John Sebastian – with over five decades of musical contributions he has been a permanent thread that runs through the fabric of American Roots Music. From Jug Band and Folk, through the Pop of the Lovin’ Spoonful, to working with Blues artist over the many years. We could go on here but it would only make this genuinely friendly and humble man uncomfortable. We spoke a while ago and here is a good 15 minutes of 411 with him.
JS: Let’s start with Maria. As a point of departure Maria has always been one of the real genuine jug lovin’ people. That girl can talk me into anything. She got going on her project and I said I got to get involved too. Then she connected with some other folks playing Blues festivals and kind of started to realize this Northern California clotch that has sprung up. It is not just Jug Band music – it’s old-timey music, sons of Bluegrass and all sorts of wonderful stuff.
Maria and I have a friendship that goes back to Greenwich Village, before there was an Even Dozen Jug Band. We were both Italian, and we lived within five or six blocks of each other at various times. I was moving around with my family while Maria was more stabilized with her family in the Carmine/Bedford area. I was already following her around when another new acquaintance, Paul Rothschild tried to interest Maria and Stephan Grossman in this idea of being a jug band. See, Paul believed there was going to be a jug band craze. So this is the weird thing, a nuance that not every interviewer picks up on, which is we didn’t start out all knowledgeable about Jug Band Music. I didn’t know Gus Cannon’s name until a year and a half later. Because what we were interested in was – working ! That’s what we wanted to do, and, hey if you needed a Bluegrass band we had our Bluegrass vests, and we can fill that bill. But if you needed a Jug Band – can do !
So our professional life was surprisingly good. Within a month or two of deciding that this band existed and we rehearsed a little bit, we fit perfectly with a number of Folk and Jazz wing dings, and hootenannies and even the beginnings of Folk Rock television. They would say ‘we have Nina Simone, Herbie Mann, and we can get the Even Dozen Jug Band’. Back when concerts were where they would pick one from each type of music for concerts.
B411: We don’t seem to have those kinds of concerts anymore, well at least to my knowledge, closest are some Blues Festivals.
JS: Yes, so true, I remember doing a show with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King and a country guy. whom I can’t recall. It was a city sponsored concert in Pittsburgh. It was so cool, so culturally inclusive. So we fit into all that was going on at that time.
B411: ‘Satisfied‘ is the title of the David Grisman release correct?
JS: Yes it is. It’s an acoustic album, no overdubs, rules were only what you can put down in one take. David specializes in this stuff, I work the totally opposite way. I was horrified – what no overdubs? Whatever technique I evolved with the Lovin’ Spoonful had a lot to do with layering, and how you approach layering folk instruments to make it something bigger, so this project was completely new idea to me. I was kicking and screaming for about three days, then I started to go ‘ya know, this is cool, something good can come out of this’. It is a wonderful release and David is a master.
Before that project there was an album called ‘Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost’. It is a real good modern jug band record. It is an album that started out with my live jug band, the J Band – me, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, Fritz Richmond, but because of wonderful schedule accidents I had access to Jimmy Vivino and James Wormworth, both from Conan O’Brien’s band. That started us down another side ramp, and then another friend introduced us to Yank Rachell and we were now playing music with an original jug band musician.
Well this got us going and we gained a fan in the person of a man named Todd Kwait. He is an independent film producer, and he wanted to make a movie. This movie started off being about Fritz Richmond, but Fritz began to get ill just about when this project got going. All of a sudden there could no longer be a performance by Fritz, so the subject of the movie shifted during the course of making it.
What Todd discovered was, thru Fritz, that there was a rollicking good Jug Band scene in Japan. Every year there is a Jug Band Festival featuring thirty to forty Jug Bands – all Japanese, go figure !
It was like a whole other movie that presented itself while we were doing it. There was a benefactor who was able to pull the cash together and move us forward. What that allowed us to do was to bring Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, and me to Japan to do a show, and we recorded all of it.
B411: I see you just finished some gigs this past week or so, and will be at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ December 10th. Have a few gigs set up for next year here on the East Coast. That’s great for us to know. One more quick question.
Can you give me one recollection about the NYC/Greenwich Village scene back in the day when the musical world seemed to be changing?
JS: How about this…it’s the third or fourth set at the Night Owl Cafe, the audience is beatniks, people who snap their fingers to show approval…and there are several disapproving ‘folkies’ who have noticed that we are finger-picking our Les Paul Gibson’s – which, of course, is a wrong thing. In the background, Zal Yanovsky and I notice a young girl dancing, but she’s not dancing the ‘old’ way – she’s not doing the Lindy, she’s not doing the Stroll, she’s dancing in a more free-form way, which was forecasting what you were going to see as the ‘love-in’ dance for the next few years. Zallie and I looked at each other and said, “Man, I hope she brings her friends”. Within a week the entire club was full of young girls from Queens, man it was a beautiful thing.
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos: CSP Images.