Sharps & flats

"Best of the Vanguard Sessions" introduces John Fahey's chillingly beautiful six-string folk.

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As a folk musician in the 1960s, John Fahey was not alone in drawing inspiration from Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music." What made his work different, though, was his ability to articulate the ghost cries and death chants of "Anthology" in a way that acknowledged both their bone-rattling primacy and the numbingly seductive invitation to politicize their status as relics of a hidden history. Many folkies of his generation partially obscured the collection's intuitive beauty by latching onto the latter; Fahey simply resisted the romance by hearing it on its own terms.

While the blood that pumped from Smith's collection briefly turned to mercury in the veins of a world-changing Bob Dylan, in Fahey's system it remained as rust. The rust that coursed through his guitar-picking fingers was the same rust that cursed the woefully un-Reconstruct-ed Mississippi Delta of blues greats like Charlie Patton (the subject of his college dissertation). The rust is what let him channel the revisionist suggestions attached to this old music while still, like Dylan, transforming it with touches of his time's post-historic tendencies.

Musically speaking, there are guitar players, and then there is John Fahey. Six steel strings seldom sound so symphonic as when strummed by his hand. It is impossible to ignore notions of psychedelia on "Best of the Vanguard Sessions," a compilation of tracks from his "Requia" and "The Yellow Princess" albums from 1967 and 1968, respectively. Recorded for the venerable folk label in between records for his own, independent Takoma imprint, these albums show Fahey coyly toying with musiqui concrete collage techniques and summoning impossibly dense swirls of sound from a lone acoustic guitar. What makes it hard to respectfully call Fahey's music psychedelic, though, is the fact that he's using a language mostly derived from old 78s by blues and country folks like his beloved Skip James and the Carter Family. Fahey's are sounds of time-tested sincerity, not stylization.

"The Vanguard Years" works as an adequate, though limited, introduction to John Fahey. Songs like "Lion" and "Irish Setter" show him shifting between jumpy celebration and sparse, restrained meditation. On "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible City of Bladensburg" he crafts a melody so stunning, he sounds more like an orchestra than a soloist. On all the songs, his acoustic guitar is divorced from the stock reactions it evokes. His music is folk music, no doubt, but a brand of folk music that may deserve another name. God help those who try to name it, though. He makes this divergence explicit on "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee," a cut-up piece of found sounds, some of which come from wind and cars "playing" the title's subject. And on the ingeniously titled "When the Catfish Is in Bloom," a nearly eight-minute number that strays miles from its core melody before precociously reeling itself back in.

Through all his endless wandering, Fahey finds chords so beautiful that they make your stomach drop. They always come at perfect times, in between uncommonly complex folk-musical walks through desolate train yards, moonshine hoe-downs and mosquito-filled nights. His music can be placed neatly within an indigenous folk tradition, but also alongside the most carefully considered examples of harmony's inherent power. As a great folk-song writer, Fahey was a great composer.

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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