In retrospect, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were just as responsible for the late 1960s/early 70s blues and folk music renaissance in the U.S. as were their British brethren. Bands like Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart’s early bands, Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac were all blues bands, at least initially. By the time they flew across the pond to make their first tours of the U.S. in the mid and late 60s, all of these groups were playing blues and blues-rock.
Kaukonen (pronounced cow-cow-nen) and Casady, after leaving Jefferson Airplane, a band that also played blues rock, formed a group called Hot Tuna in 1972. Hot Tuna became an extremely popular touring act. It didn’t take long for the band to be playing arenas and large outdoor rock festivals. Kaukonen and other American musicians like Jersey City-based John Hammond, with whom Kaukonen attended Antioch College, deserve much of the credit for bringing about the blues revival of the late 60s and early 70s. By the time disco came about in the mid-1970s, Hot Tuna had decided to take a break from their rigorous touring schedule, and the band left the scene for a while. But Casady and Kaukonen began touring together again in 1983.
Kaukonen, who will turn 68 later this year, is unusually well-preserved for one who lived through the rock festival years of the 60s and 70s with the Jefferson Airplane and later, Hot Tuna. He grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a diplomat father and a mother who was a school teacher. Since 1992, he has made his home in Pomeroy, Ohio, when not on the road. He comes to the Patriot Theater at the Trenton War Memorial on Thursday, April 3, as part of the Kaplan Series in which artist and audience are onstage together to create an intimate musical setting.
"Growing up in D.C. before rock `n’ roll happened, there was a lot of what became known as rockabilly, but also a lot of blues and gospel music," says Kaukonen in a phone interview from his home office in Ohio. "My mother took me to see Mahalia Jackson. One year one of the records my father got from his hi-fi club was `Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs of Jimmy Rodgers.’ My father was sort of a classical music snob but later in life he discovered popular music again."
Kaukonen began playing guitar in his native D.C. as a 15-year-old but says he didn’t get serious about the instrument until he was at Antioch. There, he learned the art of finger style guitar, a different approach to playing the instrument that results in a more full-bodied, one-man band sound. "I played for five years before I started finger picking. There was this guy at Antioch named Ian Buchanan, and I just kept pestering him until I learned it," Kaukonen recalls, "and before that, I’d never seen anybody do it."
These days, Kaukonen, along with David Bromberg, G.E. Smith, Roy Book Binder, Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, Woody Mann, and Chris Hillman are all instructors in finger style and other guitar styles at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy. Since 1998, when he officially opened his guitar and stringed instrument camp, Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, a former civil engineer, have had to cope with all the demands of a growing small business, all while Kaukonen was on the road upwards of 150 days a year. The land that Kaukonen purchased in 1992 had enough room for a small camp but there was no on-site lodging at that time. Since he and his wife moved there in 1992 from Woodstock, NY, Kaukonen and his crew have created what has become a well-known instructional school for those who want to improve their guitar skills with less intimidating and more accessible learning process.
"When we bought the property there was nothing there but sticker bushes and poison ivy, and now there’s about 25 buildings," he says. "We have cabins so people can stay on site if they want to, and we even have a little restaurant as well."
Kaukonen quickly points out it was Vanessa who was true force behind this project. "I came up with the idea originally," he says, "since I’ve always enjoyed teaching. But my wife said, `You know, we need more than just tee shirts to survive.’ There’s no question she was the visionary but because of my history, my name opens doors in some ways, so the two of us working together really made it happen. We’re in our 11th year now. Vanessa works here every day. I teach guitar, I play guitar, I do interviews. My job is easy. She has the other skills, and we have a great staff." The website is www.furpeaceranch.com.
"I’ve been playing this music for a long time," he says of his blues and traditional folk. "I’m not a symphonic composer. This music is really populist music, the kind of thing anyone can learn."
Were there some stumbling blocks along the way? "We had to underwrite the mortgage on it ourselves," he says, "but then an amazing thing happened, and I guess if business people could count on this happening, they’d all be doing it. We just continued to grow almost exponentially and by the time we were in business five years, we weren’t having to subsidize the ranch anymore, which was really amazing, because for a small business it’s not a necessity.
"If you’re a garbage man, you’re in business, people have to get rid of their garbage," he says, "but people don’t have to come to a guitar camp in southeast Ohio. I can’t really quantify how it happened other than to say we were very careful in how we managed our money. Now, I’m in the local Chamber of Commerce. Who would’ve thought?"
On April 3 at the War Memorial Kaukonen will be joined by Scotch Plains-based mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff and New York-based acoustic guitarist Woody Mann. Kaukonen is tall and still sturdy looking with all the classic Nordic features, right down to his beard. Asked about aches and pains, he says he has plenty. "I got up at 5 a.m. this morning to go to the gym. My wife and I have a 20-month-old daughter who we adopted from China. She keeps me on my toes but do I hurt more than I did five years ago? You bet, but once again, nothing really serious has ever happened to me. I’m a lucky guy, I really am."
After attending Antioch Kaukonen headed to California, where he caught his first big break, the chance to be part of a groundbreaking group, the Jefferson Airplane. He and his bass player from high school, Jack Casady, joined the group together. "Joining the Jefferson Airplane was just an unbelievable blessing for me," says Kaukonen. "I was a good enough guitar player back then but not all that many people would have heard of me. As a result of the Jefferson Airplane, I’ve been a pretty well-paid folk musician the rest of my life."
This year marks 50 years that he’s been playing together with bassist Casady. When the two left the Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna turned legions of people on to the simple power and beauty of the blues. "Hot Tuna was absolutely a blues band," Kaukonen says. "When we were first touring, people thought a lot of the stuff we did from Rev. Gary Davis and others were songs I had written. They’d come up and say, `Hey man, `Candy Man,’ that’s a great song, how’d you write that?’" He would tell them they were just historians, that it was actually an old classic blues tune from Rev. Gary Davis.
"For whatever reasons, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have always been great for us in Hot Tuna," he says. "I remember we played the War Memorial back in the day with Hot Tuna. But this (April 3 concert) is different; it’s much more intimate with the audience right there on stage with you. We’ll do a mix of traditional blues and folk songs, and I have to mention that Barry Mitterhoff, who plays mandolin, tenor guitar, tenor banjo and is just fantastic.
"You could say our music spans from the cradle to the grave, so aside from some well-known blues tunes, we’ll also be doing tunes by Lefty Frizell, Merle Haggard, and Hank Williams."
Jorma Kaukonen, Thursday, April 3, 7 p.m., with audience and artist onstage at Patriot Theater, Trenton War Memorial. $30. 609-984-8400.