on 23 August 2014
Death Chants Breakdowns and Military Waltzes always had a very special significance for me. Back in the late 60s in Sweden we had just gotten familiar with Embryonic Journey and Rockport Sunday* and there was this whispering rumor about a certain John Fahey who had filled several LPs with that kind of stuff...But those records were not available in Sweden at that time so nobody there had scarcely ever heard them Then suddenly on one of those late night radio shows playing esoteric things that were definitely not on the pop-lists of the day....the DJ announcing:-"and now some pieces by the American guitarist John Fahey.." A few seconds later the foundations of my whole world had been forever changed upon getting hit by the opening chords of the 1967 Sunflower River Blues....
That was some good more than forty years ago...and I am still recovering...
This specific cd being Fahey's record number 2...or with a somewhat differently angled perspective...a combination of number 2 and number 7...or perhaps number 8?...confused???...we will come back to that...
Death Chants was issued in early 1964 in a limited 300 copies edition in plain white cardboard cover with black letter text, just the same as Blind Joe Death some years earlier. 1965 saw a new edition with a just somewhat modified cover, but still as the original white with black text. The music was recorded in Berkeley California autumn 1963 with the exception of Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain which was recorded in St Michaels Church Maryland februari 1962 and also The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill which was recorded together with flautist Nancy McLean at same location march 1962. Takoma annotations states that all the other Berkeley recordings not selected for inclusion on the album, were later unintentionally destroyed . Thus leaving us in a situation where we don't face the risqué of any future "bonus tracks" and thereby also setting us on a somewhat safe ground concerning further discographical adventures! In 1967 was decided a rerecording for a new issue of Death Chants. All tracks from the 1963 album except aforementioned Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill and Dance of Inhabitants were rerecorded at Sierra Sound Studios Berkeley in 1967 and the album was issued, including the two titles not rerecorded , in mono edition with the Tom Weller "psychedelic poster"-cover, which was soon to be replaced by the more well known Tom Weller "medieval woodcut"-cover. This issue later saw further Takoma editions in 1970, 1972, in both mono and "fake stereo", and in 1973. Finally, from Chrysalis is reported one issue in the end of the 70s with the title Some Summer Day cut out. And anectdotically... Fahey was proposed by Shanachie Records to do a rererecording of Death Chants in the early 1980s but that project never realized, although it eventually led to Charlie Schmidt recording some titles from the Death Chants repertoire, which eventually found its way to Fahey's private tape collection and thereafter, posthumously discovered, leading to some hilarious results... The 1963 Death Chants, minus Dance of the Inhabitants, was included in the infamous Takoma 1000 double LP The Early Sessions, together with 1959 Blind Joe Death...soon withdrawn from the Takoma Catalogue. And finally in 1969 Sonet issued a European edition with specific designed cover and sparse liner notes by Pete Drummond. Somewhere in this history the titles index on the covers, as well as two tracks; Spanish Dance and Take a Look at That Baby, got completely mixed up and eventually Spanish Dance disappeared from the titles index on some later editons. That story goes as follows: Spanish Dance and Take a Look at That Baby were swapped between respective album sides in the 1965 release. And the 1968 cover reverses the sides for the titles index and some even entirely omits Take a Look at That Baby. Some of these errors were inherited on the European issue and it meant that for a long time in Europe we lived in the belief that Spanish Dance was Take a Look...and vice versa, and that side A was side B...and vice versa!...confused??...Just calm down....there are examples a thousand times worse in the Fahey discography...!
With the background of chronological and discographical details thus at least somewhat established we can now return to my initial statement of record no 7?...or 8? To reveal this mystery down to its absolute roots should demand a discussion on every Fahey issue between 1965 and 1968, and there are indeed quite a few, so I will, at least for now, leave it as it stands, except for the following remarks: Death Chants is of course not one 1963 record that merely happened to be rerecorded and reissued in 1967! Death Chants is in fact, at least to my humble opinion, two separate and different records, just that they happen to share titles and musical content! In this discussion on identity and definition of what is a specific record I usually think of the 1955 Glenn Gould recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations and his 1981 recording of the same material.In the world of "classical music" no one would ever dare to suggest that the 1981 Goldberg Variations was just a rerecording and reissue of the 1955 Goldberg. They are clearly defined as two separate records in the artist's oevre! So...as a logical conclusion I can see no reason whatsoever to define the 1967 Death Chants as a mere rerecording and reissue...or for that sake the 1963 Death Chants as just the blue-prints to the 1967 Death Chants. We are simply dealing with two different records...notwithstanding the fact that they share titles and musical content! That same argument is of course also applicable on Blind Joe Death.
