53 years ago, 25 year-old John Sebastian, clad in a tie-dyed jacket and rolled-up pants, got up on stage unexpectedly to play an afternoon set with an acoustic guitar on the second day of arguably the most memorable music festival in the history of music festivals.
His six-decade-long career began when John Sebastian played the guitar and harmonica for American folk musician Billy Faier's 1964 album The Beast of Billy Faier. Over the years, Sebastian has written many hit songs, many of which were subsequently covered by other musicians and singers such as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and others.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and principal songwriter of the seminal rock band Lovin' Spoonful, John Sebastian, known for being a major influence on the sound of other great bands such as The Grateful Dead and The Kinks, spoke to SK Pop about his experience at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and about various other events preceding and following the festival.
John Sebastian breaks down his musical career
Q) The 1969 Woodstock Festival was so much more than a music festival. It gave birth to a certain kind of fashion, sound, and lifestyle. It was a landmark event and extremely consequential. You were pulled out of the crowd to play an impromptu set and stall for time. What do you remember from the day of your performance and attendance?
John Sebastian: I remember it clearly because I'm not a psychedelics-type guy. What went on was, I got to Woodstock quite unofficially. On a hunch, I went to the Albany airport, figured out that there were no flights getting me any closer. And then it just so happened, I looked out of the window of the airport, and there, loading a helicopter, was The Lovin' Spoonful's first road manager.
Imagine the coincidence. He is now working for The Incredible String Band. He's gesturing, pointing to a set of stairs down onto the tarmac, saying, "No problem."
So I go down there and he says, "You're trying to get to Woodstock, right?" I say, "Yeah." He says:
"Look, you're not gonna find a way. I've been back and forth over the road and I can see that everything is stopped. There's no way to get there. No buses, nothing. Your only way is to get in this helicopter."
So that's what I did. It was quite remarkable, like the movie where you see a fly over of the grounds in the beginning. And that is exactly what I was seeing. You can't see any ground. It's all tents, sleeping bags, Volkswagen buses, you know, just that kind of thing.
In those days, security hadn't really developed yet. Aside from Beatlemania, nobody needed to run up somebody. Remember, the music business was so much smaller then, that I was able to say 'hi' to people I had opened for or those who had opened for me. So it was very easy to wander around backstage. What we called backstage then was just a plywood surface.
So eventually, I ended up on the stage. Michael and Chip Monck, these are friends of mine for a long time, and we had all done things together.
They were actually standing on either side of me having this conversation. I forget who says it first or Mike says, "Yeah, we got to find somebody to hold them while we sweep the stage." And Chip says, "Yeah, it'd be really good if somebody could just play an acoustic guitar, no electric. That's what we probably need."
Now I'm staring out at the crowd, not looking to either side. So these guys are talking and I'm just like, "Yeah, that's right, that's what we need." And then I suddenly turn and I realize, "Oh, they're talking to me!" I said, "Fellas, I didn't bring a guitar. I'm not on this bill." Chip Monck, in that terrific voice, goes, "John, you have several minutes to find a guitar."
So I basically ran down into the basement area below the stage, and luckily, found Tim Hardin, an old pal who I have played with almost constantly in Greenwich Village before his larger success.
I said, "Tim, they want me to play Can I borrow your guitar?" And he points to this Harmony Sovereign sitting over in the corner. And I grab it and I'm tuning as I run up the stairs. Then there I was on stage. You know, with a good solid crowd. I had never seen one that big. You really can't plan this kind of stuff.
Q) Tell me about your blues roots and your father's influence on you and your music.
John Sebastian: Well, certainly listening to a man practice six, sometimes eight hours a day is going to give you some kind of a musical foundation for whatever you might be doing. I was just a kid listening to this all, and the effect was that I was learning a lot about tone and presentation. I’d go to some of my father's concerts.
To me, it was like a miracle. This guy with one pianist could take an audience away for a while, and that was inspirational. Also, we had a piano tuner in the house at least once a week. When I started working for a guitar company, they all went, “Oh no, you tune.”
