This year 2014 we celebrate the 50 years anniversary of “Dance of Death”!
Amazing how time goes by….
I always was a bit ambivalent about ”The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favourites” ever since upon first hearing it some 42 years ago on a Takoma vinyl album that I found on my first visit to the USA (and which by the way still holds a place in my collection).
Absolutely no doubt about that it fits organically, thematically, musically and chronologically in what I usually call “The Death Quartet”…namely together with its two predecessors “Blind Joe Death”, “Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes” and its successor “The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death”.
And thereby also taken into consideration that its two predecessors were re- and re-re-recorded some three years after the issue of the one that is on review here.
And furthermore also taken into consideration that when judging I have to keep my impression of the original Takoma vinyl album apart from the cd-reissue as there are some differencies that will be mentioned later on in this little essay.
“Dance of Death” was issued in 1964 as volume III of Fahey's recorded output for his Takoma label. The original issue had the plain white cardboard sleeve with black letters just as its two predecessors and in 1967 for a brief period it was presented with the Tom Weller “Psychedelic sleeve”, also that just as the two aforementioned.
Finally late in 1967 it was presented with the Tom Weller “Medeival Woodcut sleeve” that we are now familiar with. This occurred as the two earlier albums had been rerecorded and finally presented in similar sleeves.
“Dance of Death”, as opposed to its two predecessors, or rather the rerecordings of the same two, and even as supposed to its successor, never had a separate European issue and was thus not generally available in Europe until in the -70s.
In 1964 Fahey was already located in Berkeley California but during that summer he had for a brief period returned to the East Coast for various reasons. Amongst them most notably in connection with the rediscovery of Skip James together with Henry Vestine and William Barth but also for performing in the Boston Massachusetts club circuit
Also in this period, around august 22-24, were recorded some thirty compositions and/or fragments, out of which eleven were included in the original “Dance of Death”, in Gene Rosenthal's studio in Silver Springs, Maryland, where Rosenthal ran his Adelphi Records.
Of these not chosen for the original album four more are included as bonus-tracks in the cd reissue discussed here.
And also some of the other recordings have since the end of the -90s been circulated and thereby giving us the possibility to encompass this recording session to a greater extent than before.
At this time Fahey had further developed his skills as a guitarist as well as his approach to composition and musical consciousness on the material that formed the basis of his musicianship compared to his two earlier Takoma records. And that is of course compared to the original versions of these two albums …not the final 1967 versions.
That is somewhat briefly the background to the music presented here.
The opening track is “Wine and Roses”, later renamed “The Red Pony”, an original Fahey composition based on the open tuning D minor which Fahey got firsthandedly from Skip James.
Otherwise no direct traces of Skip James music in this composition which became a standard in the Fahey concert repertoire and also later rerecorded.
Loosely described as consisting of an introductory bridge of two motifs then followed by the main musical content which approximately is themes presented in a scheme 2x(AA-BB-A1A1) with a short contrasting interlude reminding on motifs from the introduction in the middle and finally finished by an attached coda.
The open D minor tuning gives this composition a very special atmosphere that to the ear seems neither major nor minor.
The composition has high musical-melodic quality and though this original version, at least to me, is the best version put on record, it still is not completely fulfilling to my opinion. This because I find the tempo too fast and the approach too aggressive. The musical content would to my ears come out far better by being played more “delicately” at slower speed and with not so much emphasis on the double thumb bass.
“How Long” is a highly innovative Faheyesque interpretation of the blues standard of Leroy Carr, Tampa Red & others…Performed here like it has never been performed before with Fahey playing behind the melody, above the melody, inside the melody, outside the melody and every whichaway one could ever think of…And still it is “How Long”…but different…and a stroke of genius!
“On the Banks of the Owchita” is performed in duet with William Barth and mainly the first guitar is played laptop steel and the second guitar fingerpicked/chording. This piece is Fahey/Barth's rendition of the Hindustani unsurpassed master of the sitar Ravi Shankar's film-music for “Pater Panchali”. The music consisting of one single theme which is repeated again and again in various tempi and instrumentations.
