Home   Records   Stories   Lyrics   Sleeves   Links

 

Sound Views' 
Interview with John Sebastian
(1996) 

Text By Mark Keating 
Photo by Ron Steele 

 

With the release last Spring of The J-band's I Want My Roots, John Sebastian has returned to a home he never actually left. From his Bank Street birthplace to the Washington Square
hootenannies~~and through two Woodstocks—Sebastian was and is a jug band standard-bearer.
During the '60's, his Even Dozen Jug Band laid the foundation for the blues-pop of The Lovin'
Spoonful, leading to a string of hits that, along with Motown, is regarded as American music's first
response to the british invasion. 

As music became wired in the '70's, the ardently acoustic jug band sound withdrew to coffeehouse venues, where amplification was shunned and gigs were played on a food-stamp budget. Today, a roots revival is coaxing the jug bands out from the shadows, and musicians who can boast decades of experience in the form are attracting a new audience. For Sebastian, this comes as no surprise. "When I started this project, I saw that there was this opening for this kind of music ... the ear was fatiguing of a lot of types of music that are very pre-produced and processed." 
I Want My Roots continues the blues-pop catalogue of the MusicMasters label, whose initial
foray in the genre was Al Kooper's Rekooperation, a disc that showcases Downtime guitar avatar
Jimmy Vivino who sings, strums and co-produces on Roots. Sebastian cameos with his harp on
Rekooperation; and he and Vivino had been gigging regularly enough with Vivino's The Black Italians for Sebastian to sneak more and more jug music into the sets. Before long, the J-Band had become an inevitability.  "The first request," Sebastian says, "came from a record company, and
not Musicmasters. It was a guy from Sony who said, 'I bet you could put together a great jug
band.' And I said to him, 'I could put together the greatest jug band in the world today.' And then I started to think about it and I said, 'You know, I really could." 

Sebastian already had the core of the J-Band in front of him. Keeping rhythm for The Black Italians was drummer james Wormworth. "James plays the drums with a very wide scope. He can hit a backbeat if that's all you want, but he also has the background for dynamics, and jug bands use dynamics, much more than rock bands. Rock bands have 'A' and 'B' ---a little quiet section and then a big loud section."  What was missing was someone who could play jug ... and washboard and tub and pie plates and anything else that could lend a stomp to the mix. Fritz Richmond was a comrade of Sebastian's in pre-Spooful days, and was brought in to complete the core-group. He has since elevated his role as J-Band tinker to that of a mad scientist.

"We stop in hardware stores and cheap-looking antique shops across the country," Sebastian says, "because you never know when a good jug is going to show up. You need two washboards to
make an instrument---the way Fritz does it is he sandwiches two washboards together to get a more resonant sound. He's the one who actually goes to NorWesCo Steel and gets a washtub before it's had the last galvanizing process, which deadens it. It makes it waterproof, but it deadens it." 

Historically, jug bands treated gigs like pick-up softball games. "The bands had interchangeable members," Sebastian says. "Early recordings [circa 1930] would often feature a variety of singers
within the band. When this band began to come together, Jimmy and I were the only vocalists. Then it did exactly what jug bands do, which is what amazed me. Once we provided the setting, this thing
then started to lead us." 

When Vivino snared the job as resident guitarist on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, he feared he'd have to cede from the J-Band. As Sebastian puzzled over how to supplement the band, his road manager turned up a tape of Cambridge-area musician Paul Rishell. "He has this amazing voice and he plays guitar like Blind Blake, " Sebastian says.
He called Rishell cold and invited him in; he accepted and brought with him blues harpist Annie Raines. When torchy-blues singer Rory Block came on-board, Vivino's life was made doubly
difficult—the J-Band had become too strong for him to quit. 

It was in the teeth of conflicting commitments and multiple deadlines that the foureen tracks for I Want My Roots got laid down. In true jug band tradition, the personnel is in rotation from song to song – no two of which sound alike. In 1994. The J-Band performed at Woodstock II, and last August took the stage on Late Night, performing the band's PG-rated version of their sly 'n'
slinky anthem, "Just Don't Stop 'Till You're All Worn Out."  The record's most sublime element is the voice of the J-Band's mentor and senior member, James "Yank" Rachell. At age 86, he has the wiry fingers and lifetime career to put the J-Band in direct contact with the origins of jug music as it was performed and recorded by himself with the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Sonny Boy Williamson. 

Starting his career at age 9 in his hometown of Brownsville, Tennessee, Yank Rachell makes his home today in Indianapolis. It was here that three of his songs were recorded for Roots at The
Lodge: an ancient all-brick studio blessed with an echo
to summon the ghosts of bluesmen past, which contributes mightily to thealbum's scope. This music's
history is the history of the country. 

Sebastian says, "Jug band music turns out to be the roots of an awful lot of blues-based music. It was one of the first musics that was a hybrid, because the players were learning to play for urban audiences, which were mixed. The industrial revolution helped created jug band music because there
were suddenly large numbers of people getting off work at the same time. The blues singers—that up until then were playing on street corners to whoever passed by--would get together and say, 'If we go down there together, betcha we could turn a few more coins than we could working our own side
of the street.'" 

Although the hobo is a common jug band icon, the music really has working-class roots, and player's life typically meant making regular gigs in Memphis, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham, as well as playing the impromptu set on the steps of the county courthouse. 

"The workingman's environment created this spontaneous audience, " Sebastian says, "that would
show up at a given place at a given time. The players knew that if they hit lunch time when the cigarette rollers all stopped work, they could play a little bit and make a living." 

John Sebastian and the J-Band will be turning a coin Nov. 22 at Borders Books and Music, Stony Brook, LI; and Nov. 23 at Monmouth Univ., W. Long Branch, N.J. 
John Sebastian and the J-Band 

Music Masters, 1710 Hwy 35,
Oakhurst, NJ 07755