By Emily J. Weitz
The Sag Harbor American Music Festival was conceived as a way to honor the rich musical heritage of this country. Few would be more appropriate to headline this festival than blues/folk heavyweight John Hammond. With a textured voice and soulful guitar, Hammond could have come straight from the fields of the Deep South, but instead the Manhattan native grew into his own frequenting New York City nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s.
“I was seven years old when my father took me to see Big Bill Broonzy,” recalls Hammond, “one of the great country blues players from the 30s and 40s. I saw him in 1949, and was introduced to him after the show. I was so impressed, I remember it to this day.”
Soon after Hammond became aware of the blues, a folk music renaissance emerged.
“The folk music revival of the late 40s, spearheaded by Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie was very inclusive of the blues,” said Hammond. “For the first time, it was being acknowledged as part of America’s roots.”
Just as Americans themselves came from many backgrounds, so did American music.
“Blues music is distinctly American,” says Hammond, “[in part because it] originates from all sources like Africa and Europe, and every place that folks came from to the U.S.”
Hammond was right in the center of the blues music scene as it grew and artists like Josh White and Brownie McGhee started to get record deals.
“My early teens I used to go to rock and roll shows and I became a big fan of early rock and roll, which was very much blues-oriented,” remembered Hammond. “Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry are two I particularly loved hearing. As I got older I got into Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters — players that had come from the rural south and started out as acoustic players and became electric in Chicago, the blues Mecca.”
By his late teens, Hammond would drive to Chicago to see older country blues players that were still around, getting a sense of the roots of the genre.
“In the early 60s I started playing professionally,” he says, “and I made my first record in December of 1962.”
In 1963 and 1964, Hammond started playing with some of the musicians he used to follow.
“They were in their late 40s,” he says, “but they seemed so old. I’d do shows with them, and just soak in that art form.”
At the same time, folk music was exploding with artists like Bob Dylan and Jose Feliciano, who Hammond describes as “buddies.”
“It was a dynamic time,” he says with a laugh. “And now I’ve spent 50 years on the road.”
Even though the blues artists that inspired him in the beginning drew from a completely different well of hardship, like the Great Depression, Hammond believes that there’s timelessness to the blues.
“Blues is never dated,” he says, “because it deals with what is basic in life. It’s about hard times and good times. The most basic stuff transcends time. When you feel that passion, the musicality of it is affecting.”
There’s something in Hammond’s voice, a gut-wrenching sound from deep within, that evokes the blues.
“It boils things down to the essence of what’s important,” he says when asked about this quality. “The blues take an honest look at life.”
Perhaps part of that honesty is the simplicity of a blues show. This weekend, Hammond will bring his two guitars — one a handmade guitar sold to him at cost because the guy who made it wanted Hammond to have it. The other is a 1935 National steel guitar.
“It was the loudest guitar you could get before the electric guitar wiped it out,” says Hammond. “That, and my handmade guitar, and my harmonica — those are my instruments. No electronics except for the mike. It’s a simple show.”
Hammond is coming to headline the Sag Harbor American Music Festival at a time when the American identity seems to be up in the air. With the election nearing, candidates are spouting about what it is to be American. So how does American music help to capture the identity of America when politicians can’t?
“It’s a complex question,” says Hammond. “Every genre of music has its own story to tell, and its own perspective. It’s all part of the American way to express how you feel and think.”
John Hammond will play the kick off concert and fundraiser for the Sag Harbor American Music Festival at Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers’ Church on Friday, September 28 at 8 p.m. Doors will open at 7 p.m. For more information, visit sagharbormusic.org or call 917-715-4116.