It has been suggested that Fahey/Barth first played the theme as originally and then “could not resist ragging it up in a higher tempo”!
Upon listening to Shankar's original recording this statement proves to be false.
In fact Shankar's original recording is performed with an ensemble of mainly sitar, flute and tablas, where at first the theme is established in low tempi by the sitar and then repeated in same tempi by the flute and from there going to higher tempi variations of the theme by sitar and tablas and finally back to the lower tempi by the flute. This arrangement is thereafter identically repeated one more time and the whole performance lasts approximately 7 minutes.
Thereby it is completely clear that the “ragged up” high tempi section is already present in the original Shankar arrangement!
As Fahey/Barth's performance is about roughly 3½ minutes what they do is to play the arrangement exactly up to half the original Shankar performance…omitting the repetitional section.
And furthermore it seems like the laptop steel guitar is taking the parts of the sitar and the finger guitar playing is taking the part of the flute and even in the high tempi section by chord strumming also taking some of the rhythmic drive as played by the tablas in the original Shankar recording.
A very clever and tasteful arrangement transposed to guitar.
The slow section has a haunting and “mysterious” Eastern flavour about it…and the high tempi section sure swings!
“Worried Blues” is Fahey's rendition of a Frank Hutchison of West Virginia tune. A lively spirited bottleneck piece including a bridge in the middle section of what seems to be Fahey origin.
I'm not entirely sure that it is possible to fully attribute this tune to Hutchison or the Piedmont area alone as it seems to be able to trace it also to the Mississippi Delta under the name of “Pearline” as performed by Son House among others.
This tune stayed in Fahey's concert repertoire for almost all of his career.
”What the Sun Said” is worthy of a little discussion about its actual origins and how it came into being. This because there is some information in existence from certain sources about this piece that I can not really agree with.
It is generally accepted, also by me, that this piece is a four part suite that was combined and edited by Ed Denson from a number of different tapes and takings from the actual Adelphi recording session.
So far so good…
But it is by some Fahey scholars also assumed that these pieces originate from a lengthy improvisation and variation on the Fahey composition “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”
And on this statement I can not agree.
And my opinion is based on two arguments;
Musically the actual composition “On the Sunny Side of The Ocean” shows no resemblance at all with “What the Sun Said” neither in themes, motifs or general arrangement. And that composition is very well known in the Fahey canon as it was recorded for the album “Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” in 1965 and furthermore in the beginning of the –70s for inclusion in the “Fahey/Kottke/Lang album”. And besides of that it was also a long time standard in Fahey's concert repertoire and has also been recorded live. And on neither of these recordings can I find any musical resemblances, thematically or motifs, to “What the Sun Said”.
Discographically the actual composition “On the Sunny Side of The Ocean” does not exist as an explicit title in any of Fahey's many earlier recording sessions and does not actually show up under that title until in a recording session in july 1965 in Cambridge Massachusetts which in fact was the basis for the aforementioned “Transfiguration-album”.
And finally given the fact that we during the last decade have been made familiar with the Adelphi recording session in almost its entirety I thereby stay by my argument that “What the Sun Said” is not edited on some lengthy recorded improvistion/variation from “On the Sunny side of the Ocean”, but rather from various bits of tapes of “Bric-á-Braque” from that session.
Aside from that the music stands on its own feet and is a further example of how Fahey was in the process of developing the long epic pieces that would later lead to such masterpieces as “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party” and “Mark I:15”.
The introduction to the first movement of the suite is obviously influenced by Skip James and from there moves over to a contrasting cantilena in 4/4 time but played in syncopated triplets in such a way it gives the impression of waltz ¾ time. A similar theme was performed the same somewhat confusing way in the composition “Springtime in Azalea City” many years later.
The second movement leans heavily on variations on Skip James “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with intersected motifs from Willie Newbern's “Roll&Tumble Blues”.
The third movement can rightfully be described as a scherzo, a lively spirited uptempo dancetune, with themes and motifs most probably of Fahey origin.
And the fourth movement finale in slow tempo mainly consisting of various licks and passages that can eventually be traced back to Charley Patton.
As a conclusion then that Fahey in his long epic pieces along with his own material also included material from his main musical sources such as prewar rural blues and “oldtimey mountain” music. This of course making him as much a compilator as a composer.
“Revelations on the Bank of Pawtuxent” is an almost identical copy of “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain” recorded in 1962 and included in “Death Chants” album and also earlier recorded for Fonotone as “Smoky Ordinary Blues” so I can see no good reason for including it in this album because I find “Revelations…” apparently inferior to “Dance of the Inhabitants…”
“Poor Boy” is the Fahey rendition of a Bukka White recording for Library of Congress in the end 30s and it stayed in the Fahey repertoire almost throughout his whole career and was rerecorded several times…almost tiresomely so…
“Variations on the Cocoo”. I have heard this one hundreds of times during the years without really listening to it until the last couple of years and thereby noticing the strange beauty of this tune.
It is a fantasia, a set of variations based on one single banjo sequence transposed to guitar from Clarence Ashley's “The Coocoo”…and it gives, if anything, the emotional meaning of what could be called “that high lonesome sound of the Appalachia”.
A true classic Fahey!
“The Last Steam Engine Train” is a little bagatelle of fingerpicking guitar music that takes off somewhere around Nashville and landing somewhere between Sam McGhee and Chet Atkins.
Fahey claims it to be his own composition and as far as I can remember it never was a part of his concert repertoire or rerecorded by Fahey although it was later recorded by Leo Kottke for his acclaimed Takoma album “6&12-string guitar”.
“Give Me Cornbread When I'm Hungry”…(Give me corn whiskey when I'm dry, pretty women all around me and sweet heaven when I die).
When dealing with Fahey's music…especially with his early classic recordings…it is helpful to always bear in mind that Fahey was a renowned scholar, liebhaber and collector of old blues and “folk-music” records already in the early sixties.
For that reason I presented the lyrics of one special verse from Doc Boggs'”Country Blues” above… because it gives a kind of meaning to my “complaints” hereunder.
The main tune is, if any, to be cathegorized as one of the foremost classic Fahey compositions from this early period and pointing forwards to things to come. A beautiful melody and with some references to Willie Brown, stalwart of Charley Patton and Son House, thrown in here and there…
And this piece of music as presented on the cd really stands in its own right!
But!…and a very important “but”….In fact the title of this piece of music refers to the aforementioned “Country Blues” by Doc Boggs because in the original vinyl issue there was an attached coda of about 1½ minute length that in fact was Fahey's rendition of “Country Blues” and thereby giving the whole musical package its meaning and context as far as the title concerns!….”Country Blues” is absent in the cd reissue!
And for that reason I will give the producer/editor of the cd the rating “not approved” because of the apparent lack of knowledge of basic Faheyana!
“The Dance of Death” was the final track on the vinyl albums and bears the same title as the album itself.
Noteworthy is that in this album, as was otherwise customary in other Fahey albums at this time, the final track is not a hymn or psalm but instead an original Fahey composition and furthermore that it is not taken out of or resembling the material that was usually and generally the basis for Fahey's music in the first half of that decade, namely the rural blues and mountain music.
Instead we here have an original composition performed in an unorthodox guitar tuning and full of dissonances, strange harmonies, uncertain modality and unusual melodic material giving the composition a haunting atmosphere and evoking feelings of disturbance and unpleasantness.
Years ahead of its time considering this was 1964!
I gladly give the original vinyl album “Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favourites” 5 stars!
The cd reissue, apart from the already mentioned fiasco on “Give Me Cornbread…/Country Blues”, contains four “bonus tracks” from the same recording session for Adelphi…namely “When You Wore A Tulip”, “Daisy”, “Sevastopol” and “Steel Guitar Rag” and it is easily understood why these were rejected from inclusion in the original album as they are not up to the same standard as the titles included there. By that not meaning that they are in any way of poor quality…they just do not match the rest.
And the mishap with “Give Me Cornbread…/Country Blues” taken together with the four bonus tracks leads me to the rating for the cd reissue of 3.5 stars.
Put Your past ahead of You…