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. I find Fahey’s own work spooky and expansive. His songs make me feel nearer to something, but also, somehow, farther from it.
This weekend’s festival shares its name with a compilation produced by the guitarist Glenn Jones, who will be performing, along with a handful of formative American-primitive players (Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, Peter Lang) and modern interpreters (Nathan Bowles, Daniel Bachman, Itasca, Marisa Anderson, Dylan Golden Aycock, Sarah Louise, and many more). In the liner notes to “The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: American Primitive Guitar and Banjo, 1963-1974,” Jones attempts to sort out the genre’s name, which has never made a great deal of sense. Mostly, the phrase was a way for Fahey to avoid being called a folk guitarist, an appellation that he found offensive. My sense is that he regarded contemporary folk as corny—somehow both too ponderous and not ponderous enough. (He and his cronies used to heckle the long-haired folk guitarists crowding the parks of Berkeley in the late sixties.) Eugene Denson, an owner and manager at Takoma Records, the label that Fahey founded, in 1959, suspects that he might have been the first to use the term, then a reference to the self-taught painters of the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, and their gnarled, cockeyed canvasses. Of course, “primitive,” with all its Eurocentric connotations, is an awfully loaded way to say, “I learned how to do this myself.” Besides, popular music (in the twentieth century, at least) has never particularly valued or incentivized virtuosity, making the distinction itself seem odd. But there is, nonetheless, a scrappiness and imbalance to the work, a spiritual discord that makes it difficult to emulate.
Steve Lowenthal, Fahey’s excellent biographer—his “Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist,” is out in paperback this month—understands Fahey’s music “as a pastiche, both of his musical influences but also of the time and places he lived.” Though Fahey could be a trickster—in the sixties, he took to performing as Blind Joe Death, tottering onstage wearing sunglasses and pretending to be a decrepit sharecropper, deftly mocking the authenticity-obsessed urban revivalists—Lowenthal finds his work intimate and direct. “One gets a feeling of almost reading a diary,” he told me recently.
“It’s always tricky to pin Fahey down, as he was very much a contrarian and his thoughts reflected his moods, which fluctuated,” Lowenthal said. “Fahey always wanted to be a composer. In fact, he wished his Vanguard LPs were released in the classical series rather than the folk catalog. That being said, Fahey lacked the discipline or skill to learn to read and write music, insuring his exclusion from that particular canon. Perhaps he used ‘American primitive’ in a somewhat pouty, self-deprecating way, which was very much indicative of his personality at many times.”
Two independent record labels featuring new American-primitive guitarists—Lowenthal’s VDSQ and Tompkins Square, run by Josh Rosenthal—will showcase their rosters in Takoma Park. “The idea of a festival devoted toAmerican-primitive guitar is almost counterintuitive in a way, because the music is so inward,” Rosenthal said. “Solo acoustic guitar reaches me best when I’m alone in contemplation or just zoning, greatly enhanced by bad weather outside. It’s not really a communal thing, so the festival should be an interesting experiment.”
The filmmaker and guitarist Jesse Sheppard is one of the event’s organizers. “The music scene behind American primitive is really pretty small, and it can feel like a big extended family,” Sheppard said recently. “It felt like it would be nice to gather everyone together—the players, the devoted listeners, the writers, the folks that run small labels—and just enjoy each other’s company. For a whole lot of reasons and no reason in particular, no one has ever staged this many guitar-soli performers at one event, to my knowledge.”
“This music has been a huge part of my life for more than a decade,” Sheppard continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything else that was as honest or evocative as American primitive. Fahey took the guitar and all of its rich history in the blues and folk musical forms and then freed it to be a purely expressive instrument.”
Whether Fahey would get a kick out of his acolytes descending upon his home town to contemplate and honor his legacy is, of course, difficult to say. When Fahey was an undergraduate at American University, he took a job as the night manager at Martin’s Esso Station, in Takoma Park. He pumped gas, chatted with cops, and kept an eye on the quarts of oil. “I became a very important person for the only time in my life. I still dream about it,” he told Coley, in 2001, just a few months before he died. This weekend, at least, he’ll be important again—as spectre and inspiration, enigma and foil.
