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Woodstock Performers: John Sebastian

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.

John Sebastian entertaining the crowd at Woodstock

John Sebastian entertaining the crowd at Woodstock

This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Appearing on Day 2 before John Sebastian was the fiery Santana, one of the hits of the festival. Right after John was the Keef Hartley Band, making their US debut.

With his long sideburns, shaggy hair and a tie-dyed outfit complemented by beaded fringes, John Sebastian looked every inch the hippie. He wasn't supposed to be performing that day at all, but there he was, filling in as Country Joe had done earlier that day.

Who Is John B. Sebastian?

John Benson Sebastian was born in New York's Greenwich Village on March 17, 1944. His father was a classical harmonica player and his mother wrote radio programs, and they numbered among their friends personalities from radio, and folk and blues musicians, including the likes of Burl Ives, Sonny Terry and Woody Guthrie. Young Sebastian was exposed to all kinds of fabulous roots music from a very early age, and it wasn't long before he learned to play the harmonica.

Sebastian attended a private prep school in Blairstown, New Jersey, and it was there that he wrote his very first song “Shepherds Call Her Iphigenia,” for a school play. He soon picked up guitar and also began playing a traditional roots instrument called the autoharp, and by the age of 16, he was playing coffeehouses in the Village. After graduating from boarding school, he enrolled in New York University in the fall of 1962, but dropped out soon after to pursue music as a career.

Sebastian became completely immersed in the music in the Village, working as a session musician for various artists, including Tom Rush and Bob Dylan. One of his first recording gigs was as a session player on Billy Faier's 1964 album. Sebastian joined The Mugwumps for a time, with guitarist Zal Yanovsky, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty. Elliot and Doherty soon split to start The Mamas and the Papas.

And so it was that Sebastian and Yanovsky formed The Lovin’ Spoonful. Rounding out the Spoonful's lineup were Steve Boone (bass) and Joe Butler (drums).

A Band Called The Lovin' Spoonful

America's answer to the British Invasion, The Lovin’ Spoonful, had a bit of a rough start.

Sebastian and Yanovsky's roots in the Village's folk music scene meant that they knew all the owners and managers of the coffeehouses and clubs in the Village, so getting paying gigs wasn't the problem. The problem was they weren't used to playing with a rhythm section i.e. bass and drums, and the band's very first gig at The Night Owl in Greenwich Village was so bad, the owner of the club, Joe Marra, reportedly told them to get lost and not come back until the had practiced.

Boone and Butler had been gigging together for a time, so they were pretty tight musically. The foursome rented some space in an empty inn on Long Island called The Bull's Head, and began learning how to play as a unit. They worked on their repertoire, adding some roots and folk tunes like "Wild About My Lovin'," and some original songs that had more of a rock edge to them. They then moved on to the basement of The Albert Hotel, practicing day and night. It wasn't long before they had the kinks worked out and were ready for prime time. They played at the Cafe Bizarre (of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol fame) for a bit and then resumed working at The Night Owl in March 1965.

The band signed with Elektra and recorded four songs for that label. At the time, Elektra was big into folk and producing LPs, and the feeling was that the label didn't understand the singles game and how to get singles played by radio stations. When Kama Sutra Records heard that Elektra intended to sign the band to an extended contract, they swooped in and signed the guys to a deal. From March at the Owl to May in the studio, the band was busy non-stop.

The Lovin' Spoonful had a string of hit singles in the '60s, with an unprecedented number of their singles—seven in a row—reaching the Top 10 spot. Songs we all know and love, including “Do You Believe In Magic?,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?,” “Summer In The City,” "Rain on the Roof" and "Nashville Cats."

By 1967, the band had relocated to Los Angeles, and internal pressures were beginning to mount. Sebastian wanted to write more "personal" songs and the others were interested in continuing on the path that they were on, churning out AM hits. Yanofsky was busted for drugs and was replaced, and Sebastian made a decision to leave the band early in 1968.

John Sebastian's Woodstock

The music scene was small back then and everybody knew each other. Sebastian wasn't booked to play at the festival, but he was able to hitch a ride to the site aboard the Incredible String Band's helicopter. Needing another acoustic act to fill in time, festival organizers Artie Kornfeld and Chip Monck asked Sebastian to go on. Reluctant at first since he too was high by this time, they finally wore him down. Tim Hardin loaned him a guitar, and on he went for a five-song, 25-minute set that started at about 3:30 p.m.

