Jorma Kaukonen Revisits His Folk Roots The singer and guitarist found fame with a band that exemplified the psychedelic '60s: Jefferson Airplane. Years after living the life of a rock star, Kaukonen is returning to his roots — blues and folk music — on his new album, River of Time.
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Jorma Kaukonen Revisits His Folk Roots

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Jorma Kaukonen Revisits His Folk Roots

Jorma Kaukonen Revisits His Folk Roots

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Jorma Kaukonen can be heard in the opening licks of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." The singer and guitarist found fame with the band that so personified the psychedelic '60s.

(Soundbite of music, "White Rabbit")

Ms. GRACE SLICK (Jefferson Airplane): (Singing) One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small.

SIMON: And of course, he's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But years after living the life of a rock star, Jorma Kaukonen is returning to his roots: blues and folk music.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: His new album, called "River of Time." He joins us now from the studios of KZYR in Edwards, Colorado. Jorma, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JORMA KAUKONEN (Musician): Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what happened? Did your folk roots just get set aside?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Well, I guess I got seduced by rock and roll for a while, although John Hartford, before he passed away, we were talking about it a couple years ago, claimed that that stuff that the Airplane did back then is genuine old-timey music, and he may be right; maybe it's all folk music.

SIMON: Go with that a little, can you? What do you mean?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Well, I mean - I think my first love these days, as has been most of my life, is wood music, accoustic guitars. But if you look at music historically, a lot of things that we looked at was actually pop music at the time. So you know, we can split hairs on this, but nobody wants to play unpopular music. And I guess the Airplane stuff is old enough so it's now old-timey music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "River of Time")

Mr. KAUKONEN: (Singing) River of time, it march on line, from birth to death, there is no run. Chance to me…..

SIMON: Tell us, if you could, about the title track, "River of Time"…


SIMON: …because I gather there's a story behind it.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Yeah, there is a little story behind it. A couple of years ago, I was working in California and I ran into the sister of a friend of mine who died young many years ago. She gave me a picture of him. And I was sort of moved by this. And when I went back to the hotel, I had a dream. Now listen, I need to go on record as saying that I don't normally have dreams where dead people come to me, I really don't.

But on this particular occasion, my grandmother came to me, and she talked about sort of like the cosmology of folks, and the metaphor that came out of this was we're all in a river of time, and the people that have passed are on the shore, and I told my wife about it. She says, write that down, you're going to need it someday. And how right she was.

(Soundbite of music, "River of Time")

Mr. KAUKONEN: (Singing) It might be nice, I could have said, speak to love ones long since dead. While I still flow, they're on the shore. And I shan't see them anymore. Not on this side but in dreams. And dreams aren't always what they seem….

SIMON: You have a daughter now, adopted from China, don't you? Three years old?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Yes, she is almost 3 now. Her name is Israel Love(ph). And who knew? What an amazing thing that is.

SIMON: You have a couple of songs here.


SIMON: Of which she's the inspiration.

Mr. KAUKONEN: She is. It's a lullaby. I have been working with this for a while. And in the beginning, it put her to sleep. Now, however, she likes it and she just says, play it again, Dad.

SIMON: Aww. Some of us read to our children at night. I wonder if you play music.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Sometimes, I do. To be honest with you, most of the time I read. That's really which she wants. But she does have a ukulele, and when - even though tuners are something to play with, the tuning concept is not big in her cosmology.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KAUKONEN: But when she strums with her right hand, she strums in time. So that's a good start.

SIMON: Ooh. Well, she's growing up in a household where she can certainly pick up the fundamentals.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You know about Twitter and Facebook?

Mr. KAUKONEN: I've only heard about Twitter, and I know about Facebook because my wife just got me a Facebook page, and at some point during this tour that I'm on, she's going to show me how to do it myself.

SIMON: Well, I ask because we sent the word out that we were going to be interviewing you. And we asked people for questions.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Oh, cool.

SIMON: So can I run a few by you?


SIMON: Question comes from Mary Ayres(ph), I believe. I would be interested in how technology has changed the process of recording.


