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April 5, 2009

VA - American Primitive Guitar

Shawn David McMillan

". . . The New Age people call it Folk; the Folk people call it New Age, but it is really neither. It's transitional. The style is derived from the country blues and string band music of the 20's and 30's, however much of the music is contemporary. Fahey referred to it as 'American Primitive' after the 'French Primitive' painters, meaning untutored." - Peter Lang

I'm sure most everybody here is fairly familiar with John Fahey and the musical form he begat: American Primitive Guitar. But if you're not, here's a couple mini-essays collected about the web and an introductory album for you:

American Primitive Guitar is grounded in our complex melting-pot American musical traditions. Hymns, rags, folk songs, jazz, classical, opera, eastern rhythms, contemporary tunes, and a galaxy of other musical sources contribute to this diverse form.

Technique is based on using the multiple strings of the guitar to present the melody or theme supported by harmony and bass tones played simultaneously. Alternating bass is a regular feature, used in many forms to create a synchopation to support or contrast with other elements of the pieces. Varied tunings of the guitar enhance the instrument's tone, the playing of open strings reinforcing root tones and making multi-string techniques more accessible.

John Fahey's music has been a major influence on the creation of my own style and technique. It's combination of historic references in many styles and tunes, unusual syncopations and application of "primitive" techniques create stark and beautiful textures for the guitar. I highly recommend his many early recordings on Takoma as a unique source for inspiration in this form.

GUITAR DISCOVERY The following passage is quoted from a John Fahey essay on guitar composition and arranging:

"During practice sessions - I usually would sit from four to six hours, and I still do - strange things would happen, and suddenly I would have an entire song or a significant fragment.... If you make yourself play the guitar except for breaks - cigarette, bathroom, whatever - for four to six hours, I can guarantee that you will come out of these sessions with something new: a composition, an arrangement, a fragment. This is the way the mind works. In order to conquer boredom and chaos, you cannot avoid coming up with something new."

In my own sessions I've often found this wondrous miracle occurring, where following the known paths in extended repetition finds something completely new and unforseen, snatches of serendipity which can often be manipulated into something completely new and rewarding. Recording of these extended sessions helps keep the wily phrases from escaping back to the ether and allows you to bask in the glow of discovery as you continue to flow with the musical spirit.

Brad Barr

Again in the words of Mr. Fahey:

"While technique is important, it is only part of the story. Music is a language - a language of emotions. The worst possible way to play these songs - and I am not only talking about my own compositions - is in metronome time at a uniform volume. Another terrible thing would be to play any composition the same way every time, or to feel that you have to play it exactly the way someone else, such as myself, played it or said to play it. A good technician must also be creative. Even if a person is not a composer, he can interpret and and arrange, and these skills are as important as technique in making a performance interesting. I rely heavily on both technique and interpretation, and I think of myself as a very good composer, arranger, and plagiarest for the solo acoustic guitar"

The great challenge in playing the guitar is the creation of flowing and ethereal entities from the complex mechanics of the instrument. As our guru notes above, our goal should be to make each piece of music our own personal moment, shaping it with our own unique abilities and experiences. A unique path to enlightenment and harmony evolves from our strong emotional involvement in the performance of music as the mysterious connection between our ear and mind stimulates primeval and exotic vistas while the strings vibrate beneath our fingers and the soundbox resonates against our ribs.

by Les Weller for American Primitive Guitar

and this delightfully irreverent, grapewrath-style (though with greater profanity) piece:

On the term "American Primitive Guitar":

"American," because what it boils down to is that you're in America listening to American music and so the first thing you rip off is American music, and because America is really a smorgasborg of influences, a melting pile of mushrot, you're really ripping off everybody somehow in the process, one way or another. Common practice is to plagarize obscure sources - no art evolves from a vacuum.

"Primitive," because by any stretch of the imagination you don't really know how to play. Once you overcome this you and The Ear become your own teachers, and you might sit down and watch other people play, but nobody tells you where to put your thumb, nobody shows you sheet music, your knowledge of theory is broken and you piece together how this shit works bit by bit. No books, perhaps, but the big no no is No Teachers. They'll just fuck your head up trying to convince you that you shouldn't do certain things which by all primitive means you should try doing anyway. What matters for the primitive is the expression of the primitive. If you want to call it emotion I don't care, go ahead, nothing stops people from talking about the emotional content of Will Ackerman Yanni John Tesh Kenny G Mozart, why should you think twice about it. To quote Becket on this matter, "If we can't keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lay down." Go home and lay down with your guitar.