And from that point of departure perhaps I am ready to make some comments on the music presented here!
It seems that Fahey in the meantime from the 1959 Blind Joe Death had expanded his repertoire and influences from predominantly "blues-based" (whatever changes of definitions that specific type of music has undergone the last 50 or so years, when it comes to its assumed origins, "ethnical and social" context etc.) to a more wide broadened "traditional folkmusic-based" repertoire (whatever now may be the definitions of "trad-folk-music"??), combined with the classical symphony and chamber music. This might have to do, at least partially, with Fahey also having been exposed to Harry Smith's celebrated project Anthology of American Folk Music...although I will be careful not to accentuate this too hard, as it is also known that Fahey had come into contact with the actual repertoire of "the Anthology" through his own activities as record collector in collaboration with other 78-rpm collectors such as Bussard, Spottswood and Denson. And most presumably this way he had also been familiarized with the repertoire that was to become the basis for the legendary County LP Old Time Mountain Guitar. With the latter presenting music by such artists as Harvey&Copeland, Dilleshaw, McGhee, Hutchison, Bayless Rose etc... which have most certainly had a big influence on Fahey's music at the time. And while still on this subject I would not spend too much time and energy trying to solve the riddle of the alleged 1926-29 Bluebird 78s by Kelly&Gatz, which by some utterly unreliable and obscure sources of information have been supposed to have had an enormous influence on Fahey. Such a project might end in a big surprise and a resulting laughter! Of course we are also well aware that Fahey already had a broad knowledge of the repertoire of blues and ragtime guitarists such as Bukka White, Charley Patton, John Hurt, Skip James, Blind Blake, William Moore and Sylvester Weaver, just to mention a few.
As a little side track can be discussed on the influence Hawaiian music might have had. It is obvious that Hawaiian Steel Guitar as performed on records by for example Sol Hoopi and Roy Smeck had an enormous success in the twenties and thirties and thereby influenced many blues and old timey guitarists and in that , at least indirectly and secondhandedly, had an influence upon Fahey. The same applies most certainly also concerning the so called Parlor Guitar tradition. When it comes to what nowadays is called Hawaiian Slack Key, despite its similarities in open tunings and fingerpicking techniques etc, it is not very certain that it had any initial influence on Fahey, as it did not become wider recorded until late 1950's, and even then very sparsely. However, just to complicate things on this specific matter, Fahey in the beginning 1960's spent a brief period in Hawaii and later admitted in an interview in the end 60s that he had come in contact with this music firsthandedly on that occasion...
It seems quite obvious, and this perhaps sounding somewhat pretentious but still should not be underestimated, that Fahey at this time had further refined his compositional interests and skills, taking some at least "general aesthetic influence" from the classical concert repertoire that he always held very high. This especially concerning the Russian and also the late Romanticist symphonic composers...and of course modernists such as Bartok and Cage,Partch and Stockhausen.
Notably Fahey had matured remarkably as a guitarist between -59 and -63 and finally in -67 he was certainly to be considered as a master craftsman of his instrument, albeit within the limits put up by the lack of formal classical conservatory education and techniques. In other words Fahey to be considered as more or less an autodidact. Also noted that some of the -63 recordings are said to have been performed on a Martin New Yorker Parlor guitar from late 1890s** and the -67 recordings with a more conventional instrument... most probably the infamous Bacon&Day,thus explaining some differencies in soundscapes...the crisp delicacy of some of the -63s as compared to the majestic sonority of the -67s.
Sunflower River Blues is just one out of many Fahey "River Blues"-pieces. Sometimes almost getting the feeling that he was mocking with a cliché about the topic of blues connected with rivers. This not least by naming some of his earlier compositions with names such as Das Sein River Blues, Wissenschaetlich River Blues or Ick Weiss Nikt River Blues, probably as a humorous result of his academic studies of German Philosophy...This piece is claimed to be inspired by Charley Patton but there is in fact no direct resemblance of the Delta in here except perhaps the descending bass line in the main theme, which eventually could be traced to Willie Brown. Otherwise it seems loosely reminiscent of the Piedmont style and I always felt a vague connection here to William Moore's Old Country Rock. The -63 version is played in a medium to lively tempo sounding as if trying to recreate one of those old forgotten 78 rpm records from the -20s, whereas the -67 version has tempo somewhat taken down to create a more calm and majestic meandering impression. This later version also has an introduction of strange beauty...a slow chord progression with an almost Eastern ragaesque flavor.
