With Woodstock 50 four months away, 1969 festival alum and former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen is in the news with a his autobiography, Been So Long: My Life in Music.
Hardcore Airplane and Hot Tuna fans already know the basic outline of Kaukonen’s life: An authenticity-obsessed student of traditional, finger-picking country blues in the folk revival of the early ’60s (Harlem legend Blind Gary Davis was his special inspiration), Kaukonen catapulted to stardom when he went electric as the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, the flagship band of the psychedelic San Francisco sound.
Together with Airplane bassist and childhood friend Jack Casady, they formed Hot Tuna as a side group in 1969 that returned to Kaukonen’s country-blues roots before again going electric, this time as a heavy blues-rock power trio in the style of Cream. After Tuna split up in the late ’70s, he briefly experimented with the punk-blues band Vital Parts, but this didn’t go over well with his fans. In the ’80s, Kaukonen spiraled downhill; by the time he was called back for an Airplane reunion album in 1989 his career was at a nadir.
It’s hardly surprising that tales of drug use devour many pages. Cannabis was a “sacrament” for these early San Francisco musical pioneers, a rite of cultural bonding as well as enhancement to creativity. LSD trips followed.
Kaukonen subsequently revived Tuna as a country-blues group. In the 21st century, he went back to the land on a farm in rural Ohio where he now teaches guitar to kids from across the country, passing that old-school blues method to a new generation.