Since his death in 2001, John Fahey has seemed ever more ubiquitous. His name is constantly bandied about as everybody’s prime influence, several excellent posthumous releases have surfaced, his back catalog has been plundered, expanded and reissued, and a few of his legendary Fonotone tracks emerged on Dust-to-Digital’s brilliant 2005 sampler of that label’s antics. All of this time, however, it has been known that the great Cambridge-based musician/archivist Glenn Jones was working on a massive project involving the entirety of the recordings Fahey did for Fonotone in the early years of his career.
This project (code-named “Sassy”) was originally planned for Fahey’s own Revenant label (presumably right after the Crime compilation), but that plan was scotched when Bernard Stollman’s frivolous legal attacks (following the Ayler box) caused Dean Blackwood (Fahey’s partner in Revenant) to throw up his hands in disgust. But even Fahey’s death couldn’t muzzle Glenn’s goddamn persistence. He kept plugging away, going through the Fonotone recordings endlessly, getting detailed opinions on tracks from obsessive Fahey scholars around the globe. And the effort paid off. Lance Ledbetter of Dust-to-Digital decided to issue the whole beautiful mess on five CDs packed in a truly glorious package. And the wait was worth it.
Bits of this material have surfaced in large batches and small over the years, but here are 114 tracks, recorded between ’68 and ’65 – some in the Maryland basement of Fonotone’s Joe Bussard, later ones sent in from Fahey on the West Coast. Together, they provide an amazing x-ray of the evolution of John Fahey as a musician and composer.
Beginning with tentative blues recreations (some of them sung in a fake Charlie Patton voice), rolling into drunken nightmares of collector-style one-upmanship, invading other folk traditions, then eventually coalescing into the bizarre, unique alloy of styles that marks Fahey’s “mature” work. It’s a totally great listen.
Throughout his notes, Glenn keeps saying that this stuff is mostly for fanatics, but I’m not so sure that’s true. While I cannot claim any kind of non-fanatic stance, this shit is just thoroughly enjoyable. Some of it might be a bit embarrassing (for racist, drunken or just plain berserk vocal parts), but even these tracks are pretty goddamn funny. And it should be remembered that they were created by a couple of drunk, wise-ass 20-somethings who know a lot about a certain type of music (country blues) that few people even suspect exists. These recordings predate the reissue of material by Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson or much of anything apart from the Harry Smith Anthologies. These guys were members of a boozey secret society and their japery sounds to me like they’re just making fun of their own arcane knowledge. I mean, who else would even understand what they were up to? It’s just a goof on other collectors, really. And the recordings were not heard by anyone except a few hardcore blues hounds. Until now. But it’s not jacking-off. The protean versions of tunes like “Brenda’s Blues” and “Dance Of The Inhabitants” are nice peeks into a creative process that is usually obscured.
The package is a mindblower, too. Glenn’s essays are brilliant. Claudio Guerrieri and Malcolm Kirtan’s scholarly pieces are weirdly captivating with their massed arcan details. And Anthony Lee’s and Douglas Blazek’s first-person historical bits give us whole different views of Fahey-the-man (as it were). The visuals are stunning as well – photos, drawings, letters, just all kinds of stuff that will make you shake your head with the goddamn splendor of it all.
I dunno about you, but I’m figuring this is just about the best archival find of the year. Can’t think of anything else that has filled me with such bizarre joy.
Blind Joe Death is dead. Love live Blind Joe Death.