John Fahey, the late guitarist, self-mythologizer, Takoma records boss, and all round legendary curmudgeon has, since his death in 2001, continued to inspire and influence a whole new generation of acoustic guitarists. It’s to the point where almost every other current folk-tinged hipster whipper-snapper cites the great Blind Joe Death himself as an important reference point in understanding their work.
So it’s nice to find that, for this tribute CD released on Fahey’s own Takoma label, the organizers have called on the services of a refreshingly “unheard” range of artists — many of whom have had direct dealings with the maestro himself as friends, collaborators, students, label-mates, drinking buddies, and so on. The result is a satisfying collection of 20 authentic-sounding tunes, encompassing Fahey compositions, Fahey-championed traditional pieces, and original homages played in the style of the great man.
For the most part, the compositions here concentrate on the country-blues side of what Fahey termed his American Primitive approach: A rough, raw, yet virtuoso approach to playing the steel-stringed acoustic guitar that factors in fast, tumbling finger-picking and earthy slide techniques, conjuring up the deep rural South, Biblical struggles, sweat, and redemption. Less represented on this compilation are Fahey’s investigations into Indian raga, minimalism, noise, and musique concrète.
In fact, an awful lot of the tunes here are straightforward, faithfully reproduced interpretations of Fahey’s folk-blues cannon, showcasing nimble finger-picking and zithering slide. The more successful, such as Alex De Grassi’s take on “The Alligator Walks Sideways on Sunday”, retain the dark nuances and slightly sinister reverberations that litter Fahey’s work, reminding us that, in the American Primitive universe, Death is never very far away, lurking just out of sight like an exaggerated carnival figure, to be derided as much as feared. Or, take Terry Robb’s “Joe Kirby Blues”, with its slow, poignant, bluesy picking and solemn, twanging refrain full of sadness and resignation, a sweet acceptance of the inevitable death and suffering in the midst of life.
Some interpretations are less successful. Rick Ruskin’s “& 50 Cents Gets You a Cup of Coffee” comes across as a slightly twee, Ry Cooder-ish day-time TV theme tune with all the menace excised. And, truth be told, the seemingly endless succession of dizzying finger-picking from hugely talented guitarists gets a little wearying after a certain point. Even if you really dig country-blues, you can’t help feeling that these displays of virtuoso technique are maybe missing the whole point of what Fahey was trying to do: connecting with the red earth and letting the skeleton in his soul speak out through chattering teeth.
That said, there are a lot of surprises here too. Pianist George Winston turns in an astonishing solo harmonica version of “Sally Goodin” — a relentless, barrage of percussive blowing that whips up a dark vortex of drones and overtones, dragging the listener down to a tiny point of non-existence. It really must be heard to be believed.
Henry Kaiser and John Schott bring in a full electric band to create a seven-minute medley of “Steamboat Gwine Round the Bend” and “How Green was My Valley” — starting off as a lazy, dreamy blues, with a funky, loose-limbed bassline before shifting up a few gears and diving into a punchy coda with searing feedback and marching drums. As far as electric interpretations go, it’s far superior to the other offering here — a clunky, plodding blues-rock jam from Canned Fish that, frankly, you’d be better off skipping altogether.
Often it’s the tiny details that raise a tune to a higher level of artistry and reveal a more scholarly approach to the subject — such as the tiny burst of Balinese gamelan at the end of Andrew Stanglen’s “Days Have Gone By in the Halls of Valhalla” — a sly and cheeky allusion to Fahey’s own influences. And Nels Cline and Elliott Sharp bring the avant-garde firmly back into the equation with a haunting take on “On the Banks of the Owchita”, full of ghostly slide, ringing harmonics, and percussive taps to the guitar’s body.
The final word, though, goes to Blind Joe Death himself, with an otherwise uncredited piece of authentically old-time country-folk, recorded to sound like a scratchy 78. No matter who actually played it, it is, of course, Fahey checking in from beyond the grave, and the perfect way to end this commendable and hugely enjoyable tribute to a unique giant of American music.
Now, let’s get out on the porch and open that bottle….