Rant ‘N’ Roll: One-On-One With Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen

One of my favorite albums of all time is your 2002 Blue Country Heart solo record.

Thanks man, I’m particularly proud of that one. We’ll be doing a bunch of songs off that record on this tour.
How was Finland?

Not much colder than it is right now in San Francisco. I still have family over there. We had such a great time. The Finns have a deep love and appreciation for music and they especially like American roots music.
I remember running out as a kid and buying those early Jefferson Airplane albums at The Belmont Record Shop in Newark, New Jersey. Surrealistic Pillow in 1967 was my favorite. I was 16 and it blew my mind. Funny, but when I later went into a period of blues snobbery, selling all my rock ‘n’ roll records and listening to nothing but blues for maybe about a year, that corresponded with you forming Hot Tuna. So we both left rock ‘n’ roll for a while at around the same time. You play the blues so beautifully, man, I love how you mastered the intricate finger-picking style of the Rev. Gary Davis [1896-1972].

Funny, but I was a blues snob before Jefferson Airplane, before I realized that good music is good music no matter the genre.

Speaking of your pre-Airplane blues phase, a year before you joined Jefferson Airplane in 1965, you recorded the legendary “Typewriter Tapes” with some unknown folksinger from Texas new in town, Janis Joplin.

I still have that typewriter. It’s on display in the silo museum I run with my wife Vanessa. We call it the Psylodelic Gallery.

I understand you also have Wavy Gravy’s sleeping bag from Woodstock.

Yeah, and a lot of other stuff as well from that era. Our Fur Peace Ranch Center For Art And Culture, of which the Psylodelic Gallery is part of, is in Pomeroy, Ohio.

How was it recording with the pre-fame Janis Joplin?

I’ve remained in touch with her sister Laura over the past couple of years. It was Laura who pointed out to me that Janis was constantly reinventing herself. The Janis who I knew was the blues/folk Janis. I met her the very first weekend she arrived in San Francisco in ’64, I think it was. I had just moved out west from the East Coast as well. Oh man, she was the shit! There’s no question about it. She was so great at whatever she did but, in my opinion, I loved most that particular incarnation of her as the serious folk and blues singer…much more than the rock ‘n’ roll star she became. She probably wouldn’t agree with me but I absolutely adored that early era of hers before fame struck. I swear, man, she was like Bessie Smith [1894-1937].

She kept that part of herself intact, I thought, even on her breakthrough rock ‘n’ roll album with Big Brother & The Holding Company, Cheap Thrills, with a song she wrote called “Turtle Blues.”

Oh sure, she had lots of stuff left. It’s just that after that album came out in 1968, she changed. I can’t attempt to guess her motivation but from knowing her as I did before that, I do know that she wanted, needed, to be a big star. Each era of hers was only a stepping stone toward that eventuality. I surely cannot fault her for that—she was always great—but I loved it more when she didn’t have to strain and push her voice so damn much. Hell, we’re talkin’ ‘bout art here…so it’s just personal taste.

I saw her at Woodstock in 1969 and I saw you at Woodstock too. We were there from Thursday night to Sunday night. I was in the trenches. It had to be different for you. Were you flown in by helicopter?

No, it wasn’t much different from your experience. We stayed at a Holiday Inn…

Wait a minute! That’s a huge difference right there! I stayed in the field, falling asleep on the grass because all our stuff—including sleeping bags, food, water, pot and clothing—were left in the car and we never made it back.

(Laughing) We drove to the site in station wagons. Only country stars had a tour bus in those days. We left immediately after our set, which was supposed to be Saturday night, but was actually early Sunday morning around 6:00, and went straight to New York City to do The Dick Cavett Show.

To have been part of the burgeoning 1960s San Francisco hippie scene must have been an unforgettable experience.

It was. That town? That era? It was like Paris in the 1920s.

Good analogy. So true. But let’s wrap up with what we can expect from “Hot Tuna Acoustic.” Is it just you and Jack Cassidy?

Plus Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, guitar, banjo and ukulele.

I can’t wait.

“Hot Tuna Acoustic” will perform at the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, Dec. 3.