Death Don’t Have No Mercy

Some friends have heard my Jorma Kaukonen story. It was years ago when I was much younger and less well-versed about the personal effects of one particular song he covered frequently (don’t remember if he played it that night, or not).

Kaukonen was an idol of mine, a member of a personal shortlist of musicians that I’ve never grown tired of listening to, reading about, or contemplating their body of work. And in Kaukonen’s case, I’ve had the privilege of hearing him live, too.

My story centers on Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, a small, intimate club on Forest Avenue, the kind of place that was a bit larger than your living room, but not so big that the music and performer got lost in the space. “Intimate” comes to mind as a descriptor. It was likely 1989.

Old high school buddy Dave Craig (a name that is almost always associated with good music and good times in my life) and I were excited to catch Kaukonen’s solo show at Raoul’s. It was my first time seeing him. I think Dave had seen him (and probably Hot Tuna, his band) before.

I don’t remember all the particulars of the night other than prior than to the show, Kaukonen showed up and was standing in the back of the room, chatting with the sound man. We both noticed him. At that time of his life, he was still rock-star thin, with that lean angular build that came from lifting weights and slinging a guitar around for marathon electric shows that Hot Tuna were still putting on. On this night, however, it would be simply Kaukonen and his acoustic, which was an anticipated treat, in and of itself.

Dave said to me, “you should go up and talk to Jorma.” Not sure why he thought I should, but I was game. I figured I’d stammer something semi-coherent and he’d be polite and that would be it.

Instead, I went up, waited until he’d finished talking with the board engineer and turned my way. I introduced myself as a longtime fan. I mentioned I’d just started learning the guitar without much success.

While Kaukonen was obviously a shy and retiring person (probably until he got to know you), he was generous enough to share a few tips with me, including one that his brother, Peter, found success with—learn to play songs. I was grateful that he didn’t brush me off and actually treated me like a gracious human being is apt to do.

A huge influence on Kaukonen’s acoustic work and catalog of old blues tunes he has continued covering over the years was the Reverend Gary Davis. Davis, a blues and gospel singer who was in the prime of his career in the 1920s and 1930s, and early 1940s (the folk revival of the mid-1960s allowed a whole new generation of guitar players to discover his work, and led to Davis landing a slot at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965).

Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” ended up on Hot Tuna, the self-titled debut record of what began as a duo of Kaukonen and Jefferson Airplane bandmate, Jack Casady. Hot Tuna was a way for the two to relax and perform music that wasn’t part of the Airplane’s arsenal.

I always loved the tune and the message, despite its dark and obvious reference about death’s sometimes sudden onset. Like so many songs that I listened to from Kaukonen dating back to my high school years, I never grew tired of hearing it.

In my current state of grief and loss, hearing the song played this morning on WMPG driving home from swimming at the Bath Y was interesting. I heard the first chords and the finger-picking style and immediately thought of Kaukonen, but could tell by the sound quality that it was an older original recording. While Kaukonen covered these blues standards true to their original manner, there were obvious variations, too.

First, check out this rare video of Davis playing it, and then, a live version of Kaukonen, from 1976.