This is one of the most improbable great albums ever released. If there is one indisputable fact it is that almost all of the standard Christmas hymns and carols are tired and stale and simply worn out. But if you think you've heard "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" a few times too many, you need to hear John Fahey do it. On song after song he plays a version that seems to bring out all of the beauty that has been hidden for longer than any of us can remember. "What Child Is This?" becomes one of the most beautiful melodies you can think of. And his "Auld Lang Syne" will bring tears to your eyes. "The Bells of St. Mary's" is another gem, but the real miracle on the album might be what he does to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," to which he gives a bluesy turn.
By any standard John Fahey was one of the great guitarists of the past half-century. He was a true innovator, applying with astonishing musical sophistication finger picking to a staggering range of material that had been completely neglected by previous guitarists. Although Fahey was technically a brilliant guitarist, his work always seems as much the product of a brilliant musicologist as a musician. He almost certainly knew more about musical theory than any other guitarist who played a steel string guitar. He also developed a style whereby he would sometimes play slightly behind the tempo, giving his compositions a highly unique lilt. If you listen to his most famous disciple, Leo Kottke, and Fahey back to back, you will see how Fahey played as if he were almost reluctant to release the notes, whereas Kottke is always rushing forward.
If the album has a fault, it is a tiny one. There is perhaps less variation in the tempos of the various songs than one might wish. Any individual song can be extremely moving played entirely on its own, but if you play the album as a whole, it can begin to get a tiny bit tiresome. Interestingly about the only song on the album I don't love is his version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." It is played magnificently, but it just doesn't lend itself to Fahey's style.
John Fahey was not, as far as I know, a traditionally religious man. Perhaps I am mistaken. But assuming that he was not, one thing that has always struck me about his playing was the dignity he bestowed on religious songs. If you listen to his version of "In Christ There is No East or West," which can most easily be found on his superb anthology RETURN OF THE OPPRESSED, there isn't the hint of irony. Much like the respect with which Gram Parsons accorded the Louvin Brothers' great song "The Christian Life," the most devout believer could not play the song with more reverence. So with the songs on this album. I'll close by stating that if you can get only one Christmas album, get this one; and if you don't think you need a Christmas album, get this anyway, just for the sheer beauty of the music and the playing.