365 Days of Song Recommendations: Feb 22
Frisco Leaving Birmingham—John Fahey
The life and legend of John Fahey have become every bit as folkloric as he intended them to be. Fahey was engaged in myth-making from the start, and his journey became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as he ultimately ended up as tragic a figure as he once mythologized himself to be. That said, perhaps not in quite the way he intended.
“Dance of Death” isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it’s comprehensive, and I encourage you to read it if you want to know more about what happened to this brilliant but troubled troubadour.
Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist
Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist [Lowenthal, Steve, Fricke, David] on Amazon.com. *FREE*…
As to my recommendation today, fans of Fahey may find this song to be a peculiar choice.
It’s a mid-career recording, coming well after the rough-hewn proto-psychedelic acousti-goth narratives that define his early work, and well before the meandering and muddy electric exercises that would come with his later descent into dissolution.
The song comes from the album “Railroad,” Fahey’s final recording on Takoma Records, the label he founded, and the label we can thank for helping introduce us to everyone from Bukka White to Leo Kottke.
The album is, by most measures, a comparatively straightforward record, at least insofar as Fahey records go, but therein lies its strength. It is beautiful, without being simple. It is strange, without being self-conscious. It is ambitious, without stretching beyond its means. It it technically impressive, without being precocious.
Frisco Leaving Birmingham represents the best of what this album has to offer, and offers all the things that make Fahey such a peculiar delight. The frenetic fingerpicking. The angular leveraging of an opening tuning. The emotive tempo changes. The onomatopoeic evocation of the train. The insular solitude and the expansive emotionality. The integration of traditional elements, and the bending of those elements to create a new story. The hypnotic repetitions, and the startling skips.
It’s all here, and it’s all beautiful. It sounds like a slightly high Mississippi John Hurt trying to provide the soundtrack to a train story that’s moving a little too fast for him.
Fahey was and is a treasure. A weird, difficult, confusing, delightful treasure. Fingerpicking guitar has never been the same since his arrival. We have so much to thank him for. Not just the music he himself created, but also the music he opened us to, through the peculiar generosity of his queerly bestirred heart.
Contrary to the canonization of him as the inventor of something called “American Primitive Guitar,” I think he was sophisticated as all get out, and on this day, February 22, when we bow in remembrance of the day he passed, I am grateful to be blessed by his singular genius, and I am grateful that his music lives on for us to be challenged moved, inspired, and saved by.
Fare thee well, Blind Joe Death. Fare thee well.