Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the February


2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From the Lovin’ Spoonful to a Concert for Peace

Despite the fact that he hasn’t had a record out in five years,

singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist John Sebastian continues

to tour all over the U.S. and Canada. Sebastian’s most recent CD,

"Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost," a jug band recording he released in 1999, is an

ode to the late jug band innovator Gus Cannon. His previous release,

"I Want My Roots," for the New Jersey-based Music Masters label, also

featured the late blues mandolin player, Yank Rachell.

The musician and co-founder of the legendary 1960s group, the Lovin’

Spoonful, will turn 60 in March, he revealed last week in an interview

from his home near Woodstock, New York. Like Richie Havens, Sebastian

was on the bill at the Woodstock festival in 1969 – a credit that

helped boost his visibility and launch his successful solo career.

John Sebastian and Michelle Shocked are headliners at the annual

Concert for Peace, a benefit for the Princeton Coalition for Peace

Action. The show takes place at Nassau Presbyterian Church on

Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m. General admission is just $20 for the

annual fundraiser. There are also sponsor tickets at $110 per person

that include a pre-concert reception and dinner, and priority seating

for the show. Reserved premium seating is also offered to patrons at

$60 per ticket.

Because of the phenomenal success of his short-lived rock group, the

Lovin’ Spoonful, in the 1960s, and continued radio airplay on classic

rock stations, Sebastian doesn’t face the kind of financial pressures

many folk singers face. He doesn’t have to be out on the road all the

time, but can pick and choose the shows and festivals that he would

like to play. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s publishing and record sales

royalties provide something of an income base for him.

Among the radio hits the Lovin’ Spoonful enjoyed during its short

career from 1965 to 1968 were some tunes that are still staples of

classic rock radio stations in some parts of the country. The band’s

hits included "Do You Believe in Magic," "Summer in the City,"

"Daydream," "Make Up Your Mind," and "Younger Generation."

"I’ve been really lucky and blessed in a lot of ways in that some of

this material has been recorded by other people," he says. "This may

sound self-serving, but all those tunes that I wrote that I intended

to last for two months have had an amazingly good shelf life," he

says, quickly adding he never tires of playing them at performances.

Not all 1960s rock can boast such staying power.

"They don’t sound too much like ‘Yummy Yummy, Yummy I’ve Got Love in

my Tummy,’" he adds, laughing.

"I did shy away from a lot of my ’60s’ material in the 1970s, but

thankfully, I’ve had enough material on the charts that I’m not left

with one or two tunes that I have to do over and over again at my live

shows. It’s more like eight tunes, so over the years, I’ve been able

to kind of pick and choose among them at shows."

Sebastian’s live shows are always educational as well as entertaining.

He takes time to explain the origins of the blues and jug band tunes

he renders, and then launches into all of them with a passion,

alternating between harmonicas, conventional guitars, and the baritone

guitar he helped develop with some luthiers – guitar makers – who live

in Woodstock. "Nowadays," he says, "I really end up presenting a lot

of that material in the context in which it was born because it’s all

rooted in something else. The Lovin’ Spoonful were complete

kleptomaniacs in musical styles, and we really enjoyed slamming from

one genre to another."

Sebastian’s 1996 album, "I Want My Roots," is an exploration into the

blues and jug band music that had such an effect on him in his

formative years. Growing up in Greenwich Village, Sebastian’s father,

also named John, was one of the world’s premier classical harmonica

players; he died in 1986. His mother wrote radio scripts and later

worked as a novelist. In his youth, Sebastian hung out at Barney

Josephson’s club, Cafe Society, where he met and befriended people

like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Josh White and his son, Josh

White Jr., and others.

Sebastian has performed at several of the annual Clearwater Festivals,

held every June in Westchester County to celebrate the Hudson River

and raise awareness of the need to continue to clean up the river. He

is always happy to lend a hand to environmental causes or fundraisers

like Saturday’s annual Concert for Peace.

