I. ‘Shalom, Brother’
At Fur Peace Ranch, hidden away on an unpaved road in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, one expects to hear the moo of cows, the rustling of corn. But Fur Peace doesn’t raise dairy cattle or crops. Its primary product is guitar players, mentored during numerous weekend retreats each year by owner Jorma Kaukonen. One of the most celebrated and influential rock guitar players of the last 50 years, Kaukonen was a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, the band whose very name represents the base camp of the 1960s counter-culture in all its striations: lysergic visions, political upheavals, feedback-fueled rock ’n’ roll, the San Francisco-born soundtrack to collective hallucinations, urban revolution, and pastoral pleasures.
Kaukonen came to rock ’n’ roll gradually and unexpectedly. He was a product of the folk and blues boom of the late 1950s and ’60s, meeting and playing with nascent stars such as Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner in the clubs around Santa Clara, the southern part of the San Francisco peninsula, now absorbed into Silicon Valley. (“If I was scripting Janis’ life, she would have stayed just a blues singer,” Kaukonen said of Joplin, whom he accompanied in clubs in the early 1960s.)
His empathetic, energetic, and erudite guitar playing was there from the beginning, on Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Kaukonen’s electric playing propels the band’s classic rock hits, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Devotees of his distinctive, folk-raga style from the Airplane’s heady days like to cite his instrumental “Embryonic Journey” on the watershed Surrealistic Pillow album and his arrangement of the traditional “Good Shepherd,” a peaceful interlude on the up-against-the-wall psychodrama of Volunteers.
By the end of the 1960s, Kaukonen—overshadowed at times by the big three egos of singers Grace Slick, Marty Balin, and Kantner—was also moonlighting with his oldest friend from D.C., Airplane bassist Jack Casady, on what has become their most lasting combo, blues-folk-rock band Hot Tuna. Though the repertory has stayed the same, the approach often changes, as Hot Tuna tours and records in acoustic, electric, and blended formats. Its original lineup featured a violinist, Papa John Creach. Since around 2002, it has included mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff, whose expertise and repertory include both klezmer and bluegrass, sometimes at the same time. The band’s name—rowdier fans sometime add an “effin” between “Hot” and “Tuna”—evokes an active connection to both ’60s nostalgia and 21st-century American roots music. (As usual, they are currently on tour.)
At lunch in the building named after Kaukonen’s mother, the Beatrice Love kitchen and dining cabin, Kaukonen sidled up to me, stretched out his hand, and said, “Shalom, brother.”
II. Judaism, Appalachian Style
Now a we-should-all-look-so-good-at-his-age 75, Kaukonen lives a full and interesting life divided between the guitar school at Fur Peace Ranch and tours with Hot Tuna or as a solo artist, as well as gigs with whomever he pleases. Earlier this year, Red House Records released Kaukonen’s latest solo album, Ain’t in No Hurry, produced by fellow guitar star Larry Campbell (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan). The most recent Hot Tuna album, Steady as She Goes (2011), was also done for Red House.
Just as important as his still-flourishing music and teaching career is Kaukonen’s embrace of his Jewish heritage, a process accelerated in unusual fashion: The spontaneous decision 10 years ago of his wife and partner, Vanessa, to convert to Judaism. This was not a conversion prodded by marriage, since the couple had already been married for many years. Nor was it something that Kaukonen, with a Finnish father and Jewish mother, had ever contemplated, much less pushed for, since he had always identified as more cultural than religious. “It was mainly the food, the chopped liver, and my grandparents’ stories about Russia,” Kaukonen said.
In fact, Kaukonen still takes delight in the food aspects of Jewish culture, adapted to the rural Ohio region in which he and Vanessa have lived for many years. On Saturday morning, bagels and nova (along with granola, fresh fruit, and excellent strong-brewed coffee and the ranch’s own line of artisanal teas) were available at the Fur Peace Ranch buffet breakfast. Kaukonen placed some nova (sliced thin) on a bagel but instead of the classic companion, slapped a spoonful of peanut butter on his plate. Noting my quizzical glance, Kaukonen pointed at the peanut butter and said, “hillbilly cream cheese.”
