Photos by Scott Hall
Offstage With Music Legend Jorma Kaukonen
With a music career spanning more than five decades, Jorma Kaukonen has certainly earned his spot as a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 1969, as lead guitarist for the legendary band Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen performed at Woodstock. That same year, he formed the acoustic blues band Hot Tuna. Over the decades, what began as a sideline has evolved to its present-day state as a collaboration with lifelong friend Jack Casady.
Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, also are proprietors of Fur Peace Ranch in southern Ohio’s rural Meigs County, so called because it’s a “fer piece down a dirt road.” The ranch is a destination for amateur guitarists from as far afield as Budapest and Bombay. They come to attend multiday workshops taught by the many top-notch musicians Kaukonen has met over the years. His recent memoir, Been So Long: My Life and Music, delves into his storied career.
AAA World: What are your memories of Woodstock?
Jorma Kaukonen: It’s hard to recall details, partly because we didn’t hang out at Woodstock; we just drove in for the show and left pretty quickly when we were done. Carlos Santana’s transcendent performance is one of my landmark memories. As someone who makes my living performing in front of people, I can tell you there’s absolutely a dynamic relationship between an audience and a performer. The positive energy and appreciative vibe that emanated out of that huge mass of humanity is something I don’t expect I’ll ever encounter again. I also remember the miles and miles of parked cars along very narrow roads as I was driving us out of there. My apologies to anyone who found themselves missing some trim as a result!
AAAW: Why do you think Woodstock, 50 years later, is still seen as iconic?
Kaukonen: Woodstock was a happening of cosmic proportions. I remember thinking when I got back to San Francisco [that] it was all like a dream. The so-called Woodstock Nation, not just those that were there but the entire counterculture of the time, was a very big deal. The issues they were confronting—like civil rights, the Vietnam War—everyone was all fired up about something, and yet a whole generation came together for ‘Three Days of Peace, Love and Music,’ as the concert was described. The struggle for positive possibilities as manifested by the Woodstock spirit is still with us.
AAAW: Jefferson Airplane grew out of a vibrant music scene in San Francisco in the 1960s. What was it like?
Kaukonen: It wasn’t just music; there was a huge artistic community of all kinds, sort of like Paris in the 1920s. With a big coffeehouse scene, bars that would hire utterly unknown musicians, even bowling alleys and pizza joints where musicians would play, it was easy to make music in that town. Many musicians lived in [the neighborhood] Haight-Ashbury, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. Before tens of thousands of people came during the Summer of Love in 1967, there was very much a sense of community, a feeling that we were all supportive of one another. We’d go to concerts to hear the music but also to hang out with all our buddies.
AAAW: Can you give some quick takes on the people living there then? Like Janis Joplin?
Kaukonen: Janis’s sister Laura has told me that Janis was constantly reinventing herself. The Janis I knew was the folksy, bluesy Janis, a powerful and authentic blues singer of incredibly high standards. I didn’t really know the rock-and-roll Janis. We just hung out and played music together. We did shoot pool a few times, and she was devastatingly good at it. Nine-ball is the game I remember her humiliating me at.
AAAW: What about Jerry Garcia?
Kaukonen: Jerry was a friendly, open and welcoming guy, not afflicted with a lot of ego-driven stuff like so many other artists. To me, one thing that’s important is an artist’s purity of intent, and I always felt like Jerry had purity of intent in whatever he played, whether it was in a bluegrass or a jug band, or whether it was with the Grateful Dead or with the Warlocks, the group that preceded the Dead.
AAAW: And Grace Slick?
Kaukonen: Ah, Grace. Such an amazing talent and a powerful artist on so many levels but also a force of nature with absolutely no verbal boundaries; a conversation with Grace is always very colorful and interesting. I called her up a while back and told her it had been an honor to make music with her.
AAAW: In your book you say you were ‘seduced’ by rock ’n’ roll, and it took you away from your first love of traditional music. How so?
Kaukonen: In the ’60s, we were all immersed in rock ’n’ roll; there was no escape from it. Everyone listened to it; our parents hated it; we danced to it; it was woven into the soundtrack of our lives in a hundred different ways. Nowadays, it’s become almost traditional American music, but at the time, it was revolutionary and even subversive—and it was pretty damn hard not to be seduced by it.
AAAW: But with Hot Tuna celebrating its 50th anniversary, you’ve had many years to explore all kinds of more traditional music.
Kaukonen: In the beginning, we were under the comfortable shade of Jefferson Airplane to support us financially, so with Hot Tuna, we were able to experiment to find a different musical identity. And since we’ve gone through several different incarnations over the years, that experimentation has been a constant. Yet somehow, we’ve managed to build a following of fans that’s willing to go along for the ride as we evolve in different directions.
AAAW: And that ride will continue into the foreseeable future?
Kaukonen: Yes. I still tour probably 120 to 130 days a year. And there’s all the music we create at Fur Peace Ranch where musicians from all over the world come together and create a community similar to what we had in San Francisco in the 1960s. And they’ll take that attachment to a musical community back with them to their own homes.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.