Q) How did you get around to playing the harmonica on The Doors' hit Roadhouse Blues and their live concerts? Also, what was the contractual issue that stopped you from being credited under your real name?
John Sebastian: Oh, it wasn't quite that kind of an issue. People made it out to be because they couldn't explain it. The thing is that if my father had not changed his name from Giovanni Sebastiano Pugliese, even I would have been Giovanni Sebastiano Pugliese. But since that last name, as my father said when I asked him once why my name wasn't the same as grandpa’s, he said when we were in front of a marquee:
“Son, if you can imagine on that marquee, classical chromatic harmonica, that's three strikes. Now you're gonna give it another unpronounceable to Americans name.”
So when Paul Rothchild (record producer) asked me to play a little harmonica on the Doors' recording, I was glad to do it, and the extra fun was that Lonnie Mack was playing bass. When he told me that, I said you can’t keep me away. Now, this is a little hard to understand, just because of the relative fame of these different groups.
But at the time, The Beatles were imitating us (The Lovin Spoonful). So we had a certain amount of respect going into it, but Paul was anxious that The Doors keep all of their credibility, and not, “He just got the guy from The Lovin’ Spoonful to play,”
So he said, “Could you be somebody else?” and I said:
“Well, you know, I'm always anxious to not be John Sebastian on a blues record because I don't want my father's fans to go, 'Oh, what's become of the maestro? He's slumming now.'”
And I did it for a couple of different albums over the years, just so that nobody would think that dad decided to play rock and roll.
Q) How was it to work with someone as eccentric as Jim Morrison, who is known for being very difficult?
John Sebastian: Here's the punch line of it all - Paul said:
"I'd like you to come to this session because you can play great, but also I have a feeling that Jim might behave a little better around you."
Now, would that be true? Actually, it was that day. It was a period when Paul Rothchild was my producer, and I was working for him as a sideman, long before any of these sessions.
We knew each other like—maybe not brothers, but cousins. And so I think part of it was that he knew he could depend on me even if some other things were going wrong, which they didn't, as I say, it was a great session. I really enjoyed myself. Everybody played beautifully, and Jim behaved! So yeah, we got that, and then we got together again, at another live situation in New York, and recorded the Little Red Rooster and a couple of other things.
Q) Speaking of your influence and contributions, especially through songs like Daydream, Do You Believe in Magic, Summer in the City, Butchie's Tune, and Younger Girl, where do you think the words and the melodies came from?
John Sebastian: Damned if I knew. You're a vessel as a young musician, and you just keep adding to that. I've often said stuff like Younger Girl tremendously resembles a Gus Cannon tune called The Prison Wall Blues, and Do You Believe in Magic was out of a desire to imitate Baby Love. There's always something that it starts as.
I heard James Taylor be really eloquent on this and say, “If you find a part of a tune that you like, just change it a little, and now, it's another song!” I was listening to James on the talk show, and I was going, “That's right!” Music just floats in and sometimes it doesn't, this is all part of songwriting.
I once had a session with Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, and I said, “You got to play on this.” So he comes in, he plays. It's amazing. It's just so rollin’ and swingin’. After it's all over, I go, “Mac, that was fantastic. You're such a great piano player.” He goes, “Oh man, you know you're a great songwriter.” I said, “Mac, what are you talking about? You're a great songwriter.” He goes, “I am a great song-kleptomaniac.”
So that does explain to me where it comes from. It is all in the vessel somewhere, and at least I am always thinking of somebody that I wanted to be when I was sixteen.
Q) Your music is known to have inspired bands like Grateful Dead, The Kinks and even The Beatles. I read that you're in possession of a recording of John Lennon singing Daydream. Will it ever see the light of day?
John Sebastian: He doesn't exactly sing Daydream. All he's doing is playing it. And George, always the younger brother, is going, “John, It's a minor.” Then they play a little longer and he says it again, “John it's a minor seventh or minor something.” And you hear Lennon mutter, “f*ckin’ tunesmiths.” And that just made my day. I was like, "I don't care what any of the critics think about my music. I'm all done here."
