Photo Courtesy DLP Concerts
Blues Man John Hammond
Given the current mainstream enthusiasm for bluegrass, do you feel blues music, which is an older form, really, has been overlooked or even misunderstood?
I think that blues has always been a major foundation in pop music, as has bluegrass. It's music of the people, it's fundamental, it's got all the passion and the zeal of great music. And I think blues has been in the past been overlooked in some ways, but I think more recently it's been acknowledged as the great music that it is.
What are the reasons, in the past, that it wasn't more widely acknowledged?
Well, you know, it's hard to - it was tried to be maligned and put off the air, and discredited - I think all of that has failed because blues persists, and there's always new artists with new voices being heard.
What drew you to blues originally? How old were you? What are your roots?
The first memory I have of being aware of blues was when my father [John Hammond, Sr.,. then a talent scout for Columbia Records] took me to hear Big Bill Broomzy - this was in 1949 - I was seven.
Can you tell me about that experience?
I remember the music and the man. He was a friend of my father's so I was introduced to him, and he was just this huge guy, with a very gentle spirit and a fantastic guitar player. I eventually began to buy records and become aware of this music that was so compelling to me. During the 50s I was a teenager and beginning to form my tastes and blues was at the forefront. I was into artists like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and Josh White, Big Bill Broomsey, of course, and LeadBelly. When rock and roll hit the scene in the mid-50s I liked artists like Bo Diddly and Chuck Berry, Little Richard, um... Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the Blue Cats. All of these fantastic players that were you know, into the music. And it was - for the first time you were hearing black and white artists together, and I don't know - I was just very excited by the music and the way it made me feel.
That racial element - blues has been associated with African American culture - is that a big part of why it was not so widely accepted?
How many years of racial segregation and trying to malign people because of the color of their skin? - I mean, I think that was, it had a major part of it in the 20s and the 30s. It was not allowed for black artists to record country music or for white artists to record blues. There was fundamental ideological crap that went down, but that was broken. I think that my father had a lot to do with that. In 1938 he put on a show in New York at Carnegie Hall, called Spirituals to Swing, in which black and white artists played together on the same stage, and it brought down a lot of the barriers.
Tell me about your appreciation for Robert Johnson and about the significance of his impact on American music.
In the 1930s there were, there was this music that evolved from various sources called blues, and the country blues was the most popular form in those early days, which was before electric instruments and so forth, and artists like Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller - these were popular artists that got recorded in their - when recordings were made available locally. Robert Johnson was maybe the synthesis of these fantastic solo artists that could really put across a song and music in a dynamic way - he was an incredible guitar player, a great singer - and some really haunting songs that were unforgettable. Not much was known about him at that time, and even when the recordings were beginning to be reissued there was still not much known about his life. In the last 10 years or so, a whole lot has been uncovered in terms of who he was and where he traveled and his influence, obviously, is intense. I mean, artists like Eric Clapton, and on and on and on are acknowledging that he is what inspired them to play, and I can join that same boat and say he was a major influence on my becoming a blues singer.
I get the sense that what you do sort of puts you a foot in the past, a foot in the present. Do you feel like you live in more than one era at once - does that make sense?
That's very interesting statement... I - what do I've done for 44 years now. I have enjoyed a modicum of success, and been able to go worldwide with what I do. I think of blues as a continuum of - it's a music that's so rich in tradition. I feel part of that tradition, I feel like I'm doing something that has been done before and will be done again and I will add my voice and my perspective to what I do - I think that's what any artist does, anyway, but in terms of blues, to be able to, you know, continue this tradition is very rewarding for me.
Do you feel there's any danger that blues will disappear?
I don't at all. In fact, it's just as popular or more so today than it has been in the past. I, you know, observe the audiences that come to hear me, and I see the age going from teens to 60s and 70s, and so it's a wide gamut. I mean, blues has never been top of the pops, really, but for those who like the little bit more depth and feeling of the music, will always be attracted to it. It gets right down to the heart of the matter.
One thing with bluegrass - the newgrass, the various evolutions and convolutions of bluegrass - some people like it, some people don't.
And yet it persists.
And yet it persists. Is there that potential in blues? Is it staying purer?
You know, every artist has their own take on the music - there will be some more traditionalists, and there will be more experimentalists, and whatever, and pushing the envelope is one of the things that human beings tend to do. I've stayed within my own perception of how I feel the music - I've done recordings that are more on the R&B side, and some that are more in the ballad side, but I would say my main focus is in that intense, pure blues.
What is your next project?
Well, I'm going to record again next year. It will be over 30 records for me in my career. And it will be a blues record.
Is there anyone you would love to work with, that you haven't so far, that perhaps you may not ever be able to?
Well, you know, there were artists that, you know, when I first began playing professionally I got to be on shows with a lot of the originators of blues - artists like Bucko White and Sun House, John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes - all these phenomenal originators - so I got to be on shows with a lot of my idols, or those who I admire tremendously. The ones who had already passed on of course I was not able to see or hang out with and stuff, but it was - you know, I got to tour with Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, WIllie Dickson, a lot of the more modern blues artists. I've had a chance to record with artists who went on to become huge stars. I feel very fulfilled.
Do you prefer a performance situation? Do you like a big stage, a small stage..?
I'm not particular that way. I like there to be an intimacy, so that what I'm doing is very personal, and it's great in a small theater - it's great in a club, nightclub, coffee house - but I've played in huge festivals and big stages and you know, I just love to play.