SIMON: Even in the last five, 10, 20 years, if not 40 years.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Yikes. Well, when I first started recording with the Airplane in 1965, our first recording was done on a three-track recorder. They didn't -there is no noise reduction then, so overdubbing was very limited because of the generational loss. And if you didn't have a record deal, you really couldn't record. I mean, I owned a mono tape recorder back then. Now, today I know folks that record fantastic projects at home because they can, and the sound is so much better than some of the early stuff that we did. So I think it's really freed the artists in a lot of ways.

And since nobody knows what's going to happen to record companies these days anyway, you can do it all yourself.

SIMON: Going to repair back to some of our questions now, because that brings up this question…

(Soundbite of song, "Been So Long")

Mr. KAUKONEN: (Singing): Been so long since I belong here.

SIMON: "Been So Long," a 1971 hit that you had with Hot Tuna. Now, that song is the opening track of your new album.

(Soundbite of song, "Been so long")

Mr. KAUKONEN: (Singing) Been so long since I belong here. Ever since I lost my way. That was when I still had something special left for me to say, unto you.

SIMON: What made you want to revisit it now?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Well, when Jack and I recorded that song, we did it on a live Hot Tuna record called "Pull Up Pull Down." But I have always liked that song, and I have never really done a studio version of it. It just seemed to me to sort of fit, so that's how it came out.

(Soundbite of song "Been So Long")

Mr. KAUKONEN: (Singing) And it's been so long since I felt at home…

SIMON: Let me ask about your friend, Jack Casady.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Oh, my oldest buddy. More than being bandmates in Airplane, this year Jack and I have played music together for 51 years. We went to the same junior high school, the same high school. We met through his older brother. Jack's a couple years' younger than me. The older brother was one of my first friends who had a driver's license so of course, he was very important to all of us. And he was a huge fan of blues music. He really turned me on to blues. And he had a younger brother, and his younger brother was Jack, and so we met and Jack was taking guitar lessons.

When I started to play, it became apparent that - as years rolled on - that he and I had more in common than his older brother, Charles, and I did. And we became buddies and started to play music together, etc., etc. Got fake IDs together, you know, the whole deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, well - what's it like to have a partnership that lasts that long?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Well, Jack and I - you know, we respect each other both musically and personally. And we've never had a band meeting. This is very important. Anybody who is out there who plays music knows how important it is not to have band meetings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: What happens at band meetings?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Oh, it's just horrible.

SIMON: Well, you had some fairly vibrant personalities in Jefferson Airplane.

Mr. KAUKONEN: You could say that. The band meetings were very colorful.

SIMON: We had a question come in in half a dozen different ways on Twitter and Facebook, and let me put it to you this way, if I could.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't You Want Somebody To Love")

Ms. SLICK: (Singing) Don't you want somebody to love…

SIMON: Don't you want somebody to love?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Is that the question?


Mr. KAUKONEN: Well - well, yeah, I guess so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Have people asked you that a lot over the years?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Not recently, but yes indeedy. You know, I couldn't play the solo of that song again if my life depended on it.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. KAUKONEN: I'd have to get one of the kids on I know that knows how to play it to show it to me.

SIMON: Why is that?

Mr. KAUKONEN: Because I haven't played it in - oh, let me think - 20 years, easily. You got to keep on top - you can't remember everything. There's not enough room up there.

SIMON: Oh, I see. That's strange, because it's one of the most recognizable songs of all time.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Yeah, I know; I should probably learn that solo again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Mr. Kaukonen, I can't let the opportunity of having you in a studio and a guitar at the same time go. Could I implore you to play something for us?

Mr. KAUKONEN: You could.

SIMON: Okay, thank you.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Now the question is, what to play?

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. KAUKONEN: Okay here's something from…

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. KAUKONEN: Here's something from the "Surrealistic Pillow" album that I actually do remember how to play.

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. KAUKONEN: It's a little thing called "Embryonic Journey."

(Soundbite of guitar music)

SIMON: Jorma, you're a great guitarist, to say the least.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Well, bless you. Thank you. Thanks, man, I appreciate it.

SIMON: So nice talking to you, and good luck with this album.

Mr. KAUKONEN: Thanks so much.

SIMON: Jorma Kaukonen, joining us from KZYR in Edwards, Colorado. He's currently performing as part of the Guitar Blues Tour. His new CD is "River of Time."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can hear full songs from Jorma's new album on our Web site,

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