John Hammond, Writing the Blues Bluesman John Hammond has a new recording out: Push Comes to Shove. After decades of playing the blues, he has only recently begun writing his own songs.
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John Hammond, Writing the Blues

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John Hammond, Writing the Blues

John Hammond, Writing the Blues

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It's been 44 years and 30 albums since John Hammond made his recording debut. Now comes album number 31, and he's still playing the blues.

(Soundbite of song, "Push Come to Shove")

Mr. JOHN HAMMOND (Musician): (Singing) When you're backed to the wall, do what you got to do. Don't let your troubles, baby, make you untrue. And wait for the sign to come from above, got to take a stand when the push comes to shove.

SIMON: That's the title cut from John Hammond's latest CD, "Push Come to Shove," on Back Porch Records. Like most of his albums, this one also features standards from some blues greats - Little Walter, Junior Wells and Sonny Thompson this time around. But in recent years, John Hammond has been writing more and more of his own songs. There are five on "Push Comes to Shove" and he's working with an unexpected guest producer, the musician G. Love. John Hammond joins us now from our studios in New York. Mr. Hammond, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HAMMOND: It's a pleasure Scott, great to be here.

SIMON: We saw a quote that said, you said I'm new to songwriting, I'm just getting the hang of it. So after four decades, what took so long?

Mr. HAMMOND: Well, you know, when I began playing, 1962 or so, I was hanging out with guys who could really write songs - guys like Bob Dylan and John Sebastian and Tim Hardin and guys that it just flowed right out of them, you know. And for me I knew so many great songs, I never felt the need or the obligation to write songs. And the last five years or so, since I recorded with Tom Waits and recorded material that was completely new to me, and Tom is just, you know, a phenomenal songwriter. And anyway I was inspired by that.

SIMON: I think for a lot of people in the music business, they - a lot of people who excel at any business, for a certain time in their lives they are the best in their circle of friends at what they do - the best musician, the best songwriter, the best athlete, the best person at doing duck imitations, something like that. But when you're surrounded by Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin, of course you're going to be a little modest about writing a song.

Mr. HAMMOND: Yeah. I think I learned more when I'd already become a player than when I was a kid.

SIMON: That brings me to ask about your producer on this CD - G. Love.


SIMON: Another generation, I think it's safe to say.

Mr. HAMMOND: Absolutely.

SIMON: And he says that you are one of his early inspirations. How comfortable a working relationship is that?

Mr. HAMMOND: Oh, it's great. Well Garrett, Dutton is a really talented guy. I don't care how old or young he is, he's got something special.

SIMON: That's his birth name or day name.


SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HAMMOND: Right. His day name. Well, G. Love is somebody who's a big blues fan and has been. He also has his own take on performing and his style, he's very much at the forefront of what he's doing. But I've always felt this underlying blues passion in him, perhaps from the same place that mine comes from.

SIMON: Do we hear his influence on one particular song or another on this CD?

Mr. HAMMOND: Well, "I'm Tore Down" is his sort of gift to me of a song I recorded years ago from a Freddy King tune that I got. So he sort of included the blues and the hip hop and everything into one take and it was great.

SIMON: Let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Tore Down")

Mr. HAMMOND: (Singing) I'm tore down, baby. I'm almost level with the ground. Yeah I feel like this oh when my baby can't be found. What you want, you know I got. But don't make me wait too long. 'Cause I got nothing left to give and I'm standing up against the wall. What I did to you was wrong, but what you did was wrong too. And I'm crying, crying. What's a poor boy supposed to do? 'Cause I'm busted for sure. I was busted. Busted and burned by someone that I trusted. I'm tore down baby.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the reaction a blue purists might have to this. And I'll preface that by saying I don't think I know anyone who listens to the blues who doesn't consider him or herself to be a purist. It just depends on what kind of purist. How might they react to that? Because obviously that's crossing some musical lines.

Mr. HAMMOND: Definitely. Well, I got to do my little electric guitar fills that I thought were appropriate. I loved the concept of it. It's like another take on a classic song that's modern sensibilities. And I just love G. Love's take on it. I had a lot of fun with it.

SIMON: You brought your own guitar...

Mr. HAMMOND: I did.

SIMON: ...and harmonica, right?

Mr. HAMMOND: Yes, I did.

SIMON: Well, could we hear something?

Mr. HAMMOND: Sure.

SIMON: Maybe one of your compositions.

Mr. HAMMOND: Okay, this is called "Heartache Blues." It's from the record and okay.

Mr. HAMMOND: (Singing) I got an ache in my heart. Man sad as I can be. I got an ache in my heart. Man sad as I can be. I got a woman who's low down, oh child and I mean it's got the best of me. Well man she's mean and she's evil. And I work both night and day. I said she's mean and she's evil. Oh lord I work both night and day. And you know if she slips out tonight, oh child, I'll believe I'll make my getaway. Well I'm going back down south, oh lord, where the weather suits my clothes. I said I'm going back down south, I mean where the weather suits my clothes. I'm gonna start me a new life baby. And I mean I don't care where you go. Well I don't want no woman, oh lord, if she don't want me. Lord I don't want no woman, lord if she says she don't want me. I'm gonna find me someone, oh lord, not like mine used to be.

SIMON: Mr. Hammond, thanks very much. That was wonderful.

Mr. HAMMOND: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: How quickly did this album come together?

Mr. HAMMOND: From the actually recording start date to the final mastering, it took nine days.

SIMON: Nine days?

Mr. HAMMOND: Yeah.

SIMON: There must be some mistake. That doesn't happen.

Mr. HAMMOND: It does with me. I don't have big budgets to work with, so - and I work with players that are truly professional and get on the same page right away. And we don't waste any time. We go in with a plan and we execute it the best we can.

SIMON: Do you find when you work that quickly that you get a kind of head of steam going and just everything is falling into place and sort of you need to use that energy then?

Mr. HAMMOND: Absolutely, it's - I mean you depend on inspiration, of course, in the studio, but you have to have your plan together.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the song "Come On in This House."

Mr. HAMMOND: Yeah.

SIMON: The Junior Wells classic. How do you make this one your own?

Mr. HAMMOND: You know, the blues basically boils it down to the things that everyone is sort of familiar with, one way or the other. Relationships go, you know, many different ways, but everyone can relate to when it doesn't work out and all the pain involved and the guilt and the whatever. All the songs that I choose to do are ones that I feel like I can make my own one way or the other.

SIMON: Do you remember where you first heard this song?

Mr. HAMMOND: Probably in 1964 I began to do shows with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells when they were a duo. And I was on a lot of shows with them and I hear them do the song. I heard the recording of it and I said, gee, what a tough song.

SIMON: Could I ask you to take us out on that song?

Mr. HAMMOND: Sure.

(Soundbite of song "Come On in this House")

Mr. HAMMOND: (Singing) Now if I had a million dollars, I'd give every dime just to hear you call me daddy one more time. And I'm begging you, I'm begging you come on in this old house. You hear me holler? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I love you so. Well come back baby, 'cause you know I am to blame. I got another woman and you got yourself a man. And I'm begging you, I'm begging you, come on in this old house. You hear me holler, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I love you so.

SIMON: Mr. Hammond, thanks so much.

Mr. HAMMOND: What a pleasure.

SIMON: Very nice talking to you.

Mr. HAMMOND: It's early in the morning to hit those high notes. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: John Hammond. His new album is called "Push Comes to Shove." This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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