The tune I bring you today is a favorite of mine by the mighty Jefferson Airplane.
If you were a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, the Airplane – especially Somebody To Love and White Rabbit – were all but unavoidable.
Later on, as the pop culture world started to regurgitate and redigest the 1960s, in movies and TV, those songs became sonic shorthand for what my friends and I always called ‘The 60s were a turbulent time!’, i.e. the clichéd opening line for countless documentaries about the decade.
As a kid I had a copy of ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ that I played to DEATH and beyond, and it remains one of my favorite 60s LPs to this day.
However, it wasn’t until 1990, when RCA put out the ‘2400 Fulton St’ CD compilation that I got a much broader, fully realized picture of the band’s music.
As is the case when you’ve only been exposed to the hits, digging into a really interesting band’s discography can be a revelation.
As I mentioned before, the Airplane’s best known songs became clichés, and Grace Slick remains today one of the most memorable icons of the 60s, both of these things taking away from a true appreciation of the band as musicians.
They were much more than their hits (but you already figured out where this was going, didn’t you), moving away from blissful folk rock jangle into somewhat heavier stuff, psychedelia and political content.
The albums they did between 1966 and 1972 (when they morphed – for better or worse –into Jefferson Starship) include some of the best sounds that the era had to offer.
The deeper you get into the band, the more likely you are to turn your ears from Grace and Marty, and appreciate the input of Kantner, Casady, and of course, Jorma Kaukonen.
It is from the hands of that last member that we get today’s selection, ‘Good Shepherd’, from 1969’s ‘Volunteers’.
Recorded in the spring of 1969, but nor released until the fall of that year (though they were performing material from the album that summer at Woodstock) ‘Volunteers’ features some of the group’s best songs, including one of my faves ‘Good Shepherd’.
The song itself is listed as ‘traditional’ and it is in fact a reworking/evolution of a tune that has its roots in and early 19th century hymn, and on up through the folk blues and Alan Lomax field recordings, which led to a number of folk revival-era versions of a song called ‘Blood Stained Banders’.
If you listen to versions of that song (like the one by Mike Seeger) you can definitely see the framework of what Jorma would take and turn into ‘Good Shepherd’.
He opens the song with acoustic guitar, then runs sharp electric leads over into the first verse (where the older title of the song makes an appearance).
The Airplane version of the song takes on a loping, mellow (yet as the layers pile on, quite heavy) decidedly West Coast caste, with Jorma taking the lead and the rest of the group joining in harmony.
Jorma takes a great – somewhat jarring – solo, followed by some wordless singing by Slick, and then back into the acoustic guitar.
It is a very groovy vibe indeed, and something cool if all you’ve ever heard were the big hits.
I hope you dig it, and I’ll see you all next week.