The Strange World Of… Robbie Basho

Jennifer Lucy Allan surveys the work of the most misunderstood of the American primitive steel string guitar players

Robbie Basho at Berkeley Folk Music Festival by Barry Olivier, c/o Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections

“I spent years on the road singing these folk songs with no meaning, just emoting these things. Then it dawned on me, music is supposed to say something, to do something. Then I started seeing how high and beautiful I could go.”

These are the words of Robbie Basho, one of the true enigmas of 20th century guitar playing. Playing six and 12 string guitar (and the piano) he is often characterised as a frontrunner of ‘American primitive’ alongside people like John Fahey and Max Ochs, but is also talked about as an oddball loner who joined a cult and died young after a tragic accident at the hands of his chiropractor in 1986, age of 46.

The unlikely accident of his death – a haemorrhage possibly caused by a pre-existing injury from a college car accident – can overwhelm the magic of Robbie Basho, and occlude the fact that he was one of the most inventive Western guitar players of all time. His music is deeply idiosyncratic, impressionistic and intensely emotional, but more than that, it was on a genuine quest to integrate and represent non-Western folk and spiritual traditions, through the development of esoteric tunings and conceptual roots for his songs.

This wasn’t about copying or appropriation, but spirituality and respect. He read a lot, and studied Indian classical music after having what he called a life changing encounter with the music of Ravi Shankar. When Basho plays a raga, he knows he’s not playing a formal or correct raga, but is paying respects to its spiritual feeling: “You can’t do a raga the way a Hindu would like it done,” he once said in a radio interview, “but you can get the feeling.”

In these folk traditions and classical forms – from India, Tibet, Japan, Persia, and from Mohawk and other Indigenous American tribes – Basho posed a challenge to the folk scene he came from, to expand what counted as American music, what counted as folk music, and what counted as traditional music.

Robbie Basho was born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. Nobody knows his birth name, as he was adopted as a child and named Daniel R. Robinson Jr. He settled in Berkeley and released on Takoma, Vanguard and Windham Hill, with a couple of self-released albums into the 80s, but he came in with a sound so different to the existing folk revival scene that it blindsided many and he never sold particularly well. He became Robbie Basho in the 60s “after spending a night on a mountaintop and ingesting a great deal of peyote,” according to John Fahey, which may or not be true, although Basho believed he was the reincarnation of the Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō.

He was somewhat of a loner, and stories circulate about his various eccentricities – he did not have many close friends or romantic partners, one person said he might be a virgin, another that he lived with two beautiful Japanese girlfriends. He had taken LSD and experimented with psychedelics, but it was apparently a disaster, and he described it to a friend as being like “throwing a grenade into a flower”, and continued to have flashbacks. William Ackerman (of Windham Hill Records) said the first time he met Basho, in his Berkeley flat that was ‘floor to ceiling’ with books, Basho paused the conversation to continue speaking to a spirit in the room.

While studying with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, he met a follower of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, and later became a committed devotee to Western Sufi organisation Sufism Reoriented. Baba’s devotees (who also included Pete Townshend) were not permitted to use drugs, or have casual sex, and were expected to be neatly presented. Basho dedicated himself completely, and subsequently, many aspects of his life were controlled by the organisation’s operational head, Murshida Ivy Duce (whose direction did help to reduce the psychedelic flashbacks he’d been having).

However, Basho was not just a new age magpie throwing everything into the pot, he had goals and visions for how he wanted his music to work – he developed his own tunings for his playing, describing his music as “Zen Buddhist Cowboy songs”. Eugene "ED" Denson, producer and former co-owner of Takoma, said that you could see Basho’s ambition in the photos he had taken for albums such as Basho Sings!: “Everyone else is trying to be a down and out folk singer, laying up against a brick wall with garbage around them, and here’s Robbie with his guitar held like a sword in these various costumes,” going on to explain how “his stance was that he was a mystical musician exploring these other branches of the music that nobody else was doing”.

Basho believed himself to have had a number of past lives – including being a soldier for Genghis Khan – and the costumes he dressed up in for album sleeves like The Falconer’s Arm – embroidered tabards and fringed boots – are a sort of reincarnation cosplay. There’s also something in these outfits that is about escape, as if absorbing past lives, contemporary heroes, ancient legends and mythological figures, might lift him from his immediate pain and earthbound existence. Musician Glenn Jones says, in essential Basho documentary Voice of The Eagle, that the themes of Basho’s music "dwelled in a fairytale world long ago and far away", and on a radio interview with American composer Charles Amirkhanian about the album Zarthus, Basho said “I went through many periods, my Japanese period, my Hindu period, I started off with a little bit of the blues… then my American Indian period, and this is my Persian period."