P.S.: One of the great pleasures of writing about semi-obscure figures is that, on occasion, some very generous person reaches out with a devastating bit of heretofore unknown information—or, if you’re especially lucky, nearly sixty minutes of raw and unseen footage. The filmmaker Erik Nelson shot this videoin John Fahey’s basement in Santa Monica, in the summer of 1981, for an MTV News segment. It was hot—at least ninety degrees, Nelson recalls, under the television lights—but Fahey was nonetheless in enviable form. There’s sweating! A Charley Patton demonstration! Furrowed brows! And, of course, almost an hour of beautiful guitar-playing. “Fahey, who did not suffer strangers nor fools, suffered both with us, and gave us a private concert,” Nelson said. “We filmed on 3/4 video cassette—and, as my company had no money, I have a hunch we filmed on used tape stock. We did have the presence of mind to keep rolling, and the cameraman, John Torcassi, did a brilliant job of filming, and, as we were such a badly dressed, impoverished-yet-enthusiastic rabble, Fahey was relaxed. He had an innate suspicion of TV types, certainly ones working on behalf of MTV, something he probably had never heard of. Note he asks what the taping was for!”
In its seventh year, the annual “Inner City Blues Festival: Healing the Health Care Blues” kicks off at the North Portland Eagles Lodge on April 21.
The one-night concert event is largely a fundraiser for Health Care for All Oregon – a volunteer-run, statewide coalition of over 120 organizations working to bring an equitable, affordable, and publicly funded health care to Oregonians.
With over a dozen acts, the six-hour blues festival will also feature a silent auction, food and beverages, and tabling by community organizations. With around 800 attendees last year, the festival raised $28,000 for the cause.
This year’s installment will showcase performances by Bloco Alegria, I&I Band Reunion with Newell Briggs and Obi Addy, Ken DeRouchie Band with Mz. Etta, King Louie Pain Quartet, and the Norman Sylvester Review with Sarah Billings and Lenanne Sylvester-Miller, plus many more. Inner City Blues will be MC’ed by Renee Mitchell, Ken Boddie and Paul Knauls.
The alliance among health care advocates and blues musicians is a natural pairing, said its organizers. “The blues is about worry, depression, and melancholy. That’s what people feel around our current insurance system,” said Tom Sincic, a retired family nurse practitioner and president of Health Care for All Oregon.
“Whether you go with the Mississippi Delta blues, the Memphis blues, the St. Louis blues, or the Portland blues – it’s all across the country,” continued Sincic. “People have all kinds of worries about whether they’re going to get the health care they need, and about the financial loss attached to it. It causes a lot of stress, so the blues is a perfect type of music to relay that.”
The festival’s performers should know, as many have experienced first-hand the plight of accessing and affording healthcare – in particular, Oregon blues legend Norman Sylvester, who has been a festival mainstay from the start.
“I have played too many benefits for musicians who fell ill or, more tragically, played at their (tributes). They didn’t have preventative care because of years of not being able to afford healthcare,” Sylvester said in the festival’s press release.
But as the state of the nation’s health care system continues to hang in the balance, Health Care for All Oregon falls in line with many local visions of an agreeable and equitable model.
The North Portland Eagles Lodge is located at 7611 N?Exeter Avenue in Portland, Oregon, 97203. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. and performances will run until midnight.
Tickets can be purchased for $20 online at Ticket Tomato, or at Music Millennium (3158 E Burnside), Geneva’s Shear Perfection (5601 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd), Peninsula Station (8316 N. Lombard), and Musician’s Union Hall (325 NE 20th Ave). Tickets are $25 at the door.
OMHOF fundraises and collaborates with the classical/crossover, world-renown violinist Aaron Meyer for 15-20 annual, 45 minute aseemblies for K-8 students in Oregon schools each spring. Won’t you help support us? We reach, on average, 7,500 students per year. If you need more information, please email Janeen Rundle at Janeen@omhof.org. Thank you for your support.
