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John Hammond: The man who discovered modern music


“Dylan was a born rebel, and I figured that, you know, Dylan could capture an audience of kids that Columbia had lost years before.” – John Hammond (1910-1987).

The starting point of modern music is a very arbitrary thing; if you truly want to pin down the initial raindrop to fall, you’d probably have to go right back to the first Neanderthal to excuse themself from the hunt and start scribbling on the cave walls. That being said, if music is a river that has unfurled after that first artistic rainfall, then few people in history have forecasted more sizeable meandering turning points than the near-fabled legend of John Hammond.

As a record producer, music critic, civil rights activist, talent scout and blues dabbler, Hammond’s output in the industry was so prolific that it’s not easy to pin him down to any single role. He simply was somebody who just lived and breathed the explosion of modern music and celebrated that in a great deal of guises. 

As a young man coming age in the roaring 1920s, his passion for music was profuse, but with great jazz unspooling all around him, he was not alone in this regard. However, Hammond was miles ahead of many of his fellow revellers in seeing the potential for music to bring about social change. As he once said: “I heard no colour line in music. [Music] was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of.”

Unable to sequester his burgeoning urge to be part of the bohemian centres of music, Hammond left the stuffy world of university behind before graduating and took a position at Melody Maker. Not long later, in 1933, at the age of 23-years-old, he was enjoying the candle-lit hue of a Harlem jazz bar when an unknown 17-year-old crooner by the name of Billie Holliday took to the stage. Seduced by her sultry charms, Hammond organised for her recording debut and so goes the statement that features recurringly throughout his life: The rest is ancient history. 

Holliday would go on to be one of the first major boundary breakers in American music with songs like ‘Strange Fruit’ challenging the charts with a new air of daring social sensibility. To this day, Holliday remains an archetype of an American troubadour and it was thanks to Hammond that she first got a start, which is a vein that he would continue in thereafter as he blazed the trail of modern music like a man with a crystal ball and enough of an unflinching progressive attitude to bring his foresight to glorious fruition. 

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Thereafter, Hammond would continue to champion social change and spot talent as though he was ensnared by class like a baited mousetrap. In 1938, he would produce the show From Spirituals to Swing that saw him bring together an army of all the talent he had been lucky enough to spy as he journeyed around the States on a sonic buzz. At Carnegie Hall, the show brought together likes of The Count Basie Orchestra, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Rushing many more to tell the story of Black American music from its roots to swing. 

Opening the performance that fateful evening was the very progenitor of modern music himself, Robert Johnson. The only issue was, he had been murdered a few years before. Nevertheless, Hammond had promised the crowd that they would witness the tale of modern music and that Johnson would be part of it. Thus, when the lights dimmed, Hammond himself took to the stage and imparted the chronicled legacy of Johnson and panned the spotlight over to a record player where his voice and guitar rang out once more like swansong from beyond. 

This moment proved seismic in the furtive fabled tale of explosive rock ‘n’ roll as the rebirth of Robert Johnson took full swing and the King of the Delta Blues was reissued inspiring a legion of rock stars, blues players and folk balladeers to follow. One such folk star being the man who took this expanding gaudy surface of pop culture and dived beneath the rocking waves changing music forever: your friend and mine, Bob Dylan.

Having returned from service in World War II, Hammond had grown disillusioned by bebop and other scenes that seemed, at least to him, to miss the cognizant point of reflecting the horrors that the world had seen and the introspective reverberations. This set about a musical itch in Hammond that was only scratched when, in 1961, he heard the very singular folk stylings of a scruffy young kid in a session for Carolyn Hester. 

He signed this weird new anti-star onto Columbia in a heartbeat and he was ridiculed just as quickly with fellow executives referring to the man who change the world as simply: ‘Hammond’s Folly’. In fact, as Hammond recalled: “The vice president of Columbia Records said just right off, the most horrible thing he’d ever heard in his life,” he said. “Hammond’s folly.”

He would go on to produce the seismic singles of ‘Blownin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and in 1968 he remarked: “What I wanted to do with Bobby was just to get him to sound in the studio as natural, just as he was in person, and have that extraordinary personality come thru…. After all, he’s not a great harmonica player, and he’s not a great guitar player, and he’s not a great singer. He just happens to be an original. And I just wanted to have that originality come thru.”

With the spring bud of music that he foresaw finally blossoming into bloom thanks in part to his nurturing, he remained a lynchpin in the industry. He went on to sign the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, George Benson, Arthur Russell, Mike Bloomfield, Benny Goodman and many more. Even his son John P. Hammond became a celebrated blues musician. However, perhaps even more notable than the talent he cultivated, was the change he brought about with it. Throughout his life, that same tenet of championing the subversive benevolence of music remained. While he might be touted as a near-mythic oracle, it is this inspiring backbone that props up the fantasy of all that he gave to the world.