In the liner notes to his nearly unlistenable City of Refuge, John Fahey blasts listeners who have categorized his playing. He is neither a folk (or folksy) nor a New Age guitarist, he says, then proceeds to demonstrate via the album’s avant-assaultiveness: you will not power walk to “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age.” And yet for decades Fahey has, whether purposefully or not, courted the audiences he scorns. Count, for example, the number of Christmas albums in his catalogue—or, better yet, give them a listen—and consider how well his presentation of American indigenous musics lends itself to the wintry, vaguely melancholic state of mind many of us call Adult.
Here, on a single CD, are 15 of the 17 songs released on The Yellow Princess and Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo. When they first appeared in the late sixties, these forays into musique concrete and folk intertextuality were more willfully intellectual than fans of his earlier, more apparently simple albums would have liked. Still, even though Best of the Vanguard Years makes for excellent, and apt, background listening when you are reading the modernist pyrotechnics of a Joyce or Pound (and perhaps even better foreground listening when you are ready to give the pieces their due), it can, with the ensuing years’ recognition of difficult popular artists, be set next to such crowd-pleasers as Leo Kottke and not seem that out of place.
Fahey’s constant disavowal of his past, his need to slam doors and deny that there is anything behind them, needn’t mean that we must share his cranky worldview, not even that part of it touching on his own artistry. His performances for Vanguard are challenging, but in a way that we have now assimilated. The by-now-familiar modernist/postmodernist conceit of allusiveness informs a number of the cuts here: “Lion” quotes “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park” quotes “Shortnin’ Bread,” and, to make certain that folk historians miss at least one reference, “Requiem for Molly (Part 3)” quotes, or rather deconstructs,“California Dreaming” with fearsome wit. And he changes tempos suddenly, disruptively, and allows some notes to go all flabby all of the sudden: not exactly easy listening, but neither will you leap to switch discs if you accidentally put this one on some quiet Sunday morning.