When he plays, Basho has many personas: pastoral Basho looks to epic landscapes; thunder love Basho is all fire and ferocity; romantic troubadour Basho sings to ladies on horseback; technical Basho gives Fahey a run for his money; there’s new age Basho, Persian Basho on Zarthus, and raga Basho. Whichever Basho you’re hearing, there is always the sense that he is trying to get somewhere else, somewhere away from himself, to pass a threshold, whether through singing, playing guitar or his decorous piano pieces. He immersed himself in cultures that were not his in order to transcend the limits of folk music. In this there is the spectre of authenticity, although if authenticity is about being true to one’s self, then Basho’s music, in containing the past lives he genuinely believed himself to have had, is about as authentic as it gets.

Whereas contemporaries such as Fahey were often rooted in the mud and leather of bluegrass and country, Basho’s music looked upwards, to the spiritual realm. He reached towards a spiritual beauty that is audible in so much of his music, in a raw lack of self-consciousness, in its soaring feeling, and in the hope that transcendence might be achieved through the earthly means of him and his guitar. Basho’s music, first and foremost, is a music of praise.

‘Seal Of The Blue Lotus’ from Seal Of The Blue Lotus (1965)

‘Seal Of The Blue Lotus’ is boldly Basho, a fully formed proposition from its opening strings. If you don’t like ‘Seal Of The Blue Lotus’, give up while you’re ahead, as you’re not going to like anything else. It is esoteric, dramatic and unlike anyone else around him at that time.

The sleevenotes to Seal Of The Blue Lotus are where Basho first published his tuning doctrine, which mapped chords to colours, moods and images for 12 and 6 string guitar. It pulled together Zen Buddhism, Taoism, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, the epic landscapes of North America, as well as inspiration from India, China and Japan and beyond. The chord of D, for example, was "green, a quiet pastoral mood evoking Runnymede and Irish meadowlands". His sleevenotes are equally poetic, intense agglomerations of descriptions, tunings, cultural influences and spiritual imagery. Notes for the title track for ‘Mountain Man’s Farewell’ are a gallop through these themes:

“Sometimes I feel the flavor of Cosmic Essences: the hue of nature colours; Moods given to the airs of music. In this piece and several others I enter what I call the Theatre of North American Taoism. This continent is new, the rocks are raw, the winds are sharp, the heart is rash and wild. The Taoistic Essence of China and Japan are aged with the mildness of human culture. Ours, being new bites like the persimmon to be aged to the taste of the universe. Standing on Lone Dark Mountain, overlooking all of North America, the raw echo of the Eagle Man, onto Bowel Mountain and, the Soul Heart of the men red and white who made the Mountain Man Ear, an Epic Picture whose bloodstrain is carried up to a Present of many soul-brothers. An echo of farewell and away into past Karma. The Snowstorm technique, an innovation of mine is here used at its fullest.”

‘Salangadou’ from Basho Sings! (1967)

When Robbie Basho sings it is like he has no skin. He is raw and open to the world, bathed in a halo of ecstatic pain and yearning. It’s often talked about as a marmite voice, a naïve Kermit singing songs of praise, with a tightness that makes it a bracing listen, earnest and uncompromising. It demands a vulnerability and openness, even in the listener. Basho Sings! is the first place Basho’s voice is presented on record, breathtaking and high, completely unique and presented without compromise from the opening notes of the powerful and keening vibrato of ‘Salangadou’, “a Cajun lament” for a mother who has lost her child.

Robbie Basho on KQED TV (1971)

Pretty much the only footage of Basho playing live is this clip from public access TV in the early 70s (also appearing on the show was French mime artist Marcel Marceau) where he is neatly turned out in the spotlit studio, wearing a suit and what looks like a Meher Baba pin. He plays a sumptuous and potent version of ‘Cathedrals Et Fleur De Lis’, where he begins with a strum that sounds and looks like he is stroking the strings as if to wake them. He closes with a gentle "Japanese sonata" called ‘Kowaka De’amour’, which he dedicates to Meher Baba, the dedication being the only full sentence he speaks.

‘California Raga’ from Song Of The Stallion (1971)

‘California Raga’ from Song Of The Stallion is a little cheesy, and you’d probably be better off getting into The Falconer’s Arm I and II, or Venus In Cancer, before going towards this album, but it captures an important Basho persona – Romantic Troubadour Basho – who rides through forests on horseback in doublet and hose. This Basho is all about proclaiming undying romantic love for a dark-haired lady who is (probably) also on a horse: “She rides a white-spotted stallion/ And wears a suit of red Spanish wine/ And fills a blouse of white Spanish lace”.

This album aimed to capture a condensed musical history of California, and the Stallion in it is part of Basho’s guitar technique he describes as “the running horse”, an attempt to render the vastness of these places with guitar. Song Of The Stallion (released on Takoma in 1971) and Voice Of The Eagle (Vanguard in 1972) bring a similar energy, of epic pre-colonial American landscapes, and they come as a pair for me, although Voice Of The Eagle (1972) wears its indigenous American influences more obviously, in traditional drums and melodies, and in references to kachina – a Pueblo spirit mythology.