Q) You turned down Dylan's offer to tour with him in the 60s and even declined the offer to join the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, for whom you played the harmonica on their song Deja Vu. Do you regret any of those decisions?
John Sebastian: Not an iota! I had enjoyed a very casual friendship with Bob Dylan, and I think that his interest in me stemmed from the fact that we could get together and play spontaneously quite easily. However, by the time I got a call, and this is like on a payphone in a little summer hotel in the winter that the Spoonful were rehearsing in.
I get the call, “Hey, John, listen... come on, we can go on the road, or maybe, I don't know, do a session.” It's one of those odd 'come ons' from Dylan where you go, “WTF is he talking about?” I eventually realized that he was asking me to join him on the road.
Now I had gone on the road with him as a spectator for a week or ten days, not that long before that, but I had to tell him, “Bob, you know, I've been playing with these guys, and we’re starting to get some things going and even starting to write a few tunes, and so I kind of can't just dump this thing at this point.”
I didn't feel like there were any hard feelings. He certainly had an absolute world of accompanists who would just flip to play with him, so it was going to be okay.
As far as Crosby-Stills-Nash, it was a timing thing. I had left The Lovin’ Spoonful and begun playing solo. I had a modicum of success - MGM, Warner Brothers picked up a record, and things were looking bright. Let me explain the way that invitation came. Crosby, Stills & Nash were rehearsing in my garage in Sag Harbor, Long Island.
I invited them there because I had been to Los Angeles and I felt like they were getting subjected to an awful lot of idolatry, like everything you do just turns to gold. And I said:
“Man, you guys got to come back to New York, where people will trash you ‘cause that's when you learn how good or how not good you are.”
So they did come up, and they were also auditioning Paul Harris and Harvey Brooks as possible corollary members, I don't know what they were going to call that. It was part of the afternoons.
Once the rehearsals were going on, there was nobody playing drums. I did have a drum kit in that same garage. So I’d step over to it and often just play with my hands, thumping with my foot. There was a point where Stills stopped, and he goes:
“Wait a minute, we don't need a drummer. We don't need a guy to go boom, bap, boom, boom bap. We need what he's doing. This’ll be perfect.”
At that point, they were thinking this is going to be almost exclusively an acoustic guitar idea. Well, you know that idea lasted for fifteen minutes, and then the joint was passed and some new ideas came up.
But even for the moment that it was considered, I didn't have to say, “Guys, I don't know whether an audience can follow me from The Lovin’ Spoonful to a solo career and then to Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Sebastian, Taylor, Reeves.” And like I said, I do not for a minute regret that decision. For all the money and fame, those guys really had to go through hell.
Q) Lastly, tell me about your interaction and jam session with Jimi Hendrix.
John Sebastian: Oh, that happened very spontaneously. So here's the corner of Washington Square, and here is the corner that I live on. Now, one block down Washington Square North is Eighth Street. On that block, is where the studio was.
Stills was headed over there to play with Jimi, and I knew Jimi before the English trip and before being Hendrix, he was still Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.That is how the invitation came. It was very informal and just, “Come on by, we're gonna jam a little bit.” The fact that it would eventually become any kind of a record was a surprise to me.
John Sebastian is also a children's book author
Born in Greenwich Village on March 17, 1944, John Sebastian is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and harmonicist. He is best known as the founder of The Lovin’ Spoonful and for his impromptu performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Additionally, John Sebastian is credited with having popularized tie-dyed garments after wearing a tie-dyed yellow patterned denim jacket at Woodstock.
Besides his illustrious career as a musician, John Sebastian is also a children's book author. He authored a children's book, JB's Harmonica, in 1993.
His band, The Lovin's Spoonful, was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2006. They are widely known for their hits Summer in the City, Do You Believe In Magic, Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?, and Daydream. John Sebastian left The Lovin' Spoonful in 1968.