The Tracks of Native American Folk Music
John Fahey and Leo Kottke
I don’t think I can overstate Fahey’s importance to American folk music, as much as Fahey himself hated the restrictions of the genre. Fahey was a fingerstyle guitarist, which meant that he was championing a somewhat archaic way of playing guitar when he first started recording himself in the late 50s. Fingerstyle means exactly what it says: the guitarist picks notes on the guitar with fingers rather than a synthetic pick. Although Fahey’s style has been called American Primitivism, there’s nothing primitive about his style or that of the guitarists who he nurtured (well, he wasn’t the nurturing type, so let’s call it “supported” instead) and influenced. Their flurry of sounds, usually employing at least two voices on the guitar (a bass line and a melody line), but often adding a third voice (usually a mid-range drone), is anything but primitive. Fahey had one ear in the past, always looking for old blues guitarists to learn from, but his other ear could only hear the future, and his uncompromising avant-garde tendencies give his instrumentals a timeless quality.
The Legend of Blind Joe Death (1964 and 1967). Fahey created three separate versions of his first album Blind Joe Death. The first was recorded in 1959 and attributed to the mythical eponymous bluesman. Fahey released it on his own label Takoma, but only had the money to press a hundred or so copies. Five years later, Fahey decided that he had improved his guitar skills enough to re-record the album. Or, at least, some songs on the album. The second version had a wider release, but in 1967, Fahey decided to re-record the album again in stereo. The Legend of Blind Joe Death, a 1996 release, combines the later two releases with a few outtakes. Despite Fahey’s traditionalist song choice, there are not many earlier albums that sound like this: close-mic’ed solo guitar with no effects or overdubs, with all the musicality and emotion in Fahey’s own presentation. Beautiful stuff.
The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965). I don’t have Fahey’s second or third albums, but this one, his fourth, is like Blind Joe Death in that some songs are covers of old blues and pop songs. The recording is as dry as the recording on Blind Joe Death, but there’s some more oddities as Fahey becomes more of his own man. There’s a banjo on one track. Some of the songs have a distinctly odd bent as Fahey incorporates more Eastern music into his sound. This one was recorded and released on another label before The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party, which was officially labeled Vol. 4 from Takoma Records, but when Takoma released later re-released it, they subtitled this one Vol. 5. All part of Fahey’s lifelong love of creative obfuscation.
Days Have Gone By, Vol. 6 (1967). This one features a bunch of increasingly psychedelic originals (note “The Portland Cement Factory At Monolith California” and “A Raga Called Pat Parts One and Two”), plus a bluegrass standard and a composition by Sibelius. Awesome.
Requia (1968). I don’t have the Voice of the Turtle, Fahey’s 7th album, but I need to get it (and, it should go without saying, any of the other Fahey albums I don’t have). The excellent website The Fahey Files notes that Fahey advises fans to avoid this one, claiming that he was too drunk to make a good album. I think this one is awesome, though. The highlight is the four-part “Requiem For Molly,” which mixes solo guitar with tape loops and white noise, giving you that odd feeling of listening to Mississippi John Hurt as remixed by John Cage.
The Yellow Princess (1968). Fahey’s ninth album adds a band on some tracks and throws in a sound collage on another. And yet Fahey’s playing is near-perfect throughout and the recording as crisp as a chilled apple slice. All of which means that this is one of Fahey’s best. Get the reissue with the early version of “Fare Forward Voyagers” on it.
Christmas Guitar (1968 – 1986). This compilation includes most of the wonderful 1968 album The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album, plus a bunch of other Christmas tracks that Fahey recorded over the next 20 years.
America (1971). Brilliant stuff here. This is the 1998 reissue, which restores the album to the two-disc length that Fahey originally conceived. There’s a version of “Amazing Grace,” a movement from a Dvorak symphony, and some extremely long compositions.
Of Rivers And Religion (1972). More brilliance. Fahey has a brass section backing him on some tracks and a string section on others. This is great, great American music.
Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier’s Choice) (1973). This is mystic music. Three tracks, one 14 minutes, one 6, and one 24. Beautiful long compositions with a heavy Eastern sound.
Old Fashioned Love (1975). This is Fahey again with a ragtime orchestra, with his sound covering the distance from early 20th century American music to Indian classical music.
Yes! Jesus Loves Me: Guitar Hymns (1980), Let Go (1984), Rain Forests, Oceans, and Other Themes (1985), and I Remember Blind Joe Death (1987). I’m running out of things to say, so I’m going to start talking about several of these at once. The Guitar Hymns album takes traditional Christian hymns and presents them in the beautiful dry style of Fahey’s Christmas albums. Let Go melds Brazilian music with ragtime, bluegrass, and a surprising note-for-note cover of “Layla” that remains as smirkingly serious as any of Fahey’s other covers. Rain Forests has more Brazilian music, another version of “Layla” (or is it the same one? hard to say), a medley of Hendrix into Furry Lewis, and a Stravinsky composition. Fahey was pretty sick at the end of the 80s with Epstein-Barr, and he claims that I Remember Blind Joe Death is worthless because his sickness made him sloppy. It’s not worthless, but it’s not one of his better albums.
God, Time, and Causality (1989) and Old Girlfriends And Other Horrible Things (1992). Fahey was in better health for God, Time, and Causality (its title a pompous joke from a guy who was studying philosophy at Berkeley when his music career took off). Here Fahey reworks a number of earlier tracks into long, transcendent medleys, pausing occasionally to retune during the track so that he can capture the odd Indian-raga inflections. Awesome stuff. Old Girlfriends is sort of a step back to his ragtime-classical-pop song formula of the mid 70s. I’m not knocking it; the album is great.
Womblife (1997). I don’t have City of Refuge, where Fahey leapt headlong into avant-garde music, combining his anti-folk fingerstyle guitar with tape loops and white noise to an unprecedented degree. But I understand that Womblife, produced by Jim O’Rourke, plumbs a similar vein more successfully. I think it’s amazing.
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (with Cul De Sac, 1997). This is a half-successful attempt to meld Fahey’s style with Cul De Sac’s krautrock-and-jazz-influenced avant-rock. You really must read the liner notes to get a glimpse of what working with Fahey was like. I do not envy Glenn Jones his experience of having his idol sabotage his plans, but the result is pretty great in spots and a fascinating trainwreck in others.
Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites (1998). This is a live album of Fahey working out themes on an electric guitar. I’ve read that Fahey found that his fingers were having trouble with acoustics at the time, but I would believe just as strongly that he just wanted to mess around on an electric and used whatever excuse was at hand. Unfortunately, he could not pull the resonance from an electric guitar that he could wreak from an acoustic, and while the performances are great, the music suffers a bit from the tinniness of the sound.
Red Cross (2003) and “Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues I – IV” (from Sea Changes and Coelacanths: A Young Person’s Guide To John Fahey, 2006). Fahey’s great work at the end of his life was founding Revenant Records, which produces the most incredible box sets in box set history. Not only are they meticulously researched and beautifully mastered, but they are also packaged more creatively than any others in history. But Fahey passed away in 2001, not long after helping to found the company. Red Cross collects his last recordings, which span his stylistic leaning from the straightforward blues-based fingerstyle work of his early career to the aggressive and dark near-ambient work of his late career. Wonderful music, and a fitting end to a brilliant life. Sea Changes collects Womblife and Georgia Stomps into a single volume, but with the four parts of “Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues” in the middle. I bought these tracks from eMusic so I don’t know when or where they were recorded, and they’re a bit slight for me to make any guesses. But they’re lovely and I’m not sorry I have them
(Courtesy by Hayden Childs)
Style and Substance:
The never-complacent acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke
has been a work in progress for 30 years.
By Josef Woodard
About 30 years ago, a Minnesotan trombonist-turned-acoustic-guitar-player named Leo Kottke released an album on the tiny Takoma label. Suddenly Kottke found himself with a full-blown career as a finger-picking guitarist. He scratched his head, muttered something witty to his muse and proceeded to play for a living.