Fahey used the term primitive for a few reasons. One was to separate himself from those he considered volkists, primarily the Seeger family, but also other operators in the "Folk Revival", something he mistrusted and possibly despised. Fahey's roots were in white western music, not the blues or folk forms that he would work within during his acoustic career. He considered it a lie or at least a great misrepresentation to call music made by white middle class suburbanites "folk".

The term primitive was also brought in to draw the distiction between his folk and classical sources, because he was drawing from blues, classical and folk musics, as well as any other viable soundhole (the experimental, le avante guarde). Designated American because he used above all else American musical references in his compositions. He was not classical, he played variants of traditional fingerstyle on a steel string guitar, but he was not folk or blues, they were mearly part of his diet. He borrowed melodies and progressions from Vaughner and Gershwin, he covered rock ballads, he recorded sound collages, and he wrote/played/didhisthing occasionally in atonal and serial structures. The practice of his music was primitive in comparison to classical music, it existed on the same plane as folk and blues but did not evolve from a distinct enclosed culture. It had traditional ties but not traditional boundaries. It was primitive - because it was new, it was unruly, and it was uncivilized.

"Guitar," get a box, get a stick, tie string(s) from the base of the box to the end of the stick. Make music.

Jack Rose

Composition. I personally advocate Fahey's method of composition, which consists of 4 to 8 hour stretches in a dark room with some intoxicating substance at hand, and an instrument. Remember a melody, find the melody on the instrument, procede until boredom forces your mind to break out of the box or break the box. If you break your guitar, go find a day job, otherwise go purchase either a rusty recording instrument or some paper. Invent notation, write down what you're doing. If you have a tuner it's your own funeral, you might as well call it quits, because the only crap you'll produce is western music, presuming you bought a western tuner, which is good as far as it goes, but you're no longer composing primitive, you're composing western. An A in the west is not neccessarily an A elsewhere, and really there's no reason for you to even know what the fuck an A is in the first place: ignorance is a telltale sign of clear thinking.

Performance. One of two things generally fuck the musician up. They become obsessed with technical issues, or they become obsessed with the audience. In primitive exposition, 1) Ignore and play through mistakes. Better yet, play with mistakes. There are no mistakes. There is only the Primitive. It may be benificial to come to an understanding that there are only "mistakes" when mistakes are accepted. Mistakes are the monsters under your bed, the bogey man in your closet. Somewhere along the line you were taught to believe that the word had meaning, and that lesson was a lie. Mistakes are the boogie man, and he has his dancing shoes on. 2) Ignore the audience, if rapport will come it will come through the primitive which is delivered through the music, if they don't enjoy it, well fuck them, everybody is not for the primitive, and your primitive is not for everybody.

The primitive as genre: This is total cocksmut. It's thrown out at parties by pricks getting their jollies off in public spaces. Assholes. Primitive is a congenital directive, it is a compositional hypothesis. "American Primitive" is a genre, or genreless because it depends on the American idioms the individual composer borrows from, as well as being strictly limited by the locality of the artist - what culture and folk music he has come into contact with, and the degree of the artist's separation from those cultures. And essentially, single cultures and folk are properly considered constructs, avenues towards art. They are helpful but not necessary. It is necessarily possible to reach the primitive, a stripped down and barren primitive, through pure grunt force, or how else would the primitive exist in the folk. The primitive is a choice. The primitive draws sounds from the native and finds the patterns and in the patterns finds the emotive, and in the emotive the primitive finds the music. Yadda yadda yadda. The urban is just as native to some as the sticks and grass are native to some, the primitive is not geographically prejudiced, though geographies may be prejudiced.

