Deckle edge

Jorma Kaukonen
by Chris Flisher © 1996 /
(first published December 1996 Worcester Phoenix)

Jorma Kaukonen
It’s 9:00 AM on a rainy Saturday morning and I’m talking to veteran guitarist Jorma Kaukonen from his motel room in Columbus, Ohio. In between interruptions from room service, housekeeping, and his traveling companions, Jorma talks about his new Christmas album, simply titled Christmas (Relix) and his life as a champion of acoustic music.

“I like Christmas songs. I think everyone likes them. Everybody has some affection for Christmas,” he chuckles, adding, “And I don’t mean the religious or commercial aspect of the holiday. It has more to do with the time of year, than anything else. It’s the end of a year and everyone wants to express that somehow, you know the winter solstice and revels and all that.”

The idea for a Christmas album originally came to Jorma years ago from a tradition begun by promoter, Bill Graham at his Fillmore East/West concert halls, in New York and San Francisco. Graham played “Greensleeves” over the PA system as a soothing way to end an evening of performances by the legendary artists of the time. It was an unorthodox, yet appealing, segue to an evening of music by seminal artists like the Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Muddy Waters and countless others. Needless to say, as a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen logged more than a few hours from both of those historic stages.

“I always loved that song,” he admits. “I always thought it was a great way to end the evening; to chill those ringing ears. And I always wanted to do a version of it, but I never had the right place to put it on an album. Somehow it just didn’t fit anywhere else and I didn’t want it to be a something a band did. So I finally decided the time was right to do a Christmas album.”

Calling up some local friends and musicians, Kaukonen recorded Christmas at his farm studio in southwestern Ohio in the middle of a July heat wave. “It was pretty funny, trying to think Christmas, when it’s 100 degrees outside, but we managed. The hardest part was the photo shoot. Sitting is winter coats in July is a little comical.”

Knowing Kaukonen and his affection for tradition-based music, it comes as no surprise that his Christmas album is an intriguing collection of blues, old-timey, and country tunes performed tastefully. Joined by Michael Falzarano on guitar, Kaukonen dips into classics and offers several self-penned songs to round out the non-secular aspects of the holiday. In addition to time-tested stand-bys such as “What Child Is This (Greensleeves),” “Silent Night,” and “Baby Boy,” Jorma turns in his own jaunty “Downhill Sleigh Ride,” a comical “Christmas Rule,” in which Santa should remember to use the front door instead of the fire-lit chimney, and the funky “Christmas Blues.” Like his highly regarded work with his band, Hot Tuna, each song is delivered as a representation of some aspect of American roots music.

“I always had a feel for genuine American music,” he admits. “That’s the reason Jack (Casady) and I left the Airplane to form Hot Tuna. We wanted to pursue music that was more genuine. I grew up on that music. Piedmont, old-timey, bluegrass—all that pickin’ music was what I loved and still do love to play.”

Leaving a band just as they were poised for fame and fortune was a bold move for both Kaukonen and Casady. Yet, seeing how the band turned out, with the eventual emergence of the Jefferson Starship, Kaukonen has few regrets. “People try and tell me that I was afraid of success, but that’s horse-pucky,” he chuckles. “I really think it was just a matter of doing what felt right to Jack and myself. In the end, you have to like what you do, and the Airplane wasn’t working for either of us. So we left. I just like music that’s roots based.”

It’s been over 25 years since Jorma left the Airplane. And even though he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a founding member, he sees his association with the band more as an education than a career. True, leaving was a gamble, but one that paid off.

“It was unusual for a musician with my background in a psychedelic rock band to leave and pursue roots music at a time when it was not popular,” admits Kaukonen. “But, as my friend John Hammond says, ‘[I’ve] just been a high-paid folk musician all these years.’”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge