In a 1968 interview, legendary guitarist John Fahey was asked, “What would you call your style if you had to call it something?” He answered, “Yeah [American Primitive], that’s the closest thing, you know if I had to call it anything. [But] I wouldn’t worry about calling it anything.” Compiled by contemporary Primitivist Glenn Jones, The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar and Banjo (1963-1974) stands as the most thoroughly and lovingly assembled collection of tunes in the style Fahey begrudged to name at all.
Fahey established his practice in the late ’50s, founding the Takoma label, which, a decade later, would become the conduit for the work of his friends, the other forefathers of the movement. Despite (or perhaps because of) the instrumental simplicity—the music plays out almost entirely on guitar or banjo—it can indeed be a challenge to put a finger on its sound.
The only imaginable critique of this compilation would be that, at 17 songs and two hours, monotony may set in, and you may at first have a hard time discerning the performers. Soon, however, you discover that what gives the illusion of this blending together is the tonal consistency—that is, a heck of a lot of acoustic strumming. But that’s about the only consistency you’ll find across this collection.
The artists represented run the gamut of technical invention with combinations of fingerpicking, syncopation, “unusual” (non-western) musician modes, open tunings, steel instruments, improvisation, complex song structures and string harmonics—those bright, staccato dings. All this produces a kind of performance that leaves you asking, ‘How many people are playing right now?’
So why “primitive” then? The seeming misnomer in fact recalls the French Modernist tradition of Primitivism, which strove to simulate a more “primitive” (non-western) state—though the meaning aligns more closely with “untutored”—not to be confused with “unstudied”. The American Primitivists by no means come from the proverbial Alabama with banjos on their knees. These men—for they are all men here—work well outside any inherited, regional tradition. They have a vast multicultural awareness, and their music becomes almost ethnographic. They pull, at different ratios, from Appalachian music, country blues, gospel, and a range of Western Classical, Indian and other international musics. (If upon listening, you muse, “This almost sounds like…” you’re probably onto something.) Consider, too, that American Primitivism blossomed in the heat of a cultural revolution, so you can imagine how the artists absorbed by osmosis a near-psychedelic conscious.
The sound of American Primitivism is, in a word, otherworldly. Guitarist Will Ackerman once said of Basho, easily the most far-out of his kind, “I don’t believe he was terrestrial.” While the music has an air distinct of old-time America, it feels mythological—a hydra that exists outside of time and place. Such is the sui generis beauty of these songs. They feel meditative, at times, transcendent. Even the most easygoing, front-porch-rocker-style ditties immerse the listener in a way rare in acoustic folk.
Jones reminds us that one of two fundamental features of the music is the use of instruments as “vehicle[s] for personal expression” (the second being original composition). The emotional weight of these songs—joy and anguish, foreboding, and serenity—is palpable across the map. We’re shown the power of the solo instrumentalist to take us on a personal journey, to switch back relentlessly or forge blindly into the hinterlands.
If one must reduce this essential collection to its essence, go for these: the mysterious chugga-chugga of Fahey’s “Night Train to Valhalla”… any of Leo Kottke’s succinct song cycles… the moody, brooding minor-key drone “April in Cambridge”… the sweltering, 14-minute raga majesty of the title track… and my favorite, the banjo transmutation of George Stavis’ “Winterland Doldrums”. Then, start again at the top.
The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose shines for its variation, brevity and wonderful flow of tracks. And what makes the package so necessary is the criminal absence of worthy compilations that came before (disregarding Takoma’s half-century-old Contemporary Guitar: Spring 1967). So go pick up The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose. Hear these bards bridge worlds with a box of wood or steel, perhaps some elemental percussion; hear their acid-laden tales of old told on five, six and 12 strings.
P.S. The compilation, out on March 23 on Craft Recordings, anticipates a very special occasion: The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose festival, held April 13-15 in the Primitivist mecca of Takoma Park, MD. It features many of the veterans found on the compilation—Peter Walker, Peter Lang, George Stavis and Harry Taussig—as well as Glenn Jones, and a new generation of masters like Daniel Bachman and Marisa Anderson. Maybe I’ll see you there.