- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Back in the heady days of the folk circuit in the early 1960s, blues artist John Hammond found himself sharing stages with some of the best bluesmen around.

“I learned so much,” says Mr. Hammond, who appears at the State Theatre in Falls Church tonight. “People like Bukka White and Lightnin’ Hopkins gave me so much encouragement, every day was pure joy.”

The son of the late legendary producer John Hammond, the younger Mr. Hammond became attracted to the blues when he was still in his teens.

“I don’t know where I got my inspiration from,” says Mr. Hammond, who was raised mostly by his mother in New York City. “But I latched onto the blues.”

At that point, the late 1950s, the blues were mainly in his head, thanks to a growing record collection. Mr. Hammond didn’t learn to play guitar until 1960, when he was 18 and a student at Antioch College in Ohio.

Largely self-taught, Mr. Hammond was able to translate what was in his head to his fingers. By the time he was 20, he had earned himself a record deal. And in 1963, there he was at the Newport Folk Festival, sharing the stage with the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Van Ronk.

“It was my first big show, and my knees were shaking,” Mr. Hammond remembers. “But it was a great experience.”

Soon, he was traveling the country, picking up a bit of Mississippi Delta style here, a piece of the Piedmont style there, as the blues and folk scenes exploded.

“I saw myself as an itinerant blues artist,” Mr. Hammond says. “Robert Johnson was a major inspiration for me. I set that as my role model.”

He was one of the first white musicians to record electric blues, for his 1964 album “Big City Blues.” Since then, he’s recorded more than two dozen albums, all of them wrapped up in a blues aesthetic.

He’s also managed to collaborate with some of the best in the music business, including Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and the Band’s Robbie Robertson. In 2001, he released an album of Tom Waits songs. It turned out to be among his most popular.

Recently, he’s tried his hand at writing some of his own songs. His first was a paean to a car he owned once, a 1955 Crown Victoria. It appeared on 2003’s “Ready for Love.” His most recent, “In Your Arms Again,” features more original pieces, along with covers of songs by Bukka White and Ray Charles.

“They’re all still blues,” he says. “Everything I do is in that style.”

• • •

Meanwhile, the driving rhythms and relentless energy of Buckwheat Zydeco take over the stage at Wolf Trap on Sunday. Even staid Washington-area audiences will have a hard time staying in one place for the band the Wall Street Journal has called “the best party band in America.”

Zydeco music is not so much wrapped in the blues as steeped in it, along with Cajun, country, rock and soul. Buckwheat Zydeco, by the way, is both a band and a person. Born Stanley Dural Jr. in Lafayette, La., he acquired the first part of his moniker early on thanks to his “Buckwheat hair,” according to manager, producer and friend Ted Fox.

It took him a little longer to get the last part. Early on, he didn’t want to have anything to do with zydeco, the music played by his accordionist father.

So Buck went the rhythm-and-blues route, playing keyboards for the likes of Joe Tex and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. In 1971, he began his own R&B band, covering songs by Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Then, in the mid-‘70s, he started playing backup for Clifton Chenier, the man who almost single-handedly put zydeco on the national stage. It was under Mr. Chenier’s tutelage that Mr. Dural realized the importance of the genre.

The rest, as they say, is music history. Mr. Dural played with Mr. Chenier for several years before striking out on his own. In 1987, he signed with Island Records and went on to produce some of the most popular zydeco albums around, including 1987’s “On A Night Like This.”

In 1998, Mr. Dural and Mr. Fox formed Tomorrow Recordings to promote zydeco music. Their output has included 1999’s “Trouble,” 2001’s “Buckwheat Zydeco: Down Home Live” and efforts by the next generation of zydeco artists. Mr. Dural is currently at work on a studio album.

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