Just A Spoonful of John Sebastian

John Sebastian (left), with Happy Traum. March 2016. Photo by Jane Traum.

At about ten after ten on Christmas Eve, I was sitting on the couch across from my oldest son, each of us engrossed in our own digital universes. Mindlessly killing time by scrolling through Facebook on my phone, an image posted by Woodstock-based musician Happy Traum caught my eye. Painted by his mother back in 1929, I saw that some mutual friends of ours had already hit the “like” button and I read a personal holiday memory of Happy’s mom that was left by Catherine Sebastian.

Although we’ve never met, I knew Catherine was both John’s wife and a photographer whose work I’ve seen and admired. You can check out her images here. But it was at that very moment, as if Santa himself had just slid down the chimney carrying an autoharp and harmonica, that I heard the following song blast through the speakers of my son’s computer.

Recognizing the opening notes of one of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s most famous songs, my head shot up quickly as I looked at him with bewilderment and asked how he knew what I was reading. He looked over and asked what I was talking about. C’mon dude … how would you know to play this and what the hell is it? He shrugged and looked away. Does that a lot.

Susan, sometimes spelled Suzan if directly taken from the Japanese katakana transliteration of her name, is a pop singer and model who began recording in the early eighties, and often collaborated with members of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Her records were never released in America. That my twenty-two year old NYU music major graduate would actually know of this obscure recording would not be surprising if you knew him. That he chose to play it at this particular moment was the absolute f*cking Miracle on 34th Street.

When I woke up on Christmas morning, I had a song in my head, one written by John Sebastian and the late Lowell George. Still laying in bed, it took only a minute to locate it in my digital library.

“Face of Appalachia” is from Sebastian’s fourth solo album, Tarzana Kid. It was produced by Erik Jacobsen, who I believe did most if not all of the Spoonful’s records. The list of musicians and backup singers who played on the album, in addition to Lowell George’s guitar and vocals, include the Pointer Sisters, Emmylou Harris, David Grisman, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Phil Everly, Jim Gordon, Buddy Emmons, Amos Garrett, Kelly Shanahan, and Ron Koss.

The album originally came out in 1974 but was never really promoted by the label. In 2006, Collector’s Choice Music reissued it along with the other four of Sebastian’s Reprise Records solo albums. In the new liner notes for Tarzana Kid, music journalist and author of Music USA Richie Unterberger wrote:

“With so many skilled singers and instrumentalists pitching in, it’s unsurprising that Tarzana Kid travels across a considerable range of rock and folk combinations, though this eclecticism had been a constant feature in Sebastian’s work. The singer-songwriter had a rather overlooked eye for ethnic styles that were not widely known in the US in the early 1970s, using a steel band from Trinidad on his 1971 LP The Four of Us, which also included a cover of a tune by then-obscure zydeco giant Clifton Chenier.

Tarzana Kid‘s opening track, a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” (featured in the classic 1972 movie The Harder They Come), was a pretty adventurous move at a time when reggae was just starting to make inroads into the American consciousness. Certainly one of the most noted tracks on Tarzana Kid was “Dixie Chicken,” which guest guitarist Lowell George had previously recorded as part of Little Feat on the 1973 album of the same name.”

If I had time to write 50,000 words instead of 500, I’d love to share my love, respect, and admiration for the music that John Sebastian has created and collaborated on. His Wikipedia page is a damn good place to start if you’d like to learn more. From jug band music to film and television work, doing classic sessions with the Doors to CSNY, playing with NRBQ and his own J-band, appearance in the film documentary Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, he’s a great storyteller, performer, music instructor, and activist.

I’ll close this out exactly how I got here, through Happy Traum. On his website bio, it notes that he studied guitar with the blues master Brownie McGhee. Coincidentally, the Lovin’ Spoonful recorded McGhee’s “Sportin’ Life” on their album Do You Believe in Magic?, and Sebastian revived it on Tarzana Kid, although it seems he chose to skip this verse:

Now, I’m goin’ to change my ways
I’m gettin’ older each and every day
When I was young and foolish
I was easy, easy let astray.