John Hammond: Beyond blues

John Hammond

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 17, 2003) – For nearly four decades, John Hammond has been best known as a staunch, country-blues traditionalist keeping alive the work of Robert Johnson, Skip James and the Reverend Gary Davis among other delta blues pioneers and legends.

But two years ago, Hammond enjoyed surprising success with Wicked Grin, an album solely devoted to versions of songs by contemporary songwriter Tom Waits. While rootsy in its own way, the recording casts Hammond in a whole new light.

Freed of the burden of being Mr. Traditional Blues, Hammond has followed up the successful Wicked Grin with another rootsy, electric effort which acknowledges the blues but isn’t beholden to it. Ready for Love (Back Porch), which came out last week, draws on the work of the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, country legend George Jones, Willie Dixon, and the album’s producer, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, among other songwriters.

In so doing, it makes a strong case for Hammond – who performs at Club Helsinki on Friday, February 21, at 9 -- as a premiere interpreter of American roots music.

“I’m a blues singer, I always have been, and I always will be,” said Hammond in a recent phone interview from his home in Jersey City. “But in my forty-two year career I had a chance to be on shows with all kinds of roots, folk and blues artists. My ears are familiar with all kinds of sounds.

“ I don’t feel pigeonholed any more. I’m sixty years old. I’ve got experience. I’ve got my band, and my wife who goes with me everywhere and is a tremendous influence on my life and my taste. We’ve just expanded in a terrific way.”

Hammond credits the Tom Waits project with clearing the way for his newfound direction as an all-around roots artist.

“I never had so much success with a recording ever,” he said. “And Tom’s influence and inspiration was profound on me and my wife. It brought me to a wider audience that was welcome and needed, but it also opened me up to doing other kinds of material that I had been shy to do before.”

Hammond says that Ready for Love is the logical progression from the Tom Waits project. Nor has Hammond put Waits fully behind him -- the album includes two more songs by the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter.

Born in 1942, Hammond is the son of his namesake, the legendary Columbia Records A&R man who discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and who played key roles in the fledgling careers of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday.

As a young guitar player growing up in Greenwich Village, Hammond was perfectly positioned to soak in the sounds of the early-‘60s folk and blues revival, and by 1963 he was sharing the bill at the Newport Folk Festival with the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis.

“It rang a bell inside me at a really early age,” said Hammond about the blues. “I was always drawn to that feeling and sound. In my early teens I was a fan of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, which led to Muddy Waters and Little Walter and John Lee Hooker.

“Then in 1958 or so I heard a Folkways compilation album, The Country Blues, and I heard Robert Johnson and Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller and saw this is where it all came from, the roots of it all.

“Through circumstance when I began playing, a lot of the originators of this style were around. I was on a show with John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Arthur Crudup, Son House, it just goes on like that. I got to play gigs with these guys, to see them and talk and watch them play. They were a tremendous influence on me. I got to be part of this tradition that’s so fantastic, so very deep and wide -- and overlooked by the mainstream but nonetheless tremendously influential and powerful.”

Hammond was never exactly a country-blues purist. Over the years, he has played, recorded and crossed paths with such rockers and electric bluesman as Dr. John, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Michael Bloomfield, The Band and Duke Robillard.

The inclusion of a few songs by country legend George Jones on Ready for Love might seem surprising to some, but Hammond said they’re all of a piece. “These are songs that I’ve enjoyed over the years, admired from afar,” he said. “I’ve always admired George Jones, and Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow. I’ve sort of peripherally been a fan of that pure, classic country-roots stuff. It’s coming from the same place as the blues, maybe with different accoutrements, but they’re powerful.

“If I can put myself in it and make it mine, I can do it.”

Even though today’s aspiring bluesmen won’t have the opportunity that Hammond enjoyed learning the music from its originators, Hammond is optimistic that the blues will survive. His confidence is strengthened by a strong crop of young musicians playing the style.

“Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Rusty Zinn, to name a few -- there’s so many talented young artists out there now who have that feeling, the passion,” he said. “Whether they got into it through Stevie Ray Vaughan or Muddy Waters is irrelevant, because they get drawn into the well, this incredible depth of material there, of great artists who recorded. It continues to inspire.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 20, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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