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John Sebastian: Finding His Roots

By Debbie Tuma

I can still remember the excitement in the halls of East Hampton High School back in
1969, when our English teacher turned out to be a famous rock singer.

He wasn't exactly a teacher, but John Sebastian, lead singer of the Lovin' Spoonful,
walked into the classroom with his long hair and wire-rimmed glasses and talked
about how he wrote lyrics to music. He was a guest lecturer, and a friend of former
English teacher Barbara Bologna, who invited him to speak on a few different
occasions. 

None of us girls in the class remember a thing he said anyway. We just stared. In the
'60s, John Sebastian was our "hero," representing the cute, sweet, gentle, "nice guy"
who sang about love and romance, being young, having fun, getting out of the city
and enjoying the country. Which is what Sebastian did himself. Compared to lots of
angry, political, "heavy" groups of the times, Lovin' Spoonful was a refreshing,
upbeat, light-hearted change of pace -- the kind of "feel good" music you turned up
while driving your car around East Hampton or Montauk on a sunny beach day.
Groovy.

Bologna, who is happily retired in Amagansett and still corresponds with Sebastian,
said yesterday that she is looking forward to his appearance this Saturday at 8 p.m.,
when Sebastian brings "jug band music" (and washboard) to the Stephen Talkhouse
in Amagansett with his three-year-old group, J- Band.

"I haven't seen John since his last performance at the Talkhouse, when he sang solo
about eight years ago," Bologna commented.

And like the name of his new album, I Want Roots, Sebastian has deep roots in the
area, having summered for years in Westhampton Beach, Quogue, and in North
Haven. Bologna and her family formed a friendship with Sebastian during the '60s
when he summered on Sunset Beach Lane in North Haven. It was there that
Sebastian was also joined by a bevy of famous musicians, including the members of
Crosby, Stills and Nash, who came out to rehearse at his home.

"We met John in 1967 through my husband who used to do carpentry for him," said
Barbara Bologna, who is married to artist and framer Francesco Bologna. "John had
a mini-farm, with beautiful buildings and a barn."

Bologna was teaching poetry and contemporary music, "and since John wrote his
own songs, I asked him to talk about the poetry in the musical lyrics the kids were
listening to," she said. "He was a hit in my ninth-grade English class."

Bologna described Sebastian as "as very talented, kind person, and he's never
changed -- he's still approachable and sweet. Unfortunately, we haven' seen him in a
while, since he's been traveling all over."

The Independent managed to catch up with Sebastian earlier this week at his
longtime home in Woodstock.

Tell us more about your connection to Long Island.
My connection goes back a long way. My Dad bought a summer house in
Huntington when I was five, and we spent all our spare time there. I grew up in
the West Village, but my first year of kindergarten was near Huntington. By the
time the Spoonful got going, one of our members, Steve Boone's mother,
worked in real estate in Westhampton, and she helped us find some great
houses. I rented on Dune Road in my early 20s, which was really cool. I've
always felt a little part of me grew up that way. I can still fall asleep to the
sound of an ocean. In 1968 and '69, I had a house in North Haven, which I
liked a lot. I urged my friends David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash
to take a break from Los Angeles and visit me. They wrote some of their early
songs at my home in North Haven. We also had some of their other members
come out, including Harvey Brooks, Dallas Taylor, their drummer, and Paul
Harris, who played instrumentals. At that point, Stephen Stills wanted me to
come join them, but I had just put out a solo album after the Spoonful, and I
wasn't so sure I could make another leap and still take my audience with me.

What brings you out to the Hamptons again?
My road manager, Frank Russell, is getting married in Long Island this
weekend, and I thought that it's not far to Amagansett and the Talkhouse, so
why not?

How did you get interested in music?
My father, John Sebastian, was a musician, and my mother was a writer, so I
had a great setting for meeting and listening to musical and literate people. It
was a very fortunate kind of childhood. My father, who played classical
harmonica, was a "harmonica virtuoso." Many people, like George Klein and
others, wrote for him. My mother wrote comedy for radio, and was an
administrator for Carnegie Hall. 