When The Springtime Comes Again obviously has this title from The Carter Family tune of that name but otherwise no musical connection to the same. Composed in collaboration with female guitar partner Patricia Sullivan (amusing to compare with the constellation Stefan Grossman/Aurora Block some years later). Some confusion exists regarding composers name on early editions record labels. The introduction presents the main theme, a lyrical cantilena, performed in syncopated slow waltz ¾-time which comes back in the exposition as a 4/4-time elaboration, in fact somewhat reminiscent of the main structure of Sunflower River Blues. The music then evolves with the introduction of contrasting secondary themes and thus increasing dramatic tension and with main theme finally retaken in the ending coda. Variations on these themes some years later reemerging as basic components in compositions such as The Fahey Sampler (both versions) and fully evolved as Mark 1:15 and When The Fire And The Rose Are One. Clearly audible on the 63-version is a tape splice between the introduction and exposition which might indicate that the composition was not yet fully stabilized in form at the time of the recording 63.....But in 67 the composition seems stabilized and coherent as a very convincing performance of spellbinding depht and poetry, although it is evident that at this time Fahey had already decided to abandon the composition in this form, to transform it into a longer tone poem, as mentioned above.
Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania Alabama Border. Perhaps no Fahey composition have been more discussed in terms of compositional techniques and it has even been the subject of an extensive academic musicological study by Nick Schillace. Despite various statements concerning Vaughan Williams and the Catholic Requiem as influences for this composition, no obvious traces thereof are aurally detectable. Instead it shows some loose influences from Skip James and rural blues in general in the intro. But from there leading into a variety of "non-blues" dramatic and lyrical variations on motives interweaving each other as a filigree work in varied tempos and modes. Finally ending in a lyrical elegical finale of melancholy uncertainty. Thus being a very complex, coherent and balanced composition from a musical point of view! It has also been recorded as early as 1962 for Fonotone under the title Stomping Tonight on the old Pennsylvania Alabama Border, thus showing the composition being finished and stabilized already at this early stage. The intriguing title seems to refer to Pennsylvania and Alabama Avenues in Washington DC and not the States by those names...although the latter would be very typical of Fahey's somewhat odd sense of humor...and where in the whole world the borders of Pennsylvania and Alabama meet still awaits detection... The 63 version performed "naked and bare" as if played directly from the score, notwithstanding that there probably never was a score, whereas the 67 version, although somewhat shorter, adds considerably more dark emotion and depth to the composition.
Some Summer Day has its title from Charley Patton but no other direct musical connections to be detected. It had been recorded by Fahey at least three times before entering the Death Chants canon, and notably one of these being a duet with Mike Stewart a.k.a. Backwards Sam Firk where Fahey attempted some singing. Luckily for the rest of the world he soon abandoned the vocal s and concentrated on the instrumental part. This being a charming little composition with a slight taste of Gershwin consisting of just a handful of general blues clichés turned inside out, upside down and hither and dither and combined in a way that was barely ever heard before. ...a stroke of genius! The 63 and 67 versions are identical, aside from the sonority and improved mastery of the instrument, and thus bear evidence that the composition was fixed in form and structure already in 1963.
On The Beach At Waikikki with its title taken from a vintage 1915 Louise&Ferera recording, but otherwise no direct musical correspondence. Eventually a Fahey rendition of this could very well have fitted, as it is a very charming uptempo Hawaiian guitar and steel guitar duet. The Fahey composition discussed here, a lively uptempo and syncopated dance tune with some passages of great beauty, seems to be in the same group stylistically, melodically and musically as the following Spanish Dance and Take A Look At That Baby, and perhaps one could say that these three comprise the specific "Breakdowns" on this album...The 63 version has a whimsical bottleneck introduction, which also comes back as a coda to close the composition, that was omitted in the 67 version.
Spanish Dance. Not Spanish at all...but a lively limping and stumbling dance melody with a rough and down to earth Appalachian feeling about it...something which could have been played by Sam McGhee or Bayless Rose salong time ago...a charming unpretentious ditty and really no notable differencies between 63 and 67.
John Henry Variations is from a compositional point of view perhaps best described as a Rhapsody. And as such not so utterly complex in structure as for example the more symphonic treatment of Stomping Tonight... The main theme being a variant of John Henry/Spike Driver Blues, laid out and exposed and elaborated with insertions of secondary contrasting themes of which Lonesome Weary Blues from Harvey&Copeland and The Siege of Sevastopol from the parlor guitar tradition are easily detectable, but also sections that seem to be motifs of more obscure or even of pure Fahey origin. The 63 version seems to suffer a little from an instrument that goes slightly out of tune and some abrupt halts between sections, which eventually could be tape splices. And the 67 version is more organic flowing and displays more dark emotional depth than its predecessor.
