Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music Library: John Fahey

I don't think I can overstate Fahey's importance to American folk music, as much as Fahey himself hated the restrictions of the genre.  Fahey was a fingerstyle guitarist, which meant that he was championing a somewhat archaic way of playing guitar when he first started recording himself in the late 50s.  Fingerstyle means exactly what it says: the guitarist picks notes on the guitar with fingers rather than a synthetic pick.  Although Fahey's style has been called American Primitivism, there's nothing primitive about his style or that of the guitarists who he nurtured (well, he wasn't the nurturing type, so let's call it "supported" instead) and influenced.  Their flurry of sounds, usually employing at least two voices on the guitar (a bass line and a melody line), but often adding a third voice (usually a mid-range drone), is anything but primitive.  Fahey had one ear in the past, always looking for old blues guitarists to learn from, but his other ear could only hear the future, and his uncompromising avant-garde tendencies give his instrumentals a timeless quality.

The Legend of Blind Joe Death (1964 and 1967).  Fahey created three separate versions of his first album Blind Joe Death.  The first was recorded in 1959 and attributed to the mythical eponymous bluesman.  Fahey released it on his own label Takoma, but only had the money to press a hundred or so copies.  Five years later, Fahey decided that he had improved his guitar skills enough to re-record the album. Or, at least, some songs on the album.  The second version had a wider release, but in 1967, Fahey decided to re-record the album again in stereo.  The Legend of Blind Joe Death, a 1996 release, combines the later two releases with a few outtakes.  Despite Fahey's traditionalist song choice, there are not many earlier albums that sound like this: close-mic'ed solo guitar with no effects or overdubs, with all the musicality and emotion in Fahey's own presentation.  Beautiful stuff.

The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965). I don't have Fahey's second or third albums, but this one, his fourth, is like Blind Joe Death in that some songs are covers of old blues and pop songs.  The recording is as dry as the recording on Blind Joe Death, but there's some more oddities as Fahey becomes more of his own man. There's a banjo on one track. Some of the songs have a distinctly odd bent as Fahey incorporates more Eastern music into his sound.  This one was recorded and released on another label before The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party, which was officially labeled Vol. 4 from Takoma Records, but when Takoma released later re-released it, they subtitled this one Vol. 5.  All part of Fahey's lifelong love of creative obfuscation.

Days Have Gone By, Vol. 6 (1967). This one features a bunch of increasingly psychedelic originals (note "The Portland Cement Factory At Monolith California" and "A Raga Called Pat Parts One and Two"), plus a bluegrass standard and a composition by Sibelius.  Awesome.

Requia (1968).  I don't have the Voice of the Turtle, Fahey's 7th album, but I need to get it (and, it should go without saying, any of the other Fahey albums I don't have).  The excellent website The Fahey Files notes that Fahey advises fans to avoid this one, claiming that he was too drunk to make a good album.  I think this one is awesome, though.  The highlight is the four-part "Requiem For Molly," which mixes solo guitar with tape loops and white noise, giving you that odd feeling of listening to Mississippi John Hurt as remixed by John Cage.

The Yellow Princess (1968). Fahey's ninth album adds a band on some tracks and throws in a sound collage on another.  And yet Fahey's playing is near-perfect throughout and the recording as crisp as a chilled apple slice. All of which means that this is one of Fahey's best.  Get the reissue with the early version of "Fare Forward Voyagers" on it.

Christmas Guitar (1968 - 1986).  This compilation includes most of the wonderful 1968 album The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album, plus a bunch of other Christmas tracks that Fahey recorded over the next 20 years.  I reviewed it a little over a month ago.

America (1971).  Brilliant stuff here.  This is the 1998 reissue, which restores the album to the two-disc length that Fahey originally conceived.  There's a version of "Amazing Grace," a movement from a Dvorak symphony, and some extremely long compositions.

Of Rivers And Religion (1972).  More brilliance.  Fahey has a brass section backing him on some tracks and a string section on others.  This is great, great American music.

Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier's Choice) (1973).  This is mystic music.  Three tracks, one 14 minutes, one 6, and one 24.  Beautiful long compositions with a heavy Eastern sound.

Old Fashioned Love (1975).  This is Fahey again with a ragtime orchestra, with his sound covering the distance from early 20th century American music to Indian classical music.

Yes! Jesus Loves Me: Guitar Hymns (1980), Let Go (1984), Rain Forests, Oceans, and Other Themes (1985), and I Remember Blind Joe Death (1987).  I'm running out of things to say, so I'm going to start talking about several of these at once.  The Guitar Hymns album takes traditional Christian hymns and presents them in the beautiful dry style of Fahey's Christmas albums.  Let Go melds Brazilian music with ragtime, bluegrass, and a surprising note-for-note cover of "Layla" that remains as smirkingly serious as any of Fahey's other covers.  Rain Forests has more Brazilian music, another version of "Layla" (or is it the same one? hard to say), a medley of Hendrix into Furry Lewis, and a Stravinsky composition.  Fahey was pretty sick at the end of the 80s with Epstein-Barr, and he claims that I Remember Blind Joe Death is worthless because his sickness made him sloppy.  It's not worthless, but it's not one of his better albums.

God, Time, and Causality (1989) and Old Girlfriends And Other Horrible Things (1992).  Fahey was in better health for God, Time, and Causality (its title a pompous joke from a guy who was studying philosophy at Berkeley when his music career took off).  Here Fahey reworks a number of earlier tracks into long, transcendent medleys, pausing occasionally to retune during the track so that he can capture the odd Indian-raga inflections.  Awesome stuff.  Old Girlfriends is sort of a step back to his ragtime-classical-pop song formula of the mid 70s.  I'm not knocking it; the album is great.

Womblife (1997). I don't have City of Refuge, where Fahey leapt headlong into avant-garde music, combining his anti-folk fingerstyle guitar with tape loops and white noise to an unprecedented degree.  But I understand that Womblife, produced by Jim O'Rourke, plumbs a similar vein more successfully.  I think it's amazing.

The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (with Cul De Sac, 1997).  This is a half-successful attempt to meld Fahey's style with Cul De Sac's krautrock-and-jazz-influenced avant-rock.  You really must read the liner notes to get a glimpse of what working with Fahey was like.  I do not envy Glenn Jones his experience of having his idol sabotage his plans, but the result is pretty great in spots and a fascinating trainwreck in others.

Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites (1998).  This is a live album of Fahey working out themes on an electric guitar.  I've read that Fahey found that his fingers were having trouble with acoustics at the time, but I would believe just as strongly that he just wanted to mess around on an electric and used whatever excuse was at hand.  Unfortunately, he could not pull the resonance from an electric guitar that he could wreak from an acoustic, and while the performances are great, the music suffers a bit from the tinniness of the sound.

Red Cross (2003) and "Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues I - IV" (from Sea Changes and Coelacanths: A Young Person's Guide To John Fahey, 2006).  Fahey's great work at the end of his life was founding Revenant Records, which produces the most incredible box sets in box set history.  Not only are they meticulously researched and beautifully mastered, but they are also packaged more creatively than any others in history.  But Fahey passed away in 2001, not long after helping to found the company.  Red Cross collects his last recordings, which span his stylistic leaning from the straightforward blues-based fingerstyle work of his early career to the aggressive and dark near-ambient work of his late career. Wonderful music, and a fitting end to a brilliant life.  Sea Changes collects Womblife and Georgia Stomps into a single volume, but with the four parts of "Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues" in the middle.  I bought these tracks from eMusic so I don't know when or where they were recorded, and they're a bit slight for me to make any guesses.  But they're lovely and I'm not sorry I have them.


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