Since then, the acoustic-guitar world has evolved, exploded and retreated, and otherwise gone up one (Windham) hill and down another, but Kottke–with the terminally boyish face and what-me-worry attitude–has been quietly plugging along. He would smirk at the superlative, but Kottke has become something of an American legend in the guitar world, and a king of his own private musical world.
When he comes to Santa Barbara on Saturday, you will hear both a deep history and musical style in development. You’ll also, no doubt, soak up Kottke’s signature between-song anecdotes.
Kottke stays on top of his game, primarily because his unique style separates him from the pack and because his hefty pile of recordings reveals that he never succumbs to complacency. Each one has a distinct identity, especially those produced during his decade of tenure on the Private label.
Under that label, there have been oddities such as the wonderful quirkiness of his instrumental “That’s What” and the gruff vocal charm of “Great Big Boy.” His latest, “Standing in My Shoes,” goes every which way: He returns to old songs, like the title track, originally from his 1971 album “Mudlark,” and his 20-year-old gem, “Vaseline Machine Gun.”
But there are also signs of the times, including drum loops and modern studio treatments from fellow Twin City-man, producer David Z. One song that jumps up for airplay attention is his remake of the old Fleetwood Mac tune “World Turning,” sung with Kottke’s characteristic, kindly huff of a voice and with his rickety finger-pickin’ rhythmic force. Classic rock never sounded so good.
Kottke fielded a few questions from his home outside of Minneapolis last week, where he’s nursing a broken foot suffered in the line of duty, trying to jump over a railing at a gig in Portland. You don’t become a veteran without a few bruises.
Los Angeles Times:
I’m assuming that when you started playing guitar, you didn’t expect it to sustain you for 30 years. Do you look over your career with a kind of bemusement?
I really didn’t have any such ideas about this work, and neither did anyone else. I don’t get this question anymore, but I used to get asked, “How long do you think this will last?” or “What would you do if it went away?” I could never answer that.
There were times when it was a serious question that I’d ask myself, usually when I was working too much. That will get ahold of you. But the most that I ever felt it was when the Takoma record came out (in 1969) and it kind of hit. It got a lot of airplay and all of a sudden, something was going on. I really wondered then not so much how long it would last, but what it was and what had changed.
It took me years before I realized that nothing had changed. It was just that more people had heard me. That’s what I’ve figured out about that employment/existential part of the story. I just zero in on the tunes. That’s what I’m in it for, the tunes. Those will happen whether I have a job or not. I’m hooked.
I never think of you as a veteran, but I guess you have arrived at that status, haven’t you?
I like that you never think of me that way. But I have been around a long time. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be good, you just have to hang around.
Los Angeles Times:
You have to stay alive and keep making good records, too, don’t you?
I guess so. I ran into Dizzy Gillespie once in Italy, in his later years. He was loading the station wagon. He didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, but he walked up the street to talk to me and he was just the great guy you’d expect him to be. Basically, we talked about how to get some sleep on the road. He could just knock out wherever he was.
I had read his book “To Be or Not to Bop,” and he talks about what the music demands of you. Sooner or later, you have to live almost like a monk. Otherwise, the music starts to go.
Los Angeles Times:
So you’ve become an ascetic of sorts?
Yeah, I have this little carpet of nails I sleep on . . .
Los Angeles Times:
On an information sheet, you say that your two big influences are jazz great Joe Pass and folk hero Pete Seeger. Does that cover the poles of your musical style?
I never really know what to say about influences, because there are just so many that I have had. I have to add Jim Hall to that list. That’s just by way of saying I don’t know if people can answer the question of their influences. A lot of it would be surprising.
For one thing, I don’t think the list is ever quite as hip as we would hope. I know the first record I ever bought was a single called “Deedee Dinah” by Frankie Avalon. It’s pretty rough to admit something like that. I was in the sixth grade.
