John Fahey belongs to that long line of original, idiosyncratic, brilliant American artists who found artistic inspiration in the vernacular music of everyday life: funeral home lamentations, work songs, machine noises, animal grunts, church hymns, train whistles, oddball ethnic melodies, military marches, children’s ditties, and probably even the gurgle of kitchen sinks. One can imagine some future anthropologist from another galaxy coming across a Fahey disc as the sole remnant of life in these United States and being able to reconstruct our nation’s civilization from that single artifact. Who knows what a careful listener from today might be able to discover? Part of that answer can be learned from the various artists that contributed to the recent M. Ward-curated tribute disc to the guitar-playing mad genius.
The most striking aspect of the 13 tracks compiled on this anthology is how much Fahey belongs in the American canon alongside acknowledged masters. The interpretations of Fahey’s tunes bring out aspects of his music often hidden behind the man’s brilliant playing. One can hear echoes of Aaron Copeland’s simple folk motifs in Sufjan Stevens’ “Variation on ‘Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park”, strains of Scott Joplin’s rags in M.Ward’s “Bean Vine Blues #2”, Charles Ives’ playful patriotism in Howe Gelb’s “My Grandfather’s Clock”, George Gershwin’s celebration of the absurd aspects modern life in Peter Case’s “When the Catfish is in Bloom”, etc. The artists are probably not trying to connect Fahey to a line of national art, anymore than Fahey himself consciously drew from those composers’ works. Fahey just went to the same primary sources for inspirations as they did.
But Fahey was no jingoist, as the international connotations of the titles of several tunes indicate. Devendra Banhart does a beautiful rendition of “Sligo River Blues”, where Banhart lets the strings resonate in an irregularly fluid motion that evokes the sound of a flowing stream over rocks. And Granddaddy’s interpretation of “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Louis XIV of Spain” showcases a bare-bones regalism, a true decadence marked by decay and rot. One can imagine the skeletons of the royals prancing across the castle floor in some ancient minuet.
As that song title, which melded Louis XIV and Spain, suggests, Fahey liked to mix unlike things together to create fanciful concoctions. Lee Ranaldo and the Lazy 8 Chorale’s “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Brooklyn Bridge Version: The Coelcanth” shows this best. Renaldo’s version offers car horns and other traffic noises, amorphous clanks that may be horse hooves, various bird songs, mumbled words, metal-on-metal scrapings, strummed strings, waves and buoys clanging in the distance, all in less than three minutes of epiphany.
Fahey was best known for resurrecting the tradition of songs about death. The tribute discs include some great ones. The Fruit Bats perform a sunny version of the “Death of the Clayton Peacock”, complete with “oohs” and “aahs” for effect. Their version could serve as the soundtrack for some spaghetti western. The pluck of the banjo, the martial beat, and clanking of a tambourine seem to evoke the solitary hero walking down a dusty Western street for a duel, his spurs jangling. Similarly, Calexico’s six-and-a-half minute “Dance of Death” takes a cinematic approach, metaphorically speaking. The band uses silence to create a widescreen space, as the song unhurriedly unfolds. Nothing much seems to happen, but that’s kind of the point. There’s nothing but time in the afterlife. Let the tumbleweeds roll by.
This same sense of time taking its own sweet time can be found on Immergluck, Karhan, Krummenacher, & Hanes’ interpretation of “Joe Kirby’s Blues”. The instruments repeat the same short measures in different variations, sometimes slowing them down or letting them drift before joining together again. The effect is like sitting at a railroad crossing and watching the train cars go by: boxcars, flatbeds, and tankers from different lines, with various markings and graffiti. The warning bells clang along with the squealing, rolling of the wheels on the track. However long it takes, it always seems too long until it’s over. Then, you drive off reluctantly and wonder why you were in such a rush to begin with. Such is the case with the tune, and it’s hard to resist pushing the replay button and listening to it again before going on to the next song. That’s true of every tune on this disc, which is a fine tribute to one of America’s most remarkable artists.