I only lasted a little over a year in college at NYU -- there were only four blocks
between there and all the nightclubs on Bleecker and McDougall Streets as well
as a guitar factory. By the second year of college, I was cutting classes to hear
music, and I also worked as an apprentice in the factory where they made
guitars. Soon I began working as an accompanist for a number of folk acts in
the Village. I also played guitar in a sort of "Duane and Eddie" kind of guitar
and sax band in New Jersey.

How did you start the Lovin' Spoonful?
I eventually met Zalman Yanovsky, who was an accompanist for other folk
groups, and we began a friendship that led to the formation of the Lovin'
Spoonful, which also included Steve Boone on bass, Joe Butler on drums, and
myself. We practiced in the summers in Quogue, and also in the city. At one
point, Jerry Yester replaced Zalman. The Lovin' Spoonful lasted from 1964 to
1968. It was a very successful period for us -- and several of our songs have
stayed, happily, quite visible.

What did you do after the band broke up?
I performed an unscheduled, solo appearance at the Woodstock Festival in
1969, playing acoustic guitar in the rain. During the mud and rain we couldn't
put electrical outages on the stage, so this worked out all right. My first solo
album, John B. Sebastian, contained some hits as "She's A Lady" and "How
Have You Been?"

During the '70s and '80s I played solo, traveling around the country. In 1976, I
had the second biggest theme song, "Welcome Back," which was used on the
television show, "Welcome Back, Cotter."

Then I started an electric jug band, which resembles the project I'm involved in
now. About three years ago, we formed the J-Band, which is jug band music,
and we've been touring. We released our new album, for MusicMasters
Records, called I Want My Roots, which we will be selling at the Talkhouse
concert on Saturday night.

Could you explain what "jug band music" is?
Jug band music is the country-blues predecessor to what became the Chicago
blues after it moved north. Jug band musicians were often "pick-up bands" --
itinerant blues musicians who would band together for financial benefit. The
style of music was one of the very first intercultural musical styles, because it
came at the beginning of radio and records as a form of recreation. People
were hearing music not directly related to their area for the first time. These
jug bands were doing the songs of the day. Jug bands were part of a musical
hybrid --and in a certain way, most of the music I've written belonged to a
musical hybrid as well.

Could you tell us about your new band?
Our members include Fritz Richmond, of Portland, Maine, the original washtub
and jug player for Kweskin Jug Band, who plays washtub and jug (a ceramic
jug, which is blown through, similar to a tuba). There is also James
Wormworth, of New York City, on drums and washboard, Paul Rishell, of
Cambridge, on national steel guitar, Annie Raines, of Cambridge, on
harmonica, and Jimmy Vivino, of New York City, who sits in with us on guitar.
He plays on "The Conan O'Brien Show," on which our whole band performed
several weeks ago. We played our song, "Just Don't Stop Till You're All Worn
Out," from the new album.

How have you found the switch to jug band music from rock n' roll?
It's a lot of fun, as an antidote to the pressure of pop music. [Laughs.] I get
funny reactions from people about it. When I tell my Los Angeles friends I'm in
a jug band, they look at me like I'm dead. But it's opened up songwriting for me
in another way -- we write sort of "old-timey" songs. The bands I've played in
over the years have been more rock n' roll-oriented. 

What other projects have you been involved in lately?
Once a year our bands go down to Memphis, Tennessee, and we raise money to
buy stone markers for the great jug banders, like Gus Cannon, who wrote the
hit song "Walk Right In." He is known as a "Memphis jug band musician."

Our jug band also performed at the recent Woodstock Festival. It was a lot of
fun. We opened on Sunday morning, waking up all the kids sleeping in the
tents.

Could you tell us about your family?
My wife, Catherine Sebastian, is a photographer, who does album covers and
lots of other things. We have two sons -- Benson, 24, a singer and producer in a
band in New York, and 10-year old Charles, who is a "BMX" bike fanatic.
We've lived in Woodstock for 25 years, and love the area.

For those who want to catch Sebastian's return to the East End, call Stephen
Talkhouse for tickets and reservations at 267-3117.