Gerry Mantel, Friend & Fellow Traveler
(©2008 Gerry Mantel. All rights reserved.)
That’s what the souvenir t-shirt logo asks at the Fur Peace Ranch in Meigs County near Athens, Ohio, founded in 1989 as a labor of love by its designated Captain and his wife.
That Captain being musician Jorma Kaukonen: a former star of the Jefferson Airplane, The Sixties, and ever-Hot Tuna, who nowadays is flanked solidly by his bride and business partner, Vanessa.
I twice visited their Ranch this past summer, the first time splitting Pittsburgh to the west for Ohio’s Steubenville before turning south and cruising down Highway 7 along the storied banks of the Ohio River through charming, rolling Chew-Mail-Pouch country, seemingly so laid-back and mild mannered that I imagined even the deer to be looking both ways before crossing the great old, winding stretch of road.
After a quick layover in the river town of Ravenswood, West Virginia (to see an old buddy native to Queens), I made the half-hour final run northwest to the Ranch, located on 119 acres of ex-cattle farm at the terminus of a narrow residential line running through a semi-secluded, mostly wooded setting. Immediately, I was struck by the down-home feel of this retreat, situated not more than 125 miles from Appalachia's heart (if considered to be the triple intersection of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia).
I got a cordial welcome and subsequent tour from the Ranch director’s assistant Thunder Mike Coyne, the friendliest of dudes who guided me in and around the specialized outbuildings and the long, bending string of quaint cabins that respectively form the brains & backbone of the weekend guitar workshops held annually from spring through fall.
Those weekends are typically four-day affairs catering to students of various skill levels and featuring an all-star list of internationally recognized instructors that has at times included David Bromberg, G.E. Smith, Happy Traum, Chris Hillman, and Larry Campbell.
Thunder Mike also introduced me to a slew of the fine folks that comprise the Ranch staff, all of whom managed in my presence to maintain their steadfast loyalty while still refusing to pass up the opportunity to engage this Total Stranger in some friendly conversation.
Leaving impressed, I didn’t hesitate to make the return trip the very next month to witness a relaxing, revealing ‘Tuna’ gig by Jorma and his longtime cohort, Jack Casady, at the on-campus Fur Peace Station Concert Hall—the engaging climax of a special Ranch “couple’s weekend.”
On the heels of an arousing kicker set by Chris Smither and before an enthusiastic, oversold crowd of 236, the two unleashed some fantastic Blues (Jorma’s main bag these days) and swapped stories from their shared Washington, D.C. rearing, eventually sharing the stage with guest instructor Verlon Thompson.
Way back in the late 1800s a classical composer named Dvořák accurately foresaw the future of American music as based upon sweet "negro melodies," and though Muddy Waters eventually frowned upon the white folks’ interpretation of this music, Jorma’s deliveries nonetheless have a distinctively resonant appeal: he’s better-for-wear at age 68, with a voice to match that’s obviously not bent on mere imitation; at the same time (The Captain would later confide), there were few musicians he admired as a fledgling guitarist who weren’t black, leaving a long list of favorites including Rev. Gary Davis, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Which I can dig in light of my current rediscoveries (with George Avakian’s personal aid) of people like Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker, all members of the same heavyweight class of brilliant minds, not to mention my first-hand experiences of late, living in the heart of the Burgh just a stone's throw from the legendary Hill District—where I’ve had the privilege of mixing it up, to my utmost satisfaction, with the local black Americans, who largely exhibit a highly admirable sense of self-awareness, individually as well as collectively.
(All noted, I might add, in a somewhat confessional tone while flashing back on my own Detroit-area upbringing during the red-hot racial tensions of the 60s and, even more pointedly, my much more recent stint in the vicinity of that bastion of American racism, the glaringly segregated “Aryan” city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
Jorma and Jack also engaged in a brief but tantalizing dialogue about Jorma’s upcoming album, which apparently had just been completed (or very nearly so) at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y., a work produced by Larry Campbell, who doubled as session man.
