John Hammond's Blues
Now in his mid-fifties, country blues guitarist/ vocalist John Hammond has held up well. His thick crop of hair shows no traces of male-pattern baldness. His figure, often accented by stylish suits, remains svelte. And his voice has never sounded better--which is remarkable given the fact that he's spent a portion of every month of the past three-and-a-half decades singing for his supper. Hammond, however, doesn't give much thought to such matters. "Growing older, you don't notice the changes," he says. "But I just love what I do. It's like anyone who is really into what they're doing; they tend to want to do it a lot. They thrive on it. And that's how I am, I guess."
According to Hammond, this wasn't always the case. "When I was eighteen years old," he recalls, "I wasn't a happy camper. I was tired of being in school and I was really ready to make my own life and get out on my own. Everybody has their own clock--that was mine. I started playing professionally when I was nineteen and that's all I've ever done since then."
Part of Hammond's frustration during this period owes to the shadow cast by his late father, also named John Hammond. Perhaps the most storied talent scout of this century, the elder Hammond was a key figure in the development of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith and was among the first to recognize the genius in Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. By contrast, he was far less supportive of his son's musical aspirations, even though in many ways these interests could be traced to his success at bringing the work of African-American performers into the mainstream. (He once claimed that he created the influential "Spirituals to Swing" concert series in the late Thirties because he "wanted black music to make an impression on a white audience.")
As for the younger Hammond, he never asked his dad to help him get his career going--nor did his father ever offer. Today, Hammond is guardedly complimentary of his dad's accomplishments, but when he's told that approximately one in four music reference books lists him as "John Hammond Jr.," his tone grows icy. "Well, I'm not 'Jr.,'" he emphasizes. "And not everybody lists me that way. Those who know nothing do. Those who know something don't. I'm John Paul. He was John Henry.
"I hope that after 35 years, folks would be a little more curious about me than my father. Not that they shouldn't be interested in my father. But if they're writing about me, then they should be interested in me and the things I've done."
Once he decided to make music his livelihood, Hammond hitchhiked from his hometown of New York City to Los Angeles, as far from his pop as he could get without leaving the continent. He spent his days pumping gas and his nights haunting the coffeehouse and club circuit. Hoyt Axton helped him land his first paying gig and, before long, he had become a draw on the night-club scene. He subsequently headed back to New York and, shortly after debuting at Gerde's Folk City, signed with Vanguard, among the hipper labels during the early Sixties. He was a regular in Greenwich Village venues throughout the next decade, and his efforts since then have made him a respected member of the blues inner circle despite his having written only a handful of compositions over the years. "I'm a traditional blues artist, which means I tend to do the classic tunes or the ones that I like particularly," he explains. "I'm not a songwriter, per se. But I've done soundtracks for movies. I've made up things--and I feel very comfortable with that."
Nevertheless, some critics dismiss Hammond as a bit of a lightweight: In Gerard Herzhaft's Encyclopedia of the Blues, for example, he's described as "a singer without much talent and a poor guitar and harmonica player." The authors of the Rolling Stone Album Guide are considerably kinder. They commend Hammond, who's won four W.C. Handy awards and a Grammy, for his "powerful, distinctive voice" and "fine acoustic-guitar work."
The artist in question claims not to be overly concerned by either of these points of view. "I think it's just a matter of how you perceive your reality," he insists. "My reality is that I'm a working blues singer. I didn't get into this to make quick bucks and then go off and do something else. This is what I love to do. I realized full well a long time ago that I was never going to be top of the pops. So what? Blues is a tradition. And if you can fit yourself into that tradition, it's very rewarding. Maybe not so much financially, but it's a thing that doesn't go away. Blues and jazz are American art forms respected all over the world. They have a history that is very profound and deep. It's spiritually very rewarding."
The money's getting marginally better, too. Hammond has recorded his past three albums for Pointblank, a Virgin subsidiary that he says is in tune with his art. He's especially pleased with his latest, Found True Love, a collection of twelve well-chosen tunes from the blues archives. Co-produced by Duke Robillard, Hammond is backed on the platter by Robillard's touring band, a superb pianist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Mr. B and guest harmonicat Charlie Musselwhite, who appeared on Hammond's third Vanguard long-player, released in 1964. Hammond notes that it's taken 32 years to get them together in the studio again.
Life on the endless highway is good, he says, adding, "I'm a happy guy." A few burly chuckles later, he confesses, "You have to be a little bit nuts to do this. But when you've established contacts all over the planet, if you don't show up every year or so, they think you died. I don't have the benefits of hit records, massive publicity and so forth. I survive on the strength of my personal appearances and my ability to handle the road."
Blues lovers who have seen a Hammond performance clearly understand his appeal. But he has a few words for the uninitiated. "I'm a real blues singer," he points out. "I really love the music. You can hear that it is my life."
Tribute to Robert Johnson, with John Hammond, Robert Jr. Lockwood and Rory Block. 8 p.m. Saturday, August 31, Chautauqua Auditorium, $17-$22, 440-7666.
Get the Music Newsletter