Jorma’s Jewish identity was imprinted not just by his grandparents, especially his beloved grandmother Vera, a dominant figure in his childhood, but by the great-grandparents who were leaders of an agrarian commune of Russian Jewish tobacco and potato farmers in the Connecticut River Valley known as the Rockville Settlement. His great-grandfather Samuel Levine, known as Shmuel, served a rabbinical function in the community’s synagogue, Congregation Knesseth Israel, built in Ellington, Connecticut, in 1913. According to a website quoting a local newspaper at the time: “The cornerstone of the new Jewish temple was laid Sunday afternoon with appropriate exercises conducted by Samuel Levine of Vernon.” Levine was also a sofer, the scribe who created the community’s first Torah.
With his father traveling often as a foreign service officer, Kaukonen was raised in the Chevy Chase section of the District of Columbia (not to be confused with Chevy Chase, Maryland). Kaukonen remembers Washington, D.C. in the 1940s and 1950s as a Southern city. “Many of my friends at school were Presbyterian southern kids,” he said. “The food I ate was ethnic Russian Jewish cooking. I never gave it a second thought. Jews were the outsiders. I got into fights all the time because I was a Jew. I just accepted that’s the way it was.”
The most influential figure was that maternal grandmother, a leftist Zionist. It was Vera, “an outlaw” who was not at all religious, who gave Kaukonen Israel Bonds for each of his birthdays; to buy his first electric guitar, Kaukonen cashed in those bonds. To underline the particular place of honor she holds in his life, he acknowledges that there is a reason she does not rest in the family plot in Connecticut. “She was cremated, and she’s in my garage, next to my motorcycles,” he explained.
Vanessa Lillian Kaukonen was raised Catholic, coincidentally in Hartford, Connecticut, near Jorma’s ancestral roots. “When I become confirmed, my parents got divorced, and all I could think was, I didn’t have to do this”—going to church—“anymore,” she said one afternoon at the Fur Peace Ranch, while the sounds of acoustic guitar players being taught by Kaukonen and the weekend’s guest instructors, bluesman Guy Davis and Irish musician John Doyle, chimed in the air. “I didn’t want to be part of the Catholic Church, but I kind of wandered. I always believed there was something bigger than me, but I didn’t know what, or why.”
Addiction and alcoholism play a part in both Vanessa and Jorma’s spiritual journey. She has been sober 22 years; Jorma for 19. “That was a huge part of my search. I’m not giving myself a pat on the back for having been an addict, but one of the things, when I got sober, I realized there was something missing, a power greater than me that I could relate to,” Vanessa said. Twelve-step programs helped, but Vanessa, apparently, needed something more. The epiphany, when it came unannounced, changed her life.
The time: about 10 years ago. The place: an old synagogue, Congregation B’nai Sholom, in Huntington, West Virginia, just 57 miles south of the Fur Peace Ranch. The occasion: a concert by the Klezmer Mountain Boys, a band led by clarinetist Margot Leverett that blends the traditional Eastern European swing music with good old American bluegrass. Mitterhoff, the Klezmer Mountain Boys mandolin player, is close to the Kaukonens, a perennial Fur Peace Ranch teacher of a popular course called “Bluegrass and Beyond” and a near constant traveling companion as a member of Hot Tuna since the early 2000s and sideman on Kaukonen’s own headlining concerts and recordings. Kaukonen cites Mitterhoff as an important influence in his enhanced Jewish identity.
“We’ve traveled endlessly together, 100 to 150 days a year for 13 years,” Mitterhoff said in a phone conversation from his home in Scotch Plains, N.J., “and it might have been the first time he spent that much time with another musician who was Jewish. I’m not very religious, but if we see something in the newspaper about Jewish life or issues, we point it out to each other and discuss it.”
When Jorma and Vanessa arrived at the West Virginia shul for the Klezmer Mountain Boys show, they were greeted by a man in a cowboy hat and boots who said, “Shalom, y’all!” So far, so cute. But something in Vanessa Kaukonen changed when she walked through the doors. “It’s a very modest looking sanctuary,” she said. “Something happened to me, so out of body, I started weeping. Not like somebody-died kind of crying, or I-hurt-myself crying, but it was so deep, like from 100 years ago, I couldn’t tell you. I looked at Jorma, and I had to go to the bathroom to compose myself. I told Jorma, ‘This is the same feeling I had when I met you. I feel like I’m home.’ ”
A week later, Vanessa was on the phone with Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, spiritual leader of the Hillel in Athens, Ohio, 25 miles north of the Kaukonen home in Pomeroy, Ohio. Though Athens is a college town, the Hillel at Ohio University there is the hub for all of the small Jewish community in the region. “Whenever anybody calls me and announces they’re interested in conversion, my initial reactions are always the same,” Leshaw, who is Reconstructionist, said in an email. “I’m excited, but also cautious.”
