The “Listen Again” series was popular enough that your favorite record reviewer has decided to follow the lead of some TV execs and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums BUT the platters we’ll peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) five-star albums. This time we look at John Fahey’s The Best of John Fahey 1959–1977.
If you’re not up on your music history, John Aloysius Fahey, born on February 28, 1939, was an American composer and self-taught fingerstyle guitarist who specialized in playing a steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument. Fahey became an influential artist and is considered by many to have founded American Primitivism as his music was both self-taught and minimalistic. The music on this 15-track “best of” compilation was recorded between 1967 and its release in 1977 and focused on little more than Fahey and his guitar.
The album opens on “Sunflower River Blues”. This is an apt intro to his original works. The second selection is a cover of W.C.”Father of the Blues” Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”. Then he returns to one of his original pieces “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home” effectively demonstrating his early signature sound which borrows from different genres.
The first example of his collaborations can be found in “When the Springtime Comes Again”. This is a Fahey-Sullivan cut that fits into the collection quite well. The next number is “Some Summer Day” which is yet another one of his original compositions.
Fahey re-recorded a couple of tracks specifically for this release. The first of which was the slightly ethnic “Spanish Dance”. It’s quickly followed by the two shortest selections on the platter–“Take a Look at That Baby” and “I’m Going to Do All I Can for My Lord”—both of which are less than a minute and a half in length but somehow retain their own little aural identities.
“The Last Steam Engine Train”, a fan favorite, and the spiritual “In Christ There Is No East or West” comes next. The seemingly simplistic example of his early Americana–“Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry” follows before his second re-recorded cut “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain”. Fahey selected all the tracks himself including the noteworthy number “Revolt of the Dyke Brigade” and the pleasant piece “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”.
The album’s end-note is “Spanish Two-Step”. This is the last of the songs gathered from his five earlier releases. This 1977 recording released on the Takoma label contains cuts that cleverly combine Americana, blues and folk aspects of roots music. Critics often praised him for his originality and simplistic but still effective approach to music.
Fahey’s material exemplifies his encyclopedic knowledge of the above-mentioned genres garnered from his field excursions and studies in the Library of Congress. The earliest work is obviously inspired by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton and perhaps even Elizabeth Cotton. While some would think that by the new millennium Fahey’s music would perhaps be forgotten–despite the fact that it inspired later acts such as the late sixties band Canned Heat, this was not to be.
Although Fahey died in 2001 (due to complications from heart surgery), this collection was reissued on CD the next year with three bonus tracks: the wandering, somehow patriotic “America”, the prolific piece “Fare Forward Voyagers” (which runs nearly 24 minutes) and the near classic cut “Desperate Man Blues”. These additions upped the running time to almost 79 minutes. Two years later Fahey was ranked 35th in Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list due in large part to John Fahey’s substantial release The Best of John Fahey 1959–1977/Tak. 1058.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.