John Sebastian sat on the deck of Chris Anderson’s recording studio, where he took a break from walking his blind little Shitzu, Ace, for a casual interview with Come to Woodstock. The proverbial multi-instrumentalist, far-famed Woodstock celebrity, and most notably, former member and creator of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Sebastian has returned to harmonicas and banjos in a Jug Band; continuing to perform in the genre of American folk music he helped develop during the late 50’s and early 60’s Greenwich Village beat scene when he was only a teenager. He is making connections and playing with old friends, and he doesn’t mind that his most recognized hit songs have become part of the national consciousness through commercials and advertisements. And while he would rather be left alone to walk his dog, he did stop to speak with us.
CTW: What projects are you involved with right now?
JS: As of late, I’ve been playing a lot of shows with David Grisman. David and I have played together starting in 1962. We missed a lot of each other during the interim years, but sort of reconnected because we ended up at the same benefit. So that’s been a major focus of late, as well as shows with Roger McGuinn, which I really enjoy doing. It’s funny, but Roger and I go back to ’63 in Greenwich Village. It’s been an interesting year of a lot of old friends.
CTW: Are there musicians, after all these years, who still make you think, “Wow, that song still blows me away?”
JS: Absolutely. I just went out yesterday to buy an obscure Chuck Berry reissue, because it contained an instrumental on which Chuck Berry played the pedal steel [guitar]. That song is called “Deep Feeling,” and it appeared on the B side of, I believe, “Maybelline.” Because in those days, Chess would try to ensure that the DJ focused on the up-song, the rock n’ roll song, by putting something pretty bluesy or slow or ballady on the B side. And this just happened to be what I considered one of the coolest three minutes of instrumental bliss.
CTW: When we discussed Robert Johnson, you said that as a teenager, you listened to these “shapes” he was creating and felt you could never replicate that on the acoustic guitar.
JS: Yes, the finger shapes, the chords.
CTW: When your started the Lovin’ Spoonful, did you develop an element of rock because you were humbled by the thought that you couldn’t possibly surpass the great America blues artists?
JS: Remember that the word “rock” used without the word “roll” really did not happen immediately. We were evolving a style. So it really wasn’t us looking at rock as a separate element and saying, “We’re going to add this.”
CTW: But it does seem. when you listen to the Spoonful, that you had this jug band that was partially a rock n’ roll band.
JS: Well, it was. What we were experiencing, as musicians, was a whole bunch of different kinds of music. We were, as New York kids, hearing WSM from Nashville, right along with the Magnificent Montague on WRL, as well as late at night, you could pick up the Grand Ole Opry…. So we were all hearing a lot of stuff, and reacting to it at the same time. So, yeah, as a guitar player, I’d already played in a sax and guitar band for three years, as this teenager, and then went to summer camp and heard people finger pick. And that was the first time that I heard that happen. So really, by the time I was playing,… it meant that I was finger picking, but I had a Les Paul…. So it didn’t feel like much of a leap when it was happening.
CTW: How long has it been since you wrote your first song and picked up your first instrument?
JS: Probably a real long time. Fifty years?
CTW: And do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
JS: Yeah. It was called, “Shepherds call her Iphigenia.” It was a response to a request. I think that very often, songs happen as a result of somebody asking for something. Now, in this case, it was just a little prep school play, a Shakespearean play, and they let me do a little bit of music, and I ended up proposing this. And that became part of the act. But in the same year, my cousin and I had written “Rootie Toot.” You know, “There’s three little girls walking down the street. One of them had buck teeth and the other flat feet. But the one in the middle, she’s mighty cute. That’s my baby, she’ s my rootie toot.”
CTW: On your band’s website, it says that the Spoonful was the American answer to the British invasion.
JS: Well, the Lovin’ Spoonful was simply approaching a lot of the same sources that the English bands were using, without the extra step of leaving the country.
CTW: Did you ever think, I’m going to be this fantastic song writer? Were you an ambitious kid with a guitar, or was this completely unplanned fame?
JS: No, it was a by-product of playing music and wanting to be a good guitar player, and simply trying to articulate ideas. I certainly assumed in the beginning that I wouldn’t be the guy that stood right under the spotlight. I started off as an accompanist. So that was really my focus, and songwriting grew out of that. Certainly, by the time I started to earn a few BMI awards, I had to face the fact that I was sort of “the songwriter” in my band. But I still think of myself more as a player than as a writer.
CTW: Well, that singer-songwriter label has certainly been attached to you.
JS: I was the first sensitive singer-songwriter.
CTW: Unlike Bob Dylan and all that followed?
JS: No, no, no. That was a different thing. That was a really great thing, but it was a different thing.
CTW: Was “Darling Be Home Soon,” written for a particular person, at that time?
JS: At the time, it was. But I’d have to say, musicians tend to idealize.
CTW: I’m sure that at 19, you didn’t think that you’d be the writer of one of the longest-running theme songs for McDonalds. Was that transition into the commercial world at all difficult?
JS: Well, the bad news for American art is that advertising actually supports many of these older copyrights, because they have a tremendous impact, and in many cases, that writer is trying to put a kid through school—without the assistance very much of this government—so that’s where I’m very glad that some of those songs had other applications. Yeah, it’s an advertisement. Musicians have had to stick our noses into that for a long time.
CTW: Do you have any challenges left as a musician?
JS: Well, I think that the challenge lies with our peers. The great men who continue to play. People make fun of the Rolling Stones. I say, they’re going to outlive us all. Because their heroes, also, were playing into their 70s, sometimes 80s. And you know, once you get over the cutie-pie phase, there’s no reason to stop playing music.
Interview originally printed in Come to Woodstock, August 2012, by Rebecca Chance