She continued: “Our first few meetings were spent discussing her spiritual path, her family of origin, and her hopes for a religious connection to a new community of faith. Jorma began to attend the meetings, in part because Vanessa encouraged him to explore his Jewish past, but also because he was eager to create a Jewish future with her.”
Together with the woman they call “Rabbi Danielle,” Vanessa and Jorma had immersive conversations about Jewish holidays, rituals, the importance and meaning of Shabbat, raising Jewish children, ethics, and Torah. “I required them to participate in Jewish life in Athens, build friendships, and devote time and talent to supporting this community,” Leshaw said.
“I wasn’t bar mitzvahed,” Jorma said about his youth. “I didn’t know who I was, or why I felt different. Now I know, I was a Jew from a Jewish family.” When Vanessa decided to begin her Jewish transformation, Jorma said, “it struck me that I need to do it, too.” Though he is not observant, Kaukonen’s increased Jewish awareness provides something essential that had been missing from his life. “I’m not fond of dogma, but I feel very comfortable in the [Jewish] milieu. At our little Reconstructionist synagogue in Athens, not only is our rabbi a woman, she’s a got a little tattoo on her ankle. It felt like being home to me. I had never considered it in a conscious, intellectual way before, but it felt like it had been there all along.”
It’s not that extra motivation was needed, but raising a Jewish child was about to become relevant to the Kaukonens. They were beginning the process of adopting a young daughter from China. Their daughter, Israel, known as Izze (pronounced “Izzy”), is now 9 years old and is often seen at Fur Peace Ranch. (The family actually lives on another farm about eight miles away.) She had a little crafts table near the entrance to the theater before the Saturday night concert by guest teachers Guy Davis and John Doyle, selling her colorful handmade cloth “don’t worry” dolls at a brisk clip, negotiating prices with hagglers while Jorma sat by quietly and beamed with pride.
Tall for her age and sophisticated in her worldview, Izze is home-schooled and also participates at Hillel. “She’s getting a little old for the children’s services, so she goes to adult services with me,” Vanessa said. “I want her to be part of the conversations after services.”
The ranch has become integrated in the region’s Jewish community. One year, they held Rosh Hashanah services at the ranch. Jorma was the co-leader of the musical part of the service with Carol Weiner, a local Jewish musician who sings and acts as cantor. Kaukonen and Weiner also did the music for the Rosh Hashanah children’s service at the Hillel in 2010.
Jorma wrote about the experience on his blog. The headline on the post is “5772 Comes in With the Blues.” Kaukonen notes:
We did a number of appropriate tunes but I think our big number was The Yom Kippur I’m Sorry Blues by Lisa Ann Green. Other songs in the service included Shanah Tovah by Judy Farber, L’Shanah Tovah by Debbie Friedman, Avinu Malkeinu in English by Judy Caplan Ginsburg, May You Be Sealed, Shofar Blast and Ahavah Love is Gonna Carry You, all by Peter and Ellen Allard.
Jorma and Vanessa had been living in Woodstock, New York, long thought of as a felicitous settlement for musicians with strong affinity for the 1960s. Jefferson Airplane, after all, was one of the headlining bands of the 1969 Woodstock festival, which benefited from the town’s artistic cachet, even though it was finally held in Bethel/White Lake New York, across the Catskills in Sullivan County. Their move to Ohio was pure serendipity. Twenty years ago, an old friend of Kaukonen’s from the 1950s called—“a phone call out of the blue,” he says—offering him approximately 130 acres for $32,000. “It seemed like a good idea,” Kaukonen shrugged. “If I was thinking of a higher power in those days, which I wasn’t, I would have realized this was a good deal and an opportunity, which it really was. It could have been a royal pain in the ass. Being a farmer is real work.”
Kaukonen’s notion was that it would be a nice place to have some kind of music camp. “Left to my own devices, we would have been sitting around a campfire with some hay bales, not necessarily singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but sitting around playing. But Vanessa had a real life before this as a civil engineer, and she drew up the plans, went to the bank, and did all that stuff to make it happen.”