Los Angeles Times:
Each of your albums, especially in the last few years, has had a sort of conceptual agenda. Is that your plan?
It does seem that way, but it’s not premeditated. Something just seems to take over while you’re doing it. With the latest record, I could have assumed that something along those lines would happen, that it would have an overall rhythmic approach, because of David Z. I’ve known him since we were starting out.
We were working in the same studio in Minneapolis, called Sound 80. He was working with Prince, and I was working with me. We intended to make this album back then, but it took us 25 years.
Los Angeles Times:
Your version of “World Turning” on this new album has stirred a lot of interest. How did you come to focus on that one?
It was really Dave’s idea. He suggested an old Fleetwood Mac tune, from the first version of the band, before the guitar player got religion. I guess because I didn’t think of it myself, I couldn’t really put a lot of energy in that, but came up with “World Turning” instead.
I did a few shows with Fleetwood Mac and always enjoyed them. They always had something special, between Lindsay (Buckingham) and Christine McVie. It’s all good, but she has got that straight-ahead, unadorned quality that’s so satisfying to hear.
Los Angeles Times:
Is music a parallel reality for you?
It might be the reality. There are times when I’m almost convinced that music is inhuman, that it comes from somewhere else. Most of the players I know seem to think the music that happens is not what they think of. It’s so good for you. Anyone who plays really benefits, whether it’s a job or not.
(Courtesy Los Angeles Times)
by Leo Kottke
Studying with three teachers in three years, I was a trombone student in Oklahoma until I was about
fifteen years old. Each weekend at one of their houses I’d wait in the kitchen until the trombonist in
the basement would yell up at me to come down– they all taught in their basements. I would
descend, assemble my horn, sit in a folding chair, park my sheet music on the stand, weather some
insult aimed at my embouchure, and play whatever I had not been studying for the last week.
My teachers– industrious, frugal, starving men– had one thing in common other than my unpreparedness:
they’d all installed do-it-yourself showers in those basements. These units stood in
some corner, usually my corner, and they’d drip… ploink, ploink. There was nothing more ominous
than basements with leaking showers in them, and there was no telling when fear began, but my
trombone kept those home improvements at bay.
I was a hero.
I had fewer illusions about my playing. Bob Green was a trombone player, I was a kid with a
trombone. Still, I was convinced that I’d eventually outgrow the roll in my embouchure and grow up
like Pinocchio to be a real trombone player. I loved to play and I loved the trombone; but I never
considered that a trombonist might have to install his own shower; I never guessed that my
trombone teachers might be trombonists; I never considered that a life in trombone might differ from
the one I was imagining… a life lived in hotels, in black suits and skinny ties, Ray-Bans indoors, by
someone who never played much and was depressed.
(By the time I knew depression was free, and that I didn’t have to play trombone to be depressed,
I’d imitated its “mood” for so long that I couldn’t refuse the Damned Cloud when it did arrive. If
you’ve been imitating the seeming cool, the detachment, and the languor, genuine depression won’t
be noticed until you tire of your pose. Bored with oceanic despair, you reach for the ladder back into
the boat and you drown: no ladder.)
To build your own shower, as my teachers did, is to laugh at depression… ploink, ploink. Keats called
this negative capability. So, if you were or are a trombonist, you’ve likely confronted one or more of
these home improvements because it’s no picnic to master an instrument; and if you’re a student,
you’re squirming in a kitchen somewhere and you’ve just begun reading Popular Mechanics. You’re
waiting for that voice to call you downstairs. More disturbing than Popular Mechanics, you are already
seeing the music on that stand beyond the stairs: “The Bluebells of Scotland,” “Down Home on the
Farm,” “A Stalk of Corn,” “Tango for the Veterans Administration.”
A couple of those pieces I made up, but the ones I didn’t were exhumed long before I could have
dug them up from the cornfield. To be merciful, there’s a sliding scale for these musical stiffs: “Blue
Bells” is much better than “Down Home on the Farm,” for example. I know this because I’ve heard
“The Blue Bells of Scotland” and I’ve actually played “Down Home on the Farm.” I couldn’t play “The
Blue Bells of Scotland;” that piece is what we musicians call “hard.” Bob Green played “The Blue Bells
of Scotland.” I played, “Down Home on the Farm.”
