John Hammond Jr. impressed me some 20 years ago with his solo blues harp-guitar-vocal act that seemed about as close to the style of Delta blues songster Robert Johnson as exists. He did it again, just last night.
That engagement back when was at Madison Square Garden, and John Lee Hooker was on the bill, too. It was some blues calvalcade — but the detail I recall is that Hammond wore ankle-bells which jingled as his legs bounced in rhythm, and the whole effect was galvanic. Like the greatest Delta blues musicians (and the best of their myriad, far-flung descendants), he kept all elements of his performance in dynamic tension, and performed with rough immediacy that disguised the discipline demonstrated by his fine finger picking, slide ‘n’ strum skills.
Hammond was then, too, deeply committed to the real-time presence, rather than the revivalism, of his all-acoustic, ’20s-’40s material, which is a hard-earned distance from the life he might have had as great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. He is also the son of John Hammond, one of the most powerful music promoters of the last century, an early jazz journalist who went over to the dark side — record production — and is credited with recording everybody from Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen for Columbia, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan along the way.
The senior Hammond was also a major figure in support of racial integration in the U.S., a board member for many years of the NAACP, and a man who lived modestly, sans the airs or luxuries of a Robber Baron’s heir. At Wagner Park, playing on a stool on a simple stage with a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the younger Hammond — a healthy if weathered-looking 64 — said he’d been born in old boho Greenwich Village and it was nice to play his hometown, but he couldn’t afford to live here anymore. Real estate — a subject as devastating as spurned love in NY blues.
Then Hammond kicked off “Come Into My Kitchen,” one of the subtler seductive invitations of the true northern Mississippi repertoire, singing and blowing harmonica (on a shoulder rack) with a lonely, hopeful ache. He told more stories: of trying to get as far from his childhood home as possible early on, of pumping gas in L.A. where he was discovered by country ‘n’ western star Hoyt Axton, of escaping imminent coffeehouse success by heading to Chicago, where he was befriended by 17-year-old blues guitar whiz Mike Bloomfield (Hammond himself was 18) and hence Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes — some of whom he gigged with, all of whom he learned from. And he learned good.
Hammond has had peaks and valleys of popular profile over his career: he debut on classy Vanguard Records in 1962, did the soundtrack for Dustin Hoffman’s Little Big Man in ’70, had a semi-hit album Triumverate in with his buddy Bloomfield and Dr. John in ’73, has played with members of the Stones, the Band, Duane Allman, Victoria Spivey, Dylan, and in 2001 had a commercial breakthrough with Tom Waits songs on Wicked Grin. He played one of those which he said had become, much to his surprise, his best-selling ever number at Wagner park — a dog-free field with a stunning river-to-ocean view — and it was ok, though I couldn’t get all the lyrics out of Hammond’s expressive, throaty groan. Waits’ lyrics are the thing, unless its his own wino voice, Harry Partch-like arrangements and soloists such as Marc Ribot. The guitar part didn’t seem distinctly different than the rest of what Hammond played.
However, every syllable of Hammond’s vocal on “Fattening Frogs for Snakes”
was comprehensible, and so was the message of the Tampa Red song and the one by Blind WIllie McTell and Estes and Wolf. He sang everything with conviction, and seemed to love what he was doing.
This entranced a lot of us who were sitting around, mostly likely easier of mind than, say, plantation hands after a hard summer’s day – but other listeners were unmoved, Recognizing their indifference, I thought what Hammond exemplified has perhaps become so specialized, so ritualized a style, that though it’s bedrock to much subsequent American music (including foreign adaptations starting with John Mayall and ending who knows where?) it may be inaccessible to urban sophisticates lacking lessons in the tradition. These Delta blues were to smart New Yorkers as foreign as if they were sung in a ancient language by opaque but impassioned soloists, clutching exotic instruments, from some distant culture.
There was another concert going on in Castle Clinton, a hundred yards away, by the southern rock band Driveby Truckers. They should have been far enough off to ignore, but their amplified mix richocheted off a nearby glass-clad highrise and was amplified by a brick walk-through leading to the Wagner lawn. Which was annoying, though when Hammond played he wiped out that echo, and there was no indication he was the slightest distracted or the spell that he was casting broken. He was one with his blues, living them as fully as any of the legends he told of, comfortable in Silvio’s bar on the south side of Chicago, which when he first entered it struck Hammond as “the most dangerous place on earth.” He’s how the blues survive.