First, a quote:
“… well what I did was that I was the first one to just go out and just play steel guitar concerts and when I did it I didn’t just do it in the United States, I did it in England, and everybody kept on saying ” What are you going to sing?” and I would say “I don’t sing I just play the guitar and so I was the person who made that possible so in that sense I made the steel string guitar concert respectable. As for being the father of these other guitar player in any other sense, especially new age music, I do not want that appellation.” — John Fahey in an interview with Stefan Grossman
While listening to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir at absurdly high sound levels is sure to make it a good day, there are times — more often these days — when something a bit less…bombastic is what I care to hear. (Right now, as I write this. Vince Guaraldi is treating me to Days of Wine and Roses. It is — and has been — a good day.)
It’s hard for me to imagine not listening to steel-string solo acoustic guitar. I absolutely fell in love with the sound when I happened upon a three year-old (and well-used) copy of Christmas with John Fahey, Volume 2. This is all the more surprising when one considers my listening choices at that time were the aforementioned Led Zeppelin, along with Aerosmith, Bad Company, Black Sabbath and AC/DC. Like my driving habits at the time (at any moment in time my 1972 Camaro knew only one of two states: sitting still or full-throttle) my listening habits required the volume knob to be set either to 11 on the dial or fully off. Ah, youth.
(I’m sorry, did you say something?)
I loved that album so much I listened to it year round — a habit I maintain to this day.
John Fahey’s style is called “American primitive guitar.” To quote from a piece written by Matt Hanks in the May/June 1997 issue of No Depression Magazine — “the bimonthly magazine surveying the past, present, and future of American music”:
To borrow again from Stanley Booth (maybe he should be writing this piece), like every true original, John Fahey has a strong sense of tradition. The components of his muse — his steel string guitar, his country blues, his love of classical melodicism and dissonance, his fascination with railroads and other manifestations of the industrial age — all have their origins in the early 20th century.
(You can — and should — read the entire article, reprinted with kind permission, on John Fahey’s official web site.)
Later in that article Hanks makes an excellent observation:
…Fahey suffused tradition with his own talents so seamlessly that his innovations were often indistinguishable from homage, or even hoax.
Matt’s words made perfect sense to me. Later in life when I sampled and, subsequently, fell in love with some of the same music that stoked Fahey’s fire, I could find the threads in Fahey’s music that pulled from early 20th century guitar players. There was a call-back, but it was a lot more than that. He may have purchased his first guitar in an effort to meet chicks, but thankfully he managed to change the world of music in addition.
Fahey released his work on his own label, Takoma Records. Takoma was home to a number of like-minded, remarkably talented musicians, including Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho.
It was for Takoma Records that John Fahey first recorded George Winston. (I’ve written of my deep love of Winston’s music more than once.) The album Ballads and Blues was released to the musical ether in 1972, and came and went roughly in the same moment.
In 1979, William Ackerman — a truly magical guitar player — went to visit George Winston. William wanted to sign George to Ackerman’s new label, Windham Hill. While staying over that night, after playing lovely slack-key guitar stuff, George sat behind the piano and began playing the music that became the basis of his first Windham Hill release, Autumn, released in 1980.
1982 saw the release of Winston’s second Windham Hill hit. It was called, December — and it was my first George Winston album.
Winston’s music — like that of Fahey — drew from a wide range of styles and from a wide range of performers who came before, making up a part of the raw material that became the music magic.
Tonight marks one year since I’ve seen George Winston in concert. I first saw him at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans in December 1983. Last year I saw him in the wonderful little Manship Theater in Baton Rouge, LA. We were two of some three hundred in the audience, each of us seated close enough that no sound reinforcement on the piano was necessary. Twenty-four years after my first George Winston concert — and who knows how many between — I found the magic was as alive as that first night on Rampart Street in New Orleans.
Winston riffs on the masters — from Vince Guaraldi to Dr. John. Still, his work is identifiable with him. A George Winston album is uniquely George Winston, just as anything John Fahey played was…well, sounded like Fahey.
Few of us in the world of mystery entertainment have the capacity to literally invent. At best, we read and learn and appropriate from here and there, inject a part of our own DNA and, with a bit of stardust, synthesize a new something. The question I have is this: is the end result uniquely you? When you riff, is it you, or is it a clone of someone else? (In an effort to be a kinder, gentler John LeBlanc, I didn’t insert the word pathetic where it logically belonged in that previous sentence.)
Let us continue with this:
“…he stared intently at me as he told me of the frustration of being pursued for more than 30 years by people who thought he was a guru of some sort, people who thought their emotional response to his music meant that he had something to tell them, people who wanted something from him that he didn’t have and didn’t want to give them. He didn’t understand what people were talking about when they tried to tell him how his old music made them feel and what they thought it meant. He hated his old music, he wanted to do something different and he wanted people to be interested in it. He said his reputation as a misanthrope was all wrong, he just couldn’t stand being around stupid people, he needed to be around intelligent, stimulating people. “
He would like very much to make a lot of money, but he doesn’t want it badly enough to spend the rest of his life playing the music the aging idiot hippie component of his audience wants to hear. He doesn’t really hate his old music, he hates the artistic straitjacket represented by it and the expectations of a close-minded, nostalgic audience.
That’s…hard. And I put it here for two reasons, really. One of them should point you to present day magic superstars like David Copperfield and Penn & Teller. Compare the early days of each with what you see today. Is there a message in there somewhere that may contain valuable guidance? I think so.
In bringing this post to a close, in February 2001, just a few days before what would have been his 62nd birthday, John Fahey died at Salem Hospital after undergoing a sextuple bypass operation. Go here to read an interview Stefan Grossman did with John. And when you’re done, go here and read one of the finest articles written. It was written by Joe Piecuch.
One last note. Personal. Over the last couple of years I’ve written quite a few words that are posted to Escamoteurettes. (Granted, I did take quite a few long naps in 2007, so my words-per-week is a bit low as a result.) Few topics have made me feel as artistically insignificant and superficial as writing about John Fahey and George Winston and Ted Anneman as though I had clue number one. To my credit — I hope — at least I am aware of my cluelessness, if not the depth thereof.
Still, this is about a deep impact, and I’ve done my best.