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January 1, 2008

John Fahey - God, Time & Causality

Label: Shanachie
Year: 1998

..we may here have the ultimate - both in terms of best and final - statement of American Primitive Guitar.
(from the liner notes)

For those of you who don't know who John Fahey is, do yourself a service and look him up on wikipedia or . He is every bit as important to contemporary music as people like Harry Partch, John Cage, Jelly Roll Morton, Astor Piazzola, Duke Ellington, Arsenio Rodríguez, Frank Zappa, and Bill Monroe. His contribution to guitar playing is on the level of Andres Segovia, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Charley Patton, Son House, Davey Graham, Charlie Christian, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Django Reinhardt.

This album is a masterpiece. I'd put it up there with his The Yellow Princess, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, and America. Except technically his playing is even better than on them. “I practiced a lot to save on studio time. I don’t think there’s one edit on the whole record,” said Fahey about his playing on the album. And the sound quality is clear and sharp, so every note comes through sparkling. These two qualities (well-precticed virtuosity and crispness of recording), could easily turn into a cold display of prowess, but they don't. Instead, they serve only to heighten all those aspects of Fahey's playing and composing which make him stand out from fingerbusters like Leo Kottke. Like Kottke, Fahey's rhythm is complex and driving, his melodies are precise and syncopated with layers of sympathetic harmonic and dissonant drones. You can hear all the overlapping layers of sound individual and distinct from one another, but they never separate from the overall cloud of shimmering sound that washes over you. You can bathe in this music. You can drown in this music.

But more than any of his peers, Fahey had a classical musician's approach to phrasing, timing, and tone. He could play a fast, pounding tempo and just as the tension was about to bring it to climax, he would slow way down for a moment to let a note have that much extra impact. He would use the overtones ringing open strings as a harmonic counterpoint to his melodies. In Fahey's world, all the elements of music -- melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, tone, dissonance, tempo -- are subservient to expression. The roots of many of Fahey's songs can be traced back to folk music and blues. Those musics are rooted in the tradition of dance and storytelling, with steady rhythms and circular melodies to support those functions. Taken through Fahey's lens, those same steady rhythms and circular melodies have taken flight from the tradition to which they were bound. Freed from the need to provide a foundation for dance or tell a story, the music becomes an entity of its own. The story is the unnamable mystery of our inner consciousness. The dance is life. The dance is death.

Notes on the Songs
(from The Fahey Files):

Note: we believe that God, Time and Causality was recorded in 1977

From the sleeve notes: In Charley Patton’s 1929 recording, You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die, he quoted the biblical Book of Revelation. Here, Fahey musically quotes Patton in a terse mood piece with shimmering slides.

The Red Pony
From the sleeve notes: Formerly known as Wine and Roses. Possibly named after [John] Steinbeck’s minor novel. The sleevenote says: “Perhaps Van Gogh would’ve sounded like this, had he been given a guitar and not a palette. The piece is expressionistic and angry – Fahey’s guitar becomes a stringed pipe organ, bleating wrath and redemption.”

From the sleeve notes: “If you’re going to steal,” Fahey once said, “steal from obscure sources.” Walter Hawkins ranks high on any list of blues obscurities, though perhaps higher on a scale of originality. The Arkansas ragtime/blues guitarist, who made a handful of recordings in the late ‘20s, somehow absorbed elements of flamenco into his music, perhaps from a stint in Europe during World War I. His A Rag (Fahey’s point of departure here) was liberally spiced with ragtime flamenco! A tribute from one eccentric eclectic guitarist to another, Lion also features a stately Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and, along with some classical wistfulness, references to the music of Charley Patton and Skip James.

Medley: Interlude/The Portland Cement Factory/Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt
From the sleeve notes: C tuning has a wonderfully spacious sound. Fahey uses it for a blend of bugle calls, oriental scales, an hints of Train 4 in his requiem for the gentle John Hurt.
Interlude – This is parts of Melody McBad from Visits Washington DC. The IFC believes that this medley and Sandy on Earth date from 1977.

Medley: Snowflakes/Steamboat ‘Gwine Around The Bend/Death of the Clayton Peacock/How Green Was My Valley
Snowflakes – Not quite a new piece, having been extracted from the conclusion of Silent Night on The New Possibility (1968), plus the intro to Delta Blues (1978).
From the sleeve notes: Well, bottleneck in spirit, but Fahey actually plays Hawaiian style – a guitar with a raised nut set in the lap and fretted with a steel Dobro bar. Musically, he takes us on a slow boat to China that eventually meanders to the Mississippi on a hot summer’s day at the turn of the century. The darker passages evoke the sweltering Delta milieu of Charley Patton; with typical Fahey irony, Death of the Clayton Peacock is the happiest tune on this album.

Medley: Sandy on Earth/I’ll See You in My Dreams
The major surprise on the record. Whilst all the preceding songs were (over) familiar to fans, Sandy on Earth, formerly known as The Nut House, is the masterpiece from the great 1977 sessions which remain (as of 2006) unreleased. The original version contained minor if marvellous electronic enhancements; this version is plain. The composition is anything but, however, and retains the power to amaze and enchant. Even non-Fahey fans have been known to enjoy this one.
From the sleeve notes: Sandy on Earth, Fahey says, “is really the fun house, a place where reality slips and slides, expands and contracts. Fahey’s love of Russian composers is hinted at alongside more Walter Hawkins’ riffs. Then Charley Patton meets Sabicas as sudden flamenco flourishes erupt, and with them some percussive string snapping. I’ll See You In My Dreams is a bittersweet Depression-era pop standard Fahey loves, as did country fingerpicker Merle Travis. Fahey plays it hard – you can almost hear the strings wince under his attack.

Get it here
mp3 | vbr ~250kbps | cover included

if you like this music and are interested in more, leave a comment.

also, if you would like to discover lots of similar artists, check out grown go ugly.

and here is a good review of the album at Bagatellen


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brujo said...

Great informative piece on John Fahey -God ,Time + Causality a truly remarkable American Visionary artist of the highest calibre thank you I have quite a few of his albums but not this one regards Brujo

zero said...

Most of my Fahey material is from the early years, so this late work is most welcome. Thanks.

Stephen said...

I would not personally have selected this as one of Fahey's best. Fahey recorded several albums with Terry Robb from 1982 onwards which revisited old material and as wonderful as the playing is they lack the distinctive bite of the originals. Death of the Clayton Peacock is left for dead by the version on Transfiguration.
The consistency of tone and style, and general approach to his originals belies the view of the IFC that this album was recorded in 1977.
But you're spot-on in placing Fahey in the pantheon of the greats.

Unknown said...

man the fast-paced note-barrage parts of this album are totally great. now to catch up with the rest of your blog...

thanks for the birthday phone message! it was a pleasure to listen to, a work of art for sure.
-- H

sarah bachman said...

Thank you thank you thank you.
I am interested in more!
I can't find his stuff anywhere!

giveitaname said...

Thanks Big!
Any and all Fahey always appreciated.