Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You (The Fonotone Years 1958 - 1965)
, October 17th, 2011 04:50
The title of this lovingly assembled box set of early, rare material originally released on 78, 33 and 45rpm vinyl between 1958 and 1965 on the Fonotone label comes from something John Fahey himself said. In 2000 Dean Blackwood, who co-ran Fahey’s Revenant Records, invited Glenn Jones, the man who oversaw this project, to visit and discuss producing this set. Jones, who had known the legendary American guitarist for 25 years was greeted sternly by Fahey thus: “Boy, your past really comes back to haunt you! Glenn, I don’t want this stuff to be issued. A lot of those recordings were made before I could play guitar. If Dean wants to put it out, he can pay me ten thousand dollars and I won’t care what happens to my reputation. Or he can wait until I’m dead and issue it then.”
If I were given the chance I’d amend that quote by putting the word play in italics or single quotes – or maybe both – but when you listen to some of these 115 tracks, it’s all too clear what he means. Some of the early 1958 blues numbers are gauche and some of the strumming and finger style picking painfully inadequate. If I never hear the few guitar and flute duets he recorded here again it won’t be a moment too soon and the less said about his version of ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ the better. But still this lovingly produced artefact, which indeed has come out a respectful amount of time after his death, is a thing of joy.
The aesthetic of John Fahey as a young man wouldn’t cut muster with many in this day and age now that everyone’s a critic and all musicians' motivations are judged in the least charitable light possible. In his twenties he was the equivalent of someone who has no interest in current black music but instead immerses himself in the exhaustive collection of hip hop vinyl released between 1986 and 1993. In the late 1950s Fahey, and a few other like-minded souls, were what Gil Scott Heron would later have called bluesologists, ignoring contemporary rock & roll in favour of collecting rare (due to their fragility as well as their low issue numbers) folk, blues and bluegrass 78s from the 1920s and 1930s. Some of this collecting was done by 'canvassing' – basically going door to door in poor neighbourhoods looking for no-longer wanted records, knowing that they were worth more to a small band of collegiate collectors back in the city. Still, to Fahey these discs didn’t equal money, they equalled music he hadn’t heard or duplicates he could swap for other discs he hadn’t heard.
Fahey’s first passion was for bluegrass or country music but it was on one of these trips that his real passion for the blues was ignited. He came back with the extremely sought-after Blind Willie Johnson’s Praise God I’m Satisfied. Fahey recalled this epiphanic moment some years later: “The first time I heard it, it made me sick… I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever heard. The second time I heard it, I started to cry.” He had been playing guitar since his mid-teens but it was at this moment that he seriously began to try and work out for himself what was happening on these crackling platters of shellac, working out the non-standard tunings needed for aggressive picking and slide work. It was his status as an auto-didact (there was no-one for Fahey to ask about tuning his guitar – no devil at the crossroads, no kindly bluesman on a porch or other such stock figure – and no internet page full of tabulations and YouTube demos, just him, his guitar and his records) that led to the notion of him being an American Primitavist. He learned everything himself by ear, meaning there was no academy smoothness just a raw, ‘authentic’ assault.
In a sense this is the first time anyone has heard any of these recordings exactly like this before. Joe Bussard who ran Fonotone, the mail order record company that put Fahey’s non-Takoma material out during this period, would cut each 78, 45 or 33 rpm disc by hand from a master tape, meaning each one was slightly different and there was never a 'mother' disc. This led to some interesting results and Dust-to-Digital have been commendably reserved about messing with the source material while preparing this anthology. So while these recordings are mainly amazingly clear and resonant other tracks are satisfyingly wonky. This is perhaps due to the masters being stored for half a century in the cigar smoke-filled home of Bussard. The version of ‘Bicycle Made For Two’ sounds like it is being listened to from a fairground waltzer going at full tilt, such is the 'Doppler effect' of slowing and speeding that you hear, and it may have a similar effect on your stomach. ‘Prince George’s Dance’ actually changes key abruptly half way through – presumably due to some violence done to the tape machine during the session - suggesting that the regal man in question has been hitting the hooch and should perhaps think about sitting the next one out. These quirks were down to the recording of the tape however and you are getting to hear them exactly as a punter fifty years ago would have, albeit with better fidelity.
Fonotone were the first record label to release John Fahey’s work but of course during this period he would become much better known for his signature blues folk hybrid that developed over the course of several albums on Takoma, such as the milestone Death Chants, Breakdowns And Military Waltzes. This was probably as much down to the development of his mischievous alter ego Blind Joe Death, an ancient black bluesman 'famed' for playing a guitar fashioned from a child's coffin and struck blind and dumb by a member of the NAACP for refusing to learn barre chords, as it was down to his fingerpicking style. But that’s not to say this box set shouldn’t be of great importance and interest to fans of Fahey. The final disc of recordings, spanning the 1962-65 period, reveals Fahey finally stepping out of the shadow cast by his influences. ‘The Portland Cement Factory At Monolith, California’, which is analogous to another great stepping stone piece, ‘Night Train To Valhalla’, reveals a man finally coming into his own as a composer, abandoning the traditional blues in favour of a symphonic approach of greater tonal complexity. The first of Fahey’s veena experiments, ‘How Long’, is here but you could be forgiven for not even realising that you had just been listening to the smaller, earlier relative of the sitar instead of a guitar. But by the time it reappears on the inappropriately named ‘Western Medley’, backwards dubbed and reverberating, you can sense Fahey not just straining at the leash but snapping it entirely, ready to incorporate the lessons learned from everything including classical orchestral to gamelan into his ever-burgeoning style.
Time renders the notion of John Fahey as an ‘authentic’ guitarist thankfully irrelevant. Simply, we are left with more evidence of a true American original, who was also as important in his own way as Harry Smith or Alan Lomax and other such college-educated curatorial spirits. Now you too can revel in the joy of discovering more of his alien and obscure back catalogue without having to go door to door, ringing on the bells of angry, octogenarian beatniks and asking to buy their no-longer listened-to 78 discs at a knockdown price.
The box set contains 115 songs over five discs and a large hardback book