Jorma Kaukonen, the legendary guitarist who helped give the Jefferson Airplane its unique sound, was wandering around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month in Cleveland, yet not a soul recognized him.
“Nobody had the slightest idea who I was,” he said a couple of weeks later in a phone interview from rural Ohio, where he lives.
Kaukonen’s anonymity is absurd, given his pivotal contributions to American music.
He helped define the 1960s psychedelic sound in San Francisco and is 54th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 guitarists. But he started as a teenager by playing traditional folk in the 1950s with his friend, Jack Casady.
In 1962, after his parents pressured him to go to college, he enrolled in Santa Clara University but spent much of his time giving guitar lessons and playing acoustic blues in nearby coffee houses.
Though Kaukonen had some hesitation about moving from roots music to Jefferson Airplane, it was the mid-1960s and he went along for the ride. And when that band needed a bassist, he invited his “oldest friend,” Casady, to try out.
After several years of pushing the boundaries of rock, contributing songs such as “Embryonic Journey” to the Airplane, Kaukonen formed Hot Tuna with Casady and the duo returned to their roots.
They’re still playing together, and Hot Tuna will appear Saturday at Blues at the Green, at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park. The show also features Taj Mahal and Marcia Ball.
Last year Kaukonen, 75, released his most recent solo album, “Ain’t in No Hurry” (Red House Records), which includes several covers, a Woody Guthrie poem set to music and a heartfelt song that looks back on his life called “Seasons in the Field.”
Following are highlights from an interview with Kaukonen, conducted in late June as he took a break during a long motorcycle ride that began at his southeast Ohio ranch.
Q. Can you tell me about “Ain’t in No Hurry”?
I was able to do this in my own place (studio), the Fur Peace Ranch, here in Ohio. Playing music is second nature to me. Sometimes you get very self-conscious recording, but I’ve never been less self-conscious about recording or playing or singing anything.
Q. You’re known for playing traditional American music …
We have a name for the stuff we do, roots Americana. When I was a kid it was just music. You know I play a lot of different kinds of stuff. I play electric music, too, but even my electric music is rooted in where I came from, which is basically folk music. For me to be able to live that close to the tree is utterly rewarding. It’s just a comfortable place to be.
Q. Your song “Seasons in the Field” includes the line, “A bargain with the devil is always paid in blood.” What does that mean?
That’s a little dramatic, but as my ex-wife, may she rest in peace, used to say: “If you make deals with the devil it’s expensive.” We have all made poor choices. I’ve made plenty of them in my life. And as I tell my kids, it’s easier not to have to redeem yourself.
Q. It sounds like you’re really appreciating life these days.
Absolutely, there’s no question about it. I’ve gotten to this point where many of my compatriots and pals are no longer with us. Not only am I still alive, but I’m still healthy, I still get to do what I like to do, I am on a motorcycle ride right now. I have a 10-year-old daughter, and my son is going to college. My wife is great. I am really blessed, and I’m aware of this and really grateful.
Q. What are you riding this afternoon?
I have a Harley Street Pro Breakout with a 110-cubic-inch engine. It’s probably way faster than anything I need now, but I really like it. I live in southeast Ohio and (with a friend) started out with no agenda today. I’m in a little town called Caldwell now. Every road we took was unbelievable — no traffic, beautiful roads.
Q. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love; on the eve of that milestone can you assess its impact?
It seems to have a major impact since they’re still celebrating it. It came and went very quickly because a lot of people came in, we all got older, we got careers, a lot of stuff happened. But to look at what happened in that year, to say it was magical would be understating it.
Q. Why do you call your ranch Fur Peace?
Because it’s a “fuhr (far) piece” from anywhere (said with a drawl).
Q. You have a music school there, but can music really be taught?
Anybody can learn to play. That said, some people are better than others. I’m not the Berklee College of Music. Our goal is to make it unintimidating, to make people understand that it’s possible to learn and have a good time.
Q. You and Jack (Casady) have been playing together since 1958. What’s it like to have such a long musical relationship?
We were buddies before we started playing music. We were neighbors in Washington, D.C. Later, in San Francisco, I was in Jefferson Airplane and invited him to check it out.
I had never heard him play bass. He played guitar in our band. I told him we get $50 a week whether we work or not, and he said I’m coming right out.
I picked him up at the airport in San Francisco, and my first words were, you better be able to play that thing (the bass). Of course he could play, and the rest literally is history.
Q. You joined Jefferson Airplane after honing your craft as a roots musician. Were you concerned about playing rock music?
Yeah, you bet I was nervous because I was a finger-style guitar player. With the Airplane we rehearsed relentlessly, seven or eight hours a day. And that gave me an opportunity to learn on the job. So I had some trepidation getting into the gig, but ultimately they were so supportive.
Q. You’ve said the Rev. Gary Davis was an influence. Could you mention a couple of others?
My influences were Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGee and Bill Broonzy. Rev. Davis was very influential to me in a lot of ways. I think he’s one of the important figures in 20th century music. Those are the guys who I studied. And when I started to fingerpick, I listened to Rev. Gary Davis albums for two years and that was it. Nothing but Davis.
Q. You’ve lived on your 126-acre ranch 90 miles southeast of Columbus since 1990. Do you miss San Francisco?
I do not. I loved California. I left in 1984 when my ex-wife and I got divorced. I miss my friends, but I’m a country boy. I love living in the country.
Michael Shapiro writes about travel and entertainment for magazines and The Press Democrat.