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One of the many relatives in the extended family of blues music is the acoustic guitar player purveying a wholly instrumental repertoire. This relative, unlike the brasher, more visible members of the family, doesn’t get plastered at family dos or go in for attention-seeking excitability. Instead, he sits in the background getting on with his own thing, and anyone who’s willing to listen is welcome to do so. He doesn’t do requests, unless he’s feeling a bit contrary, in which case he’ll divvy up a barely recognizable but far more interesting version of a well-known tune. He’s also spent years turning into a highly individualistic virtuoso on the instrument, but the casual listener will think a lot of what he does is pretty straightforward. He gives off an air of being harmless and genial, but anyone bothering to speak to him discovers that he’s a whole lot odder, and more interesting, than the show-offs making all the noise.
John Fahey www.johnfahey.com
It starts really with John Fahey. Anyone who reckons they like the blues in any of its many forms should have at least one John Fahey album in their collection. Fahey was by all accounts a curmudgeonly, eccentric figure and his sleeve notes point to some influence from the Beat generation. He collected early blues records, wrote a thesis on Charley Patton (I’d like to have gone to that university) and was among the active figures in the blues revival in the US in the late 50s/early 60s that saw many of the surviving greats from the 20s and 30s get some recognition and a bit of money for their talent (he was one of the people who ‘rediscovered’ Bukka White, tracing him to the town of Aberdeen, Mississippi on the basis of his song of that name).
The story goes that in the late 50s Fahey was much taken with the guitar style of the great original country blues players and figured that what they were doing on the instrument was a feast enough even without the vocal on top. So he reckoned the idea of just playing the guitar parts was perfectly viable and went on from that starting point to become a great innovator in the field of acoustic guitar music. Adopting the (slightly tongue in cheek) moniker Blind Joe Death, he made his first album The Legend of Blind Joe Death in 1959. It’s a mixture of straight blues playing, traditional tunes from a wide variety of traditions, and lengthier experimental workouts, all put through the filter of Fahey’s instantly recognizable style. Fahey gave a name to this style: he called it American Primitive.
It’s a rather misleading name, as he doubtless meant it to be. Lots of people have been beguiled by the light-touch, easy-going guitar style of Mississippi John Hurt for example, and sat down to knock out those tunes in the same way. Three hours later they’ve either decided to give up finger-picking and wheeled out the loud guitar, or, worse for them, they’ve actually worked out what he’s doing and discovered that you can only keep it going for four bars before your wrist and/or fingers give up the unequal struggle. Fahey’s style is similarly fraudulent. It sounds like anyone can do it – till they try.
Fahey went on to produce numerous albums on his own Takoma label into the 70s, and then a great many more on various other labels until his death in 2001, aged 61. He was prolific and his discography is daunting if you feel like dipping into it. Some of his albums are more accessible than others (he spent phases upping the experimental content and exploring the dissonance avenue). For my money, the best place
to start is with his 1965 album The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, which contains some wonderful, mostly self-penned blues and blues/folk tunes (and they are tunes), and unforgettable versions of Bicycle Made For Two (sic) and Camptown Races. The 1969 album Yellow Princess is another essential.
Fahey later branched out to use other musicians on some of his albums and two albums from 1972 and 1973, Of Rivers and Religion and After The Ball were particularly successful examples of collaboration, the former with some New Orleans trad jazz players. These albums, now available on one CD, show Fahey still doing his thing, the other players adding different shades to what remains the inimitable style. In 1968 and 1975, Fahey issued two Christmas albums, on the face of it a rather bizarre thing for someone like Fahey to do, but there’s a logic to it: he simply ‘does a Fahey’ on some familiar traditional tunes. The majority of both of these albums is available on one CD, The New Possibility. If you want to sneak some decent music into the house in the festive season, this is a must. Carols and other traditional Christmas tunes are put through the Fahey filter, but the tunes are all recognizably there, so that if you’re unfortunate enough to live with someone who isn’t crazy about your musical tastes, you can get away with it by showing them the track list and inviting them to confirm that the, to you terrific, slide playing is indeed ‘Silent Night’ or some such.
There’s an enormous amount more in Fahey’s back catalogue from the mid 70s on, and with sad inevitability he became a ‘cult figure’, meaning of course that he didn’t sell many albums or make any real money. This may have been partly attributable to his commercially-unfriendly take on his career (the great blues author Sam Charters worked with him for a while and allegedly reported ‘He’s the only artist I ever worked with whose sales went down after he made public appearances’). But through the 80s and into the 90s, it’s hard to see how anyone ploughing his sort of furrow could have made a decent living in that hideous wasteland of a musical world. Fahey wound up in poverty and pawning his guitar.