Over sparse throwback, turn-of-the-century-style production, the MC once again drops clever and catchy bars as Injury Reserve provides an appropriately fiery cameo. Additionally, Aminé also uncovered the hilarious music video for the song this morning. In the video, the artist and his crew take over the wilderness. Rocking neon colored wigs and cruising through a sparse mountain range, they debate how to properly pronounce“rural” between the action.
Watch it HERE.
Just in time for what’s shaping up to be a big month, “Campfire” amps up hype for his upcoming Coachelladebut April 15th and April 22nd. Renowned for insane and unforgettable live appearances, make sure to see what he has in-store in Indio this month.
Get his RIAA Gold-Certified debut album Good For You HERE.
Every once in a while, an artist comes along and rewrites the entire rule book for a genre. That’s exactly whatAminé did with “Caroline” in 2016. Taking rap to a new frontier, it earned an RIAA 4X Platinum plaque as he delivered a kinetic performance of the anthem on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon between constant touring. “REDMERCEDES” and its high-profile official remix with Missy Elliott and AJ Tracey saw him lap the competition yet again.
The students putting together Portland’s March For Our Lives, a gun safety protest organized in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, have booked Portugal. The Man to play at Pioneer Courthouse Square on March 24.
The announcement came through the event’s Facebook page via Sue Castner, one of the adult organizers who describes herself as “just trying to stay out of the students’ way.”
The event, which includes a march through downtown Portland, begins with a rally at Terry Schrunk Plaza at 10 a.m.
At 10:30 a.m., participants will march to Pioneer Courthouse Square, where organizers anticipate the crowd will arrive by noon. That’s where Portugal. The Man will perform.
Thank you all that submitted your applications by the March 1st deadline for OMHOF’s 2018 music scholarships. We will be announcing the winners of these applications soon. Keep posted here for more information.
On Feb. 28 he launched a PledgeMusic campaign giving fans exclusive access to join him throughout the entire recording process and album release, along with different types of products, bundles, and experiences. He’ll be releasing all types of weekly updates, including behind the scenes footage from the studio, to give fans an inside look at everything that goes into making the record.
“For the most part, it’s going to be an acoustic singer-songwriter type of album,” says Alexakis. “There’s going to be banjo, and some keyboards, and some programming on it. Right now it has the feel of a very rough-sounding, almost Americana-type of feel, while underneath it I’m programming and really screwing with sounds. I’m letting it evolve as it goes, and that’s what’s so much fun about it. It’s not about making another Everclear record; it’s about doing something that’s just me. I’m pushing my ability and pushing the envelope, and having fun at the same time. I’ve always wanted to do something like this.”
At 77 years old, Portland’s legend of civil rights activism, Kathleen Saadat, is making her recording debut after a lifetime of singing behind the scenes.
With an international release date set for March 2, “Love for Sale” is a 10-track album of jazz standards featuring Saadat’s lead vocals and arrangements by Thomas Lauderdale. It also includes performances from members of his Portland-based “little” orchestra, Pink Martini – an ensemble that fuses classical, Latin music, pop and jazz.
As one of Oregon’s most respected social and political activists, Saadat has advocated for equality and social justice for over 40 years. Her dedication has assisted marginalized and under-represented groups including communities of color, women, and LGBTQ people.
Saadat was appointed Oregon’s affirmative action director under Gov. Neil Goldschmidt in 1987. Later, she worked within Multnomah County’s Department of Community and Family Services and helped draft the Portland Civil Rights Ordinance. She was also the diversity director at Cascade AIDS Project, and in 2012 she accepted the Lifetime Achievement from the Portland Human Rights Commission.
But when she wasn’t on the frontlines of the cause, Saadat was singing.
View a video of Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale and Kathleen Saadat on Live Wire Radio at: https://youtu.be/mjdisr8yDCk
We want to send a big shout-out to our friends and Portland, OR-based Portugal, The Man for their win at the Grammys! Last year, Portugal, The Man was nice enough to donate their time to play Oregon Music Hall of Fame’s Oregon Backstage fundraiser. We are very excited and happy for them! They won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for their hit single, “Feel It Still.”