Sunday, April 30, 2000

Kaukonen's music flowed from Yellow Springs

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MEIGS COUNTY, Ohio — As guitarist with the Jefferson Airplane, the most popular rock band to emerge from 1967's Summer of Love, Jorma Kaukonen forever will be associated with San Francisco.

[photo] Jorma Kaukonen, left, works with student Scott Dale.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        But Ohio is where he learned to play many of the traditional blues guitar pieces he teaches students at his Fur Peace Ranch.

        Mr. Kaukonen began playing electric guitar in high school rock bands with Jack Casady in the Washington, D.C. area. After graduating from high school in 1959, Mr. Kaukonen went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs and hasn't been the same since.

        He became a roommate of guitarist Ian Buchanan, the man he credits with setting him on his life's path.

        “Ian was a student of the Rev's (Rev. Gary Davis),” he says, sitting in the cabin/office from which his wife, Vanessa Lillian, runs Fur Peace Ranch.

        “We lived in this house together, and it occurred to me much later that my playing was probably so obnoxious that, out of pure self-defense, he just took me under his wing. And I pretty much quit going to classes the next quarter and played eight hours a day.”

        The older student also helped shape Mr. Kaukonen's method of teaching guitar.

        “The first song he taught was ""West Coast Blues,” which is the the first song I use in my (instructional) video. My secret of teaching beginners is pretty much the way he taught me.”

        Mr. Kaukonen left Antioch and headed to Santa Clara, Calif., and another half-hearted attempt at college. He was still playing the acoustic folk-blues that would become the basis for his band Hot Tuna. Before long, he was playing with a young, pre-rock goddess named Janis Joplin and becoming known as the hot young acoustic blues picker on the West Coast.

        By the mid-'60s, he was in San Francisco, where he was asked to join a new folk-rock band called Jefferson Airplane, a play on the name of Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson.

        After a few personnel changes, notably the addition of flamboyant lead singer Grace Slick, the Airplane became the most popular band out of the area. They played Fillmores East and West as well as topping the pop charts with “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

        To keep up his blues chops, Mr. Kaukonen formed the side project Hot Tuna with Mr. Casady in 1968. In 1970, they released their first album, Hot Tuna, still available on CD. That disc takes the guitarist back to his early blues lessons in Yellow Springs.

        “That first Hot Tuna record really should have been dedicated to Ian because, except for the original songs, those were the first songs that I learned.”

        It was also the music he loved best. As Ms. Slick and Paul Kantner became more radically political, Mr. Kaukonen saw the music taking a backseat. He left the Airplane in 1972 to focus on Hot Tuna full-time. The band continues to record and tour, and Mr. Kaukonen also does solo dates, such as the one he played at Cincinnati's BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in March.

        His Ohio roots go deeper than Antioch. His paternal grandmother, Amy Kaukonen, was mayor of Ashtabula in the 1920s. His maternal grandfather, Dr. Benjamin S. Levine, a research bacteriologist, was director of public health services in Cincinnati in the 1950s.

        “I really like Ohio,” Mr. Kaukonen says. “America's a beautiful country and there's a lot of great places to be. I'm from Southern Maryland, and the fall, the smells and all that stuff, this is more like home.

        “I lived in California for a quarter of a century. I had a good time, but it never felt like home. But when I came back here, it really felt like home.”

        He's home in more ways than one. At 59, he's pretty much given up electric rock 'n' roll for his first love, acoustic blues.

        “When I'm sitting at home I don't play the electric guitar,” he says. “In fact, I never play it unless I'm actually getting paid to play it. I just don't think it's that much fun. But I play the acoustic guitar all the time.”

        He's starting to earn more respect from the worlds of folk and blues. This weekend, he's making his second appearance at Merlefest, Doc Watson's festival in North Carolina. Being accepted there, he says, “was better than getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

        Fur Peace also provides an alternative to constant road work. A planned, 250-seat performance center should help even more.

        “Right now, my primary source of income is still touring,” he says. “And I don't want to stop touring, 'cause I really love that . . . With my first wife, God rest her soul, we were glad that I was away a lot. But Vanessa and I are really well-suited, and I like being home.”

        Most '60s rockers are either retired, dead or struggling to remain relevant, but Mr. Kaukonen is contentedly heading into his 60s sounding better than ever.

        He says teaching sharpens his playing.

        “It's a great excuse for me to practice,” he says. “And these guys are incredibly demanding. When I'm working (on the road), my fingers don't hurt like they do today.”

        He also sees it as a way to pay back his own teachers, particularly the late Mr. Buchanan.

        “I think it's important to be able to give back a lot of the stuff that was given to me,” he says, a smile adding a few more creases to his well-lined face.

        “I've truly been blessed, there's no question about it. I've had some tough years in my life, but I'm lucky, 'cause I'm here to talk about it.”

Guitarists learn to pick in a 'spiritual' place
-         Kaukonen's music flowed from Yellow Springs
       Fur Peace Ranch 2000 Workshop Schedule

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