I remember the first time I heard John Fahey in my bedroom as I lay on the floor absorbed in my headphones. It was like the first time I heard punk rock as a kid, I knew that my bones understood this music but the rest of me was at a loss for words. What they had in common, punk rock and the music of John Fahey – at least looking back on it – was more than surface level lo-fi/D.I.Y. aesthetics or fiery passion though they shared that too. It was a conceptualization of music from their respective pasts that became a redefinition for the future.
Punk had, if nothing else, re-written the Rock N’ Roll handbook by bringing it back to its roots while simultaneously taking a hard left turn. In a similar fashion that’s what John Fahey did with Pre-War Americana. Fahey is a rarity in music. Unlike the endless debate sparked by the mention of punk rock’s beginning it is pretty clear cut that Fahey sits atop that bright blue mountain alone, though he may have his share of acolytes (who seem to grow in number everyday even some 50 plus years since his first 45).
With little more than six strings to do so Fahey combined the soul squeezing beauty of the blues, gospel, western cowboy song, bluegrass, and Piedmont style country picking, etc. and the harmonic advancement of 20th century Classical and Avant-Garde with the rythmic sophistication of jazz and ragtime. It was a unique and singular vision.
Fahey’s list of incredible records warrants its own book – but I’d like to recommend one that may not end up in there: John Fahey’s fantastic 1972 major-label debut Of Rivers and Religion.
On this amazing album Fahey’s vision is communicated with the help of an impeccably arranged old-time band. Banjos, strings, and triumphant brass all slowly float their way along the banks of Fahey’s stellar finger-picking. In the past Fahey may have highlighted these elements with guitar overdubs, or a banjo here and there like on his masterpiece The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death or in his most naked settings Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You. Here, those elements are expressed with wonderfully captured nuance by a range of instruments. Enjoy.