, one needs to follow one’s heart. It is always constructive to bring something fresh into any musical mix… obviously there are no rules here. That said, even though I do not consider myself strictly a blues musician… there is no question that blues has colored the way I look at things.

 LA: Hot Tuna’s recent work and your solo material both have a heavy emphasis on roots sounds—what do you think is the importance of roots in music?

JK: There is strength in tradition but don’t forget, at one time what we consider ‘roots’ music today was new. It would be interesting to know what someone like, say, Robert Johnson would have considered to be ‘roots.’ For me, traditional music is very important.

LA: Your work is now better-known than that of many of your biggest influences. How do you feel about that?

JK: Well, for better or worse, that is the way of things. One of the things that I am proudest of in my career is to be able to bring some of those artists I consider to be ‘masters’ to a wider audience.

LA: My generation’s influences are often from the 60s through the 90s—not many people I know listen to the early-20th century folk, blues, and jazz musicians that inspired your generation. Do you feel that for younger bands, roots have been somewhat displaced? 

JK: Roots as such will always be changing… for you to listen to music of the 60’s would be like me listening to music of the 20’s when I was young. The good news is, that thanks to digital technology, it’s all out there and you can easily find it if you want to. There is no shortage of new talent… hopefully there will always be a place for old talent too.