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American Primitive

John Fahey Seeks Out Raw Music Old and New

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 9/2/1998

It was in Baltimore that John Fahey first fell in love with black music.

That love of American music in its earthiest forms--blues and gospel--plus the raw hillbilly music they influenced, has steered Fahey's strange career ever since. Not only did the Maryland native pioneer the whole concept of the steel-string guitar as a vehicle for solo instrumentals, but he has headed up two of the most fascinating record companies of his time.

The first was Takoma Records, named after his birthplace, Takoma Park. Between 1959 and 1977 it released not only Fahey's best records but also the debut efforts of Leo Kottke, George Winston, Robbie Basho, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Since 1996 Fahey has co-led Revenant Records, "dedicated to raw musics of all stripes." Among the stripes sewn into the flag so far have been the banjo-and-death-drenched mountain music of Dock Boggs, the free-jazz rambles of a young Cecil Taylor, the electric-guitar drones of Gastr del Sol's Jim O'Rourke, and the hillbilly Hawaiian guitar of Jenks "Tex" Carman, a Cherokee Indian. With their lavish packaging and surprising performances, these Revenant releases have become the most sought-after reissues in recent years.

But it all began in 1957 when Fahey and his teenage pal Dick Spottswood came up to Baltimore to hunt for old 78s. "There was a store selling records for 10 cents apiece downtown," Fahey recalls. "I found a bunch of race records, including Blind Willie Johnson's 'Praise God, I'm Satisfied.' I wasn't even interested in blues records--I was looking for bluegrass records--so I gave it to Spottswood. We went over to a friend's house in Baltimore to listen to it, and I had a very emotional reaction."

Fahey was so unsettled by Johnson's growling bass and his wife Angeline's piercing harmony that he made Spottswood take the disc off and play a Bill Monroe record in its place. But Fahey couldn't get the sound of Johnson's hymn out of his head. When Spottswood put it back on, Fahey broke down and wept for 15 minutes.

"Before I heard that Blind Willie Johnson record," Fahey says, "I wasn't interested in music by black people. I had been very prejudiced, because of my parents and the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was younger, I had had a black maid who used to sing spirituals when she was cleaning up the house, and she sang quite similarly to Blind Willie Johnson's wife. I didn't like my black maid because she made me take naps. But when I heard this old 78, it had such an eerie quality to it; it was such a strange experience that I couldn't resist it. That's when I started listening to black people."

That epiphany in Baltimore launched Fahey on two separate but parallel paths. As a performer, he tried to re-create the feeling of those elemental gospel, blues, and hillbilly recordings in his own solo-guitar instrumentals. In 1959 he spent $500 to record a dozen tunes and press up about 100 copies of the first Takoma Records release, an album with john fahey stamped on one side and blind joe death on the other --and no further explanation. It was the first of 20 solo recordings, often accompanied by equally cryptic packaging. Perhaps the best introduction to Fahey's recorded work is the 1994 two-CD set The Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino).

As a record hunter, Fahey made it his lifelong mission to track down performances as riveting as that on the Blind Willie Johnson 78. But he doesn't have a big record collection; he tapes what he wants and sells the discs to finance the ongoing search. "Records are a pain in the ass," he says. "You spend all your time keeping them clean and keeping them from getting mixed up. Plus I move a lot." When he finds something special that's no longer in print, he tries to get it released. That's the driving force behind Revenant.

"Praise God, I'm Satisfied" is readily available on the two-CD set The Complete Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy), but many of the other, equally memorable recordings of sacred street singers are not available. That led Fahey to pull together his favorites for the 1997 Revenant collection American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel. Like all Revenant releases, it serves up a generous helping of music (26 songs on a single disc) in elegant packaging (a minimalist black, gold, and maroon cover and an artfully designed 26-page booklet containing Fahey's provocative essay on "American Quick Fix Religion").

"It's a source of pride to put together a nicer package than other people," he says. "I wrote the notes for the gospel record, because I felt I knew what was going on on those records, and no one had ever spelled it out before. I always thought it was curious that people thought they were scoring points with God when they bought these records when in fact most of the songs were sung by phony preachers. And I thought it was just as curious that the young white kids who discovered the records later were fooled the same way. The music is great, but no one should be fooled by it. I had fun writing the notes, because I was attacking the very people who were on the record."

This strain of stubborn skepticism has inoculated Fahey against the common temptation to romanticize traditional music. He's not interested in preserving traditions; he just wants to search out the rawest, most intense music he can find. If it is on old blues and bluegrass 78s, fine. If he finds it among the squalling electric guitars of bands such as Sonic Youth, Gastr del Sol, and Cul de Sac, that's fine too. It's the same distinction between "folk art" and "visionary art" that the American Visionary Art Museum tries so hard to make. It's why Revenant picked Dock Boggs and not any of the other Appalachian banjo players for reissue.

"If you listen to the other mountain banjo players," Fahey says, "they don't sound like Dock Boggs. He's pretty bluesy and very angry; he's singing about his own emotions, even when he puts it in the third person. Boggs was trying to write his own unique music and express his own emotions. Boggs is just a lot rougher than most; he expresses sentiments you wouldn't normally hear in polite conversation, unlike someone like Buell Kazee, who would only sing traditional ballads and never sang about himself too much. Kazee was very good, but he wasn't reflecting his own feelings and life. Boggs was. I'm doing the same thing."

