John Fahey – The Yellow Princess Vanguard VSD-79293 (1968)
There may not be any simple way to characterize all of John Fahey’s recordings, given the vast amount of territory they cover. But even as it feels more modern than his earliest records (read: his first three albums), The Yellow Princess still falls toward the more conservative, straightforward end of the spectrum. That fact leads to a few rather obvious characterizations. The material is rather accessible, and focuses on technical mastery of the steel-string acoustic guitar in a relatively traditional folk song setting more than on improvised stylistic explorations. That is to say that unlike his early attempts to play folk and blues tunes like symphonies solo on a steel stringed acoustic guitar, full of noisy artifacts, or experimental sound collages, he is now playing more conventionally pretty and technically impressive folk music. Prime examples of this are the title track and “Lion”. Even though he does include some sound collages, there aren’t the inevitable missteps of experimental music that characterize some other Fahey albums, giving The Yellow Princess a more even feel. A durable and enjoyable album, but also probably not the most impressive in the Fahey catalog — for which I would probably lean toward things like the more enigmatic and mystical Volume 6: Days Have Gone By. Nonetheless, this is a versatile album well suited for listening in mixed company.
Worth recommending is a CD reissue that adds three lengthy bonus tracks, the best of which is “The John Fahey Sampler, Themes and Variations”.
John Fahey – Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites Takoma C 1004 (1965)
As a guitarist John Fahey’s talents grew quickly in the early 1960s. Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites was definitely his most accomplished album to date (though later re-recordings of his first two albums are just as good). He was still operating in reach of the traditional blues, folk and country material he drew from. Excursions into the realm of tape manipulation, field recording overdubs, and experimental guitar techniques still lay in the future. But his trademark ability to take traditional forms and re-purpose them into something a little darker and more existential — by way of trying to play a “symphony” on a single steel string acoustic guitar — coalesced here. Surely one of the man’s best efforts. Worthy of plenty of spins.
John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death Riverboat RB-1 (1965)
By the time he recorded The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, John Fahey was beginning to experiment. He was drawing in influence not just from country, blues and folk, but also Euro-classical and Indian classical traditions. What holds this album back from being great is that he’s going in too many different directions. He doesn’t quit fit everything together as seamlessly as he would later on The Yellow Princess or in as sweeping and epic a way as on America, and for that matter the experiments are a bit more tepid than on the likes of Guitar Vol. 4 (The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions), which is admittedly a bit uneven. Fahey admirers will nonetheless dig this, and it still holds the potential to open a few eyes and ears for the unconverted too. If you have the option, though, head for The Yellow Princess and America first to hear the ideas here more fully realized.
John Fahey – Christmas Guitar Volume One Varrick VR-002 (1982)
John Fahey turned christmas albums into a sort of a fall-back position. Every few years or so he turned out a new one. Christmas Guitar Volume One features a number of new recordings of holiday songs he had previously recorded. The new recordings tended to use more or less the same arrangements as before. What had changed though was Fahey’s style. His playing was more deliberate, even austere. From a cynical point of view, his playing seemed to focus on a kind of clinical precision for lack of any new ideas about how to present the music. Still, even if it can fairly be said Fahey has done better with christmas music, this album is better than your run-of-the-mill holiday claptrap.
John Fahey – Womblife Table of the Elements TOE-CD-37 (1997)
John Fahey’s 1990s renaissance was not unlike Scott Walker‘s in leading down a very stark and abrasive path. Womblife is intriguing even if not essential like his early classics. His guitar style was starting to resemble Loren MazzaCane Connors in many ways.
John Fahey – Vol. II: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes Takoma C-1003 (1963; 1967)
A good choice for an introduction to John Fahey. He recorded two versions of the album, which features songs on the more straightforward side of his repertoire when he was still expressing things that fall more or less within the realm of the traditional musics from which the underlying stylistic elements originate. A 1998 CD collection presents the two different versions of Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes. Fahey’s technique on the 1967 re-recording of the original album is far crisper, and the recording quality is imminently superior so you hear everything in greater detail. The second time around he managed to improve on some songs in the relatively weak middle section of the original 1963 album (“On the Beach at Waikiki”, “Spanish Dance”, “John Henry Variations” and “Take a Look at That Baby”). Then again, his performances of “Some Summer Day” and “When Springtime Comes Again” are arguably superior on the original version, and the different versions of the album didn’t include all the same songs, so it’s nice to have both complete versions of the album collected on one CD. If you find yourself drawn to some of the more unusual elements detectable in each song, then proceed to Fahey’s more challenging stuff like Volume 6: Days Have Gone By and The Voice of the Turtle. If you simply like the impressive guitar technique and the nice songwriting, then try other Fahey releases like The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death and Vol 3 Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites or something from Fahey acolytes like Leo Kottke.
John Fahey – City of Refuge Tim/Kerr 644 830 127-2 (1997)
Spooky. John Fahey mounted something of a comeback in the late 1990s. City of Refuge was the first album of that comeback, and it was his most experimental offering in more than twenty-five years. From this evidence there should be no doubt what the likes of Gastr del Sol saw in Fahey. Most of this is pretty dark stuff. “The Mill Pond” is a misfire. Yet “Fanfare” and “City of Refuge III” are outstanding. The former finds Fahey plugged in and playing some effective electrified guitar against industrial sounds and Stereolab samples. The latter is an acoustic epic, but sounds more ominous than what you might expect based on his past recordings. Not an easy listen by any means, but a welcomed return to more challenging music by a fascinating guitarist.
John Fahey – Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965] Dust-to-Digital DTD-21 (2011)
A collection of material recorded for Joe Bussard‘s Fonotone label in Fahey’s early years. Fonotone billed itself as the last label issuing records in the old 78 RPM format. There is a documentary about Bussard, a well-known vintage record collector, were he mentions buying old 78s off people and paying them a “fair price,” in other words he attempts an apology for paying these folks far less than what he thought the records were worth. Anyway, as recounted in the opening interview on this set, Fahey would go over to Bussard’s place and Bussard would give him booze and let him take records from his pile of duplicates. This was enough incentive for Fahey to swing by and cut the recordings collected here.
Compared to Fahey’s recordings on his own Takoma label, most of these Fonotone ones are more traditional blues and folk, without the more experimental edge Fahey elsewhere explored. One thing that should probably be pointed out is that some of these were released under an alias, and Fahey does some kind of “voice acting” that is best described as racist minstrelsy. Aside from that, though, the guitar playing is quite good on almost all the cuts.
Things sort of modernize a bit to resemble Fahey’s Takoma recordings on some of the 1962 cuts. However, compared to the Takoma recordings some of these sound like only rehearsals. Some terrible vocals and accompaniment also appear. The more modern material from 1962 onward takes on a noticeably darker emotional tone. The last disc, recorded mostly in 1965, is the best. Fahey had grown tremendously as a guitarist, and he was now playing in his own unique, distinct style.