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Call And Response: John Hammond

The veteran New Yorker on good cover versions, pep talks from Howlin’ Wolf and the week he had both Hendrix and Clapton in his band...

Think ‘cover version’ and the connotations aren’t good. Thankfully, while John Hammond has carved out a five-decade, 35-album career with only a smattering of original material, his classic blues reinterpretations are a world away from a bar band trudging through Crossroads. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and his deathless voicebox, the 72-year- old New Yorker pulls everyone from Son House to Robert Johnson out of their specimen bottles and reimagines them for the modern age. “There’s no mandate,” he tells us, “that you have to write a song in order to be original.”

Is it your mission to keep these old blues songs alive?
Well, in a sense, yes. I don’t feel like a guardian or a historian or anything like that. I just happen to know stuff, and I was there and I was part of it. Y’know, I’ve got to a point now where a lot of the great artists who I worked with and got inspired by are gone. So I’m absolutely keeping the flame alive.

Is reinterpretation more enjoyable than original songwriting for you?
I enjoy them both. I’m not a prolific songwriter, but I’m a traditional blues singer and I get great satisfaction from putting across the songs that I can relate to.


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