Dock Boggs' Country Blues is the most sumptuous and popular release in the Revenant catalog. The single disc, containing all 17 songs Boggs recorded from 1927 to '29, is in a 65-page hardcover book that features a 31-page meditation on Boggs (lifted from Greil Marcus' influential 1997 book The Invisible Republic), a historical essay by folklorist Jon Pankake, and complete lyrics and background notes on each song.

Though he died in 1971 at age 73, Boggs was never more popular than in 1997, thanks to Marcus' book and the reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Fahey contributed notes to the Smith reissue, claiming, "I'd match the Anthology against any other single compendium of important information ever assembled. Dead Sea Scrolls? Nah. I'll take the Anthology. Make no mistake: There was no 'folk' canon before Smith's work. That he had compiled such a definitive document only became apparent much later, of course. We record-collecting types, sifting through many more records than he did, eventually reached the same conclusion: These were the true goods."

In a sense, Revenant Records is continuing the work Smith began. In addition to the Boggs and gospel sets, the low-overhead company has rescued other forgotten music from oblivion. A Stanley Brothers collection, Earliest Recordings: The Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s (1947—1952), contains the 14 songs Carter and Ralph Stanley made as they were evolving from Bill Monroe imitators into stark originals. Chippeha! The Essential Dixie Cowboy (1947—1957) brings to light the works of a particularly odd and obscure artist, Jenks "Tex" Carman. Carman had trouble playing in tune or meter, but his combination of Hawaiian guitar, honky-tonk rhythms, Cherokee lyrics, and vaudeville showmanship made him one of a kind. Get With It: Essential Recordings (1954—69) is a 42-song, two-CD set of music by Charlie Feathers, with liner notes by legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. Feathers co-wrote Elvis Presley's first number-one hit, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget"; recorded some highly collectible rockabilly numbers for the Sun and King record labels; and claimed to have tutored everyone from Presley to Jerry Lee Lewis. While he never had a hit of his own, his impassioned performances have converted the likes of Dickinson and critics Peter Guralnick, Colin Escott, and Nick Tosches into ardent admirers. All four contributed to the set's 44-page booklet.

But Revenant isn't merely an oldies label. About half of its catalog is devoted to still active, experimental musicians. The label has reissued Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, a landmark, out-of-print 1962 live recording by jazz pianist Cecil Taylor's trio. Music and Dance, a previously cassette-only recording by British free-improvisation guitarist Derek Bailey, has been issued on CD by Revenant. Rick Bishop of the ethno-improv rockers the Sun City Girls has released a world-beat-influenced solo album, Salvador Kali, on Revenant. And the label has put out a solo guitar-trance project, Happy Days, by Jim O'Rourke of the avant-rock band Gastr del Sol.

These prickly, often noisy recordings might disturb fans of Fahey's older, acoustic-guitar albums, but they reflect his current state of mind. A combination of messy divorces, alcoholism, diabetes, and Epstein-Barr syndrome sent the guitarist's career and personal life into a downward spiral in the mid-80s. He wound up in a mission for the homeless in Salem, Ore., with his guitar in a pawnshop. Several fans helped pull him out of the hole he dug. Byron Coley wrote a major feature on Fahey for Spin magazine. Nashville attorney Dean Blackwood licensed several Fahey performances for newly released 78 records and eventually became the guitarist's partner in Revenant Records. And both men turned Fahey on to such experimental-rock bands as Sonic Youth (the band's Thurston Moore cited Fahey as a major influence), Cul de Sac (which had recorded Fahey's "The Portland Cement Factory" on its Ecim album), and Gastr del Sol (which had also recorded a Fahey song, "Dry Bones in the Valley," for its album Upgrade and Afterlife).

"I didn't even know experimental music still existed," Fahey says. "I thought it had all dried up. I'd been doing it on my own for years but I never released it because every time I did I got panned by the critics. These alternative musicians were experimenting with their instruments and trying to get different sounds out of them, tuning them in different ways. It's a playful attitude, the kind of thing you might have done when you were a child. Nonalternative music is pretty studied, and tends to run in similar patterns. I prefer alternative music, which is always looking for new patterns and tonalities."

Last year Fahey released City of Refuge, his first album in five years, on the alternative-rock label Tim/Kerr. He also released Womblife on the Table of the Elements label. Both releases are sound collages on which snippets from his back catalog were woven together with samples from alternarock and ethnographic records and newly created amplifier noise.

"I don't play what I used to play," Fahey warns. "None of that sentimental, cosmic, whatever stuff. I play electric guitar exclusively now; I don't even have an acoustic guitar. The emotions I was projecting in the acoustic days were phony. I was depicting a beautiful, bucolic scene, people up by the river, and the music tended to indicate I was happy when in fact I wasn't happy at all. I didn't find out what was going on until I went through psychoanalysis. I'm still unhappy a lot of the time, but for normal reasons--normal human misery is much preferable to neurotic obsessions.

"What started my interest in music long ago," he adds, "was a record I heard on the radio, Bill Monroe's version of Jimmie Rodgers' 'Blue Yodel No. 7.' It almost knocked me off my chair. It was so rebellious; it was such angry music. My family was going through a divorce, and it was killing me. I wanted to get revenge on society, or at least on my parents. I played the pop stations, and I didn't hear anything that echoed my emotions the way Bill Monroe did. That got me to learn to play the guitar, because I wanted to externalize that anger. "

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