Featured Album – Volunteers – Jefferson Airplane

If you smile at me you know I will understand
‘Cause that is something everybody everywhere does
In the same
Language

Volunteers was released in late 1969 and became the last album released by the classic line-up of Jefferson Airplane. I can’t think of an album that better captured the sound and mood of a particular generation at an exact point in time. The tone of the album was by turns defiant, pissed off, weary, and anarchic. And sometimes surprisingly gentle.

To provide some context, the album was recorded prior to Woodstock, released after. The mood of the country was sour and divided. Richard “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon* had taken office as President in January and to say he and his henchman, sorry, Vice President were unpopular was an understatement.

They hated hippies and hippies hated them right back. An already-lost Vietnam war was raging, Nixon was “waging peace” by expanding it because he was an asshole, campuses were being shut down by students and young people who were not highly patriotic were seen as traitors.

Into this volatile mix, the Airplane dropped Volunteers. Originally called Volunteers of Amerika (America with a ‘k’ to reflect what the band saw as creeping fascism), they were forced to change the title due to a similarly-titled faith-based organization. And probably due to RCA not wanting to sound like some fucking Maoist unit.

But revolution was in the air and the Airplane reflected that in their music starting with the lead-off tune, “We Can Be Together.” (Nicky Hopkins on piano.)

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive
We steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent
And young

Spotify link

I never thought of San Francisco bands as just bands – they were a community. The Dead, the Airplane, Moby Grape, Joplin – they all hung together, got high together. It was a scene. Of all the bands that came out of San Francisco, far and away my favorite was the Airplane and the only one I ever saw. They were just a damn good band and not as loose as bands like the Dead.

They had a unique sound and I just love, love, love the combined vocals of Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and Marty Balin. Half the time it didn’t sound like they were even harmonizing, just going their merry way, singing freely, Gracie sailing above them.

“Wooden Ships” is a song composed by Paul Kantner, David Crosby, and Steven Stills. It’s about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and was recorded on this album as well as on CS&N’s debut album. It’s a beautiful yet tragic song.

Take a sister by her hand
Lead her far from this barren land
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cry 
Stare as all you human feelings die
We are leaving
You don’t need us

Spotify link

And then there’s the song “Volunteers of America.” More revolution. This is a rockin’ tune that I wish lasted a little longer. But I think they were going for a single. I always find it ironic that you have to call for a revolution using the tools of the capitalist system that (supposedly) you’re trying to overthrow.

Anyway, this is the version from Woodstock. The Spotify is from the Fillmore.

Spotify link

Lsst but not least is one of my very favorite tunes from the album, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s reworking of the traditional hymn “Good Shepherd.” Even if you’re not particularly religious – which I decidedly am not – I think you can appreciate the spiritual feel of this. Silas, who is named in the song, was a part of the early Christian community who accompanied Paul the Apostle on his missionary journeys.

Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed the band Hot Tuna which frequently performs (yes, I just missed them) this number.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongued liar
Oh good shepherd, feed my sheep

One for Paul, one for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs a’callin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

Spotify link

  • Grace Slick – vocals, piano on “The Farm”, “Hey Fredrick”, “Eskimo Blue Day” and “Volunteers”, organ on “Meadowlands”, recorder on “Eskimo Blue Day”
  • Paul Kantner – vocals, rhythm guitar
  • Marty Balin – vocals, percussion
  • Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, vocals
  • Jack Casady – bass
  • Spencer Dryden – drums, percussion
  • w/Steven Stills, Jerry Garcia, Nicky Hopkins

*Slick and Tricia Nixon, former President Richard Nixon’s daughter, are alumnae of Finch College. Slick was invited to a tea party for the alumnae at the White House in 1969. She invited political activist Abbie Hoffman to be her escort and planned to spike President Richard Nixon’s tea with 600 micrograms of LSD. The plan was thwarted when they were prevented from entering after being recognized by White House security personnel, as Slick had been placed on an FBI blacklist.

13 thoughts on “Featured Album – Volunteers – Jefferson Airplane

  1. I agree, these guys sang beautifully. I’m only familiar with a few of their songs, not with their albums. I also only knew the CSN&Y version of “Wooden Ships,” which is a great tune. I’m going to check out this album tomorrow.

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    1. Yeah it’s a good one. Fans might argue for earlier albums like ‘Crown of Creation’ or ‘Surrealistic Pillow.’ But for some reason I just felt like writing about this one. It brought back those radical late ’60’s/early ’70’s more than anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great album, BTW. From today’s perspective it’s almost unreal that lines like “doesn’t mean shit to a tree” in “Eskimo Blue Day” caused an uproar.

        Today, you can become the leader of the free world, even though you were caught on tape, bragging about grabbing women by the p***y.

        Oh, well, I suppose the times they are a-changin’!

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        1. Hell, that’s nothing. One song has the line “Up against the wall, motherfucker.” And from what I read, Grace Slick managed to squeeze that line in on some TV show. Ha!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. No worries. Once Trump uses it, we can all feel free to use it. I never thought I’d see the word ‘shithole’ in newspapers and on TV and yet, there it was.

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    1. Yeah and it’s a shame that I listen to satellite radio all the time and pretty much all I ever hear are ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody to Love.’ Good songs, but come on!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never jumped on the ‘Airplane’ but I liked your piece. I remember seeing a doc and someone was talking about Marty getting punched out by the Hells Angels. He wasn’t taking any shit. I thought “Man that Marty has guts”. A little non music tidbit from CB.

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    1. You’re thinking of the Altamont concert, memorialized in ‘Gimme Shelter.’ It’s a blur in the movie but I read that while they were playing, some Angel started hassling a crew member. Balin told him to back off, said ‘Fuck You’ and got knocked out. So yeah, ballsy. Or crazy. Shame you don’t dig the Airplane. They’ve got some nice stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah that was it Doc. Marty’s stock went way up with me.
        Not unfamiliar with them or this music. Dig some of their tunes and later spin off bands. You mentioned ‘Hot Tuna’. Bit of a closed mind on my part back in the day. Also a case of so much music coming at me back then that I missed a few good bands. Balin is still my hero.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Smashin’ post as always. I only know bits and pieces of the Airplane and I don’t know this one at all… but, this is rocking my Tuesday morning boat.

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