"I can’t get on a very big soap box with much of the material I

write," he explains, adding, "the songs are more about love and some

goofy guy who’s somehow always screwed up in love. In fact, our idea

with the Lovin’ Spoonful was to be kind of an anti-protest band," he

says. In the mid-1960s, he recalls, it seemed every other band was

struggling to play Dylan tunes and write their own protest songs to be

relevant. To set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, the

Lovin’ Spoonful made a conscious decision to just do pop tunes.

"We just knew that our thing wasn’t that," he adds, "and so I do

benefit concerts when I can fit them in, and it’s a great thing."

Asked about Woodstock’s live music and coffee house scene, Sebastian,

who plays harmonica, guitar, autoharp and banjo, says the local scene

is somewhat depleted from what it used to be because of a lingering

down economy, but he remains hopeful new clubs will open up again.

We are suffering in the same way lots of clubs in the city and the

rest of the country have suffered," he says, "but, for a musician, I

have been happily surprised by the number of times I’ve been called

for autoharp or harmonica for studio sessions," he adds. In late

January he joined former Band drummer Levon Helm and New York City

guitarist Jimmy Vivino in a benefit at B.B. King’s Blues Club for

former Howlin’ Wolf band guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

Working with local luthiers in Woodstock, Sebastian helped develop the

first baritone guitar, something he carries with him everywhere for

his solo shows.

"I worked with these guitar makers to develop the baritone guitar

because I was playing a lot of solo shows and wanting to sound a

little larger," he explains. Sebastian reports the guitar-making scene

is alive and well in and around Woodstock, where the rents are

relatively inexpensive compared to New York City. Always humble about

his accomplishments, Sebastian quickly adds, "I’d attribute the

development of the baritone guitar more to Joe Veillette and Harvey

Citron, two local luthiers up here who built the first ones."

"What the baritone does is give me a little more bass punch. Frankly,

it’s also great for 60-year-old guys trying to sing songs they used to

sing in their 20s," he adds, laughing.

Aside from a brief-but-brilliant career with the Lovin’ Spoonful that

ended when the band broke up in 1968, Sebastian’s solo career is

marked by a healthy discography: "John B. Sebastian" and "John

Sebastian Live" in 1970 for MGM Records, "Cheapo Cheapo Productions

Presents the Real Live John Sebastian" and "The Four of Us" in 1971

for Reprise Records, and "Welcome Back" in 1976. In 1989, Rhino

Records, the reissue specialist record company, released "The Best of

John Sebastian." He recorded and released "Tar Beach" for Shanachie

Records in 1993, followed in 1996 by "I Want My Roots" for

MusicMasters/BMG in 1996.

Like any veteran blues or folksinger, Sebastian has a deep well of

tunes from which to draw at his live shows. He cites among his most

important influences bluesmen like Rachell, harmonica player Terry,

who often performed shows with Sebastian’s father, and guitarist

Mississippi John Hurt.

For an audience unfamiliar with Sebastian, he makes it his business to

talk or "’splain a little" about each tune, at his live shows. Songs

include classic blues, jug band tunes, Lovin’ Spoonful songs, and

songs from his lengthy solo career. His natural gift for teaching is

why he remains a popular folk festival performer, and as a fundraiser

for public TV stations like WNET Channel 13.

"I pretty much try to give a little context to most of these tunes,"

he says, "explain how they came about and explain a little about jug

band music as well, because it’s something that really was at the core

of the early Spoonful material."

Of Michelle Shocked, the Texas-raised singer-songwriter who shares the

bill with him on Saturday, Sebastian says, "we haven’t crossed paths

in some time on the road, but I find her to be tremendously creative."

-Richard J. Skelly

John Sebastian and Michelle Shocked, Annual Concert for Peace, the

Coalition for Peace Action, Nassau Presbyterian Church 61 Nassau

Street, Princeton, 609-924-5022. $20, $25,

$60, & $110. Saturday, February 28, 8 p.m.

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