My Red Dog appears on Lukas Read’s debut self-released record Ramble Man, Ramble, which he put out in late 2013. After releasing one more EP on his own, Read just put out another record Neo Age with the German label Dying for Bad Music. Though his latest release is all instrumental fingerstyle guitar and experimentation with effects, his first record is a nice blend of instrumental guitar and original singer-songwriter material. You can check out a video for the title track of Neo Age here. I knew that I was going to like this album as soon as I saw there was a tribute medley to John Fahey’s Poor Boys Long Way From Home, which is one of my favorite Fahey tunes. You can find his EP over at Bandcamp and purchase a limited edition CD from Dying for Bad Music here.
Minnesota native Mark Lang began playing music with his brother Peter in the late 1960s, and both began pursuing a life in music once the family moved to California. While Peter was able to record a number of albums, initially with John Fahey’s Takoma Records, Mark’s lone commercial release was Texas John Boscoe released by Symposium Records (early home of Leo Kottke) in 1976. This track appears on one of the comps in Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers series, Guitar Soli, which features a whole host of forgotten and unsung guitarists who released instrumental material in the American primitive vein of John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Mark Lang’s fingerpicking and slide guitar work is on display with Strawberry Man, but he played maracas, banjo, and mandolin on that record as well. Texas John Boscoe was well-received within its somewhat niche market, and Mark Lang signed a deal with Capitol records at the start of the 1980s. Unfortunately nothing came of the deal, but he sure left a gem of a record behind.
Since he passed away 15 years ago today, it seemed fitting to devote today’s track of the day to John Fahey. As I touched on in my post about Robbie Basho, Fahey was a foundational figure in American Primitive Guitar. He was born near Washington D.C. in 1939, but it was after his family moved to Takoma Park, Maryland that he first became interested in guitar, buying his first from the Sears catalogue for $17. His first album was self-released in 1964, and he recorded it while studying philosophy and religion at American University. He then moved out west to study Musicology at UCLA, where he completed a master’s thesis centered around the blues music of Charlie Patton.
He was a longtime admirer of delta blues musicians such as Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bukka White. In many ways Fahey’s career ran parallel to some of these blues greats, though Fahey was able to record and release music to varying degrees of success for most of his life. Starting in the 1970s he struggled with alcoholism and other health conditions, and while he recorded throughout that time his career appeared all but over by the 1990s. He was destitute, living in cheap motels, and pawning guitars or records to make up sagging income from performances. Similar to the blues legends he helped to revitalize in the 1960s, admiration from popular musicians like Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke, led to renewed interest in his work that has remained constant, particularly in experimental music circles, from then on.
Even this post feels a bit lacking, but I’d encourage you to listen to as much Fahey as you can find. He was not only an incredibly talented guitarist, but unlike some virtuosos he was not showy unless the occasion called for it, although just to be clear he apparently wrote Sunny Side of the Ocean when he was 14. Rather, he honed his talent and created some of the most beautiful, complex, and timeless music I’ve heard. I only wish I hadn’t discovered him after his passing.
For those interested, there’s a concert from 1978 on Youtube that shows the man in action. I’m particularly fond of the rendition of Poor Boys Long Way from Home.
Gimmer Nicholson had been poking around the Memphis blues/folk scene for a number of years before moving to San Francisco in the mid-1960s. He recorded a few demos on a crude reel-to-reel deck and sent them to his brother, who brought the tapes in a brown paper bag to Terry Manning back in Memphis. When Nicholson returned from the Bay Area, he went into the studio with Terry-the same studio where Big Star would later record-and they began combining Nicholson’s acoustic playing with electronic delays.
I recorded on an 8 track 1″ Scully at 30 ips. Although most of the guitar is acoustic, there is actually some electric also. Gimmer had a Gibson Howard Roberts, a beautiful jazz guitar that is almost an acoustic (I liked it so much that I bought one a few years later, but I stupidly sold it when I moved here to Nassau in ’92). He played that through a Fender Bassman blackface amp, through some kind of guitar delay/repeat box I had, which had just come out. Gimmer was euphoric about the delay, and loved to set it very long, then play a phrase, and when it repeated, he would play live a copasetic second phrase, then do the same for the next bar, playing with the second phrase, and so on (sort of like a “round”). When we did the acoustics, I got the longest tape delay that I could to accomplish this. It had to be carefully timed to the tempo of the composition. EMT 140 plate reverb was also used.