Vanessa was living in Key West in the 1980s, working as an architectural designer. A friend dragged her to a Hot Tuna concert, they sat near the stage, met the band, partied all night. She gave Jorma her phone number. For the next few months Jorma courted her ardently, and he frequently flew her out to see him when he was touring. The turning point was when she was in Woodstock, Vermont, on a design job, and Jorma came to see her from Woodstock and asked her to marry him. Jorma had to go on the road, but he left Vanessa his massive Cadillac Eldorado at a nearby airport. “It had a beautiful black leather interior and a trunk you could fit four ex-husbands in,” Vanessa said. “I turn the key, and start to drive, the song is [Hot Tuna’s] “Genesis” with the line “and I want to go with you,” and the DJ says, ‘that was Jorma Kaukonen.’ I heard the angels sing, the universe was saying go-go-go-go-go-go, there was no going back now.”
It’s no surprise that this instant love story between two people who were heavy substance abusers at the time might have its bumps. “We got married on a pirate ship in Key West. The next five years were shit,” Vanessa said. Jorma spent considerable time in California with a Jefferson Airplane reunion project that did not turn out well. And Vanessa hated Woodstock. “He was on a methadone program, I was drinking heavily and still doing my drugs. I lost my paradise in Key West and went back to Woodstock, which I never liked, because his ghosts from his old life and his addictions were there. He kept saying, it’s all part of a bigger picture. And I was saying, what’s the bigger picture? Is this all some kind of cosmic joke? He gets this land in Ohio, I cried all the way here. He goes out on tour, and I find God in the hills of southeast Ohio. I got sober and he’s not. In the three years before he got sober, he has an affair that produces a child. I’m like, thanks a lot. I’m sober and I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. All I ever wanted from that, when I found out, I just wanted to learn how to forgive him, because it was the righteous thing to do.” In a follow-up conversation, Vanessa added emphatically, about Jorma’s son: “Zachary is not a secret; he is a blessing.”
In retrospect, this focus on righteous forgiveness made the Kaukonens’ embrace of Judaism—he from the inside, she from the outside—seem natural, if not predestined. At the Fur Peace Ranch, they have created a sanctuary for musicians of all levels who find an atmosphere in which to grow. The ranch is alcohol and drug free; the psychedelic experience is represented by the ranch’s Psylodelic Gallery, a two-story silo dedicated to the arts and culture of the 1960s: concert posters, photographs, memorabilia, the occasional light show. One poster captures the era: It advertises a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco, 1966/1967: Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service. Tickets $6, breakfast included.
At the time of my visit, the Psylodelic Gallery also featured original work by local artist Kevin Morgan, credited with creating the “visual identity” for Kaukonen’s recent musical efforts, including the last covers for both Hot Tuna and Kaukonen’s solo albums. There’s also a store, at which you can purchase all kinds of Fur Peace Ranch, Hot Tuna, and Jorma merchandise: T-shirts, hats, guitar keychains, as well as CDs and DVDs by kindred spirits.
The gallery and store are both steps away from the barn, which is transformed into a concert hall that seats 200 and has a laid-back mood and state-of-the-art light and sound. Cardboard nametags are spotted on many seats, and the impression is that of a down-home version of the gold-plated nameplates on the backs of seats in many synagogues. They are reserved for season ticket holders, and they make up what appear to be a majority of the seats in the hall.
On Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, the guest teachers Davis and Doyle were the headliners. Ranch manager and longtime family friend John Hurlbut was the emcee with a folksy Prairie Home Companion delivery, sincere and satirical at the same time. Kaukonen played guest slots with each of the headliners, to heavy applause.
“We’re a destination, not a way point and not a bar,” Kaukonen said the next morning over more nova and, for him, peanut butter. “We have well over a 90 percent return rate among season ticket holders. There are other cool venues [in the region], but we are part of the community.”
Both instructors and students get something more than just musical lessons at Fur Peace Ranch. And they come from all over. The gifted blues singer and stylist Lisa Biales came from Oxford, Ohio, to study with Davis to “get instruction from a master” and add to her repertoire. Leading a small class of blues guitarists, Guy Davis spoke of trying to “unlock something inside of us” along with the drill of “focus and regularity” in the chord changes. Aside from Biales, almost every other student seemed to have traveled long miles. One was from Norway. Others came from Jacksonville, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; Salt Lake City; upstate New York and Long Island; Athens, Georgia.; Sudbury, Massachusetts. One of Jorma’s younger students, Albert Von Ledebur, from Regina, Saskatchewan, is what is referred to as a “repeat offender,” one who comes every year, with an obsessive, detailed knowledge of Kaukonen’s music, from early Airplane to late Hot Tuna.