The Downfall Of The Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill is a fantastic title for an extraordinary piece of music. It is quite unique in Fahey's whole recorded output, being a guitar-flute duet between Fahey and Nancy McLean...a kind of modernistic chamber-music piece where none of the participants are taking a leading role, but equally share the musical event. McLeans' flute, with perfect breathing control and punctuation, is playing a meandering ever-changing strange melody against Fahey's 12-string guitar (?!), playing some most unusual harmonic chord progressions with a very aggressive staccato strumming of chords and sometimes treating the guitar in the upper register almost like a mandolin. Very far from being bluesy or folkey this piece is an excellent example of absolute music outside cathegorization that bears its age with dignity and it took me half a lifetime to learn to fully appreciate its depth and mystic beauty. Not rerecorded in -67. A considerable amount of duets with McLean were actually recorded and some of them also appeared on further albums in the end 60s, but none of the same musical dignity as this one
Take A Look At That Baby is a ragtime uptempo number in a conventional structure with traditional chord progressions and picking. A delightful little bagatelle taking off somewhere in the vicinities just between Blind Blake and Nashville. It is said to be based on a melody with the same title by The Two Poor Boys; Joe Evans and Arthur McClain from Tennessee, who recorded a dozen or so 78s in the end of the 20s. They performed the "pop and folk-blues-songs" of the day, as well as some string-band instrumentals in a Vaudeville Novelty style. There is really no notable difference between the 63 and 67 recordings other than the guitar sonority and Fahey's improved guitar technique. And this in turn might indicate that many of these short compositions on this album, of which some of them were in fact Fahey's renditions of tunes from rare old 78s, might have been fully fixed and established at a very early stage and thus did not change very much over time.
Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Palace Of King Philip XIV Of Spain is yet another unbelievable title for a tremendous piece of music. And of course there never was a King Philip XIV in Spain...the last one with that name was number V of the Bourbon Dynasty who reigned for fortysix years(!) in the eighteenth century, driven away by a rebellion once, but then back after one year interregnum. Original title of this piece was Smoky Ordinary Blues and it also appeared as Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Invisible City Of Bladensburg, which title was to reemerge on the version, with rock band accompaniment, recorded on Yellow Princess half a decade later! The title is said to have been inspired by the Rimskij-Korsakoff opera Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh but the title also bears some resemblance to Stravinskijs' Infernal Dance Of All The Subjects Of Kaschei from the ballet suite Firebird, which reportedly Fahey was very fond of. Played with utter elegancy in laptop steel technique and based on a simple motif in syncopated 4/4-time consisting of mainly some descending basic chords, with continuously repeated variations and elaborations . And nevertheless the uncomplicated basic musical material Fahey succeeds in creating a masterpiece of evocative eerie and haunting music that stands out of every attempt to describe...it just simply has to be heard to be believed! The only comparable compositions ever by Fahey in this vein might perhaps be Revelations on the Banks of the Pawtuxent and Death Of The Clayton Peacock . Not rerecorded in -67
But in fact rerecorded in 1977 for the Best Of Anthology
America is the one and only major composition by Fahey solely intended for 12-string guitar. He has been performing and recording on 12-string guitar on other occasions but America is usually regarded as his only exclusively 12-string composition. It consists mainly of three parts of which the introductory main theme is a majestic dramatic motif in slightly syncopated ¾-time which is succeeded by a contrasting lighter secondary theme in speedier tempi and finally a coda, which is a collection of motifs and sequences seemingly drawing its influences from lively dance tunes somewhat in the vein of Mississippi John Hurt. Although without any doubt being principally the one and same composition the two versions presented here anyhow show some noteworthy differences. The 63 version seems not to be completely finished and stabilized as can be heard on some occasional tape splices which might indicate that at this stage it was still in the works as a compilatory project of "snippets from here and there ". Furthermore the 63 version has a considerably longer coda, which is radically shortened down in the 67 version. But both versions share an insertion of the main theme recorded at normal tape speed but replayed at high-speed, like playing a 33 rpm disc at 45 rpm. One major difference is also that the 67 version has a distinct separate introduction of flageoletto playing, where on the other hand the 63 version starts off directly on the main theme. Both versions follow a general pattern of exposition and variation of the main theme before leading to the secondary theme and thereafter insertion of the aforementioned high-speed section leading to repetition of the main theme in normal speed and finally to the coda, which as mentioned above is radically shortened in the 67 version. America was again re-re-recorded in 1971 for inclusion on the album America but not issued until the late 90s.