But decent music started to twitch on the slab and walk out of the morgue in the mid 90s, and Fahey started to revive. An anthology in 1994, Return of the Repressed, revived interest in him and he was back up and running. If he’d lived a few more years, he would probably have got a big gig at somewhere like the Barbican and all sorts of well-known names would have popped up saying how much they’d always loved his thing.
Fahey’s a hard one to categorise and he was a genuine one-off. He played all sorts, and if you want to do a full inventory on it, you’ll find Native American, country, Indian raga, spirituals, vaudeville tunes, Hawaiian, minstrel songs, show tunes and any number of other ingredients in addition to blues and folk. Blues underpins it all, but more than anything Fahey was the sort of original that good music is, or at any rate ought to be, all about. If you haven’t got any of his stuff, it’s pretty well all readily available on CD, so check him out. And if you’re a player, even a good one, well, it’s a case of ‘Don’t try this at home ….’
One way to look at the music produced by Fahey et al is in relation to country blues artists of the 1920s and 1930s that were the original inspiration for it. If those guys had been given the chance to sit down and noodle around a bit, instead of hollering out their wares at fish fries and on street corners, this is the sort of stuff they might have come up with. In some of the pieces played by these artists can be directly traced the soul and melancholy of Skip James, the ragtime dexterity of Blind Blake, the tuneful riffing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the mellow groove of Furry Lewis, the roustabout attack of Bukka White, the brooding gospel of Blind Willie Johnson and the complex, troubled picking of Robert Johnson. There’s just no singing on top of it, that’s all.
Leo Kottke follows next in line to John Fahey, for more than one reason. Firstly, he was the next player to come along and make a record that took up more or less what Fahey was doing. Secondly, that record came out, in 1969, when Kottke was 24, on Fahey’s own label, Takoma. Kottke had sent Fahey a ropy cassette of his playing, in the hope that Fahey would get what he was doing. Fahey did, and he put out the album, 6 and 12-String Guitar. Takoma was a tiny independent label, and even the term cottage industry might overplay the nature of its operation, but the album went on to sell an amazing half a million copies.
Unlike a lot of Fahey’s work, there is no question of Kottke’s sounding simple. The virtuosity is laid out before the listener and there is no element of the ‘I could do that’. It was a common comment about 6 and 12-String Guitar that people hearing it and unfamiliar with Kottke simply refused to believe that there was only one person playing. That’s not to say that it’s overly complex or at all inaccessible. Everything’s nice and clear, it’s all very tuneful and it certainly isn’t a case of someone showing off. It’s a terrific album that anyone interested in this kind of music ought to have.
Kottke made lots of albums for bigger labels after that, and tracks from the best of those can be found on Leo Kottke Instrumentals: The Best of The Capitol Years 1970-75, which is also well worth having. The key word here is ‘instrumentals’: Kottke took to singing on some of his albums, despite the fact that he reckoned his voice sounded like ‘geese farts on a muggy day’, and the general consensus was that this was not a great career move. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a successful career for many years, his reputation secured as technically perhaps the greatest guitarist in the style, and is still going now.
Glenn Jones is in an instrumental band called Cul de Sac, which I have seen described as ‘avant-garage’, and which has been going for the best part of 20 years. He has apparently always been a devotee of John Fahey and was friends with him for many years until Fahey’s death in 2001. He belongs to what gets dubbed the Takoma School of instrumental guitar players, a notional set of artists following in Fahey’s footsteps. He embarked on a career as a solo instrumental guitarist in the Fahey mould with the album This Is The Wind That Blows It Out in 2004. In March 2007 he issued his second solo album Against Which The Sea Continually Beats and it’s terrific.
In the vein of much of Fahey’s work, the album is at heart a mixture of blues and folk, with some shorter, melodic pieces, and some longer meditations. It’s all beautifully played, and the sound is so crisp and immediate that it’s like listening to it in earphones when you aren’t. There’s plenty of virtuosity, but no clever dick stuff, and it’s easy on the ear without being at all bland. The CD is also beautifully presented, with nice artwork and interesting information on the inspiration for each track. The assumed audience must include acoustic guitar devotees, for whom details of the various tunings used on each track are given, and for whom there is also information on how to make the ‘partial capos’ that Jones uses on some tracks (you saw the ends off capos so that you’re either covering just three or four strings with the resulting implement – don’t ask).
Jones may to some degree only be following some of what Fahey did, but there are a great many worse things a guitar player could do, and he does it very well. Jones’s playing isn’t as eccentric as some of Fahey’s ‘don’t care whether anyone likes this or not’ stuff, but this album is, for me, up there with some of the best of Fahey’s output.
For shorthand purposes, Jack Rose can be bracketed with Glenn Jones in the category of current artists following in Fahey’s footsteps and more than doing justice to his legacy. Rose is also in a band, Pelt, and in recent years seems to have embarked on a parallel solo career as a solo instrumental guitarist. He and Jones sometimes gig/tour together, and Rose has been over here from time to time, including earlier this year.