He began his set with “How Have You Been” from his yet-to-be-released solo album, followed by "Rainbows Over Your Blues" and "I Had a Dream," all perfect Woodstock numbers. Throughout his short set, he chatted and told a story about living in a tent city in California. Without a hint of irony, he told everyone how "groovy" they were, and gently reminded them to pick up some garbage on their way out. For what was supposed to be his final number, he played “Darling Be Home Soon” from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1967 album, engaging with the audience throughout, smilingly emphasizing the line about "having YOU to talk to." The crowd loved him. As he bid them farewell, they hollered out for more. His encore was “Younger Generation,” also from the Spoonful, and he dedicated the song to someone in the audience who had just given birth at the festival, commenting, “Whew, your kid’s gonna be far out.” The audience had to help him out when he forgot some of the lyrics, and they loved him even more for it. His short, unplanned appearance at Woodstock made sweet, nerdy John B. Sebastian one of the stars of the show. The original Woodstock LPs only contained one song from John, "I Had a Dream." If you are a Sebastian fan, and want to hear his entire unedited Woodstock set, you can find it on Faithful Virtue: The Reprise Recordings, a superb anthology of his solo recordings.

John Sebastian Performing "Darling Be Home Soon" at Woodstock

But, what did happen is I went to Woodstock as a member of the audience. I did not show up there with a road manager and a couple of guitars. I showed up with a change of clothes and a toothbrush.

— John Sebastian

John Sebastian performing in November 2011

John Sebastian performing in November 2011

Life After Woodstock

There is no doubt that Sebastian's Woodstock appearance helped launch his solo career. His solo work focused on traditional blues and folk songs, and he released an album in 1970 that did respectably and another in 1971 that did poorly. He also remained in demand as a session player, appearing on CSNY's "Déjà Vu" and working with artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Gordon Lightfoot, The Doors (he played the harmonica on their song "Roadhouse Blues") and Keith Moon.

Sebastian is still touring, one man and his guitar, and still performs songs by the Spoonful. He has several dates already booked for 2019, including an appearance at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the site of the original Woodstock festival. The date for this show is Saturday, October 19, 2019.

Five Musical Facts

  1. Sebastian appears in the lyrics of "Creeque Alley" by The Mamas and the Papas:

    "John and Mitchy were gettin' kind of itchy, Just to leave the folk music behind

    Zal and Denny workin' for a penny, Tryin' to get a fish on the line

    In a coffee house Sebastian sat, And after every number they'd pass the hat

    McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher, In L.A., you know where that's at

    And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass."

  2. The Lovin' Spoonful's name came from a song by "Mississippi" John Hurt.
  3. Sebastian and The Band's Rick Danko ended up playing nice, soothing music in the "trip tent," where drug casualties and others who had overindulged at Woodstock were taken to recover.
  4. Sebastian wrote and performed the theme song for the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. “Welcome Back” was his only Top 40 solo hit.
  5. The Lovin' Spoonful were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 12, 2019:

Hi John,

You are so welcome! I learn something every time I research and write one of these. If people were fans of The Lovin' Spoonful to the extent of knowing the band members' names, they would associate him with that work. Otherwise, I think most people would remember him for "Welcome Back."

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 12, 2019:

I always learn new stuff from these wonderful articles Kaili. I know the songs by The Lovin' Spoonful, but when you mentioned "

Welcome Back" the Welcome Back Kotter theme song, I realised just who John Sebastion was. Thanks for sharing.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 11, 2019:

You are most welcome Pamela, I learn something every time I write one of these. His performance at Woodstock was very sweet.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 11, 2019:

I remember those song by th Lovin' Sooonfuls. I think the way. Sebastin grew up that he was destined to be a musician/singer. This article has so many details I didn't know, so thank you.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 11, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

So glad you enjoyed this. Yes, there were either no babies born at Woodstock, or as many as three. Most sources seem to say one confirmed, but nobody seems to know any details beyond that. There were also three confirmed deaths, two from overdoses and one from misadventure; the poor young man had fallen asleep in a field and was run over by a tractor.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 11, 2019:

I enjoyed this, from the detail about him writing the Welcome Back Kotter theme to forgetting some of the words to his own song at Woodstock. That woman who gave birth at Woodstock— how terrible is that?!? I just think about the uncleanliness and drugs and noise. No place for a newborn but I’m sure there were several births there.