Music Interviews
3:18 pm
Sun February 16, 2014

John Hammond: The Time Tom Waits Wrote Me A Song On The Spot

Originally published on Sun February 23, 2014 9:49 am

Coming up through the Greenwich Village folk scene, John Hammond collected the work of some of the greatest blues artists of all time. On his latest album, that music is presented as bare-bones and honestly as possible: just him, his guitar, his harmonica and a deeply appreciative audience.

Now 71, Hammond is celebrating more than 50 years of recording with a new live album called Timeless. It's a smattering of modern compositions and a healthy dose of classic blues from the likes of Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf and Sleepy John Estes.

The album leads off with "No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby," a song that could be mistaken for a Bo Diddley classic, but was in fact written especially for Hammond by Tom Waits.

"He came to a recording date I was doing in San Francisco in 1992," Hammond says. "John Lee Hooker had sat in to do a duet with me, and Tom Waits appeared out of nowhere and said, 'I have a song for you, man.' It was about 20 minutes long, with everybody in the Bible coming down to the river. I said, 'Gee, you know, it's a great song, but I don't think I could do anything like that.' He said, 'Oh, you don't like that one?' So he goes into the control room."

Scarcely 10 minutes later, Hammond says, Waits emerged — with a brand-new song at the ready. Hammond listened, and liked what he heard.

"So I did it," he says. "He had left by the time we completed it, and so I sent him a cassette of it. And I hadn't heard from him for a while, so I called — and he had it on his answering machine. I guess he liked it."

John Hammond spoke with NPR's Arun Rath; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And for those of you just tuning in, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

JOHN HAMMOND: This is a tune I got from the late great Jimmy Rogers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Coming up through the Greenwich Village folk scene more than 50 years ago, John Hammond collected the work of some of the greatest blues artists of all time. On his latest album, that music is presented as bare-bones and honestly as possible, just Hammond, his guitar and his harmonica and a deeply appreciative audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: John Hammond is celebrating five decades of recording with an album called "Timeless." He plays modern songs along with a healthy dose of classic blues from the likes of Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf and Sleepy John Estes. It sounds like a survey of his career. But like all of his shows, the set list is improvised.

HAMMOND: I kind of make it up as I go along. I know about 400 songs and - or more. But in this particular case, I knew that we were being recorded, so I sort of hand-selected - my wife Marla and I picked out some songs. I did 25 songs of which we picked 15, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAMMOND: (Singing) Ooh, tell me. Honey, what the world has gone on now? Ooh, tell me, what the world has gone on now. You know, I woke up this morning trouble knocking on my door.

RATH: So I'm hearing some percussiony sounds on here, are you a foot stomper? Is that you?

HAMMOND: I'm a foot stomper. I have no control over my foot. It's another part of the band.

RATH: Is that something you picked up from other blues guys? Does everybody do that? Or is that just your foot doing its thing?

HAMMOND: It's what I do. I've seen other guys that actually have microphones on their feet or they have a stomping board. I just hope for the good stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I read a review of this new record that says it was like a living, breathing history lesson. I wonder how you feel about that description.

HAMMOND: Well, I'm not a teacher. I have a lot of experience with some of the greatest blues masters. I came on the scene at a time when a lot of the great country blues players were being rediscovered. So I got to be on shows with all of them including Bucko White and Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell. I could just go on and on. It was just an amazing experience in the beginning.

RATH: How were you able to - you mentioned, for instance, Skip James, like a tune like "Hard Times."

HAMMOND: Yeah.

RATH: It feels like your voice is coming right out of the '30s. I mean, it feels like you've lived that.

HAMMOND: You know, all the songs that I do, I make my own one way or the other. This is stuff I truly feel and truly live, you know? And these are songs that I put all of myself into.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: You lead off the album with something that sounds like it could've been a classic Bo Diddley song but it's actually by Tom Waits.

HAMMOND: Right.

RATH: It's "No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE CAN FORGIVE ME BUT MY BABY")

HAMMOND: (Singing) I crack a mean whip, carry a big gun, cast a long shadow till the day is done. Do 90 miles an hour down the devil's trail, done a hard time in a hundred jails. No one can forgive me but my baby.

He came to a recording date I was doing in San Francisco back in 1992. John Lee Hooker had sat in to do a duet with me, and Tom Waits appeared out of nowhere and said: Oh, I have a song for you, man. I wrote this song. And it was about 20 minutes long and everybody in the Bible coming down to the river. And I said, gee, you know, it's a great song, but I don't think I could do anything like that. He said, oh, you don't like that one?

So he goes into the control room. And about 10 minutes, he wrote this song and comes out and says, well, man, I know you know some bad ass songs. Well, check this one out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE CAN FORGIVE ME BUT MY BABY")

HAMMOND: (Singing) I don't pay no bills, I don't say no prayers, give back nothing, and I take all dares.

So I did it. And he had left by the time we completed it, and so I sent him a cassette of it. And I hadn't heard from him for a while, so I called, and he had it on his answering machine. I guess he like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE CAN FORGIVE ME BUT MY BABY")

HAMMOND: (Singing) No one can forgive me but my baby.

RATH: I'm speaking with blues master John Hammond. His new album is called "Timeless." I want to play something for you from a newcomer on the scene. This is a kid in his early 20s. Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAMMOND: (Singing) Well, my first name, first name is Johnny. Ain't gonna tell you my second name.

RATH: That is you from, I think, 1964.

HAMMOND: 1962.

RATH: 1962. I stand corrected.

HAMMOND: My first recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAMMOND: (Singing) Well, if you catch me stealing, no I don't mean no harm. (Unintelligible)

RATH: How has your approach to music changed since then?

HAMMOND: It hasn't really changed. I'm the same person. I can't believe I'm 71 years old. But I have the same energy. I love the music just as much or more. Hopefully, I've gotten a little better.

RATH: For a lot of people after, you know, standard things and 50 years on the job, you start preparing for retirement. But I don't think bluesmen, you know, get the gold watch or...

HAMMOND: You're right.

RATH: But you - any thoughts ever about slowing down at all or are you just going to keep at it until you can't...

HAMMOND: Well, this is my life. This is what I chose to do. I feel like the most fortunate guy in the world. I've actually done a lot of the things I hoped I have a chance to do. This is my 35th record. I've outlived a lot of my critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAMMOND: (Singing) You know, the sky's been crying...

RATH: That's John Hammond. The latest album in his 50-year recording career is called "Timeless." Mr. Hammond, thank you very much.

HAMMOND: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can also follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Unless Ragnarok happens, we'll be back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.