Sandy Bull

Stop theorizing. Stop reading this, stop listening to me. The only thing primitive about me is my cockwhoring on the weekends. But for when I'm out of my head delirious with booze or drugs do I hear the cojoling insubordination occuring at the pit of my brainstem. Because I spend too much time debating cultural semantics rather than feeling around for my primitive, because I spend too much time thinking my bass runs are too stale, or my progression too parallel. The one time I came close I found out that it was a sunshine five year old running on the green and yellow dead lawn in the nude.

Recording. The recording is the feedback loop. It is the worst kind of critic because it misrepresents the truth with the facts.

Forgetting. You must learn all this, then you must forget it. This is what they will tell you when you major in performance or composition at the University. This is what Chet Atkins will tell you. Listen to Chet. The primitive must start by forgetting. Avoid the crutches of scales, standard tunings, chord progressions. These were designed to stop you from composing, they're shortcuts to music. If you take that path it will be years before you are able to compose music. If you follow the primitive you will compose now, and it will be years before you will make music. What determines success is more a matter of luck and effort than personal genius. Buck up, life is going to suck anyway.

--Josh Buermann

VA - American Primitive Guitar

This release seemed fairly straightforward when I got it through the high seas... but further inspection revealed nothing but a mystery. Since no information on this collection can be found anywhere on the web, I'm betting it's someone's personal compilation. All the tunes are available elsewhere, many from the excellent Imaginational Anthem series released by Tomkins Square, which is the label doing the most for this kind of music right now.

But apart from discographical curiosity, the music's really good. So enjoy, beloved audiomoochers!

1. Max Ochs - Imaginational Anthem
2. Jack Rose - Cross the North Fork
3. Sean Smith - What Once Was Will Be
4. Harry Taussig - Blues for Zone VII
5. Brad Barr - Bouba's Bounce
6. Peter Walker - Celebration
7. Shawn David McMillen - The Lawn
8. Robbie Basho - Kowaka D'Amour (live)
9. Matt Baldwin - She Was a Girl, She Was in Love
10. Sandy Bull - Untitled

a melting pile of mushrot
(note: 2 distinct links: 'melting pile' and 'mushrot'. i do this from time to time; keep your eyes sharp!)
mp3 vbr | w/ cover | 2 parts | 55 + 9 mb
(this is in 2 parts because i forgot to upload the 2 of the tracks at first)

oh, and though he hasn't posted much recently, ejg's blog grown so ugly has a wealth of related material, and he's put on an exploratory guitar festival for two years running.


Stiles said...

wow! great blog, amazing stuff, just what i need!
hey i tried that mediafire link and it worked, i wasn't signed in or anything either? dunno, try again and if not i'll upload elsewhere.

take care

Ross said...

thank you for compiling this irate pirate, there is some pretty motivating stuff in there, i just want to let loose on my guitar again, which i haven't done in a while. i also look forward to hearing your mix.

The Irate Pirate said...

you're welcome, ross! but i must admit, i am not the compiler this occasion. i found it somewhere and downloaded it, thinking it was an official release. it was only looking for info as i was getting ready to post it that i realized it was homemade.

Delta-Slider said...

All of this is good stuff, but, I am particularly bias toward Sean Smith. If you like his song go get some more of his stuff, you will love it!!!
Thanks Pirate, there are a couple guys here I haven't heard of, hopefully a new find!!

The Irate Pirate said...

i second Delta Slider's comment. you can order cds directly from Sean Smith HERE. I got three of them. Berkeley Guitar is fantastic.

Anonymous said...

A timely post for me, and much appreciated. Couple a weeks ago I decided to uncrate some old vinyl in the garage, and a dozen or so Fahey albums were prime targets for being converted to 1's and 0's.

The comments in the "Performance" section struck home, as I have had the chance to see Fahey a half-dozen times in the 70's. A memorable night circa '73 went as such: Fahey arrives 1/2 hour late (to a BYOB Hippie Hangout coffehouse) puts down his case and a six-pack, and announces "No apologies. I didn't know this fuckin' town was dry", unzips his fly, undoes his belt, and proceeds to ignore the gathered masses for another 15 minutes while he gulps down 3 beers. The only noise in the room comes from his occasional belch or fart which soon became an audience participation call-and-response affair. Crushing the 3rd can, he pulls his guitar from the case and launches into it non-stop for the next 2 hours. And it only cost $2 at the door!
A remarkably quirky yet remarkably talented man.