John Hammond: "Life is no secret" — living the American blues

Push Comes to Shove

Music by John Hammond

Only Blues Music, 2007

12 tracks, $23.99

John Hammond's long career — 31 albums, a Grammy, and countless hundreds of performances — ranges from the coffeehouses of the 1960s to grand concert halls to the joyful "endless tour" that is his life today. Whether playing blazing electric guitar with his full band, or stunning acoustic solo gigs like the one I caught at Albuquerque's Outpost this past spring, Hammond demonstrates what longtime musical collaborator Tom Waits meant when he said of him, "John's particular dialect in music is that of Charley Patton's shoe size and Skip James' watch chain. He has a blacksmith's rhythm and the kind of soul and precision it takes to cut diamonds or to handle snakes."

I interviewed Hammond late in May 2007 in New Mexico during his tour in support of his latest album, Push Comes to Shove, which is distinguished by its inclusion of several original Hammond-penned songs alongside the older Delta Blues of which Hammond has become the most venerated and admired of interpreters. (Hammond's album of Robert Johnson songs, At the Cross Roads, has just been released by Vanguard Records.)

I've followed your shows over the years, but the first time I recall seeing you in person was in 1967 at an anti-Vietnam War protest march in New York City. You were on a flat bed truck, playing that Arthur Crudup song, "Give me a 32-20, man, they need me in the war".

That's right! I picked that song, "I Got My Questionary". The irony of it all, I suppose. (Sings) "You can cry hero on my grave … It's a song about a man who was drafted to fight.

How are you feeling about this present war situation?

Oh, please, it's so surrealistic. That a man that stupid [George Bush], who has done so many things that he ought to be put away for anyway, should be leading the pack! And the mainstream press just get in line and they've consistently overlooked his whole past! It's scary. My wife and I thought of leaving the US, but I was damned if I was going to be chased out of my own country by an idiot like this!

Yes, I have friends leaving for other countries, or planning to.

It's just awful. What's happended in the last two years alone with domestic surveillance and [former US Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales and all this stuff — I've got outrage overload!

You've got a line on your new album, Push Comes to Shove: "Life's no secret, man, if you live the blues." Seems like that might describe these times we're in?

Definitely. As my wife likes to say, that song oughta be called "Bush Comes to Shove".

It's been only in recent years that you have started recording your own songs, after decades performing blues and songs by other writers.

Having worked with Tom Waits on our Wicked Grin project opened up some possibilities for me. I've known Tom for a long time, but still I've long been intimidated by such great songwriters. Tom is one of the greatest performers I've ever seen. I've worked gigs with him for about 30 years. You know, I played with Phil Ochs at Gerde's Folk City in 1962. We were both signed by Vanguard as a result of that show. Phil was so passionate and prolific and he was really great! And I knew [Bob] Dylan in the early days and John Sebastian and Tim Hardin and all those incredible songwriters. It just flowed out of them, you know?

And yet, I knew so many great songs just from being a blues freak since I was really young! I knew 400 songs in those days! Seemed like I really didn't need to write any new ones myself!

Yet, lately you've begun writing your own songs. You haven't worked your way through the blues, have you?

(Laughs) Oh, no, blues is a continuum. You think of the sky being blue. There are so many artists back in the '20s and the '30s that I haven't gotten to record yet.

I found my home really early on. I found my position, my place at an early age. I feel so fortunate. I've grown into it, never out of it.

Between songs you told that story of your playing at age 18 with Mike Bloomfield, who was 17 then.

I loved that guy. I think about him almost every day. He was such a great player. He did a little thing called "Me and Big Joe" where he went on a trip with Big Joe Williams and he wrote this narrative book of all the crazy people, the drunken maniac scenes out there! And Charlie Musselwhite was there, too. Michael introduced me to Musselwhite.

Michael was in the Butterfield Blues Band when they backed Bob Dylan at Newport. That was before Dylan hooked up with The Band.

I introduced Bob [Dylan] to the The Band, who were called Levon and the Hawks back then. They played on my early album, I Can Tell. In fact, I just saw Levon Helm about two weeks ago. He does his "Midnight Rambles" concerts right out of his home in Woodstock, NY. He's great.

You give an incredible lecture on the blues between songs at your performances, telling stories and sharing bits of information, like how Lightning Hopkins got his name …

Yeah, he was in "Thunder and Lightnin'" with Wilson "Thunder" Smith, a great Texas piano player.

Right! You know so much! Have you thought of writing a book?

My wife and I have talked about that, of just sitting down with a tape recorder and just plumbing the well. I've been doing this for 45 years now, and I've met some outrageous characters. I suppose I should do that, but I have all this energy to go out on the road and play. We work 12 months a year. I don't make big bucks but at the end we have enough to pay the bills. I'll be 65 in November.

You're not planning to retire, are you?

Oh no, not yet. My dad [John Hammond, the famed music producer who discovered Billy Holiday and Bob Dylan, among many others], wrote an autobiography, but I found it really boring. He was very political but he wrote about his family and irrelevant stuff, not all that exciting engaged business he was involved in. So, I don't know about a book.

Some veteran artists like Bob Dylan seem to be reaching their maturity by mining the blues tradition, but you've always been there.

Well, Bob was a blues fanatic way back when. I met him when he first came to New York in '61. He was just wide open, in your face, fearless — I'll always remember those days.

When did you start writing songs?

In 2003, with "Slick Crown Vic". I played that one last night. That's the first song I wrote that I liked. And now it's been eight new songs in the last five years. I tend to do things when the deadline approaches. I've got one I haven't recorded yet, and about five in my head.

You narrated the documentary film, Searching for Robert Johnson a few years ago.

Yes, it was a film crew from England and they really did their homework. There was wonderful stuff that didn't even make it into the finished film. Robert Johnson spent time in Chicago and he did gigs in New York! Victoria Spivey told me that she saw him play in Brooklyn! People just don't know that about him.

Your latest album, Push Comes to Shove, was produced by G Love and he performs on one song with you. What other young players do you admire?

Alvin Youngblood Hart — go see him! He's great. It takes time to see who's going to stay with the blues. G Love could become a blues man. He's a sweetheart — he's got all that charm and poise — he's not fooling around.

Can the blues change the world?

It's like the backbone of American music. It has to do with seeing things for what they are. This stupid war. Like so many other things that just need to be addressed.