Rose’s most recent CD is Kensington Blues (2005) and it’s another fine record in the Fahey mould. There are some great examples of ragtime picking and some pieces picking up more on the Indian raga influence in Fahey’s work. Like Jones, Rose doesn’t go in for dissonance or any of the kind of experimental stuff at the outer edges of Fahey’s output, so the album makes for a pleasant but not wishy-washy listen. The most heavily ragtime and blues influenced pieces are picked with panache, while the longer, drone-based pieces have a meditative quality.
Jones and Rose are continuing the traditions of the Takoma School, as laid down by Fahey. Someone out there should be doing this, and fortunately, they are.
The instrumental music made by all these players works on several levels. You can have it on in the background and it’ll fill your room or the space in your head with a good feeling just because of its vibe. In this way, you can see it as like having a very talented friend who pops up unannounced round at your place whenever you want and sits in a corner playing and generally cheering you up or winding you down. Or you can sit down to and listen to it closely, admire the technique, and get to know the tunes and the nuances and developments of each piece, as if they were sung tunes with lyrics. Or, and we’re now unapologetically in slightly pretentious territory, you can conjure up pictures of places and people and events in your mind as you listen, just as the artists themselves did when creating each of the pieces. Their pictures are unlikely to be your pictures, but listening to what these players have created can take you to any place you care to go to.
Michael Chapman is the only English player I’m aware of who produces this kind of music. He’s been making good music of one sort or another since the late 60s, and instrumental guitar albums are just one part of his output.
Chapman as an artist doesn’t belong in any firm category. His work has always included elements of blues, folk, country and rock, but he’s never actually done any straight blues, folk, country or rock numbers. He writes his own stuff and it’s a mixture of all these styles. He sings with an instantly recognizable gruff, slightly slurred, world-weary voice and he’s a true original. From 1969 to 1972 he made four albums for EMI’s high-profile Harvest label, on which some of the best-known bands of that golden period resided, and he was up there with some of the better known people in recognition and on the college and festival circuit. These albums, Rainmaker (1969), Fully Qualified Survivor (1970), Window (1971) and Wrecked Again (1972), still stand tall today.
When everyone like him was swept aside in the mid to late 70s Year Zero cull of just about anyone who’d been making records up to that point, he carried on ploughing his own furrow and making records for the hard core of devotees that stuck with him. He went down various avenues, including New Age music in the 80s, re-emerging from the mid 90s to the present day with albums in the distinctive style of his earlier great works. Today he continues as a working/gigging musician, playing folk clubs and the like, and if you get a chance to go and see him, you should take it. The voice is even gruffer than in the early heyday, but one thing that is unchanged is the guitar chops that put him in the very front rank of acoustic guitar players.
Chapman palled up with Fahey in the late 70s, and a scary pair of curmudgeons they must have been. The younger Chapman wasn’t renowned for sobriety or impeccable manners to all-comers, putting him right up Fahey’s street (he’s an altogether mellower fellow now). They travelled and gigged together for a bit, and doubtless found much common ground. Certainly they would have been a mutual admiration society playing-wise.
Chapman’s early albums always included a couple of instrumentals in the blues/ragtime vein, but he didn’t do a wholly instrumental album until fairly recently. Following a trip around the southern states of the US, he issued two, Americana (2001) and Americana II (2002). These albums were re-released as a double CD in 2006, and they’re both excellent. They contain a wide variety of styles, including blues, folk, ragtime and meditative, even hymnal pieces, and there’s even a bit of electric guitar along the way. There’s a terrific clarity to the playing, a wide variety of tempos and many of the pieces are wonderfully atmospheric. The booklet notes include information on the places and experiences that inspired each of the pieces during Chapman’s travels, and some terrific photos taken by Chapman and his wife. The tunings for each piece are also given.
In recent years, Chapman has been releasing CDs himself, on his own Rural Retreat label, and one of the more recent of these is Words Fail Me (2006), an instrumental double CD available from his website. This is a straight guitar album, no effects or overdubs, and it includes pieces from the whole of Chapman’s career, right back to his first album, and right up to reworkings of one or two of the Americana pieces. The tunings and guitars used are listed for those who want to know that sort of stuff, and it’s a very fine record indeed, containing all Chapman’s trademark strengths in picking and coming up with memorable melodies. It would sound good at any time and in any age.
Michael Chapman is a wonderful guitar player and he’s no Fahey clone. He has his own distinctive style and sound, and though he’s broadly in the territory that Fahey was in, he stands on his own as an original player. Whether it’s some of the tunings he favours, or just the sound he coaxes from his various guitars, he isn’t like anyone else, and the trademark Chapman instrumental sound soon becomes instantly recognizable. It’s almost a criminal offence that Michael Chapman isn’t more revered than he is, and for years he’s been an almost secret that should be right out in the open.