The name “John Hammond” should be carved in concrete in the music history of the 20th century, yet, I bet that this name won’t even ring a bell with most of you. And yet, there is so much to be told about John Hammond.
There is a John Hammond Junior and John Hammond Senior, and although the son makes his own way in live, independent from the merits of his father, he can’t deny the family roots.
The son, John Paul Hammond is a very productive and talentful blues (mainly acoustic) guitarist and singer, born in 1942 and hooked on the blues since he heard Jimmy Reed, who was very popular in the fifties for his lazy style of singing and playing as a one man band both guitar and harmonica. From the start of his career in the beginning of the sixties until today Hammond has recorded over 30 albums, and it is safe to say that he is the only artist who can rightfully claim that he has jammed together for a couple of evenings with both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in the famous Gaslight Café in New York in 1967 (interview with John Hammond Jr.). John Paul Hammond acknowledges that the pre-war blues singers whom he admires so much were in the first place professional entertainers who had a large repertoire that surpassed the sole blues. The term blues was a marketing instrument for the white record companies executives. In his approach to music he backs up the words of his father in his memoires that he didn’t hear any colour line in music, and he quotes Howlin’ Wolf who had a big admiration for the (white) country music and more particularly for the yodeling voice of the country star Jimmy Rodgers. Only, Howlin’ Wolf couldn’t yodel, only …howl…
The marks that his father, John Henry Hammond II (born 1910) left on the 20th century music history are enormous. In a previous post, I highlighted the role of H.C. Speir in the talent scouting and production of many of the most famous pre-war blues artists. The role of John Henry Hammond II was even more important as it included not only blues but also jazz, swing, folk and rock. He was unique in many respects.
For a starter, he was one of the heirs of the Vanderbilt fortune, through his mother’s side. The fortune of the Vanderbilt family, acquired in shipping, railroads and real estate, largely collapsed in the midst of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it remained in the top 10 of the richest families. The name Gloria Vanderbilt as designer and perfume producer sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Though his family tried to push the young John Henry into the corsage of what can be expected of a family of this social status with tentacles in the jet set of politics and economics, and tried to interest him in the classical music (violin and piano), John Henry was much more keen on the music performed by the black household personnel. When on top of that he heard Bessie Smith sing in 1927, the switch was turned forever. He left his academic studies and went straight into the music business, first as a critic and journalist.
What he did since then is just one long fairy tale of what a man can accomplish in a life time.
He started in his own way a fight against the injustice done to the black race. In his memoirs he explains: “To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of”. His leitmotif throughout was the integration of the races, not only on the social level, but also on the cultural level. It is hard to underestimate the importance of the concerts “From Spirituals to Swing” which he organized in 1938 and again in 1939 at the Carnegie Hall, the concert venue in Midtown Manhattan in New York. His objective was to show the richness that America had to offer through the splendor of the black music, starting historically from the spirituals, over the blues to the jazz, swing and the boogie woogie. For the first time ever, that December 23rd 1938 he brought together not only a racially mixed audience, but also a racially mixed set of stage performers. It needs not to be said that this initiative was not on the priority list of the white population. It was only with the help of the Communist Party that John Hammond managed to get enough money together to organize the event which united names as Ida Cox, Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Count Basie orchestra, Sonny Terry, and Big Bill Broonzy. He had called in Broonzy as a replacement for Robert Johnson who was on his initial list, but he found out that he had been murdered some time before (I remember having read somewhere that he played Robert Johnson’s records before the live audience – this must have been a sensation !). The concert also featured the Golden Gate Quartet, “a gospel group who had been crucial in the crossover of African-American performers to the mainstream, not just in terms of their acceptance as entertainers, but more signficantly a recognition that blues, jazz and gospel were fundamental components of contemporaneous American culture” (Hugh Gregory in : RoadhouseBlues, p. 77).
The concert, which following its huge success in 1938 was repeated in December 1939, is to be considered as a milestone in the musical history of the blues and jazz music of the 20th century, and also as a key event in the history of the race relations in the United States.
Hammond tried to realize the dream of a racially integrated society not alone through his political, left wing ideas, but also and foremost through the fostering of active integration in the music. Not only did he for instance organize Benny Goodman’s Band, he also persuaded Benny Goodman to hire black musicians, one of them being Charlie Christian, a key figure in the development of the electric guitar.
Hammond’s musical accomplishments weren’t limited however to those events. He brought Billie Holiday from Harlem into the record studio, and invited the Count Basie Orchestra from Kansas to New York. In the fifties he discovered Aretha Franklin when she was only a young gospel singer. And in 1961 he heard a young man, called Robert Zimmerman, playing the harmonica. He contracted him to the Columbia Records Company despite the protest of its white executives. Luckily he won the battle with these CEO’s, otherwise we would have never heard of Bob Dylan. In 1961 John Hammond was also the drive behind the republication of the work of the great Robert Johnson (some 30 years later his son promoted Robert Johnson once more). Hammond is also to be credited for the success of the first (1983) and some later albums of Stevie Ray Vaughan (with a little help from his son John Hammond Jr). He also sparked the career of Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen…
He died at the age of 77, following a series of strokes.
It is my personal guess that his fight for racial integration was a kind of overcompensation as the child rebel in the family, and a struggle with the legacy of his Vanderbilt’s roots. He also used the music as an instrument of social protest, whilst the artists themselves did not aim at social revolt and considered their music in the first place as a way to earn money and to entertain people. At the end of the day, and whatever his personal explicit or implicit drives, the legacy he left for the 20th century blues, jazz, folk and rock music is huge. As an author writes in his biographical notes: “blues-loving Vanderbilt heir seemed to know what America wanted to hear before America knew it“.