The additional, talented infusions of Barry Mitterhoff, Theresa Williams and Lincoln Schleifer resulted in a thirteen-song compilation (including five Jorma originals) that The Captain apparently sees fit for a “dandy” public reception.
My splendid late August evening was capped off when I finally “Got Jorma” to sit down after the show for a short chat (later extended by email), courtesy of the ever-hospitable Thunder Mike.
I quickly apologized to Jorma for missing his 2005 appearance at FinnFest in Marquette, Michigan, when unbeknownst to me he’d been forced to perform prior to the fete’s official start due to scheduling constraints. Unconcerned, Jorma responded with a short synopsis of his Marquette stay (He’d been treated like family though expecting no more than “pasties and pulla”).
He told me he’d also gone out to Ironwood, birthplace of his father, but home, too—as he explained with his eyes widening—of a certain old-timer he’d met, a daredevil type who’d actually had the nerve to test the jump at the monolithic ski-flying structure of Copper Peak. The speechless, dazed nods exchanged by Jorma and me unanimously confirmed the “Man’s Man” nomination of this brave soul, and prompted some kidding about meeting up at the ski hill when official competition recommences (since Copper Peak is currently under a major revamping).
The whole chain of events to this point had ignited on Saturday, June 21, when I attended Garrison Keillor’s touring Prairie Home Companion show at the Blossom Center of Cuyahoga National Park, a gorgeous venue sitting on the northern fringe of Akron, Ohio. Jorma was a special guest in cahoots with teammate Barry Mitterhoff, in what I understood to have been Jorma’s third-ever guest appearance on behalf of Mr. Keillor.
That show was an absolute gas, humorously bolstered by the presence of severe thundershowers, and way more than enough overall to make a grown man (like myself) cry; and like myself, Jorma seemed outwardly proud to be in attendance, perhaps bordering on giddy.
A big reason, according to Jorma, being the love for Keillor and his Public Radio broadcasts by The Captain’s dad—Jorma Kaukonen Sr. (1910-1997), a second generation Finnish-American from Ironwood, Michigan, who migrated to the Washington D.C. area where he careered in Civil Service, married a Jewish-American woman, and started a family.
Naturally it dawned on me that Jorma’s path had, in a sense, previously crossed my own, given our similar western Upper Peninsula, Finnish-American roots, with mine hovering in close proximity over a region bounded by copper-king Calumet, Chassell, and historic Pequaming.
Not only that, but Jorma told me about his grandfather’s yesteryear ownership of a large tract adjacent to Ironwood’s Carnegie Library (where Jorma Sr. had learned English), the very same, cozy institution that I’d often conveniently utilized for email and computing purposes during the pavement-pounding necessitated by the marketing and distribution of my own regional history, Calumet: Copper Country Metropolis (2002).
Small world, indeed!
All said and done, my Jorma rendezvous was positively upbeat and inspiring, with his utopian-like music camp aptly representing a refreshing, cool oasis amidst how I otherwise view, in increasingly stagnant and claustrophobic terms, the social landscape of our country.
But what I’d been awestruck by most (as I’ve already hinted) was Jorma Kaukonen’s keen expression of dem Blues—not as a pretentious survivor of the depression years on which many of the old classics are based, but rather uniquely as a veteran cold warrior of the rough-and-tumble 60s.
And with that in mind I asked The Captain about his feelings towards contemporary America, particularly its wars in the Middle East and their possible link to the Vietnam era.
Jorma simply told me (not long after performing for Democratic National Conventioneers in Denver) that he was often tuned to those things, mostly with respect to his old pals who had suffered through Nam and its aftermath.
And quite like myself, was surely left wondering.
July 2008 photos at Fur Peach Ranch by Gerry Mantel
June 2008 Cuyahoga Falls photos & August 2008 photos at Fur Peace Ranch by CITW
"GETTING TO JORMA" PHOTO GALLERY
©2008 GERRY MANTEL. All rights reserved.
Details about Jorma's CD, River of Time (Red House, 2009)
NPR Audio Interview & Article about Steady As She Goes, Jorma's April 2011 Hot Tuna release