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. www.peacecoalition.org. $20, $25,
$60, & $110. Saturday, February 28, 8 p.m.
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