Episcopal Hymn is in fact Kings Weston as composed by Vaughn Williams and here performed in the quasi-classical style that Fahey used for hymns, psalms and Christmas music. And as always with such music he performs with simplicity, sincerity and respectfulness. The two versions here are practically identical and the only notable difference is that Fahey, of course, in the 67 version has further matured as a guitarist.
Finally as a general conclusion, looking back at this Opus-list that comprises the canon of Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes, it is obvious that referring to John Fahey as folkmusic or even blues, is so utterly ignorant and ridiculous. When he in fact should be regarded a highly original composer and master performer of serious art music for acoustic steel string guitar!
This cd on review here is of course a prestigious and historically valuable project and it is packaged and presented in a most satisfying way, but for one detail... The accompanying booklet carries illustrations of most of the LP covers that were discussed earlier, with the exception of the European issue, and it contains informative liner notes by Byron Coley. It also presents the liner notes for the original 1963 issue by Fahey himself under the pseudonym of Chester Petranick...an exquisite example if any of how bizarre and surrealistic Fahey could appear in his writings. But the cover illustration is dreadful! ....and something better could in fact, at least in my opinion, have been chosen! But that is also my only point of criticism!
It seems a bit of a delicate problem to discuss records such as Death Chants almost half a century later, considering their age and the circumstances under which they originally were conceived. The easiest way, and most probably the only possible, is of course, as I have tried above, to use the principle of retrospective comparative viewing, but this is perhaps a little bit unfair at least to the 1963 Death Chants! That record saw Fahey still an apprentice on his way to master craftsmanship, leading the listener into a world of strange beauty with soundscapes rarely heard before. It also showed that the acoustic steel string guitar was an instrument in its own right, fully capable of creating serious complex music other than just banging away three chords as accompaniment to the "folksongs" of the day...many of them so utterly ridicously vapid and naïve... It also established Fahey as the leading exponent of this whole concept of music...a role that he kept, with or against his own will, for the rest of his life...and arguably even more so posthumously! It also points out, and very clearly so, that already at that time Fahey had a stabilized idea about the structure and contents of the "Death Chants canon" and how to present and perform each and every individual composition within that frame. This later perhaps with some reservations for When The Springtime Comes Again, as already discussed.
The 1963 Death Chants as a presumably completely new listeners experience at the time perhaps also can be the reason for a minor contemplation on the process of artistic creativity!
It is of course quite obvious that when Fahey started his journey, all the ingredients were already there...the acoustic steel string guitar, the unorthodox open tunings, the bottleneck- and slide-techniques, that whole repertoire of rural guitar blues, traditional old-timey instrumental music from the Appalachians and Piedmont Area, fingering-techniques from banjo-, guitar- and dulcimer-playing, the whole established "High-Art Academic Classical Music", and so on... And even though it has been widely proposed that Fahey created this musical concept almost single-handedly, this might be more or less a mythologization, as it is evident that there were at least from the beginning of the 60s contemporaries who were attempting at similar things at that time. I think of names such as Dick Rosmini, Sandy Bull, Harry Taussig, Robbie Basho and Suni McGrath...just to mention a few... But never before had these musical components been mixed and moulded into the expressive and emotionally profound shape as visioned and designed by Fahey...and perhaps neither thereafter!
The 1963 Death Chants was something completely both new and old and fantastic and years ahead of its time when it first came...but fully understood by but a few...and the 1967 Death Chants will, at least to me, always stand as the eternal Fahey Masterpiece...to my opinion rivaled only, if at all, by the Yellow Princess and Fare Forward Voyagers!
But to conclude, allow me to quote the following: -" It is time that criticism of Fahey's work was taken from the hands of the sheltered academics, with their ideal theories about his hodology, the epistemological value of his work, and indeed the nature of his inspiration. What matters is the music itself, and not the abstract structures that may be constructed upon it." JACK BANISTER (a.k.a. John Fahey)
*Of course Graham, Grossman and Jansch & Renbourn were known and much admired in Europe at the time, but they never made the same direct impact on me...but nowadays I am very fond of especially Renbourn.
**Although still to be proven, this is allegedly the same guitar that was achieved by Blind Joe Death after his kithara was swept away in the mythical 1927 Sligo River flood. And also still to be proven is the rumour that the aforementioned kithara later was found by Harry Partch!
And as always: Put Your Past Ahead Of You!