Monday, November 28, 2011


The only reason I'm able to review this for you today is because my family all decided to get me Amazon gift certificates at the same time on my birthday, and I in turn went and closed my eyes & plugged my ears, going "la-la-la-la", and spent $80 on what is essentially just five CDs and a book of liner notes. It does come housed in a cool box, halfway between recycled cardboard and wood itself. Dust-To-Digital's JOHN FAHEY box set of his 1958-1965 Fonotone Records recordings is impractical, sure - where am I going to store this thing - and there's no doubt it's for Fahey nuts only. I'm skirting the edge of Fahey mania, but I've long been fascinated with the story of these "lost" recordings from his earliest, bluesiest days. I'm happy I got it, and I'd like to tell you why.

Let me start by acknowledging that there may be more than a few of you wondering who this Fahey cat is and what made him so special. In a nutshell, John Fahey is the premiere "folk" instrumental guitarist of his day and any other day, a man so gifted beyond belief on his instrument that he achieved his desired effect of sounding like a one-man guitar orchestra with a mere ten fingers. It sounded like thirty - at least. He was one of the earliest white collectors - discoverers is more like it - of the 1920s and 30s pre-war blues music that barely anyone outside of black communities had heard before he found it. Names like Charley Patton, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were almost completely forgotten before Fahey and his cohorts found them and helped to bring their music onto college campuses and the like in the 60s. Fahey's collector contemporaries did not, unlike Fahey, then translate that love for raw and unvarnished guitar music into an ability to play it that well themselves - and then to take it into another transcendent dimension of experimentation, invention and talent.

I think, as most do, that his best work started with his 1958 LP "The Legend of Blind Joe Death" and continued on various unfolding paths into the early 70s. Everything of Fahey's in these years is worth owning. It bears repeating - none of it has vocals. All guitar instrumentals, only rarely augmented with other experimentation, and then only on a couple of records. So what are these Fonotone recordings, then? Well, Fahey was pals with another legendary cantankerous record collector named Joe Bussard, another fella about whom volumes have been or will be written. Bussard liked to press up his own vinyl recordings of Maryland folk/blues compadres like himself - sometimes even including himself - onto 78rpm records, and then sell them to other collectors through the mail. This became the FONOTONE record label. Fahey recorded multiple sessions for Bussard, often whilst plied with inordinate amounts of alcohol. This box set is the full collection of these sessions, most of which made it onto vinyl or tape at some point, but in editions so small that they've been practically unheard until now.

"YOUR PAST COMES BACK TO HAUNT YOU" has five chronologically-ordered CDs of this material, and to call it a "rough portrait" of Fahey's development as a guitarist would be about right. The liner notes, curated by fellow guitarist and friend Glenn Jones, make it clear that this set was compiled for completists and not as a "best of the early years" sort of thing for dabblers - so you get a few piss-takes, false starts and early versions of songs that went on to be much, much better in the years that followed. Moreover, Disc 2 and 3 "feature" large chunks of time with Fahey in character as an old blind bluesman named Blind Thomas, affecting a "negro" dialect and a drunken demeanor, and - gasp - singing. To say that John Fahey didn't really have the chops for singing would be overly generous. He went fully instrumental for a very good reason, and many of these tracks are worth a few snippets of your time and then very deservedly get the "skip" treatment.

Many of the tracks on the five discs are stabs at material that wound up on his first four records, especially "The Legend of Blind Joe Death". At times, especially on Disc 5, which covers 1962-1965, it's as mesmerizing and complex as anything he ever officially released. Fahey pieces were generally rooted in the old-time blues vernacular, with slide guitar often employed and lots of journeys up and down the frets in pursuit of either rhythm or of a mournful sound. He added his own inventive evocation of classical music on top of this, while never allowing himself to stand in the same place for too long. A legendary iconoclast, John Fahey wouldn't consent to these recordings being reissued until he was long dead. It's been nearly ten years without him, and here we are.

I spent the better part of an evening reading the full liner notes that Jones curated, which come in a jumbo oversized book loaded with old photos, including many from Fahey's childhood that came directly from his mother. I'd give it a hearty "well done". I maintain again that this set is primarily for Fahey nutballs, with the chief reason being that 3-4 of these 5 discs will likely not get played more than twice by virutally everyone who encounters them. They're a "that sure was nice to know" sort of capper on the man's amazing legacy and career - now you've heard his earliest stuff, when he was actually something less than perfect, and you can now die happy and secure for having done so.