A Celebration of John Fahey and American-Primitive Guitar

A Celebration of John Fahey and American-Primitive Guitar

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 BowlesDaniel BachmanItascaMarisa AndersonDylan Golden AycockSarah Louiseand 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!”