David Wolff, Jorma’s teaching assistant, may be the original “repeat offender”; he began following Hot Tuna around the country when he was 15 years old. He is also a valuable resource in Jorma’s Jewish development. Wolff was raised in a nonobservant Conservative Jewish home but became more observant as a young adult. His first two children were raised kosher, shomer Shabbos, Modern Orthodox, and went to the Abraham Joshua Heschel school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“When Jorma and Vanessa told me they were committing themselves to Judaism, my own journey to a more observant lifestyle gave me some insight into what they were embarking on,” Wolff said. “Many aspects of Judaism have helped me to move in a positive direction, and I had the sense that this could benefit the Kaukonens at this time of their life as well.” (That includes one of Wolff’s sons helping “Uncle Jorma” find the right page in his siddur when davening in Hebrew at a Manhattan shul, B’nai Jeshurun.)
Kaukonen’s secular muse is the Rev. Gary Davis, whose songs and finger-picking style are so much a part of Kaukonen’s life that there is a Davis song on almost every album he’s ever made. “Hesitation Blues,” a rock song in Hot Tuna’s repertory, is a Davis tune. Teaching it to his guitar students one afternoon, he pointed out how Barry Mitterhoff had taught him the same chord progressions were in the classic Jewish song, “Sholom Aleichem” (A minor to E major, transition to C7).
There are two other underappreciated guitarists from the early 1960s whose spirit Kaukonen is dedicated to keeping alive. Steve Mann is one, commemorated by the Hot Tuna song “Mann’s Fate.” Another was Ian Buchanan, who died in 1982. Buchanan was a protégé of Rev. Davis and bluesman Lonnie Johnson; Buchanan taught his Antioch College classmates Kaukonen and John Hammond Jr. the finger-picking style and instilled the classic repertory that Kaukonen plays to this day. “Ian was a really important guy to me, an utterly pure and uncommercial spirit. I followed my spirit most of my life, but I really liked getting paid for it. Ian never cared whether he did or not.”
Kaukonen has made two trips to Israel in the last five years. One tour was with Hot Tuna in 2010; another with Mitterhoff, playing small gigs at Israeli clubs in December 2012. His support for Israel is uncomplicated. “It’s there,” he said with finality. As for those who won’t recognize that, he says, “I’m glad I’m not called upon for a solution. My experience is very superficial. I was there working. I met countless Israelis who love the same music I do.”
Vanessa and Izze, who weren’t working, got to see Israel from a slightly different angle: walking on the beach in Tel Aviv on Christmas Eve, marveling at the elevators set to stop at every floor on Shabbat. (Hungry, they managed to find a Thai restaurant in Tel Aviv open on Shabbat.)
On an off day in Jerusalem during the Hot Tuna tour, the Israeli concert promoter had arranged for a small tour bus to show the band and their entourage the sights. Jack Casady’s wife, Diana Balfour Casady, was already in a wheelchair, suffering from cancer. (She died on Sept. 8, 2012, at age 65.) The concert promoter introduced each of them individually to the guide and driver, whose ears perked up when he heard Diana’s British accent and the name “Balfour.”
The guide said, “That’s a very important name for us.” Diana acknowledged that she was a niece of Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary who wrote the essential 1917 letter expressing his government’s support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In Diana Balfour’s honor, the tour guide adjusted his itinerary that day to show her some of the sites that might be more relevant to a gentile visiting the Holy Land.
“The promoter kept saying ‘I’m sorry the way the tour has turned’,” Vanessa Kaukonen recalled. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is beautiful. What a gracious man, he did it because she was a Balfour, because it was the right thing to do. Knowing that you have that obligation.” In the telling, Vanessa became teary. She paused to reflect. “I was never offered that in the faith I was born into,” she said. “If I was, I missed it. But I know I was never offered that.”
Later, asked to amplify the thought, Vanessa said: “When I talked to you about the one thing that drew me to Judaism, it was this responsibility to be righteous in your life, no matter what. To walk a straight line, so to speak. The faith I came from spoke of walking a clear path, but I never found it to move me like the words and prayers did when I read them at Shabbat services. … I feel it every time a group of students comes and leaves four days later. It is powerful and magical and lives are changed. And Jorma and I are better people for walking this path.”
Wayne Robins, a writer and journalist, teaches at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. He also programs the ‘Rock: Today and Yesterday’ radio channel at eMusic.com. He is working on a spiritual memoir.