I played it for three judges at an annual state competition in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
I skulked out to center stage in an empty hall that year, announced the title of this hayseed kitsch,
the judges laughed, and I played the cadenza: a collision of hope and ability. Then I stated the
melody and the judges laughed again– they knew a melody when they heard one– and somewhere
in the middle of this thing they realized what was coming and they began to chortle.
If you want to torture someone but not to offend them, you will chortle.
I repeated the melody twice as fast, and the judges squeaked from chortle to snort. They couldn’t
help themselves. They didn’t care how I felt, and they knew what was coming. Bowing to tradition, I
too knew what was coming: I repeated the thing a third time and played it three times as fast. I
ignored the judges’ snorts, clawed my way through another cadenza, and received my failing grade
the next day.
I blame this episode not on the perpetrator of “Down Home on the Farm,” she couldn’t have helped
herself, but on my trombone teacher, the bass trombonist for the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, who
had it in for me. It’s also possible that my judges were friends of his, that he was giving them some
relief on a dull day.
These recital pieces are an industry. You won’t hear them, other than at state-sanctioned ordeals,
because they’re not any good. They leak like boats. They leave nothing after them– a life preserver
or two. Some valve oil. A gasp. My trombone teachers would probably have insisted that these pieces
suited my abilities, that they’d have given me good music if I could have played it; but I was
sometimes first chair in the Muskogee West Junior High Band, conducted by the inspirational Lowell
Lehman; and my competition was Julian Fite, a kid who went on to become District Attorney. I was
unassailable… but, of course, I remember none of my trombone teachers playing more than one note
for me. I do remember some funny looks when I played for them… a long time ago.
A few years ago I built a couple motors. (I was depressed.) And my skills as a mechanic reminded me
of my skills as a trombonist. But I learned how to adjust valve stem clearances on an Alfa motor with
parts from a Volkswagen. Doing this was like building a zip-gun, two of which were confiscated at
West Junior High in the Year of the Farm; but a self-installed shower is no zip-gun, it is no outsider
thrill; it is the last cigarette before the firing squad. It is a gesture of defiance. It is an economy.
JJ Johnson, Kai Winding, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Watrous, Bruce Paulson, or the Terrible Tempered
Trombones are or were all trombonists who could afford food. They may never have installed a
shower in their basements; but most artists, like Rakoto Fra, a sudina player pictured on Malagassi
currency when he didn’t have a Malagassi dime, are honored by their culture but not rewarded by it.
So some of them teach. And kids like me show up in their basements.
But now I know: the teachers who watched my feet coming down their stairs every week illustrate an
existential fact: gifts (theirs) are often obscured by ignorance (mine) but knowledge can reveal them.
My teachers?… I was a plague on their houses, and not the hero I thought I was, but they charged
only a small fee for admitting my sullen evasions to their basements; and they taught me not only
music, but also ABOUT music, and about corn, and about patience– theirs, mostly.
I am looking at my trombone– which is all I can do with it. It is the same trombone my teachers saw
coming down their basement stairs. It is a Bach #10, an instrument with a different diameter to each
parallel of its slide. This innovation was to have increased the speed of the slide by decreasing its
resistance… a virtue, had the design worked, that would have been entirely lost on me. I’m intrigued,
though, by the semblance of tone I might have produced had the diameters been equal.
But those showers have collapsed by now… you can’t step in the same basement twice. You can’t go
back; even Mt. Everest is a little shorter than it was when I played “Down Home on the Farm;” but
because of my performance in Tahlequah, I got to hear the chortle in its natural environment and to
watch my trombone career go down the drain… ploink, ploink.
Any fool would know that I was a lucky kid. I got to play, so I get to play. I was guided by
trombonists, note by note, toward home.