April 13, 2018

PICKIN' WITHOUT GRINNIN':

A Celebration of John Fahey and American-Primitive Guitar (Amanda Petrusich, April 12, 2018, The New Yorker)

This weekend, the city of Takoma Park, Maryland, will host the Thousand Incarnations of the Rose, the first and only festival dedicated exclusively to American-primitive guitar music. Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington, D.C., is also the home town of the guitarist John Fahey, who, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, helped to develop a particular and idiosyncratic style of fingerpicking that borrowed heavily from the country blues--then a dying music, but one which Fahey venerated, obsessed over--while incorporating prickly, dissonant elements more common to avant-garde composers. American primitive is generally instrumental, and performed by a solo, steel-string guitarist working in an open tuning. The feel is introspective, if not plainly melancholic--like gazing out over flat water.

Fahey took cues from his forebears (Elizabeth Cotten, Lena Hughes, Mississippi John Hurt), but his sadness was prodigious, and his own. It led him to write dozens of albums of odd yet breathtaking songs. The critic Byron Coley, writing in Spin, once compared Fahey's musical inventions to "those of John Coltrane and Harry Partch, for sheer transcendental American power." The essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan has described his songs as "harmonic chambers in which different dead styles spoke to one another." Fahey, who was famously cantankerous--it's been said that, in his later years, he grew increasingly bitter and choleric, like all men who know too much about things nobody else cares about--explained it only as an expression of his truth: "The pathos of the suburbs or whatever."

Fahey died in 2001, at the age of sixty-one, after undergoing a sextuple coronary bypass. He had a bum heart, and several decades of rapacious boozing behind him. He'd been renting a room in a Salvation Army in Salem, Oregon, eating gas-station sausages for dinner and occasionally pawning his guitars for cash. I wonder what it would have been like to spend time with him then. I'm nearly certain that he would have found me suspicious--an amateur and an interloper--but I like to think that I might've won him over for a minute or three, negotiating temporary access to whatever wild and tangled knowledge that he carried around. Fahey was repulsed by pretension, but he was an intellectual nonetheless, with an M.A. in folklore from U.C.L.A. (His field work included the tracking down and cultural resuscitation of Bukka White and Skip James, two titans of prewar blues.) For a while, he knew more than almost anyone about the music of Charley Patton. 




Posted by at April 13, 2018 4:26 AM

  

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