Robbie Basho interview on Ode To Gravity w/ Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM (1974)

If you just read about Basho through his contemporaries, you’d think he was a total weirdo – possibly a virgin, definitely in a cult of some sort, also into dressing up. Added to this he was a huge unit – he did weightlifting and martial arts in college and worked as a security guard for a while. All that falls away listening to this interview where he is gentle, astute, thoughtful, and totally keyed into the history and cultures he studies. He doesn’t exoticise the Indian, Persian and Japanese cultures he’s studying, but places them on a level playing field, explaining: “I don’t a lot call my stuff far out, I just call it a different level of feeling – it’s far in as far as I’m concerned… I don’t consider a raga far out.”

‘Thunder Love’ from Indian II/Songs Of The Great Mystery (1975)

This album knocked around as an unofficial MP3 release called Indian II for years, a collection of unreleased studio recordings for Vanguard that emerged in 2007 (thought to be from 1975) and recently released on the (expensive) 2LP set Songs Of The Great Mystery. It contains tracks ‘Thunder Love’, ‘Laughing Thunder, Crawling Thunder’, and ‘Thunder Sun’.

‘Thunder Love’ Basho is my favourite Basho, the one that picks you up and takes flight, so long as you can shuck off any cynicism first. In this he unleashes wholly untethered romantic exhortations, proclaiming confidently: “I am the one they call: Thunder Love”. It’s not suitable for lightweights, only those who want hardcore affirmations of joy from the top of a mountain, and for Basho to reach higher and further with his voice than he does anywhere else.

‘Rocky Mountain Raga’ from Visions Of The Country (1978)

This is pastoral Basho at his most sublime and really the album must be listened to in full. I recall listening to it in a moment of swollen-hearted yearning on the tarmac while waiting to climb the aeroplane steps and leave a new long-distance romance behind, the waking haze of dawn light over idyllic autumnal Swedish countryside, and its soaring, searing yearning feeling clicked into place forever.

‘Rocky Mountain Raga’ is a love song to the mountains that traces their every leaf and stone and stream – there is a version of it on Bonn Ist Supreme, a live recording made in Germany in 1980, where Basho announces: “This will give you the feelings of the mountains…” before his 115 year old guitar falls out of tune. Beautiful.

‘A Study For Steel String’ from Art Of The Acoustic Steel String Guitar 6 & 12 (1979)

This is a display of prowess from Technical Basho, the sound that gets him lumbered with the other American primitive players. ‘A Study For Steel String’ is genteel and courtly music, and the guitar really does sound beautiful, clean and clear, glinting like a stream in a sunbeam. Tracks on the rest of the album like ‘Cathedrals Et Fleur De Lis’ cement him in a lineage with contemporaries like Fahey, but there is an Easter egg of true Basho in ‘Pasha II’ that escapes the finger-picking confines of the folk scene. Once you’ve fallen for Thunder Love Basho this album sounds far too restrained, but in tandem with Visions Of The Country it remains the best entry point for listeners coming from Western canons of guitar music.

‘Nice Enough For Love’ from Twilight Peaks (1985)

The last studio album Basho released independently before he died, Twilight Peaks is the most new age sound he ever produced. Self-released but made to look like it came out on Windham Hill, it is a more queasily produced, the steel strings softened, polished, and easy on the ear. ‘Nice Enough For Love’ is at the smarmier end of the scale, almost suitable for a garden centre. Frankly, the album is not a patch on anything else he recorded, and can come off a little listless and melancholic, but remains an important touchpoint, because Basho was frustrated that his music was never fully understood by the record buying public. I’ve always heard Twilight Peaks as the least Basho of all his albums, and perhaps it was an attempt to make something commercial, to dial his natural earnestness back a bit and make a palatable record for the new age record buying community, who might be more ready to buy into his mystic and spiritual interests.

‘Sea Of Light (Baba’s Ship Song)’ from Robbie Basho Song Of The Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes (2020)

If you’ve got through all these you’re ready to hear Basho sing his own version of Little Miss Muffet, which is admittedly a rare low point of this otherwise incredible box set, where more Basho personae are revealed. This music has been lost for decades – genuinely lost in the sense that nobody outside the Meher Baba organisation knew where they were or even that they definitely existed, as opposed to being locked in a label vault. Filmmaker Liam Barker (whose film Voice Of The Eagle is the essential documentary on Basho) managed to track them down, and for Basho fans they are a holy grail. It contains ferocious playing in tracks like ‘Harakiri, Kali Style’ and daft ditties in ‘Hippie Song’. It is a reservoir of Basho, awash in awe and wonder that I keep finding new gems in. Current favourite is this one, ‘Sea Of Light (Baba’s Ship Song)’ a lo-fi recording of Basho’s naïve vocalisations and idiosyncratic piano playing. The above embed is the only one currently up for streaming – ‘American Sunday’.

Robbie Basho Song Of The Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes is out now on Tompkins Square

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