With recording finished, Manning began the mastering process only after providing a rough mix for Nicholson to take home. This proved disastrous, as Nicholson was outraged when he heard this new, cleaned up mix and left Memphis in a huff. The album gathered dust and Manning moved on, but not before the sounds of the album would infuse other artists in that milieu, most notably Chris Bell. Manning released the album, titled Christopher Idylls on CD in 1994 on his own imprint, Lucky Seven Records, the first time the songs got any wider audience. However, the good folks over at Light in the Attic Records have recently announced a new vinyl reissue of Christopher Idylls that is available for pre-order and set to ship later this month. Gimmer Nicholson passed away a few years ago after years of working for the Red Cross, according to Manning. He had contacted him regarding some new compositions, but nothing materialized. It appears this beautiful release will have to suffice.
In keeping with many masters of delta blues, Mississippi John Hurt did not receive much recognition until later in his life, though he is revered as a master of the style to this day. Pay Day comes off his 1966 Vanguard release Today!, released the same year (1996) as Skip James Today!. Like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt was a self-taught fingerpicker from (you guessed it) Mississippi whose recordings for Okeh records in 1928 met with little success. His music career seemingly over before it started, he spent the next forty years sharecropping and playing local shows and bars and dance halls. Inclusion on the Smithsonian’s Anthology of American Folk Music revived interest in his work and the man himself, who was located in part because one of his few early singles contained lyrics suggesting his hometown was Avalon, MS.
Riding a renewed wave of interest in American roots music throughout the 1960s, Hurt recorded a number of albums first for the Smithsonian and then for Vanguard, Piedmont, and Gryphon. John Fahey memorialized him in the first track from his Requia release, Requiem for John Hurt, which was released following Hurt’s death in 1966. You can see Hurt perform Lonesome Valley here on an episode from Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, a short lived television show hosted by Seeger devoted to folk music. For more info on Hurt’s life and music career, check out this website run by his nephew.
Craig Leon got his start in music in the mid-1970s working as an assistant producer at Sire Records where he was involved in the discovery and development of New York groups like The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads. Nommos is his first release and it represents one of the more unique entries in the catalog of John Fahey’s Takoma Records, which is perhaps better known for releasing blues and fingerstyle guitar records more in the style of its founder. Though he was more involved with pop, electronic, and experimental work during the 1980s and 1990s, his material in recent years has been decidedly classical, working with the likes of Pavarotti. He talks about the difference in working in these two worlds in an interview with Moog:
The pop people picked up on synths a lot earlier–I was doing pop at the time–and what fascinated me was the way the so-called pop artists were doing with synths at the time were using synthesizers in their work which was close to what I wanted to do in classical. You would hear something new on a Beatles or Beach Boys album … where yes there would be one or two obvious synth sounds on a given song but theres ton of these little things that shape the sound.
He is still active as a producer, composer, and arranger of classical pieces living in England. Nommos was recently reissued by Harmonia Mundia along with his other early electronic work Visiting. Check out that Moog interview because he talks through arranging Bach for the Moog modular synth and talks more at length about using electronics in classical composition.
This version of “Drunken Spree” comes off Skip James’ 1966 release Skip James Today! The exclamation mark was in order, because it came thirty years after his first and (up until then) only recordings were met with mild response in 1931. It’s likely that the tough economic times played a role, though perhaps his idiosyncratic tuning and playing style were not particularly popular at the time. The lack of success had relegated him to obscurity, though his fingerpicking technique and somber songwriting style endeared him to blues enthusiasts like John Fahey. He was rediscovered during a spell in the hospital, and was thrust into the role of elder statesman for the folk/blues revival that kicked off in the early 1960, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival. You can see some rare footage of him performing at Newport here. Though you may not recognize his name, you might have heard the song “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” which he recorded in 1931 and which later appeared as on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as covered by Chris Thomas King. Capitalizing on this renewed interest, he recorded a flurry of material in the early sixties, much of which has not been released or is scattered on various compilations. You can see a more complete listing of his output over at Discogs. He died in Philadelphia in 1969 at the age of 67.